Friday, September 29, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“LaBrava,” by Elmore Leonard

(Editor’s note: This 152nd entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books welcomes Craig Pittman to our league of contributors for the first time. A native of Pensacola, Florida, Pittman is an award-winning journalist who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. His non-fiction books include Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species [2010], The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid [2012], and Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country [Picador], which was released in paperback earlier this month.)

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, prolific author of thrillers, Westerns, and screenplays, hailed from Detroit, Michigan, and set quite a few of his novels there. But Leonard also had a strong connection to another state—Florida. He began visiting the Sunshine State in the 1950s and lived part-time in Palm Beach County.

“I bought my mom a four-unit motel in Pompano Beach,” he once told Rolling Stone. “She lives in one unit, rents out the others. Visiting her, I found Miami a great locale. The high crime rate, the contrast in people—rich retirees, Cubans, boat-lifters—all kinds of good things are going on there for me.”

Leonard got to know Florida’s geography, its weather, and its many oddball characters pretty well, and he used that knowledge in some of his best work.

His Florida books include Pronto and Riding the Rap, the two novels that first introduced the character of Raylan Givens, the deputy U.S. marshal featured on the TV show Justified. His novel Out of Sight, later made into a Steven Soderbergh film, begins in Florida and ends in Detroit. Rum Punch was set in Florida, too, but Quentin Tarantino moved the action to Los Angeles when he turned it into the movie Jackie Brown.

But I think Leonard’s finest Florida-set novel is one that never made it to a theater, although a love of movies seeps from every page. I’m talking about LaBrava, which was published back in 1983 and won an Edgar Award in 1984.

I first read this book 20 years ago after reading a bunch of other Elmore Leonard works, and that time it didn't do much for me. All of his unusual characters and dialogue-driven storytelling had begun to blur together. However, I read LaBrava again recently while poring over a collection of novels about Florida and revised my opinion dramatically upward. This book really stands out amid the other Leonard thrillers, both for its themes and its sense of history.

The title character is Joe LaBrava, a guy in his late 30s who put in time at the IRS and the Secret Service. It sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t. The low point of his Secret Service career was serving as part of Bess Truman’s protective detail in Independence, Missouri.

LaBrava’s Secret Service experience helped train him to read people and catch details about their faces. He enjoyed hunting counterfeiters out of the Miami field office, shooting surveillance photos. Now, he’s decided that what he really wants to do is be a photographer. In seedy Miami Beach he finds a plethora of things to shoot.

LaBrava becomes friends with the old ex-bookie who owns the ancient hotel where he lives. Maurice Zola can see LaBrava’s talent. He knows talent, because Zola shot photos all over Florida in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration.

“He’s got the eye,” Zola tells a gallery owner about LaBrava. “He’s got an instinct for it, and he’s not afraid to walk up and take the shot.” Then Zola goes off on a tangent about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that obliterated the Overseas Railroad in the Florida Keys, and how shooting that disaster was his break as a photographer.

Throughout this book, Zola pops up repeatedly, offering rambling recollections of his life. Through him, Leonard sprinkles in references to various events in Florida history that helped make the state a magnet for outsiders, such as LaBrava, who are trying to catch a break.

Parts of the book comes across as a love letter to the Art Deco shabbiness that was early 1980s Miami Beach, before Miami Vice turned it into a neon-lit star. Here’s LaBrava looking out a window, feeling the history of the place:
What he saw from the window was timeless, a Florida post card. The strip of park across the street. The palm trees in place, the sea grape. The low wall you could sit on made of coral rock and gray cement. And the beach. What a beach. A desert full of people resting, it was so wide. People out there with blankets and umbrellas. People in the green part of the ocean, before it turned deep blue. People so small they could be from any time. Turn the view around. Sit on the coral wall and look this way at the hotels on Ocean Drive and see back into the thirties.
One night, Zola asks LaBrava to help him retrieve a woman who’s been brought in drunk to a Palm Beach County crisis center. She turns out to be Jean Shaw, a 50-ish faded star of classic noir films. LaBrava saw one of her movies when he was 12 and was instantly smitten. Now he feels protective toward her. He’s so protective, in fact, that he tangles with a security guard named Richard Nobles, “the kind of guy—LaBrava knew by sight, smell, and instinct—who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.” Nobles is after Shaw too. LaBrava takes away Nobles’ gun, sits on him and sticks the gun in Nobles’ mouth. Nobles vows revenge.

One thing I didn’t like about this book on first reading was Nobles, because he’s a Florida native, like me. There’s a similar character filling the villain role in Leonard’s novel Maximum Bob, a “Florida Man” type before we ever knew that term—a big dumb guy who thinks he’s got the world licked. (The one in Maximum Bob is part of a family of Florida lowlifes, the Crowes, who show up in several Leonard novels.)

As I was re-reading LaBrava, though, I realized Nobles is no mere redneck stereotype. His character provides Leonard with an artful way to slip in some more Florida history. We learn about Nobles’ role in a well-known DEA bust that took down a major smuggling ring in the apparently sleepy fishing village of Steinhatchee—another signal from Leonard that nothing in Florida is what it appears to be.

Leonard fills in his canvas with such off-kilter characters as Franny Kaufman, a frizzy-haired cosmetics saleswoman; Johnbull Obasanjo, a sarcastic Nigerian cab driver; and Paco Boza, who travels around in a wheelchair he stole “because he didn’t like to walk and because he thought it was cool, a way for people to identify him.”

Soon LaBrava is drawn into an extortion scheme involving Shaw, Nobles, and Cundo Rey, a Cuban killer who arrived with the Mariel boatlift and likes performing as a male stripper as a sideline. Eventually, LaBrava realizes Shaw is so caught up in her noir past, she’s confused it with her present reality. LaBrava’s ability as a photographer to see the truth about people eventually helps him pierce the cloud of artifice and nostalgia so he can unravel the scheme. When the time comes, he is definitely ready to take the shot.

In the end some of the right people get punished and some don’t, and I think that was the other thing that bothered me about this book the first time. But now it doesn’t, and I think it’s because that’s what happens in real life, especially in Florida.

A postscript: LaBrava almost became a movie—a Martin Scorsese picture, in fact. According to a 2013 story at New York magazine’s Vulture site, Dustin Hoffman wanted to star as the title character, and held a series of meetings with Leonard and movie execs—meetings that Leonard found more and more frustrating. That film was never made, but Leonard used the experience as fodder for his 1990 novel, Get Shorty, which of course did become a movie. Hoffman reportedly asked Leonard if Danny DeVito’s egotistical actor character was really based on him. “Come on, Dustin,” Leonard said. “You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

Not sure how I missed this one, but I need to read it. Thanks for the reminder!