Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

I've never been much of an Elmore Leonard reader. I've probably read a half-dozen of his books, at most. It's not like they're a chore to read -- I polish them off within a sitting or two, and usually take away two or three memorable scenes or exchanges. In the main, though, the characters just don't stick to my ribs. Leonard's narrative mode is to stand at an analytical remove, then take a half-step back from that, the better to keep the reader guessing.

The final effect is just a little too cool to completely draw me in. So when B.R. Meyers proclaimed Leonard to be The Prisoner of Cool, and went on to say his westerns were anything but, I figured I'd wait until I happened across a used copy of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and take the bait. Perhaps then I'd catch the Leonard bug.

This Christmas I noticed McNally Robinson selling remaindered copies of the Western Stories, so I laid down the cash. Reading the short stories was, indeed, a revelation. Leonard's curt descriptions of action and appraisal work well in this format. The same approach to the inner life of his heroes and (occasionally) villains can sometimes feel like a bit of a put-on, but more often than not the younger Leonard's powers of psychological observation serve him very, very well. His short-short story Three-Ten To Yuma (which has now been bloated into a feature length movie twice) is just one example of Leonard's precision:

The man at the post watched [Paul Scallen] go and tilted his hat against the sun glare. And then it registered. With the hat low on his forehead Scallen saw him again as he had that morning. The man lying in the armchair ... as if asleep.

He saw his wife, then, and the three youngsters and he could almost feel the little girl sitting on his lap where she had climbed up to kiss him good-bye, and he had promised to bring her something from Tucson. He didn't know why they had come to him all of a sudden. And after he had put them out of his mind, since there was no room now, there was an upset feeling inside as if he had swallowed something that would not go down all the way. It made his heart beat a little faster.

Jim Kidd was smiling up at him. "Anybody I know?"

Scallen and Kidd spend most of the story in a small upstairs room of a hotel. Scallen, hoping to escort the outlaw Jim Kidd to the train and five years' worth of incarceration, looks out the window and spots the hatted man. Now he gets intimations of his mortality, even though he would never say as much, while Kidd proves himself a canny, and potentially lethal, observer of the emotions that cross and betray a person's face. The tension between these two men, and the gang of ciphers outside who hope to spring Kidd, grows from here. And within that tension, Leonard artfully explores what motivates men to do what they do.

Just before they prepare to step outside into the violence that awaits, Leonard gives us this exchange:

"I don't understand you," said Kidd. "You risk your neck to save my life, now you'll risk it again to send me to prison."

Scallen looked at Kidd and suddenly felt closer to him than any man he knew. "Don't ask me, Jim," he said.

This surprising scene, which is entirely true to the tone of the story, brought to mind another writer of short stories, famous for delivering the same sort of emotional left-hook to the jaw: Raymond Carver. Shortly after, Three-Ten To Yuma speeds to as gratifying a conclusion as any short story in recent memory -- with guns a-blazin', of course.

All in all, a recommended collection of short stories, particularly to those of us who don't go for his novels (Amazon).

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