The Short Version: Chili Palmer, a loan shark in Miami, gets into a bit of trouble with a guy over his coat – see, Ray Bones took his coat and then Chili… well, anyway, Ray ends up Chili’s boss and sends him after this dead guy who owes him money. The guy ain’t dead, though – he’s in Vegas with 300k. One thing leads to another and Chili finds himself in LA, buddying up with movie producers and actors and learning just what it takes to make a movie.
The Review: When Elmore Leonard passed last year, I remember being struck by how many people spoke of his voice. And what a voice it is: I daresay there ain’t nobody writes quite like Leonard wrote. The thing about it is not any particular technical pizazz or flowery descriptions – rather, you feel like this guy is sitting next to you and talking to you in some sort of basic vernacular of the grittier side of the human experience. You may have absolutely no real understanding of this side of human experience beyond that of television or other stories, but you get the sense that this guy does. And that he’s gonna spin you a yarn the way a guy like Ray Bradbury might tell you a ghost story.
I guess another term for it would be “colloquial.” There is an intimacy to Leonard’s writing that feels like an inside joke or like a shared winking reference, making the reader feel instantly at home. And his writing, again, reads like he’s telling you a story – there’s none of the fat that comes from too much description or scene-setting or what have you. There are tangents, sure (the first third of the book is kind of a series of tangents that eventually lead us into the main action in LA), but what storyteller doesn’t do that when they’re sitting around the bar with friends and beers and “oh, so, you remember Chili Palmer’s coat? Well, he went and popped Ray Bones in the nose for it and that’s why he ended up in Vegas” – “Didn’t you say you were gonna tell us a story about LA?” – “Yeah, but hang on, so he’s in Vegas and…”
That sort of thing.
It helps that he writes characters who, unsurprisingly considering the number of adaptations, feel like they’ve stepped out of that technicolor fantasy world of classic films. The Joe Pesci rhythms of all of the mobsters’ speech at times, the effortless groovy cool of Bo, the flaky “please love me” undertones of Harry… If anything, it feels like such a product of the 90s in the best possible way. There is just something about the reading experience that evokes a nostalgia for a time that I only experienced as a kid too young to really experience it but that nonetheless was so formative and that was so rosy and fun and, well, the last big go before everything went to hell over the last 15 years. But I digress.
Chili Palmer is regularly remarked upon as being damn cool under pressure and he just is, man. Doesn’t matter who he’s facing off against: mob bosses, muscular thugs, famous actors, high-powered producers… he’s just cool, man. And while he’s not the brightest bulb in the bunch, he knows how to play his cards (even when he doesn’t play them right all the time). He’s got that sort of natural gift for not only storytelling but for managing to end up on the right side of things that makes him a natural, of course, for Hollywood.
I’m told that Leonard wrote this after a particularly bad experience in Hollywood and, of course, it doesn’t paint the place in the greatest light. Having worked for a talent agency’s New York office (in theater, admittedly, but there was crossover), I can tell you that it all sounds pretty much exactly the same today though. There’s a sense of too many cooks in the kitchen all the time, a sense of making projects fit the people instead of fitting the right people to the projects, there are deals and deals and other deals, and it’s all rather messy – but to a guy like Chili, used to facing death or at the very least more violence… you can see how it might be appealing. Leonard even turns certain sections of the book into script-like dialogue just to show how well the guy fits in. It’s a hoot. In fact, although I can’t necessarily point to any single line or moment, I’d say the whole book is a hoot. It’s not necessarily a laugh-out-loud comedy, although there are times that a reader will absolutely snort, guffaw, or otherwise chortle – but it is damn funny in that sort of “can you believe this?” kind of way. The characters all go in a dance that, from the point of view of the end, feels moderately expected… but it’s about how you get there, you know?
Rating: 4 out of 5. I think, for a brief moment, I was expecting something a bit heavier when I picked this up – but (and I know I’m saying it again) the whole thing ended up being like Elmore Leonard had saddled up at the table next to me and started spinning a tale about his friend Chili Palmer and the mess he got himself into. It was cozy, it was funny, it was off-the-cuff without trying to be, and it popped. Doesn’t make me any more interested in going to LA – but damned if I’m not smiling as I think about Chili Palmer getting upset over that coat that started the whole thing off. A fun time, indeed.
(ed. note – this beautiful edition is one of the “California Classics” from this year’s California Bookstore Day. The fine folks at Harper, ahead of the return of my favorites, the Olive Editions, cranked these out in similar style with a fine slipcase. I’m much obliged to my cousin for feeding my collector’s ridiculousness.)