Tishomingo Blues – Elmore Leonard

16 June 2011
Chapters 1-6…
…which is about a quarter of this book. Plot? Forget plot for a minute, what Elmore Leonard does is the way men talk when they are thrown together, and mise-en-scene. I’ll start with the mise-en-scene, which is redneck country, Mississippi. If we weren’t sure how redneck before starting the book, well we are now. There’s been a murder by men associated with the ‘Dixie Mafia’ – witnessed by the main character, but I’ll come back to him – and the mutilation and lynching of a Black man who has the temerity to speak to a white woman as though to an equal. Admittedly, the lynching is three generations back, but you start to get a picture of how things are. And did I mention the re-enactments of Civil War battles? You don’t need to guess whose side the locals are always on.

And men, blokeish blokes who are just trying to make a living. There’s our man, Dennis Lenahan, a high diver reaching the end of his shelf-life and looking for a place to do his job anywhere but in an amusement park. (In the ten years following this novel, there have been two highly regarded films about men slightly nearer the edge of the shelf than Dennis, Crazy Heart and The Wrestler. Americans like to hear about their country’s seamier side – but I would say that after having just finished reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s hymn to people on the edge like the Lady Chablis, who make a living doing things we readers can only, well, read about.)

Where was I? Dennis gets in touch with the guy who’s running a new casino in Tishomingo, someone he met a long time ago who’s willing to give him a chance. The understated, or unstated, bargaining that goes on in their phone conversation is a virtuoso display of how people talk who’ve been around a long time. Once in Hicksville Miss, we get blokes like Charlie, who was a pitcher once and, within seconds of starting to speak, tells anyone around about all the famous guys he got out. There’s Floyd, the sad sack in the too-big suit who helps Dennis set up his diving rig and gets shot. And there’s the unexpected outsider, an uber-sophisticated Black from Detroit who measures other people’s cool, in the short sections when we’re inside his head, on a scale of 1-10.

What’s he doing there? Why is he in this two-bit casino getting changed into his smart casual clothes at the time the murder is taking place outside his window? How much does he see – and does he know that Dennis saw the murder? He seems to have understood exactly what our man probably saw, but in the conversation they have as he drives Dennis home he isn’t saying. What he is saying is that his great-grandfather’s lynching was by the great-grandfather of one of the men who shot the sad sack. But, surely he definitely hasn’t driven thousands of miles in his top-of-the-range Jaguar simply to avenge a sordid killing from decades ago. Whatever, it’s clear that he and our man like each other, which seems like good news. But what would I know?

Anything else? I’ve told you as much as I know about the plot and the main characters. There’s Dennis’s landlady, who is nominally living with Charlie but not really. She fancies our man, and he fancies her, which is nice. Er…. That’ll do for now.

23 June
Chapters 7-15
When I started writing about this book, I suggested we should forget plot for a minute if we wanted to gauge Elmore Leonard’s strengths. Well, maybe… but it seems that Leonard is only setting the scene in those early chapters, establishing a kind of pecking order of cool so that we give each of his characters just as much respect as he wants us to. It’s a crime caper, for god’s sake, and plot has almost entirely taken over. Not quite, but I’ll get back to any other stuff if I have time.

There was already plenty of plot in the early chapters, but we didn’t know that’s what it was. It is almost entirely generated by Robert, the cool Black dude: it might be Elmore Leonard writing this novel, but within its universe Robert is the one fitting everything into place. You thought it was just two guys getting along when he and Dennis find they seem to like each other? Wrong, it’s Robert grooming Dennis for a special role in the organisation he helps to run. You thought the photograph of the lynching was a part of Leonard’s careful structuring of a plausible mise-en-scene? Well, there might be a bit of that in there somewhere, but really this has much more to do with Robert wrong-footing the white men he wants to get rid of so that he and his boss can move in…. And so on.

And, despite some interesting games that Leonard plays with the Faust legend – mixing it with all that folklorish stuff we know about the devil appearing at crossroads and, specifically, legends of great bluesmen selling their souls there – at the point I’ve reached it’s come down to whether Dennis will play ball, and become the new frontman for organised drug dealing once Robert and his boss have got rid of the Dixie Mafia. Robert makes a good Mephistopheles, so we’re willing to buy into the conceit… but, as I say, it comes down to the machinations of a gangster’s fixer. That’s all Robert is, and it’s ever so slightly disappointing: in my sentimental way, I was hoping for something else.

