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Tishomingo Blues
by Elmore Leonard
A Non-review by J Stefan Cole

There's nothing like murder and mayhem, Elmore Leonard style. It's like opening a window to spring breezes, like reading a movie, or maybe listening to jazz. TISHOMINGO BLUES, Leonard's latest romp through a cast of losers, mischief makers and morally dubious types, lives up to expectations; his dialogue, his characters, settings that only he could make sing.

There is something definite about Elmore Leonard's world. Like old cowboy stories, or spies thrillers, the 007 sort. A man's world with no excuses, no angst, where if a character doesn't act like a man he knows what he'll be compared to. Vulnerability not a big concern in the emotional mix. Leonard's protagonists, though, usually have a kind of passive energy, a slightly lost charm that offsets some of the generalized hombre energy.

Also Reviewed This Month:

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace -
Gore Vidal

The War Against Cliche -
by Martin Amis
Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson

The Leonard books I've read are set in the South, offering that hot, sleepy softness that Southern cities like Miami or New Orleans, or in this case Tunica, Mississippi, can lend to even the most hard core deeds. Murder is Leonard's specialty, and TISHOMINGO BLUES is no exception. A low life rigger from Biloxi named Floyd Showers is sliced down, five bullets to the back of his head, by page seventeen, and the book is off and running. The one witness is a high dive performer named Dennis Lenahan who was putting the finishing touches to his stage when the killing happens eighty-five feet below him. Dennis is a daredevil, a world champion diver--though he didn't strike me as the daredevil type, not that I know any. Leonard doesn't help, never taking us into Dennis's head before a dive, but it's okay, the book is not about diving.

Dennis moves his show from town to town, setting up in amusement parks, thrilling the local girls with his bravery and independent life-style. A life that in fact means sleeping most nights in cheap motels. He tries to swing more respectable deals with resort hotels, but few are eager for a 40,000 gallon water tank on their lawns and a side show in their midst. Dennis has wearied of the carney scene, he's approaching a crossroads in his career. There is the danger of breaking his back, and diving from that high up takes a toll--think of the impact on ear drums. So he's pretty relieved when Billy Darwin, entrepreneur owner of the brand new Tishomingo Lodge & Casino, agrees to let him set up on a trial basis. It's a big step above the amusement parks.

Billy Darwin assigns "personality" host, Charlie Hoke--Chickasaw Charlie--to look after Dennis's needs. Charlie was a baseball player, and in his mind he's still with the majors, a ninety mile an hour fast ball that he'll talk up to anyone who'll listen. Dennis moves into the house Charlie shares with a waitress named Vernice. Charlie brings Floyd Showers in as Dennis's rigger. He lets him know Floyd's done time, not to worry though, he knows his job. Floyd is a pathetic, dirty, scared, weasely man, but he's quiet and Dennis has no complaints. That is, until he witnesses Floyd's murder.

A pair of "Dixie Mafia" boys, Arlen Novis and his pal Junebug, kill Floyd and the only reason they don't try to shoot Dennis when they discover him up on the diving perch is that Charlie Hoke shows up. Charlie didn't see the killing, but he assures Arlen not to worry, then tells Dennis to keep his mouth shut because the crime will blow over, and Arlen will kill him if he doesn't. "Nobody," Charlie said, "gives a shit about Floyd." None of which eases Dennis's mind. Not so much out of conscience as his being potentially squeezed between the law and the killers.

Enter Robert Taylor, black, likable, a smooth-talking, drug-dealing malefactor from Detroit. He's got the cool of a James Bond--even packs a Walther PPK pistol. Robert happened to be looking out the window of his suite the evening Floyd was bumped. He didn't see it happen behind the tank, but he's observant and puts two and two together. He also saw Dennis dive after the killers left, and was mesmerized. He figures Dennis had to have witnessed whatever took place, so he seeks him out. He has his own reasons for wanting to know what's going, and he is genuinely taken by a gutsy guy who can dive like that.

Dennis asks Robert if he came down from Detroit to gamble. Robert says no. "We got casinos in Detroit. No, you have to have a good reason to come to Mississippi, and losing my money ain't one of 'em." Robert offers to drive Dennis back to Vernice's house in his Jaguar. He plays jazz, and talks and Dennis can't help but listen. There is something compelling about Robert, his confidence maybe, his easy manner. He tells Dennis a story about his great granddaddy having been lynched by white landowners in nearby Tippah County. He'd been a sharecropper and was accused of molesting the white owner's wife. He shows Dennis a post card printed at the time by a local newspaper man of the lynching. Back then, some people bought souvenirs like that in the South. Dennis isn't sure if the story is true or not, but Robert is telling him all sorts of things, among them that he has no agenda with Floyd being killed, unless he can find it useful. He says Dennis can count on him if he there's any trouble with the local trash, particularly the ex-deputy turned ex-con, Arlen Novis.

