Thursday, 19 November 2015
Touch by Elmore Leonard: Signed Inscribed First Edition (Viking, 1988); Book Review
There's an introduction in the 1988 UK Viking first edition of Touch – and, I expect, in other editions of the book too, not least the 1987 US Arbor House first – wherein Elmore Leonard explains why it took ten years for the novel to be published. Falling in Leonard's backlist between Bandits (1987) and Freaky Deaky (1988), Touch was actually written in 1977 "and, within a couple of months, rejected by more than a dozen hardcover publishers", as Leonard puts it. "The rejections were cordial enough; there was no quarrel with the prose. One editor called it, 'Probably the best writing you have done to date.' Another said, 'It is simply that the subject, no matter how well written it is, seems altogether mystifying.'"
Though the novel was finally accepted for publication in 1978 as a paperback original, so difficult to categorise did the publisher find the book that it languished on their shelves for a few years thereafter while they tried to work out what the hell to do with the thing. Eventually Leonard requested that the rights be reverted "and the publisher complied, probably with a sigh of relief"; Leonard then sold the book to Arbor House.
Leonard seems to concur with his original (non-)publisher in his introduction to Touch when he states that the novel is "way off-trail compared to what I usually write", and in terms of subject matter at least he has a point: the story is about a former Franciscan monk, a young man named Juvenal, who apparently possesses the ability to heal the sick and who displays stigmata on his hands, feet and side whilst doing so – not exactly Swag or The Hunted or City Primeval, then. However, in tone, style, meandering plot and above all in terms of characters, Touch is unmistakably the work of the writer of Swag (1976), The Hunted (1977), City Primeval (1980) and especially classics like The Big Bounce (1969), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images (1981), Stick (1983) and LaBrava (1983). In other words, it's an Elmore Leonard novel, and one of his very best at that.
It's worth noting too that despite the ostensibly off-beam subject matter, in true Leonard fashion there is still a con and a potential payday driving the narrative, although it's not Juvenal who's doing the conning, nor Lynn Marie Faulkner, the spunky record promotor with whom he falls in love, though she does initially seek him out at the Sacred Heart Center – the Detroit detox clinic where he works – for precisely that reason. Instead it's a pair of prime Leonard grotesques who want to use Juvenal for their own ends: Bill Hill, a medallion-wearing (bearing the legend "Thank You, Jesus") former church leader – he administered the Uni-Faith Church, which boasted "The World's Tallest Illuminated Cross of Jesus, 117 feet high" (plus "the Pilgrims' Rest Cafeteria and Gift Shop, where they sold Heavenly Hash candy, ten-inch battery-operated replicas of the World's Tallest Illuminated Cross of Jesus, WTICOJ T-shirts...") – who, with one eye on the likes of Billy Graham and the other on the Frost/Nixon interviews, perceives a way of turning a profit on Juvenal; and August Murray, stiff-necked, clenched-arse copy shop owner and commander of the Gray Army of the Holy Ghost, who seeks to recruit Juvenal to his righteous cause.
Touch also touches on another abiding Leonard concern, especially around the period it was written (see also Unknown Man No. 89), that of alcohol abuse (the writer was a functioning alcoholic during much of the 1970s). But he's never judgemental about it, and nor is he, despite Bill Hill and August Murray's shortcomings, about the mystical or religious aspects of the story. "Touch is about accepting what is," he writes in the introduction, an attitude which would also inform his later novel, the Raylan Givens-starring Riding the Rap (1995), which features a psychic, Reverend Dawn (who also appears in 2009's Out of Sight sequel Road Dogs), about whom Leonard again offers no judgement. Certainly Juvenal's bizarre abilities seem genuine, best exemplified by a bravura midpoint scene in a church where Leonard (uncharacteristically) flits between five or six different character POVs in order to show Juvenal's miraculous power, and a climactic, brilliant, farcical TV interview conducted by a rictus grinning hairpiece-bedecked towering shit of a host which is about the best sequence I've read in a Leonard novel.
The copy of the Viking edition of Touch seen in this post (dust jacket design by Bet Ayer, jacket photo by James Walker), fairly recently acquired (and not to be confused with the copy I bought in Essex two years ago), is a signed one, inscribed by Elmore Leonard to a John Newland. I've no way of ascertaining whether that might be this John Newland, director and host of classic paranormal TV anthology series One Step Beyond, but given the subject matter of the novel, it would be rather fitting if it were (and would make my copy of the book an association one). In any case, it's a nice way to round off this current series of posts on inscribed books. I do have some more signed and inscribed books I've yet to blog about (including another Leonard one), but those will have to wait for the new year; apart from anything else, there are a couple of other Elmore Leonard books I'd like to post reviews of before I get to those.