Plot. The two men who shot Floyd work for Walter Kirkbride, the owner of a company building developments of ‘manufactured housing’ – prefabricated units that are as uncool in Leonard’s presentation of them as they sound. It’s a front he uses to launder the profits from the drug dealing operation that Arlon Novis – one of the killers – is too amateurish to run on his own. Leonard finally gets around to telling us all this not long before the point I’ve reached, through a conversation these men have in order for Kirkbride to do some trouble-shooting: Novis has recently shot ‘Junebug’, his accomplice, for boasting about the crime and Kirkbride sees this as the second-rate behaviour of an amateur. Walter is also wondering what Robert and his boss are doing in the area, doesn’t know whether to believe that they are only there for the big Civil War re-enactment that’s coming up. Someone suggests shooting them during the heat of the mock-battle…

…which turns out, with the kind of dark inevitability of this sort of story, to be exactly what Robert and his boss have in mind for the Dixie Mafia. By killing them, they can wipe the slate clean and move in. And Dennis can run a diving business, complete with fit-looking divers of both sexes, as a front. He can have Junebug’s old joint as a base. This is the crisis point for Dennis, the man who, a day or two ago, was law-abiding enough to fret about not telling the police what he saw from the diving-board. Robert, with blues tracks playing on the car stereo, is telling him he’s at the crossroads.

Other stuff. The battle re-enactments have become a slice of Americana to go with the others. Leonard goes into a lot of detail about the ‘serious’ re-enactors out there, ones who will live out every last particular of getting dressed and equipped, setting camps and eating the right kind of roast cooked over the fire. He needs to persuade us that such an event would be a convincing enough cover for what both sides have in mind – and, at the same time, he is able to unpack some of the more subtle aspects of the conflict. The presence of Robert in the discussions makes for an interesting take on the role of Blacks on both sides. Leonard doesn’t only want this to be a crime caper, obviously.

And… what? Relationships between men and women, which are nothing like so subtle. Dennis and his landlady get it together as soon as he succumbs to her chat-up line: no, she doesn’t sing, but she does moan when she makes love. Robert routinely goes to bed with the boss’s wife, the supermodel-standard Anne. And Dennis finds himself fancying the anchor-woman who is doing a feature on him for local tv. And his boss’s right-hand woman, who seems to be not unimpressed by what she’s seen on the diving-board…. Ok.

A couple of bits of plot I don’t think I mentioned. Robert’s boss has got Billy Darwin, the casino owner, to agree to Dennis having some time off for the re-enactment. Bit by bit, whether he wants it or not, they’re tying him to them. For all I know, they might be setting him up to take the rap for the murders they’re going to commit. In fact, I bet that’s it: Robert is keen to keep reminding Dennis how nothing is what it appears – he uses the lynching photo to wrong-foot another character and, basically, tells Dennis that the people in it are who he says as long as people believe it. One thing we know about Mephistopheles is his way of tricking his victims. And, meanwhile, Dennis is still very uncomfortable about the story going round that he witnessed the shooting, and is spooked by John Rowe, the federal agent on the case. What to do?

24 June
Chapters 16-23
Things settle down, sort of, as Leonard focuses on the re-enactment. There are some interesting things going on, and one of them is to do with Robert: whenever Leonard lets us inside his head, which he does during some key conversations in these chapters, we see how he operates. He lobs something into the encounter he’s set up, weighs the effect of his words on the listener, then throws in something else based on the response he’s got. He manipulates his listener, if the conversation is an important one, into thinking this cool guy is letting him in on something. He’s been doing it to Dennis all through the book, and in Chapter 16 we see him doing it to Walter Kirkbride. Detail by detail, he describes to Walter the precise set-up and operation of Walter and Arlen’s drug business. He’s quite pleased with the response, judges that Walter will be happy to go along with whatever is the outcome of the planned takeover. He, Walter, seems comfortable with the idea that Arlen might not survive beyond the re-enactment weekend.

