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A Love Story (With True Grit) : OUT OF SIGHT. By Elmore Leonard (Delacorte Press: $22.95, 296 pp.)

August 25, 1996|Ed McBain | Ed McBain's new novel is "Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear" (Warner Books)

The irony of it is surely not wasted on Elmore Leonard, himself a master of irony.

After years of indifferent Hollywood movies based on his novels, after decades of having his own screenplays abused, misused or merely trashed, Leonard writes a payback novel sending up Tinseltown's denizens and guess what happens? It becomes a hit movie! So now the jacket of his new book blatantly advertises "a novel by the author of 'Get Shorty.' " This after more than 30 other novels, almost all of which were far superior to "Get Shorty." It is to laugh.

Having at last been "discovered" by the moon pitchers, Leonard perversely survives the temptation to go Hollywood by delivering a new novel that is eminently filmable. "Out of Sight," however, is a rarity in the Leonard canon: It is a genuine love story. True, there have been boy-girl plots in many of his previous books, but these were always subservient to the convoluted bad guy-good guy machinations of the main story. Here, the love story is the novel's engine, and--wouldn't you know it?--its principals are a bad guy and a good guy.

The bad guy is 47-year-old Jack Foley, who's robbed more banks than he can remember and who's done far too much time in prisons hither and yon, one of which he's escaping from as the story begins. The good "guy" is a 29-year-old deputy U.S. marshal named Karen Sisco, who has a penchant for shotguns and short skirts. Serving process at the prison--a con has filed a civil rights suit because he doesn't like macaroni and cheese--Karen finds herself in the middle of the break and subsequently in the trunk of the getaway car with Jack. (Don't be tempted into thinking this is "meeting cute." Oh, no. This is simply the way boy meets girl on Leonard's turf.) Neither Karen nor Jack can help wondering what might have happened if they were people other than who they are, meeting under different circumstances. Whether they will, in fact, meet again, and whether their diametrically opposed occupations will stand in the way of true love become in Leonard's telling the stuff of high romance and taut suspense.

He knows better, though, than to leave an entire novel in the shaky hands of a pair of accidental lovers. So he peoples the book with his usual mix of good guys acting tough and bad guys sounding soft; he introduces a trio of heavies intent on a home invasion that will yield treasures broadly hinted at by a talkative con to a fellow prisoner. These truly frightening robbers from hell make every other crook in the novel seem saintly by comparison. "Was worse than you imagined it, wasn't it?" a woman comments. "Baby, you with the bad boys now." Watching Leonard as he skillfully transports Jack and Karen into the orbit of these monsters is one of the novel's many pleasures.

Another joy is the way Leonard integrates facts and convinces us that he knows everything about anything, as in, "two guys doing laps side by side around the field, counterclockwise, the way inmates always circled a yard here and in every prison Foley had ever heard of." Who would know that "counterclockwise" stuff except someone who's served time himself--which Leonard very definitely has not. I think. Or listen to this: "He told them he'd spot the car a customer wanted and use a slim-jim or lemon-pop to get in, a slap-hammer to yank the ignition, a side-kick to extract steering column locks and usually liquid nitrogen to freeze the alarm system." Exactly. What else? And then there are moments that have nothing to do with research.

"Buddy was about to jimmy the door when he saw a woman coming from Winn-Dixie, middle-aged, wearing pearls and high heels in the afternoon."

That's Leonard himself, observing and zeroing in on the single telling detail, adding "in the afternoon" almost as an afterthought. Oh, how sly.

Sometimes--perhaps because he knows he can write people talking the way no one else on Earth can--Leonard relies too heavily on pages and pages of dialogue, sounding a bit like George V. Higgins on a roll. Sometimes, too many of the people in "Out of Sight" sound like too many of the people in some of his other books, chatting about favorite movie scenes, sipping Diet Pepsi, relating in ways that are often superficial. The ending, too, screams for something stronger, something more painfully operatic. But for the most part, Leonard is on target, and when he hits the bull's-eye, he hits it cleanly.

It's no surprise that "Out of Sight" will be made into a motion picture by the same people who gave us "Get Shorty." Neither is it surprising that Quentin Tarantino, whose "Pulp Fiction" was a fine pastiche of Leonard's style, has bought the rights to four of his novels. This is merely as it should be in Elmoreleonardland.

"Out of Sight" is available, abridged, on two audiocassettes for $16.99

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