Up in Honey's Room
by Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
292 pages, 2007
Not Fully Loaded
Reviewed by David Abrams
If you're going to read an Elmore Leonard novel, some words of advice.
Get in. Sit down. Hang on. Shut up. Don't ask where you're going or how you'll get there. You'll arrive before you know it.
Leonard is a master at literature-in-transit. By the time you turn to page 1, most of his stories are already careening along with guns a-blazing -- whether that's from the saddle of a horse in his early westerns, or the mean streets of Detroit, or from the back seat of a DeSoto tire-squealing around a corner and machine-gunning (rat-a-tat-tat) federal agents during Prohibition, as we found in his last novel, The Hot Kid (2005).
The author, who cut his teeth in the twilight of the pulp era, doesn't slow down for the reader -- he expects us to make a running leap for the open door and get in, sit down, etc. His emphatic, declarative sentences make it easy for us to keep tumbling forward through the pages. We might not grasp everything, and the cavalcade of characters might start to blur our eyes, but Leonard's sheer exuberance of language (both inter- and intra-sentence) makes everything compulsively readable, front to back. We don't even have to care about the characters; Leonard does and that's all that matters. He loves these flawed, offbeat characters of his. Words lick against their bodies in cool sentences like: "He heard his name called and turned to see a young guy in black holding a big heavy show-off nickel-plate automatic against his leg, the shoulders of his suit wide, zooty, the pants pegged at his light-tan shoes." Elmore Leonard is the kind of writer who knows when a word like "zooty" will fit and when it will not, and for that we love him.
That kind of charitable forgiveness will carry readers a long way into his newest novel, Up in Honey's Room, which turns out to be a rather disappointing, fair-to-middling entry in Leonard's long line of crackling-good yarns. Honey is neither great, nor mediocre. If it was a movie, I'd say, "Wait for it to come out on DVD."
The letdown in Leonard's latest is amplified by the fact that The Hot Kid (to which this is a sequel of sorts) was a full-immersion pleasure, soaking readers in the sights, smells and sounds of 1930s Oklahoma, where U.S. Marshal Carl Webster tracked down bootleggers and bank robbers. Barreling through the plot with the determination of Eliot Ness, Carl came off as a wholesomely appealing character. Smart, funny and carrying around an over-pumped ego (his trademark line: "If I have to pull my weapon, I'll shoot to kill"), Carl is one of those characters you can't take your eyes off of, even when Leonard is filling up the page with a crowd of thugs, dames and lawmen.
Some of that verve, vim and vigor is missing from Up in Honey's Room. Carl's still here, but he's turned into a glass of Coke left out overnight: flat and no bubbles. The one character who really stands out in these pages is a particularly weird, lurid Ukrainian hit man named Bohdan Kravchenko, a trigger-happy cross-dresser with a Buster Brown haircut.
It's usually futile to try and describe an Elmore Leonard plot. It's like listing the ingredients of sausage -- there are so many different things packed in there, but all you really care about is how it tastes. Up in Honey's Room is set in 1944 Detroit, where Carl has tracked down two German POWs who have escaped from a camp in Oklahoma. The pair are hiding out at a meat-processing farm run by Walter Schoen, who is a dead ringer for German SS commander Heinrich Himmler. Walter's ex-wife is Honey Deal (as in "a honey of a deal"), who likes to walk around her apartment topless when Carl shows up to question her about Walter's German friends. She's got "bedroom eyes and that lower lip waiting there for him to bite." Leonard also throws in a spy ring, a plot to assassinate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ribald jokes and over-consumption of booze and cigarettes.
That's the sausage, but it's Leonard's smart, fast and funny writing which makes the mouth water. As always, dialogue remains his forte. His characters speak like they were chewing firecrackers. And that's almost enough to make you forgive the book's faults. Almost. | June 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.