Books: Another red hot Chili caper
Be Cool by Elmore Leonard Viking pounds 16.99
Sunday 21 March 1999
of Elmore Leonard's latest novel
Elmore Leonard's latest may deserve rave reviews but it surely does not need them. This is the hardest book to keep in the house because visitors, regardless of age and gender, will keep on trying to walk out with it hidden under their coats. Small wonder. It crackles along, all fired up on energy, verve and wit. It's brilliantly talky, and the way people bounce off each other across a wide ethnic range is more sparky and brainy than anything since Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat. Occasionally the talk climaxes on a breathtaking extended sequence that most fiction writers would die for. One such offers five non-stop pages in which a pop music promoter makes serial telephone calls in creep-speak, wearing his headset and pushing buttons at speed. Almost every walk-on character in this book has enough verbal panache to start his or her own TV show.
Elmore Leonard has a Dickensian flair for fixing fictional characters by making them inseparable from visual or verbal mannerisms. Thus, Raji the dude exists for us in relation to the angles of his Kangol hat. Joe Lupino is forever an open mouth grossly chewing on creamed coleslaw. Nick, the crook turned indie promoter, is welded to his headset. "Take away his phone, he dies," as his partner observes, sagely. These devices double as repeating refrains that give a nice rhythm to the story. A certain recurring red aluminium baseball bat is another such rhythmic marker. "This is aluminium, you dumb fuck," opines the guinea nigga-hater, one- up-ishly. "You want a wood bat, not this piece of shit." But the bat has been bought precisely to obliterate pieces of shit, so guess who's the dumb fuck now?
Another rhythmic marker is the sound of people flying through high-rise plate glass. "They always scream like that," says the dude's Herculean bodyguard. The occasional, well-judged lapse in taste causes an especial rush of glee - as when Tiffany the Mohawk enters bearing her boss's ashes in a funeral urn balanced on a take-out pizza box. "I thought the white porcelain with iris petals," she says to the grieving widow. "You can go solid bronze but that's a thousand bucks."
The cleverness of this book lies in the author's ability to sustain the informality and pace without limiting his viewpoint. He does this by using a third person narration that reads as though it's a first person narration. His trick is to get the author voice so in synch with the voice of his hero, Chili Palmer, that the two rub along together like old friends and sparring partners. This way, a reader can relish the punchy asides along with the exploding dialogue, whether or not Chili himself is on stage.
And the story? Chili Palmer, ex-loan shark turned film producer, is back, trying his hand as manager in the LA music business, with a view to constructing a film treatment on the subject. Being Chili, he succeeds, within weeks, in taking his client, Linda Moon - wet-dream gorgeous and a singing style like AC/DC crossed with Patsy Cline - and turning her into a star. This though he finds her languishing in a girl act called Chicks International and doing a day job as telephone receptionist in a dating agency. Chili makes it with no previous experience in the business, although he's being shot at concurrently by the Russian mob and the hitmen hired by rival managers. Meanwhile, he's developing a movie idea about a singer called Linda Moon who is languishing in a girl act called Chicks International while her manager is being shot at by the Russian mob ...
This is a story about constructing a story, but will Chili be alive at the finale? Of course! As his name suggests, he's hot; he's cool; he's a triumph. He works brilliantly as a character because his creator understands the uses of inversion. Chili is cool because he doesn't carry a gun and he doesn't own a mobile telephone. He's cool because he lights his cigars with kitchen matches and always wears a suit and tie while the rest of the guys go with whatever smart-casual constitutes the prevailing style. Chili has strictly non-style furniture, because he's got too much style to need style.
Any complaints? Pish! There's a whiff of research overload in the data on Russian Mafia hierarchies. And this reader couldn't believe that Chili would set up the Ropa-dope rappers to get massacred by the mob. It gives symmetry to the story, okay, but that smashing Elaine, 40-plus and Chili's current bedfellow, will dump him when she finds out.
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