MAXWELL:  SAME LEONARD, DIFFERENT SETTING

8/18/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

THE TONTO WOMAN AND OTHER WESTERN STORIES

By Elmore Leonard

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

I am a newcomer to the writings of Elmore Leonard. In fact, I read my first Leonard book in February. Since then, I have read five of his novels _ Maximum Bob, La Brava, Glitz, Out of Sight and Riding the Rap. I am buying Get Shorty next.

As a former college English teacher trained in classical literature, I initially had difficulty cavorting with Leonard’s anti-heroes, whose philosophies of life are equal parts wonder and nihilism. I doubted the seriousness of their dialogue, which resembles dysphasia on the page. And the plots? Well, I had to learn that many often come close to undulating out of control.

At least that is the way I viewed matters until I read his latest book, The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories, the first-ever anthology of 19 of Leonard’s best short stories set in America’s Wild West.

Because of their brevity, I was able to read some of the stories twice. I appreciate the subtle order beneath the apparent chaos of their action and the seeming absurdity of their themes that, in the end, turn out to be sane, albeit weird.

The book’s title story, “The Tonto Woman,” is a rough-hewn tale about a young wife who becomes society’s outcast after Indian kidnappers tattoo her face. In an unexpected move, Leonard endows this amoral environment with just enough humanity to reaccept the woman after an outlaw, hardly the typical knight in shining armor, vows to set her free.

As in his urban stories, Leonard’s women in these Western tales are superior to the men and tend to fare better after the denouement. In the Tonto Woman stories, however, the men are not ill-tempered for no good reason like their counterparts in the author’s contemporary urban settings, especially Miami and New Orleans. Nor are they egocentric victims who vamp on their women. The men in these tightly woven sagas are creatures of their era, and their women accept them for who they are _ often grudgingly.

Five bank robbers on the lam in “Blood Money” are being gunned down one at a time. The drama revolves around the simple belief of one of the robbers that he can survive and how he sets about trying to save himself.

In “The Colonel’s Lady,” a story of treachery and courage, a violent ambush thrusts a woman into the hands of a brutal renegade. Pathos is created when a tracker fails to rescue the woman in time. The reader wonders why Leonard permits such tragedy. But, then, the real West was a Darwinian coliseum, where survival belonged to the most powerful _ and not necessarily to the smartest.

A prisoner condemned to die in “Saint With a Six-Gun” is determined to save his neck. His young guard, unsure of his own manhood, must carry out his responsibility to deliver his captive. The reader is treated to an unforgettable encounter with deceit, empathy, courage and the will to survive.

The stories in The Tonto Woman do not introduce the reader to new human terrain. Nor do they hold any special magic, like, say, the short pieces of D.H. Lawrence or John Updike. What we get, though, are gritty dramas that accurately portray a special time in the nation’s past and the relationships that motivated the West’s protagonists and antagonists.

To call Leonard’s characters _ Ruben Vega, Diego Luz, Ed Rintoon, Pat Brennan, Doretta Mims, R.L. Davis, Mata Lobo, Art McLeverty, Jimmy Robles, Agnostino Reyes, Sonny Navarez, Paul Scallen, Judge Metairie _ heroes or villains would cheat them of their complexity and discount their ability to let the reader see that a tragic end can be a good thing.

Everyone will not like The Tonto Woman. Leonard’s devoted fans, however, will recognize the peculiar nuances of the writing, which began three decades ago, when Leonard cut his literary teeth on the cowboy and Indian genre. Yes, this is the same Leonard who now writes funky urban mysteries.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.