Cinematic scenery by Elmore Leonard

January 12, 2003|By Frank H. Wu | By Frank H. Wu,Special to the Sun

When the Women Come Out to Dance, by Elmore Leonard. William Morrow. 240 pages. $24.95.

Like his novels, Elmore Leonard's first collection of stories is less literary than cinematic. They could be the scripts for several Hollywood movies.

In Leonard's work, he could appear as himself: a famous crime writer pitching a concept to a studio. As one Native American former cop says in a story that in fact has been optioned by Bruce Willis, he was thinking of trying to make it in the business, because he knew another Indian "made it big" even though "the man didn't even talk." In Leonard's real world, that dream has paid off. He has met the challenge that authors face in this high-tech entertainment era. Much as painters of an earlier age worried that photography had made them obsolete, so too writers may wonder whether they have become merely content-producers for studios.

Like contemporary photorealistic painters whose technique is so advanced that their canvasses are mistaken for snapshots, Leonard has embraced rather than feared the change from readers imagining scenes to viewers watching them on the screen. His characters even speak as if movies define our common culture: A new boyfriend tries to pull off a Jack Nicholson smirk, but his girlfriend is reminded only of Christopher Walken's pants hitched up too high.

Two of the nine pieces that make up the book are long enough that they could be adapted as film scripts without adding much. They star ordinary people in unfortunate circumstances, who, despite not knowing quite why their lives have turned out as they have, nonetheless engage in terrific dialogue.

"Fire in the Hole" tells of the showdown between two former coal-mining buddies, one grown up to be a white supremacist who has blown up a black church, the other now a deputy marshal assigned to bring him in. Between them, of course, is a woman. A former high school cheerleader whose best times are 20 years behind her, she lusts after one of them and in turn is pursued by the other.

"Tenkiller" tells of a similar showdown between a champion rodeo rider turned stuntman whose fiancee has died. He returns from Los Angeles to his Oklahoma hometown to find the family pecan ranch has been taken over by father-and-son felons who want to run him off the land and use it for their shady enterprises. The woman in this instance had a reputation in high school but still hopes that her bronco-busting hero will come back, yet she also is the real estate agent who leased the property to the criminal clan.

The remaining stories feature a diverse range of people. Although they include a Native American baseball player, an African-American military veteran, a Latino cowboy, a Latina maid, an Asian immigrant doctor and a social-climbing stripper, they all share a stylish coolness toward their own fate as well as others' lives.

Fans of Leonard's will appreciate the background on Karen Sisco. The federal agent from the hit book and movie Out of Sight was said to have shot a bank robber she was dating even before she (played by Jennifer Lopez) hooked up with Jack Foley. That anecdote is fleshed out here.

Even in print, Leonard's dramas are democratic rather than elitist. They are easy to enjoy.

Frank H. Wu, a professor of law at Howard University, is teaching at the University of Michigan and Columbia University this year. He is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and co-author of Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. He reviews law-related books for a wide range of periodicals.

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