Friday 7 November 2014

A Fine Romance: Elmore Leonard's Cat Chaser (Arbor House, 1982 / Viking, 1986)

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

If you were to think of one word to describe the work of Elmore Leonard, that word probably wouldn't be "romance". "Crime", maybe, or "violence", or "murder", or "humour", or more obliquely "dialogue", or more obscurely "western". But romance...?

Thing is, romance is a feature of most, if not all, of Leonard's books. I struggle to think of an Elmore Leonard novel I've read that doesn't have a love affair if not at its heart, then pretty close to it. Often that romance will be of the lightning-strikes, bolt-out-of-the-blue order, where the eyes of the taciturn male protagonist and the sassy female protagonist meet across a crowded hotel lobby or courtroom and an instant connection is made, and in short order the two are confirmed as eternal soul-mates. I'm generalizing there, obviously, but it is a thing which you do get in Leonard novels, and it's a little-discussed* aspect of his work. Take this book:

Cat Chaser, Elmore Leonard's next published novel after Split Images (1981) – at least in America, where it was published the year after Split Images, by the same publisher, Arbor House, under a dust jacket designed by Antler & Baldwin, Inc. (who also designed the wrapper for the 1983 Arbor House edition of Leonard's next novel, Stick). Here in the UK there was a three year gap between Split Images, which was published by W H Allen in 1983, and Cat Chaser, which was finally published in 1986 (Stick, LaBrava and Glitz all appeared in the interim):

by Viking, under a dust jacket designed by Bet Ayer and sporting a photograph by Peter Chadwick. (The jacket of that Viking edition, by the way, has joined the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, where Ayer and Chadwick's wrapper for the 1987 Viking edition of City Primeval also resides.)

The romance in Cat Chaser is between onetime marine-turned-Florida motel owner George Moran – the eponymous Cat Chaser, so named after the code name for his platoon during the 1965–66 American occupation of the Dominican Republic – and Mary de Boya, wife of property magnate Andres de Boya, former general in the Dominican army and right-hand man of the late, real life, dictator Rafael Trujillo. I'm confining myself to romance in this post – for a more comprehensive review of the novel (and of the 1989 Abel Ferrara film adaptation, which I don't believe I've seen) I can recommend Sergio's one over at Tipping My Fedora – but I will just note that Cat Chaser grew out of the material on Trujillo that Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter, unearthed when looking into the playboy confidant of Trujullo, Porfiro Rubirosa, whom Leonard used as the basis for Chichi Fuentes in Split Images (see Sutter's article in Armchair Detective Volume 19 Number 1, Winter 1986); and further note that the novel boasts maybe the funniest scene I've come across in a Leonard book, where Moran is besieged in a Santo Domingo hotel lobby by over a dozen besotted nubile Dominicans and consequently mistaken for a film star by a gaggle of Chinese tourists.

Anyway, Moran and Mary's romance is interesting (to me, anyway) for the way it overtly shapes the narrative of Cat Chaser. Other Leonard novels are shaped by love affairs – Out of Sight (1996) most obviously, but also Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images, Stick (1983), LaBrava (1983), Cuba Libre (1998) and others besides – but in subtler ways; in Cat Chaser, the blossoming love between Moran and Mary drives the story, overwhelms the narrative almost to the exclusion of everything else. There's money involved, sure, a score to be taken, just as there is in many Leonard works, but it becomes almost incidental (except in regard to the gruesome shootings towards the end of the novel, where it proves rather more instrumental): what matters most to Moran and Mary – and by extension to Leonard, he being the storyteller – is that they be together. In that sense, Cat Chaser is a pointer to how recognising the romantic leanings of Leonard's novels is key to understanding his work.

Which it is, in a weird sort of way. Romance informs the distinctive lilt of his writing more so, I'd argue, than the more widely recognised violent or criminal aspects. Leonard once stated that "all of my male leads... have much the same basic attitude about their own existence, what’s important and what isn’t" (the template being Jack Ryan in The Big Bounce, 1969), and one of the characteristics that they share is that they have a tendency to fall head-over-heels when the right woman comes along (sometimes after a dalliance with the wrong one) – that woman herself tending to be of a certain type: smart, feisty, independent, but still, like her male counterpart, willing to surrender herself wholesale to this newfound love. And given that Leonard tells his tales from the perspectives of his characters, that once he decides the point of view of a scene, "that character's sound will permeate the narrative" (see Anthony May's 1991 interview with Leonard), then naturally the romantic outlooks of his leads – male or female – is going to at least in part pervade the tone of the piece.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that there is a secret soft centre to Leonard's purportedly tough crime dramas – Cat Chaser being only the most conspicuous example – one which crops up again and again in his oeuvre, and which suffuses and animates his stories more than is perhaps appreciated, lending them much of their unexpected warmth. Unexpected, that is, for anyone who hasn't read any Leonard. For those who have, well... I have a feeling they'll know what I'm on about (er, I hope).

