The Hot Kid
by Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
320 pages, 2005
Riding With the King
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
"Carlos Webster was fifteen the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering's drugstore. This was in the fall of 1921 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma."
Thus begins The Hot Kid, Elmore Leonard's latest, and with those dry-as-dust, matter-of-fact words, we're off once again into ElmoreLand, a bold and colorful place where men are men, women are women, and the good guys and the bad guys are damn hard to tell apart sometimes.
That's because in Leonard's books the "good" guys tend to play things extremely close to the chest, while the "bad" guys frequently get all the best lines (and, sometimes, the girls), and the women ... well, who can figure them out anyway? Just to muddy the waters still more, Leonard makes sure that almost everybody in his tales is a bit offbeat and colorful and conflicted -- and loquacious as hell.
So I got a chuckle out of an early scene here in which a local lawman shows up one morning at the ranch and pecan farm where 15-year-old Carlos (soon to be Carl) lives with his father, Virgil, an ex-Marine, Spanish-American War vet and oil millionaire, to get a statement. "Don't tell no more'n you have to," the young man is instructed. That advice is tantamount to treason in a Leonard book, because talking is what Leonard's characters do best. They're a garrulous bunch -- they explain and justify, they lie and obfuscate, they boast and deny and contradict both themselves and each other -- and because his books are so jam-packed with dialogue, it means readers have to keep reading just to figure out what exactly is going on.
Fortunately, Leonard is the King of Crime Fiction, when it comes to dialogue. His is simply among the best in the business: smart, sharp, amusing and cryptic, full of deadpan wit and deft characterization and off-the-wall digressions that bring his characters to life -- a sheer joy to read. It's a well-established part of this almost 80-year-old master's M.O., one that has served him well over the more than half a century he's been writing novels (this is his 40th or so) and short stories, plus numerous film and TV adaptations, making him one of the most revered and successful writers of crime fiction in the world. Even on those rare occasions when his characters don't have much to say (as is the case for laidback lawman Carl Webster, the "hot kid" of this book's title) their silence speaks louder and reverberates longer than many authors' best dialogue.
All of which reinforces the storytelling aspect of this pleasant fictional journey back to the "good ol' days" of the Great Depression and America's Prohibition experiment (the original war on drugs), when bootleggers and bank robbers (Capone, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde) and the lawmen who were sworn to bring them in (Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover) fought it out in the streets -- and on the front pages.
The drugstore robbery marks the first (but not the last) encounter between Carlos and a bank robber. The perpetrator turns out to be Emmett Long, a nasty piece of work who casually insults Carlos' mixed ancestry (his mother was Cuban and his maternal grandmother Northern Cheyenne) and just as casually guns downs down Junior Harjo, a local Indian lawman who happens to wander into the store. But, as Carlos grows fond of telling people over the next few days (and the years to come), what really causes him to dislike Long is not the racial slurs, but the way he licked his ice-cream cone -- and the way the ice cream lingered on his mustache. As Carlos puts it, "Here's this bank robber everybody's scared of, doesn't know enough to wipe his mouth."
At 15 and unarmed, Carlos is unable to do much more than bear angry witness to the robbery and Harjo's murder, but already he's cool and in control. A few weeks later, while out hunting rabbits in his family's pecan orchard, Carlos comes across Wally Tarwater, a local would-be rustler trying to make off with some of the Websters' cattle, and calmly guns him down, barely betraying any more emotion than Long did.
When subsequently asked by Virgil and a couple of deputy U.S. marshals why he shot the man, the already cocky Carlos shrugs it off. He explains:
"He knew stealing cows could get him shot or sent to prison, but it's what he chose to do."...
But it's Carlos' marksmanship, as much as his "hard bark," that impresses one of the marshals. He hands Virgil his card and says, "Mr. Webster, I'd be interested to know what your boy sees himself doing in five or six years."
And so it begins. Within "five or six years" Carl (no longer Carlos) is headline material himself, quickly earning a rep as the fast-shooting young rookie deputy U.S. marshal who tracked down and killed Emmett Long. It's a job that Carl enjoys, and he takes a fair amount of pride in it, though we never quite get a handle on how he himself views things. Is it justice or bigger headlines he's after? Is he really a vigilante show-off, interested only in carving figurative notches on his gun? Or is he a slow-talking, quick-draw Dudley Do-Right only doing his duty, enforcing the laws of the land?
