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Book Review : Heavy (and Violent) Stuff by Leonard

January 16, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Dutch Treat: Mr. Majestyk, Swag, The Hunted by Elmore Leonard (Arbor House: $17.95)

Three, count them, three novels in one, and each novel has something fine to recommend it. This giant volume has one of those specific functions, and this time it has to do, I think, with domestic disharmony. This is the volume to have in the house, not for a sick person, because an invalid could not hold it. But it's perfect for the person sitting beside the bed, to while away long hours. And this is not the book to hurl in a family argument (it could kill somebody) but for the person sitting upstairs waiting for the argument to finish.

This is the perfect distraction: Who could worry about violence, when the murders and killings and blood and gore in these three novels are presented here with such elegant panache? And finally, this book can be put away on the top shelf with the Hammett and the Chandler novels and the old Graham Greene entertainments, hauled down whenever someone feels the flu coming on, and these stories will be completely new. In addition to being entirely engrossing as you read them, they are entirely forgettable as soon as you've finished, and fade back safely between hard covers, until you need to escape again.

Three, count them, three novels, from the wonderful world of pulp, where strong men often have to kill bad men, but always for good reasons. Where good women are grateful for sex and love to clean house and never to go to sleep in curlers. Where only wimps care about money --money is for dorks whose derrieres show the effects of a largely sedentary life, dorks who wear powder blue polyester leisure suits and white shoes with point tips and fake gold chains on them. A nice world where the humdrum can change in an instant from daily chores to high adventure.

Only Real Complaint

One's only real complaint here has to do with sequence. The best comes first. "Mr. Majestyk" is a splendid example of this form, filled with specific details of a world not many of us know. Mr. Majestyk owns a melon farm, of all things, around El Centro. He's a loner--his wife and child have bailed out of his life--and all Mr. M. needs to do is get his melon crop in. But things being the way they are in Elmore Leonard novels, one minute the melon-entrepreneur is out in the fields instructing some migrants (including toothsome Nancy Chavez, not related to the Cesar Chavez, although she's worked fearlessly for his cause) and the next minute he's down in jail on assault-and-battery charges, where in inadvertently incurs the ire of Frank Renda--the hit man for the mob. The point is, no man can make a fool of Frank Renda and live, but Mr. Majestyk did. So now what?

I know, it sounds silly as I write it, but as the good guys are struggling to bring in that melon crop, and Ms. Chavez, after working a full shift under the hot sun, offers to work another whole shift sorting and packing melons, because her boss has his hands full with the dangerous sociopath Frank Renda, it doesn't seem silly at all. It seems like a wonderful way to live, banging around the badlands of border-California shooting each other in a big way. The reason for this enchantment is that Elmore Leonard has far more talent than this shoot 'em genre calls for. You get the feeling he writes these stories because he's crazy about them, the way Don Westlake writes comic murder mysteries--out of fond love, turning literary lead into linguistic gold.

Along for the Ride

So, when, in "Swag," you meet Frank Ryan and Ernest Stickley who get together partly because they like the idea of being "Frank and Ernest," you're ready to go along for the ride as these two guys decide to go into business as armed robbers. It's a better way to make a living than selling used cars like Frank, or stealing them like Stickley, who is another hard-working loner with a missing wife and child.

Robbing stores and bars and gas stations is easy, very easy, and the guys (who live in Detroit for this one) are fairly happy for a time, as they set up housekeeping as carefree bachelor roommates in a California-style condo with a swimming pool and girls, girls, girls!

Early on, Ryan has made up a set of rules for successful armed robbery but Ryan is also just a little bit dorky (you can tell from the beginning, because of his penchant for those car-salesman shiny suits). It's inevitable that these rules can be broken and men recklessly begin to take pot shots at each other.

Least Satisfactory

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