Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard


The first Elmore Leonard novel I read was Glitz, when it came out in 1985. I loved the whole book but was particularly in love with the first chapter. I must have read it ten times. 

Elmore Leonard died yesterday at the age of 87. I haven't read all his novels but I hope to. He's brought so much pure entertainment into my life, and it's nice to know there are books of his I haven't read yet. 

Below is the first chapter of Glitz, a chapter I will always love, and a chapter that every aspiring writer would do well to study.

***

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming. The guy approached out of the streetlight on the corner of Meridian and Sixteenth, South Beach, and reached Vincent as he was walking from his car to his apartment building. It was early, a few minutes past nine.

Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hit the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn’t going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk. Not even when the guy showed his gun, called him a motherfucker through his teeth and said he wanted Vincent’s wallet and all the money he had on him. The guy was not big, he was scruffy, wore a tank top and biker boots and smelled. Vincent believed he had seen him before, in the detective bureau holding cell. It wouldn’t surprise him. Muggers were repeaters in their strungout state, often dumb, always desperate. They came on with adrenaline pumping, hoping to hit and get out. Vincent’s hope was to give the guy pause.

He said, “You see that car? Standard Plymouth, nothing on it, not even wheel covers?” It was a pale gray. “You think I’d go out and buy a car like that?” The guy was wired or not paying attention. Vincent had to tell him, “It’s a police car, asshole. Now gimme the gun and go lean against it.”

What he should have done, either put the groceries down and given the guy his wallet or screamed in the guy’s face to hit the deck, now, or he was fucking dead. Instead of trying to be clever and getting shot for it.

This guy wasn’t going to lay himself out against any police car, he had done it too many times before—as it turned out—and it didn’t pay. He shot from the hip and that was where Vincent took the first one, in his own right hip, through and through. The .38 slug chipped bone, nicked the ilium, missed the socket by a couple of centimeters but raised other hell in its deflected course: tore through his gluteus maximus, taking out his back pocket and wallet containing seventeen dollars and punched his gun out of the waistband of his pants, where it rode just behind his hip. The guy’s second shot went through the HeartyBurgundy, passing between Vincent’s right arm and his rib cage. At this point Vincent dropped the groceries and went for his piece, yelling at the guy, who was running now, to halt or he’d fire. Here again was a lesson to be learned. When you say it, mean it. The guy halted all right, he half-turned and started shooting again. By now Vincent was on the ground feeling for a Model 39 Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter automatic among broken glass and spaghetti sauce. He found it and fired, he believed, four rounds, three of them entering the guy’s body just under his right arm and passing through both lungs.

The Sinai Emergency staff tore Vincent’s shirt off looking for a chest wound until one of them sniffed him and said, Christ, it’s wine. They x-rayed him,closed the exit wound in surgery, attached some plastic tubes and cleaned glass out of both of his hands.

He was in Intensive Care for the night, wheeled the next morning to a private room as somebody special. The nurse who came in said, “Well, you look just fine to me.” Vincent said, thank you, he was. Except for a terrible pain, down there. Pointed and said, “In my penis.” He had never called it that before. The nurse took it in her hand, gently removed the catheter and he fell in love with her, her perky cap, her perfect teeth, her healthy body in that starched white uniform. At night she rubbed hospital lotion over his back, his shoulders, soothed that raw gluteus muscle in his right buttock and he called her Miss Magic Hands. Her name was Ginny. Deeply in love he told her the front of his hip hurt too, awful, right there where the leg met the body. Ginny gave him a sly smile and the plastic bottle of lotion. He asked her if she’d like to go to Puerto Rico.

He was going. He’d been once and loved the food. Went down to pick up a wanted felon and waited over a long weekend for a judge to sign the release. He got to visit with a friend of his on the Puerto Rico Police, but didn’t get out to Roosevelt Roads that trip. His dad had shipped out of there and was killed at Anzio, taking in an LCVP during the invasion of Italy. Vincent wanted to see Roosevelt Roads. He had a picture of his dad at home taken at El Yunque, up in the rain forest: the picture of a salty young guy, a coxswain, his white cover one finger over his eyebrows, grinning, nothing but clouds behind him up there on the mountain: a young man Vincent had never known but who looked familiar. He was twenty years older than his dad now. How would that work if they ever did meet? His mother said rosaries in the hope they would.

The guy he killed was running on speed and trailing a life-time of priors, destined—they told Vincent—to crash and burn or die in jail.

“I didn’t scare him enough,” Vincent said.

He told this to his closest friend on the Miami Beach Police, Buck Torres.

Torres said, “Scare him? That what you suppose to do?”

Vincent said, “You know what I mean. I didn’t handle it right, I let it go too far.”

Torres said, “What are you, a doctor? You want to talk to the asshole? You know how long the line would be, all the assholes out there? You didn’t kill him somebody else would have to, sooner or later.”

“Don’t you know what I’m talking about?” Vincent said. “If I’d scared him enough he’d still be alive. I mean scare the guy so bad he stops and thinks, he says, man, no more of this shit.”

Torres said, “Yeah? How do you know when you scared him enough or you have to shoot him to save your own life? Right in there, that moment, how do you know?”

That was the question.

He’d take it with him to Puerto Rico on his medical leave. Maybe think about it while he healed, maybe not. Lieutenant Vincent Mora was at a point, he wasn't sure he wanted to be a cop anymore. Until that night he had never killed anyone. It made him think about his own life.

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