A master departs.
It isn’t that he merely took a blowtorch to all the affectations and pretenses of genre fiction. No, he made the lines between genre and literary fiction ridiculous and arbitrary for all time. Fuck your categorizations: This guy did some of the best writing in the last half of the Twentieth Century. He leaves behind narratives that make us think harder about the human condition, not to mention all of our presumptions about how our society actually functions — or doesn’t.
I met him once. I was a newspaper reporter, and so proud of that simple fact that I never wanted to ever be seen “going civilian,” fawning on celebrities or artists or political leaders or whoever. Good journalists, Mencken said, can write about cats and kings. The day’s assignment – and the personages you encounter — shall not adulterate the requisite mixture of detached interest and dry, professional disdain. Observe everything, admire nothing.
But a couple decades ago, I was at an awards luncheon that happened to be honoring Mr. Leonard and his career. And with exactly one book of narrative non-fiction under my belt, I violated all professional creed to walk across a ballroom, thrust a right hand at Elmore Leonard and then babble out a string of rapture and flattery that left him very little to say other than, “Thank you. That’s really kind .” Having no second thought in my twenty-something head, I retreated, knowing that I had not merely gone civilian, I had gone moron.
Reading him in the years since, one crafted narrative after the next, I’ve often winced in memory of that early performance, wishing that I had thought of something — anything — clever to say to this man who so clearly understood the wit that can come from human conversation. And, yeah, there are times when I wished I had just stayed in my luncheon seat and chewed on the rubber chicken with the rest of the scribblers.
Today, though, I’m glad for the moment. Not that he would have wanted it, or been at all comfortable enduring it, but this guy was entitled to have damn near every other writer babbling praise in his ear. When you write like Elmore Leonard for as long as Elmore Leonard, you deserve to be reminded every now and then just how well you did your job and how much your work truly mattered.