Monday, April 27, 2020

Plague Books: La La Land

Be Cool by Elmore Leonard, William Morrow 1994

Provenance: I dunno. The book itself showed up on the bookshelf I reserve for paperbacks.  It has as a bookmark a receipt from the Tacoma Book Center, a mecca of used books in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome. It has a sticker on the back saying it was from Port Book & News in Port Angeles, but even that may be a remainder. In any event, it has been on my paperback shelf, which I have been looking at in my downstairs home office every day. And the trade paperback size and blue steel cover kept taunting me as I was working.

Yes, I judged a book by the cover. That's the point. That's why they have covers.

Review: Look. I'm going to be careful taking on Elmore Leonard. The guy was writing since the 50s, passed on only seven years ago, and a LOT of his books have been turned into movies. New York Times bestseller. So, successful. Lemme walk carefully because, spoilers, I didn't care much for the book.

Mind you, I didn't read the previous book, Get Shorty, nor have I seen either of the movies based on the books. So I walk in without knowing much about our protagonist, Chili Palmer, former sorta-mobster and loan shark who has gotten into movie production. His first movie was a success. His second was a bomb. So he's looking for a new idea. And he's doing lunch with another former sorta-mobster who is now in the record business, and the former sorta-mobster is shot down right before his eyes. And Chili's first thought is - hey, this is a great idea for a movie.

Like I said, I don't know Chili. This is the first time I've encountered him. But I don't particularly like him. This is one of the thing which impresses me about Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories (oh, wow, here he goes again about Nero Wolfe). Regardless of the story, you get an idea right up front of who Nero and Archie are, and what their relationship is. And you have a reason to root for Archie, our narrator. In other words, any Nero Wolfe story could be your first Nero Wolfe story. I don't get that break here, so Chili and I get off to a rough start.

To use an Hollywood reference, there's a book out called Save the Cat. It is a short book that for a while was (and maybe still is) gospel in screenwriting. One of the things that it stresses as a "must" is that, in the first few minutes of the movie, you have to give the reader some reason to root for your protagonist. He is kind to a little old lady, fixes someone's tire, or, yes, saves the cat. So Chili meets a former sorta-mobster turned record producer, heads for the men's room, and on his return sees the former sorta-mobster gunned down. And his first thought is how he can turn this into a movie.

As I said: Rough start.

Another bit in the book is the idea that everyone in LA wants to be in a movie about their lives. I am not a LA native. I go down every so often for recording sessions for computer games, which keeps me in the general vicinity of Burbank and the old Bob Hope airport. I don't hate LA or love it. I am more LA-Adjacent. But I haven't met anyone yet who does the whole "you should do a movie about my life" thing. But I like Leonard's LA. It feels relatively comfortable. So that's a good thing.

So Chili gets into the record business, and stuff just starts happening. He discovers a hot new talent. He becomes her manager. He gets her to put her old band from Texas back together. He comes home one night and finds a dead body sitting at his desk. He makes friends with a homicide detective who, surprise, wants to see a movie about his life. Homicide detective is now Chili's new best friend, despite the fact Chili is a witness/suspect in two murders. Chili encounters a gay Samoan bodyguard that sounds suspiciously like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and who is (surprise) played by Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson in the movie version. And then Aerosmith shows up.

You know, it sounds sillier than Leonard lays it out to be, but no sillier than most things that end up in LA's fictional universe. At the end of it all, Chili Palmer is a hustler, flying by the seat of his pants, making up lies on the spur of the moment and not getting called on it. He's got some tight situations but he never pays for his crimes, or realizes fully what he's done. He's not amazingly likeable, and remains an external force in LA, not really part of the entertainment world, but just an opportunist who sees it as he most recent grift.

Leonard is famous for saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." And while I agree with the idea that language should sound realistic and natural, clarity has to ultimately rule. There are chunks here that feel like they were written during the Great Punctuation Shortage of 1993, and I had to take a couple runs at a few sentences to determine who is talking about what.

Be Cool is OK fiction. Not great, just OK. Like Chili Palmer, the book is not likeable enough to really pull me onto its side, but entertaining and engaging enough to work. Leonard's writing ethos is akin to some other authors I know - "If you do something wrong long enough, it becomes a personal style". Like LA itself, I can't muster up the emotion to hate it or love it. So I guess I'm Be Cool adjacent.

And now I can take that book off my shelf, so its blue steel cover doesn't distract me anymore.

More later,