Charles J. Rzepka, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).
Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard is about style, or more specifically a particular writing style. While it does consider the experiences that shaped Leonard’s beginning it does so through the lens of his work. Charles J. Rzepka is an English Professor at Boston University and previously author of Detective Fiction, a reference work tracing the history of detective fiction from the early eighteenth century to the present. Rzepka has also written extensively on Romanticism including Inventions and Interventions: Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture. This combination of specialities is strangely complimentary in Rzepka’s work on Leonard who, despite claims to the contrary, incorporated high and low culture in his work. To be clear, this is a review of the 2017 reprint of Being Cool, not of the original 2013 release.
Rzepka spent a considerable amount of time interviewing Elmore Leonard with ‘several interviews comprising some twelve hours of recorded conversation’ forming the core of Being Cool which is available here. (vii). Rzepka could have written the definitive work on Elmore Leonard, however Being Cool is not that work. Instead, it is a fascinating account of ‘a single theme throughout Leonard’s work‘ (viii). Rzepka writes of being cool as a writers techne and theorizes being cool as a performative act which is ‘rooted in the body and expressed in work’ (12). Rzepka swings between technical literary terms and common terms bridging the divide between literary writing and popular writing with his application of the Greek word techne to Leonard’s popular crime fiction. The key to Rzepka’s thesis on the techne of Leonard’s work finds its full expression in Chapter two where Rzepka defines his terminology and in Chapter Three where Rzepka uses the pop culture terminology of jazz to ‘designate stages, styles and elements, as well as the patterns of combination and recombination’ to further define Leonard’s creative development (134).
Rzepka is most interested in Leonard’s crime fiction characterizing several novels as transitional novels and the first decade of Leonard’s career as a crime writer as ‘ interrupted at several points by work that harkened back to his Western phase’ (92). Rzepka also ignores various attempts to translate Leonard’s work onto film clearly more interested in the techne of Leonard’s text. Due to spacial concerns, and a subject whose career spans six decades, forty-five novels, and dozens of short stories, that Rzepka chooses to look at only the things that Leonard ‘exercised total control’ is a wise decision, but it leaves a gap in the literature (viii).
Perhaps the most dated aspects of Leonard’s work is his depiction of women and Rzepka has difficulty articulating a gender-neutral criticism. For example, when writing of Leonard’s early literary inspiration and the influence Hemingway had on his style Rzepka comments ‘it apparently took him awhile to realize that writing could be as conventionally masculine a pursuit as baseball or football’ (31). Rzepka contends that ‘gender may have proven the most resistant barriers to Leonard’s gifts of empathy’ but does not elaborate on what effect Leonard’s gender perspective has on his writing (63). While Rzepka does suggest Leonard produced stronger female characters after meeting his second wife who encouraged him to ‘move beyond beyond the supportive partners, the bratty bad girls, and motherly widows and divorcées comprising the female cohort of his previous fiction’ (120). Rzepka does not spend nearly enough time on the implications of this shift, or how it relates to the main theme of techne.
Instead of developing on Leonard’s improvement on feminine characterization over his career, or on the gender implications of coolness, Rzepka writes ‘techne takes a backseat to liberation of a traditionally feminist cast’ (120). This thesis that feminist narratives are the antithesis of being comfortable and playful in one’s own skin and profession, which Rzepka contends is the meaning of techne, deserves further evaluation. Instead of analysis Rzepka gives a list of women who he cites as practicing techne such as‘ painting (Franny Kaufman in La Brava), writing ( Angela Nolan in Split Images), law enforcement (Karan Cisco in Out of Sight) investment advising (Kyle McLaren in Stick), fight attending (Jackie Burke in Rum Punch), singing (Linda Moon in Be Cool), tail gunning (Louly Webster in Up in Honey’s Room ), modeling ( Kelly Barr and Chloe Robinette in Mr. Paradise), or film making ( Dara Barr in Djibouti)’ without any evaluation of what meaning these examples have when evaluating Leonard’s treatment of women in his work as a whole (158). Instead of confirming his argument that techne is secondary to feminist liberation Rzepka’s examples seem to push towards the opposite conclusion demonstrating that many of Leonard’s women, particularly in his later work, were fully rounded characters able to find something they were passionate about.
Being Cool is slightly out of date, and it shows in the conclusion. Rzepka ends with a reflection on what was at the time Leonard’s latest novel Blue Dreams and what Rzepka expected would be Leonard’s starring character the Ice Man. Rzepka confidently writes that ‘Whatever happens next, it’s likely the Ice Man will provide his creator with some serious fun before the book is finished, and more than a few shots at being cool’ (206). These words take on a melancholy tone when reading with the knowledge of Leonard’s death in August 2013 before he could finish the novel (206). Being Cool would only have improved if instead of leaving the reader with the question of what’s next for the author Rzepka had ended with the question of what’s next for his work.
Anyone who enjoys Leonard‘s writing would enjoy Being Cool. Rzepka exhibits a considerable techne of his own combining a playful critical voice with detailed close reading. Those interested in the craft of writing would are sure to enjoy Rzepka’s interpretation of Leonard’s style. As with all academic writing, the text is riddled with plot spoilers so non-specialists should take this into account. As previously mentioned reissue could have amended the conclusion to reflect current directions in criticism after Leonard’s death and taken a longer look at the gendered aspects of techne, but despite these quibbles Being Cool has aged remarkably well.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for a PhD. She is the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction, and her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch