Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.

Review: David Czuchlewski, The Muse Asylum

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.


Hardback: 240 pages. New York: Putnam, 2001. ISBN: 0399147454.
Trade Paperback: 225 pages. New York: Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000604.

I hope my first novel, if I ever manage to write it, is as good as David Czuchlewski’s. He’s an author to watch, especially because his intentions appear to be literary, not merely commercial.

The Muse Asylum is not summer beach reading, which allows your brain to be left at home (or, at worst, demands it be left at home). You need not be well versed in literary criticism to enjoy this novel, but if the word postmodern scares you when you see it in a book review, this gem may not be for you.

Every fashion in literary criticism becomes ridiculous at the extremes. One of Postmodernism’s chief excesses is the notion that the author of a text (never a book or a story, always a text) is irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Roland Barthes went so far as to declare the death of the author, along with the “liberation” of the reader “from the tyranny of plot.”

The text supposedly speaks for itself, and it may allow interpretations which are completely at odds with what the author thought she meant. This is too much liberty and too little responsibility. I incline instead toward Vladimir Nabokov’s notion of the astute reader, who identifies with the author – as opposed to the postmodern reader, who ignores the author, or the typical reader, who identifies with a character. There may be some use in attempting to examine a text independent of its author, but when the “death of the author” becomes a dogma, one readily sees why the rest of the world cannot take most literary criticism seriously.

Enter a fictional American writer, one Horace Jacob Little, who prefers for theoretical or personal reasons (no one is quite certain) to write anonymously. That is, his books bear his name, or at least a name, but he hides from his readers so successfully that no one knows anything else about him.

His fiction changes the lives of three Princeton students, among many others, by opening minds to new and different ways of thinking. The Muse Asylum focuses on these three, during and after their Princeton years.

Jake Burnett starts reading Horace Jacob Little in high school. At Princeton, he introduces the captivating Lara Anne Knowles to Little’s works. Jake and Lara become more than friends, until Andrew Wallace steals her away. Significantly, the Horace Jacob Little book Jake gives to Lara finally falls into Andrew’s hands. This marks the beginning of the end of Andrew’s sanity.

Andrew loses his mind at Princeton, finally becoming convinced that the invisible, godlike Horace Jacob Little is the author of a vast conspiracy to destroy him. He believes that someone murdered the original Horace Jacob Little, took his place, continued to write under his name, and confessed his crime in an obscure way in his “next” novel. Now the impostor seeks to kill Andrew, who has figured it all out.

When the novel begins, after Princeton, Jake is working for an alternative newspaper in New York City. In an effort to boost circulation, his editor assigns him to do what no one else has done: find Horace Jacob Little and interview him. This assignment leads Jake to renew his association with both Andrew and Lara.

Through all the plot twists, nothing is quite what it seems. Or, rather, some things might be, but it’s devilishly hard to tell. The person Jake finally finds and interviews may or may not be the real Horace Jacob Little. An obvious suicide may not have been a suicide. Insane fantasies may not all be insane, after all. And Andrew’s obsession, the exposure of the supposed murdering impostor, may be contagious. The key to the mystery turns out to be at the Muse Asylum, a haven for the gifted but insane.

The novel is written in the first person, but there are actually two voices. For the most part, Jake and Andrew alternate chapters. Jake’s account begins with the assignment to find Horace Jacob Little. Lara plays the sane third party and a love interest who is for Jake ultimately unattainable. Andrew’s chapters are excerpts from his autobiography, written at the asylum as a therapeutic exercise, and focused on the Princeton years. In these chapters, Lara is the love of his life and a friendly island in an ominous sea of faces, any of which might belong to the mysterious Horace Jacob Little or one of his minions. Keeping track of which narrative voice is which is a bit of a challenge for a few chapters, but that is not too much for a good writer to expect of good readers.

Read simply as a mystery, The Muse Asylum is fascinating and full of unexpected reversals. Read as a commentary on the Postmodern death of the author – actually, the complete irrelevance of the author – it is a delightful poke at a fashionable critical extreme. For in this fictional world, the author is far more important than the text. Jake and Andrew cannot embrace Horace Jacob Little’s works without desiring, even obsessively, to discover and understand the authorial mind which created them. And it works both ways: what, and how much, the text says about its author is an open question, in Horace Jacob Little’s case. In the end, it may well be more than everyone but Andrew had supposed.

Read at a psychological level, this novel poses, but leaves unanswered, some delicious questions: What is insanity? How is it related to genius? Who is sane, and who, really, is insane? At the end of the novel, one is inclined to doubt that there are easy answers.

Since authors do seem to matter, after all, I note that David Czuchlewski is a Princeton graduate and a medical student in New York City, and is working on his second novel. I’m looking forward to it.

Note: David Czuchlewski’s second novel was Empire of Lightwhich was published in 2001. I very much enjoyed it and have since watched in vain for a third novel.

Review: John Grisham, The Testament

[toggle title=”Author’s Note”]

Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.


Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages. Dell, 1999. ISBN: 0440234743.

