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Sparring Partners

At a literary gathering in Beverly Hills, Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis trade playful jabs about their latest books and their careers.

January 26, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't exactly Tyson versus Holyfield, but there was the definite scent of an expected verbal bout on Friday night, as two of the world's most famous authors met center stage to discuss their life and work.

Elmore Leonard, America's undefeated champ of cops-and-robbers writing, versus Martin Amis, England's top cultural icon and leading literary lion.

Leonard writes spare and clean, like his early idol, Hemingway.

Amis embellishes, toys with the language, thrusts and parries in convoluted paragraphs and murky mental jabs.

The event was sold out. Book lovers filled the 540-seat Writers Guild auditorium in Beverly Hills, as others begged in vain to get in.

It was the ninth presentation by Writer's Bloc, a year-old nonprofit group formed by Andrea Grossman, a 42-year-old Beverly Hills bibliophile and mother of three (ages 4, 7 and 9), who decided all on her own that L.A.'s literary scene had "not developed as fully" as its other cultural assets.

"We buy more books than any city in the country, yet there's been no place the public could go on a regular basis to engage in dialogue with the great authors they love." At first blink, Friday night's duo was an odd ticket. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that each is promoting his new book. Amis' "Night Train" (Crown Publishers) and Leonard's "Cuba Libre" (Delacorte Press) have arrived at stores. Both are winning praise from critics.

Leonard, 73, writes quintessentially American, hard-boiled suspense thrillers. Hustlers, con men, go-go girls, killers--all sorts of treacherous types whose tales are soaked with booze, guns, fights, chases and sex. (In "Cuba Libre," Leonard has broadened his small-time hustler focus to include a panorama of the Cuban revolution and the Spanish-American War.)

Known as the man with a golden ear, Leonard writes all dialogue, all the time. His whip-smart banter moves the action with no narrative to slow it down.

Grossman told the crowd in her opening remarks that Leonard has sold so many "millions and millions and millions of books," in so many languages, that his publishers could not give her even a vague estimate of the number purchased. And almost every one of his 34 volumes has been optioned for film. "Get Shorty" (1995) and the current hit "Jackie Brown" are both his fictional creations. Quentin Tarantino has four Leonard books on option, awaiting birth on the screen.

Yet with all this success, even the most Leonard-loving readers might not recognize the cherubic, mild-mannered, bearded grandpa if they bumped into him at the mall. (Even audience members waiting in the lobby didn't peg him for who he is.)

The American media does not often focus its spotlight on great authors the way it does on athletes and movie stars. Contrast that with the Oxford-educated Amis, 49, whose elegant, haunted features regularly grace the pages of the English press, and whose private and professional lives have been regularly chronicled there ever since he broke into print at 24, with a dazzling novel about teenage rage and raunch ("The Rachel Papers").

His marriages (two), children (three), his choice of agent, publisher and dentist all seem newsworthy to the Brits. During an alleged midlife crisis a few years back, there were printed cries of foul when he left his wife, then his publisher, then his agent. And there were howls in trendy magazines when he left his National Health Plan dentist for a specialist in New York, who reportedly repaired the Great One's teeth to the tune of $30,000. Maybe the more anonymous Elmore is better off.

Until the new book, "Night Train" (a slim, fast-paced, murder tale, told through the eyes of an American female cop), Amis has never been called an easy read. His books are dark satires filled with ferocious wordplay and literary allusions that sometimes leave critics quibbling about what the author really meant to say. He has been compared to Gustave Flaubert, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Jonathan Swift. And Bellow himself compared Amis' style to that of James Joyce. Amis' work is not usually compared to that of his late father, the brilliant satirist Kingsley Amis. It is the son, critics say, who carried the English novel into the generation that took over where his father left off.

*

To explain pairing the two authors, Grossman read from a review written by Famous Amis himself in 1995:

"Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. [He] possesses gifts--of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing--that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet."

Pity. A love fest instead of a battle. Amis would interview Leonard, Grossman announced.

The authors faced the audience, chairs slightly slanted toward each other. Amis slumped languidly in his seat and started by calling Leonard "The Dickens of Detroit." Leonard parried by asking: "If I'd been born in Buffalo, would you have called me the Dickens of Buffalo?" A joking rebuke for the unpardonable alliterative sin.

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