We also find out – or, at least, Robert lets Dennis come to the conclusion – that the real boss of the Detroit outfit is Robert himself. Sure, he lets Jerry think he’s the man, but really it’s only Robert’s imaginative leaps that move the business on. Whose idea was it to move in on the Dixie Mafia through a combination of gangster salesmanship with a Civil War event as a smokescreen? Robert. Who is it that the henchmen we met a few chapters back, Tonto and Xavier, really respect as somebody you work for because you know he’s good, not because he shouts and threatens? Robert. Case closed – except that in the universe that Leonard has created in this Mississippi backwater, the only thing we know is that we don’t know anything. Robert the boss? Jerry a kind of upmarket heavy with a penchant for explosions and murder? Maybe.

It’s interesting how Robert has become a kind of impresario in this novel, orchestrating things in order to achieve a particular effect. As he says, he likes messing with people’s heads. One of the things that makes him such an appealing character is the way he makes things happen, as though he is in league – who with? With Elmore Leonard, obviously. Not so much an impresario as an author, adding ingredients that will make for a good show. I went off him for a while, but he’s got me back on his side now. I wondered who might play him in a movie version. Don’t know, but it would need to be somebody good.

The other interesting thing – and I‘m really talking about the book’s literary effects here – is what Leonard does with the make-believe of the re-enactment. We haven’t actually got to the battle yet – we’ve reached Sunday morning, and it is to take place in the afternoon – but we’ve had all the preparations: the bivouacs and camp fires, the uniforms and weapons…. I called it Americana a few chapters back, as though all it contributes is local down-home colour. In fact, Leonard uses it to take Dennis into a world in which, well, reality is what you make it. This starts when he sees himself in the mirror, and suddenly, at one level, he’s a Yankee soldier from 140 years back. It carries on when he encounters the ‘serious’ re-enactors, the hardcore for whom the experience goes way beyond role-play. They always know it’s really the early part of the 21st Century but, at a very real level for them, they are also soldiers having to think about survival in one of the most bitter wars ever fought.

It’s the existence of two parallel realities that makes it interesting. It might sound as though I’m reading too much into it, but I don’t think I am. The Robert thread is also about the creation, often out of thin air, of imagined realities: the future he’s offering Dennis – in these chapters, he’s doubled the salary so that he’ll be getting a million dollars by his third year; the neatly sewn-up new reality he offers Walter Kirkbride… to say nothing of the disorientating fantasies he weaves with his lynching photograph. At the level of the crime caper novel, this is about a con artist and his clever manipulations. But Leonard takes us to enough interesting places to convince me that he wants to hold up and have a long stroll around the whole question of why people do what they do. It’s about how people perceive the narratives of their lives.

In this respect, a key thing has just happened. It actually begins on the Saturday afternoon, when Dennis meets yet another woman, also involved in the re-enactment against her will. Here we go again, we think – he’s come close to starting an affair with the tv anchor-woman within the past day or so – but, hang on…. He doesn’t think of her as a girl, a word he tells her he likes, but as a woman. He finds he can talk to her, they seem to have something in common. Ok, there’s a slight complication – this is a crime caper, after all – because she’s married to Arlen. But she’s thinking of divorcing him anyway, because he’s an idiot. And Dennis, who has not actually decided not to take up Robert’s offer despite pretending to himself that he has, begins to wonder about what an ordinary life might be like with this ordinary woman. As though to pull him further away from Robert’s clutches, he has an unpleasant encounter with Jerry, who reveals himself to be nothing more than a thug. If Robert is the pretty, engaging façade, Jerry is the ugly reality.

And the battle is only a few hours away. Arlen is definitely out to kill the interlopers; Robert and Jerry appear to have a plan to kill Arlen and spirit the body away in a truck. But what do I know?

25 June
Chapters 24-26 – to the end
Not as many surprises as I was expecting in these final chapters. There’s plenty of killing, some of it presented as a kind of Keystone Kops slapstick. Like two of Arlen’s men, Fish and Eugene, who have been arguing about Eugene’s dog, Rose. Her selling-point is her ability to rip your throat out, but the flipside is her habit of ripping up the furniture if left alone. Fish is the one Arlen took to kill Junebug a while back, so Eugene decides he’ll be able to manage looking after Rose. Wrong. She’s gone and bitten him, so he’s gone and shot her – shooting apparently being the first thing these people think of to the extent that it’s surprising any of them are alive – and Eugene has been annoyed about it for about two days now. Using the loaded pistols they are supposed to be turning on Robert and Dennis in the woods, they end up shooting each other. Fine.

