Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard
9/10, a fast-moving thriller with great characters and language
In one of my writing workshops last year, our teacher handed out a style guideline by Elmore Leonard called something like “Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” which could be summed up as “don’t overwrite.” I’d seen “Get Shorty” and enjoyed it, but had never read anything of his, so I was looking forward to the book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Leonard’s prose is clean and crisp, his characters drawn quickly and precisely, his plot fast and engaging. Chances are you know the story from the movie; Leonard said of this screenplay (by Scott Frank): “All the adaptations of my books all sucked. This one got it right for once.” It’s a testament to Leonard’s skill that I was able to read most of the book without calling the image of John Travolta to mind.
The story involves a movie producer, an aging actress, a dishonest dry cleaner, a thug who runs a limo service, a stuntman, a mob boss, and a movie star. At the center of all this madness is Chili Palmer, who got his nickname initially because he was so hot-tempered, but has kept it because he’s so cool under pressure. It’s the perfect name for him, and he maintains his cool throughout the increasingly crazy events of his trip to L.A. He has a very clear idea of what image he projects, and he keeps himself together no matter what happens. In fact, most of this book is about image vs. substance: the movie star whose image is at odds with the reality; the stuntman who made a living pretending to endanger his life; the actress trying to escape the type-casting of her looks; the movie business that cherishes image over all else. Chili is good at the movie business precisely because he is so aware of the image he projects, what other people see and what he wants them to see.
In the end, of course, substance wins out. Leonard the writer could hardly craft any other ending. But he, like Chili, is very aware of the impact of his words and how we react upon reading them. If you want a primer for action scenes, character building in a few quick strokes, or realistic dialogue–good, clean writing, in other words–you could do worse than pick up this book.