A personal confession: I have a graduate degree in literature from an Ivy League school. My favorite legal thriller is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I prefer to read in the original Russian. Yet I have also read, quite shamelessly, all nine of John Grisham’s novels, including The Testament, and I have enjoyed each of them enough to read the next one. I can admit this because my mentor at Cornell, a leading literary scholar, convinced me that his taste for cheap detective novels was not a vice or a betrayal of higher art.

For me a Grisham novel is an escape. I expect it to be competently written, but not psychologically or philosophically profound. I expect entertainment that doesn’t insult my intelligence or stretch the limits of believability too far. (Alas, The Runaway Jury did the latter, but I was fresh from a month of jury duty when I read it.) Grisham fills this bill quite nicely. He is an order of magnitude shallower than Scott Turow, whom I also enjoy, but he is also much easier to read. Some of you will also care, as I do, that Grisham is generally free of sexually explicit content, unlike Turow.

In Grisham’s novels someone (besides me) is always escaping from something. More often than not, our hero or heroine is fleeing that favorite Grisham villain, the large law firm, with its vicious power struggles and well-paid servitude. If the firm is not actually trying to visit a violent death upon our hero, as in The Firm, it is battering his psyche, tearing apart his family, ruining his health, threatening professional or financial ruin, or ruthlessly hardening him to the plight of the poor, the homeless, and everyone else who doesn’t drive a late model BMW or better.

In this case, as The Testament begins, most of the damage is already done. Middle-aged attorney Nate O’Riley’s family is already shattered twice over. His financial ruin is an accomplished fact. He is emerging from drug rehabilitation for the fourth time in ten years, and he’s about to be disbarred over some improprieties involving the IRS. For all that, Nate is a brilliant litigator, when sober.

No sooner had I met Nate than I concluded that, in the end, he probably would escape most of his troubles, come to grips with the rest, and somehow start a new life, away from the litigation that drove him repeatedly to alcohol and harder drugs. Even with these general expectations established from the beginning, however, I found ample suspense. Better still, it wasn’t difficult to care about two or three of the characters. The rest are another matter entirely.

The Testament is written mostly from a comfortable, anonymous third-person viewpoint, but the first two chapters are narrated by one Troy Phelan. This cranky, elderly, eccentric multi-billionaire cannot continue to narrate for the simple reason that he pitches himself over a railing and falls several stories to his death at the end of Chapter Two. This is just after he has signed a new will in a dramatic meeting with three ex-wives’ worth of his children, where three distinguished psychiatrists have certified him mentally capable. The children believe he is leaving them at least half a billion apiece, but his real goal is to leave his good-for-nothing offspring very little, and to make his last testament (which gives the novel its title) virtually incontestable.

The rest of the novel confirms what we have already seen through Phelan’s eyes: His children are base creatures, and they deserve his hatred. Their lawyers are more intelligent, but otherwise no better than their clients. Grisham is good enough at what he does that, unless you’re kinder than I am, you’ll despise them all too. You won’t want this spoiled riffraff to get the money any more than you wanted the insurance company to win in The Rainmaker. Perhaps you’ll be objective enough to feel this way because of the damage they could do with all that money, but for me it was more personal. I just didn’t like them.

In the new will Phelan leaves nearly everything to an estranged, illegitimate daughter, Rachel, whom no one knew he had. She has disappeared into the jungles of Brazil, where she lives a simple Christian life as a missionary among isolated tribes who know nothing of the modern world. Predictably, Nate is dispatched to find her; it’s a good time for him to be out of the country. With considerable difficulty, and then almost by accident, he locates her. Also predictably, she initially displays no interest in her father’s massive financial legacy. Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Phelan’s other children are increasingly obsessed by the money they have, the money they owe, and the money they think they can get.

Three questions kept me turning pages. First, Rachel has escaped modern civilization to a simple life of selfless goodness. She is happy and content. Will she return to the modern world to claim her fortune, or not? If so, what will become of her? Second, what will happen to Nate? Will he survive his jungle adventures? Will he become a missionary there? If he remains in society, will he stay clean and dry? Will he slide back into the gutter, perhaps never to return? (Given Grisham’s penchant for happy endings – that is, for successful escapes – I didn’t really believe he would leave Nate in the gutter.) Above all, there is the matter of the money. Will Phelan succeed, posthumously, in the worthy cause of keeping his legitimate children’s grimy hands off his fortune?

For me there was suspense on a different level, as well. Given the prominence of the Brazilian rain forest in the novel, and the ongoing tension between the simple, primitive life there and Nate’s intense, destructive lifestyle in the modern world, I was afraid Grisham might end up preaching some politically correct sermons before he was finished. Happily, he does not. He lets one character refer briefly to the rate at which farmers are encroaching on the rain forest, but there is no heavy-handed political arm-twisting. Nor is The Testament a tirade against the wealthy. However despicable Phelan’s offspring may be, there are others in the novel who wear the trappings of wealth with some dignity and generosity.

I am told that in good fiction at least one character evolves — grows, learns, degenerates, something. Here one of them does; it would give too much away to say which one. I am also told that in works of serious literature, the reader evolves. There is little danger of that here. I don’t think The Testament changed me at all. I didn’t expect it to. I read Grisham solely for entertainment, and he’s plenty good at that.