* Addendum: The week after I posted this I happened to stumble upon and reread Donald E. Westlake's review of LaBrava, in which Westlake discusses the romantic in that novel and labels it "a mean-streets romance".

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Notes from the Small Press 18: John Porcellino's Autobiographical Comics: The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014); Graphic Novel Review

I've been following the work of American small and not-so-small press autobiographical comics creator John Porcellino for around ten years now, and trying to for longer than that. I think the first thing of his I heard about was the graphic novel Perfect Example, published by Highwater in 2000. Back then, however, for a Brit, even one living in London (at the time), getting hold of US indie comics and graphic novels wasn't always easy, and so Perfect Example sat on my wants list until 2005, when it was reissued by Drawn and Quarterly. That same year La Mano published Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, and also around that mid-2000s period, at one of my two visits to San Diego Comic-Con across consecutive years, I scored a few issues of Porcellino's self-published King-Cat Comics and Stories (issues #62–64); and then in 2007 Drawn and Quarterly published the King-Cat Classics collection... Basically, I have a fair few of Porcellino's comics, and I like them a lot, so when I spotted a single copy of his latest graphic novel:

The Hospital Suite (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014; excerpt here), in Dave's Comics in Brighton the other week (having been made aware of it via Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter) I snapped it up. At well over 200 pages I guess you could call it his longest sustained narrative... except, in common with his other comics and collections and graphic novels, it's episodic in nature, comprising three overlapping stories: "The Hospital Suite", "1998" and "True Anxiety", with a small selection of additional related minicomix under "Appendices" in the back. As the graphic novel's overarching title implies, though, what links all these bits, aside from that they, er, interlink a bit (hence "suite"), is the medical theme, namely the various ailments which have plagued Porcellino throughout his life, but especially around the late 1990s.

And it's quite the list of complaints, including, but not limited to: mysterious stomach pains; repeated bouts of anxiety and depression; obsessive-compulsive behaviour; self-harming; allergies; and lower back problems. By the time I got to the end of "True Anxiety" I felt exhausted by it all, which in a way is apt: as draining as the experience is for the reader, it must have been a hundred times so for Porcellino himself, something he frequently expresses in the narrative. And to compound his despair, half the time the medical professionals he meets haven't a clue what's wrong with him, which makes me wonder whether the American healthcare system and the British NHS are really so different.

The honesty and candidness of Porcellino's account will, I think, speak to anyone who, like me, has had repeated encounters with the healthcare systems of their respective countries. In my case the early part of The Hospital Suite – "The Hospital Suite" itself – brought to mind one memorable stay in hospital in 2010, and even though the outcomes were different – surgery in Porcellino's case, a permanent prescription for Lansoprazole in mine – and I don't share Porcellino's spirituality, the direct, sincere manner by which which he communicates his experiences – his maladies, the treatments for those maladies and how he deals with it all – lends the work a veracity, a universality which can only engender empathy.

Part of why it works, I suspect, is down to how Porcellino's comics look. The naivety of his linework and guilelessness of his storytelling make his comics feel unfiltered, as if he drew them immediately after the events depicted. Which is a method he's deployed for his comics in the past – see the True Anxiety zines at the back of The Hospital Suite – but not, I don't believe, how he drew most of The Hospital Suite; this is new work documenting historical events. Still, that's the illusion he maintains – and anyway I think you can overthink Porcellino's drawing style, which is why I've tried not to dwell on it too much here: his comics look the way they look – uncluttered, sparse, barely delineated – because that's how he draws them.

Which is not to say that they're somehow dashed off, despite initial appearances to the contrary. Porcellino spends a lot of time getting his comics right. It's no easy thing to communicate an idea, convey information or evoke a feeling in so few lines. The simplicity of his style belies the depth of The Hospital Suite. There's an art to Porcellino's artlessness.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7 by Martin Eden

Notes from the Small Press 16: Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou 

Notes from the Small Press 17: The Battle of Lewes by Peter Cole