Leonard provides no easy answers -- and Carl isn't exactly forthcoming either, beyond an occasional shrug or dry boast, such as, "If I have to pull my weapon, I'll shoot to kill." But that's OK -- the philosophical and ethical quandaries can be put aside, because Carl's got plenty of other bank robbers and lawbreakers to shoot.
With Long gone, Carl eventually sets his sights on Jack Belmont, another "hot kid" from Oklahoma who's been getting a lot of press for working on the other side of the law. The good-for-nothing son of a Tulsa oil tycoon, Belmont's a charming rascal with all the self-control of a pissed-off rattlesnake, whose career has so far included arson, murder and blackmail (at age 18, he extorted money from his own father), and who fancies himself (and wants the world to see him as) a fairly desperate desperado.
As Carl trails the increasingly unstable and dangerous Belmont back and forth (and back and forth) across America's Midwest, you can almost smell the dust of the dirt roads, the heady scent of cheap perfume in Kansas City brothels, and the rough stench of cut-rate hooch and stale beer in roadhouses. But as always in a Leonard novel, it's the people who really come to life: glory-seeking desperadoes, cynical lawmen, philandering millionaires, mothers driven mad with grief, assorted prostitutes (with and without hearts of gold), and sundry other individuals who cross and re-cross his path. Especially significant are Tony Antonelli, a True Detective magazine writer who dreams of bigger and bigger headlines with his bylines under them (and who sees latching onto Carl as his way to get them), and Louly Brown, a star-struck would-be gun moll with a taste for bad men, who's envious of her cousin's marriage to Pretty Boy Floyd, but tiring of the outlaw life herself.
Occasionally, Elmore's gift for gab has helped spruce up some less than powerful plots. And at first glance, that's the case here, though it could be argued that the meandering, low-key nature of this novel is part of its appeal. Because The Hot Kid isn't really a bad book, or even a weak one -- it's not. In fact, in its own quiet, unassuming way, it may be one of Leonard's most satisfying reads ever, and that's saying something. For those of you who want a good read with more than its fair share of charm -- a pleasant diversion with great characters, greater dialogue and a setting that hasn't been rendered this convincingly in a good long while -- you could do far worse
There's nothing fancy going on here -- no giant plot loop-de-loops or mid-air narrative somersaults -- just straightforward, solid storytelling by a master, with a style as intentionally laidback and easygoing as Carl himself. The characters go through their paces, bumping into each other, eluding each other and finally confronting each other in a conclusion that seems inevitable now, but blindsided me at the time.
Nor does Leonard break any new ground in The Hot Kid. The rare -- for him -- setting could be seen as merely a compromise between his early Westerns (The Bounty Hunters, Hombre, etc.) and the later crime fiction that made him such a bestseller. Even Carl Webster has a precedent in the tall-walking, straight-shooting modern-era U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who appeared in Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995).
The Hot Kid is also not the sort of novel to have you hanging on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next. Oh, sure, maybe the yearning for fame that seems -- in different degrees -- to drive Carl, Jack, Louly and Tony is a wry, sideways commentary on our own celebrity-obsessed culture -- or maybe it isn't.
But then, perhaps it's not necessary to re-invent the wheel every time out. Sometimes you don't really need to go anywhere new to have a good time. And The Hot Kid is undeniably a very good time, indeed. Think of it as a Sunday drive on a hot summer day, meandering pleasantly along the back roads of the Depression, leaving a sepia-tinted cloud of dust and wry amusement in its wake.
Sometimes it isn't where you're going, but the trip itself that matters. And who's doing the driving. In The Hot Kid, Uncle Elmore is once again behind the wheel, offering to take us for a spin.
And that's good enough for me.
POSTSCRIPT: For those of you who have already enjoyed The Hot Kid, there's some very good news indeed. Carl Webster is currently appearing every Sunday in "Comfort to the Enemy," a new serialized adventure in The New York Times Magazine (available online). It's a ripsnorter of an original yarn, set in 1944, with the Marshal Webster dispatched to his hometown of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, to check out a suspicious suicide in a German P.O.W. camp and to round up another prisoner, an oddly affable Nazi who's an habitual escapee. Check it out while it's still available. | October 2005