A kind of mutual admiration develops between Dennis, the gifted high dive daredevil, and Robert the nice-talking dope king. Robert has sensed that Dennis is approaching a crossroads; he intends to be there to try to influence the outcome. Dennis's diving days are numbered, he'll soon be forced to make some hard choices. Robert talks to him about the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson, how everyone said he went to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in order to play guitar like he did. Robert says: "'No doubt about it, was the devil gave him his mojo.'
'Like a charm?'
'Mojo--yeah, like a charm, an amulet, something you use to get what you want or be what you want. Something that's magic for you. You keep it in your mojo bag.'
Dennis said, 'It sounds like gris-gris.'
'How you know about gris-gris?'
'New Orleans.'
'Yeah, I forgot. Voodoo City.'
'You have a mojo?'
'Wouldn't be without it.'
'You keep it in a mojo bag?'
[Skipping ahead] Dennis: 'How'd you get it?'
Robert turned his head. 'What?'
'Your mojo.'
'I bought it.'
'How do you know it's the real thing?'
'I believe it. That's enough to make it work.'"

Elmore Leonard doesn't really trade in heroes, he doesn't trouble the reader overmuch with big words like morality. His leads are just a bit apart from everybody else. Robert tempts Dennis with exciting possibility, Dennis more or less drifts towards a response. The tension over which way Dennis will go is treated with a light touch.

Whores are sprinkled here and there throughout the story, mostly cheerful and very Southern with their cold "coke-colas". White trash bad guys are in abundance, most of them nearly, "all the way stupid". There is businessman Walter Kirkbride, whose drug dealing turf Robert wants in on. And there's the state criminal investigator, John Rau, who surprises the local constabulary by showing up to investigate Floyd's killing. It's a colorful cast.

Rau wants prints taken from Floyd's dead fingers. The sheriff's detective can't believe it: "We know who he is. Jesus Christ, don't you? It's Floyd Showers. He ratted somebody out and got fuckin popped for it." It's pretty much a jungle of loose laws and laid back corruption in Tunica, Mississippi, but John Rau looks to be the one with the intelligence and integrity to right at least this wrong. It's not long before he figures out that Dennis must have been on the ladder and seen the killing.

But there's a hitch that puts justice temporarily in the back seat: The good citizens of Tunica, and whoever else shows up from all over, are about to make a reenactment of a Civil War Battle, Brice's Cross Roads. This is something taken very seriously, between theater and street fair, where guys from all walks come to dress up as Yanks or Rebs to replay a bitter, bloody battle. John Rau, Arlen Novis, Charlie Hoke, Kirkbride--just about every character in the book partakes. Robert's in as a Confederate Scout, even Dennis is dragged in as a Yankee Corporal.

I asked myself why anyone would want to do this. I know reenactments take place, and plenty is spent on the right uniforms, rifles, swords, even regulation long johns. The reenactment read to me like big boys dressing in drag for two days, assuming a fantasy life that just happened to be about war. But the battle is also intended to serve as the denouement for the many plots and schemes propelling the story, and the bit of history woven in adds a nice layer to a book that is really as much about dialogue riffs as anything else.

With all the tough guy talk, and dirty doings--I forget how many are dead by the end, a reenactment of the bloodiest war in American history, the book is still a fun read. It's a world where the guys who get done in are mostly the guys who deserve to get done in, and the reader doesn't have to worry. There's an internal logic to the killings, not like an unannounced gripe that knocks off a few thousand innocent bystanders. And it's okay to swagger cowboy-like in a book. It's cost free. It can get scary when real leaders do it, acting like fictional characters on a global stage. I don't know if there is virtue to a book like TISHOMINGO BLUES, but there is a kind of wayward decency to its few good guys.

Toward the end, Robert and Dennis return to guitarist Robert Johnson, how everybody said he must have sold his soul. Robert: "Well, who would know better than the man himself? What he did was leave the Delta, went down to Hazlehurst where his mamma lived, and went into the woodshed. You know what's meant by woodsheddin'? It's getting off by yourself and finding your sound, your chops, what makes you special. Robert Johnson went off for a couple of years and learned his style. He went back to the Delta..." Interesting talk coming from a dealer, but that's Elmore Leonard.

©March 2002 J Stefan-Cole


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