In fact, almost nothing goes according to Robert’s carefully prepared script – the main divergence being that all the people who get killed are shot by people they think are on their own side – but it all turns out ok anyway. Arlen pushes Walter into the stage-set clearing in the woods, knowing nothing of the proposal Robert has put to Walter. Nobody shoots at Walter, obviously, and Arlen starts to annoy him with his orders to shoot, dammit. Walter does – but not before turning round to aim his gun at Arlen. Job done, as far as Robert’s concerned: all but one of Arlen’s men are now accounted for. (The one called Newton, who Robert had been goading into impotent racist fury only the day before, seems to have run off. Good riddance.)

But that’s not all. Tonto and Hector have had enough of Jerry, also in the woods in his Civil War get-up and ready to start shooting. In fact he’s mainly there to lure Arlen into doing something rash, but – and how we laughed – the ones who do something rash are his own men. Robert doesn’t know what’s happening until they toss a coin – and the winner shoots Jerry. Being the quick-thinking fixer he is, Robert is able to piece together a viable narrative that he knows the cop in charge will go for: an old-school duel between Arlen and Jerry based on their disagreements over the two sides in the Civil War. Leonard has been reminding us how hardcore John Rowe is about these re-enactments: he’s been hounding Dennis all weekend for his lack of seriousness. It’s only thinking about it now that has made me realise how elegant Leonard has made Robert’s solution.

It’s all elegant. Everything has worked out for Leonard’s charismatic psychopath – he’s explained to Dennis how easy it will be to ignore that pesky conscience of his if he puts his mind to it – and all we’re left with are a couple of loose threads. Leonard has been reminding us about them for a lot of chapters, so we know he hasn’t forgotten them: Newton, going over and over in his mind what he’s going to do about the ‘smoke’ from Detroit who insulted him; and, well, what’s Dennis going now he’s seen the life that Robert is really offeringt – and what’s he going to do about Loretta, the woman who is now Arlen’s widow?

Think of an elegant solution. Ok, you need to believe that Robert, who has been dealing with violent morons all his life, will leave himself wide open to an attack by one of them. You also need to know that Loretta, Arlen’s widow, likes the idea of settling down in Orlando. Right, try this: a few days after the shootout, Robert takes Dennis to find Walter in one of the sex trailers behind Junebug’s. He leaves Dennis in the bar with his attaché case – you know, the one with the James Bond-style shooter in it – while he goes round the back. Meanwhile… Newton, who’s been unable to draw level with the Jag on the way there and blast both the smartass outsiders, has Robert in his sights. Luckily, Dennis notices this throught he back door and quickly rummages around and finds Robert’s gun while Newton does some of that gloating business that morons go in for. Dennis fires the gun accidentally and smashes some bottles behind the bar – which even Newton can’t fail to hear – and, when the moron turns round and fires, shoots him. Robert: You saved my life, what can I ever do to repay you? Dennis: You got any friends in Orlando? Elegant, see? And that’s where Leonard ends it.

Except… there’s the little loose end concerning where Leonard stands on the ethics of all this. Answer: he doesn’t seem to feel he needs to in a book like this. The ethical dilemmas he’s had Dennis facing from the moment he witnessed Floyd’s murder are a game, just another ingredient like Robert’s unfeasibly charismatic aplomb that makes everyone putty in his hands or the comedy shootings that involve nobody who doesn’t deserve it. It’s comedy ethics, where Robert justifies his drug dealing by trying to persuade Dennis that nobody gets harmed. It’s nonsense, obviously. Dennis isn’t fooled – and I seriously wondered whether Leonard might let Robert get his come-uppance at Newton’s hands. But no. Instead, we’ll get Dennis having Robert pull all the strings at his disposal to get him started up in Orlando. As Robert is fond of telling everybody – Leonard has been keen to show us how much he genuinely admires Dennis’s nerve on the diving board – he’s my man. You bet.


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