You could say there are two main schools of American prose style: the pulpit and the porch steps. The first is forceful, openly intent on asserting its import, and apt to assume the cadences of a hallowed literary predecessor in defining the American experience or character, from Milton (Melville) to the King James Bible (Faulkner and, by extension, Toni Morrison) to the poetry of the Romantics (Fitzgerald). The porch-steps school, by contrast, the academy presided over by the spirit of Mark Twain, believes you can tell your readers everything worth knowing about Americans by showing them how we talk.
Of course, there’s a place in the literary pantheon for gifted monologuists and sermonizers, but even the best of them lack the convivial, vernacular charm that Leonard seemed to channel so effortlessly. (He never stopped writing because, he said, it was so much fun.) You can hear a whole gabby nation of misfits and renegades and wise alecks and hustlers speaking through his fiction; he contained multitudes, and seemed to enjoy the company. (via)
Elmore Leonard, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 87, specialized in dumb criminals who thought they were smart. Nobody did better than the prolific crime novelist at getting inside the heads of his irrationally confident villains. Here are five of his dumbest.
“I had me a quiet woman once. Outside, she was calm as Sunday. Inside, she was wild as mountain scenery.”
What I love about that line, and the other splendid lines throughout that script, is that they reveal character and the place that character came from in a special way no actor could do on his own. Clearly, actors in talking pictures can’t reveal character very well without dialog. But dialog that tells one story for the actor while the actor is telling another story is the richest of gifts for a performer. While a Leonard character is telling plot stuff, the very shape and rhythm of the words as Leonard has framed them reveal the character’s biography. Most actors have to rely on dialog that only reveals plot or consciously explained back-story. Dialog that tells one story with words while telling a correlative story with the sounds of those words is rare and precious.
His flair is hard to borrow, because so much of it depends on what he did not write, not what he did. As with a Japanese line drawing, the bare space is as meaningful as the marks that have been made. There was great elegance to his elision.