Review

Tishomingo Blues

by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, concurrent with the publication of TISHOMINGO
BLUES, his latest novel, succinctly describes what he does: "[I]
gather an odd assortment of characters, build a story as they bump
heads, and see what happens." This, of course, is a simplification,
along the lines of gas meets engine and you get from Point A to
Point B. Leonard's alchemy is much more than formula, but it is a
good starting point for an analysis of what he does. It is not,
however, an explanation of how, after 50 years, he continues to be
so absolutely, breathtakingly masterful at it.

TISHOMINGO BLUES focuses on Dennis Lenahan, an itinerant stunt
diver who drives his 80 foot ladder and water tank across the South
from place to place for (hopefully) extended engagements, where he
exhibits his prowess at double flips and the like before plunging,
straight and true, into the water (it is noteworthy that Lenahan's
ability is somewhat similar to Leonard's, in that they both take
the exceedingly difficult and make it appear to be easy, when in
fact, we, the audience, know it is not). Lenahan has barely arrived
in Tunica, Mississippi, "The Casino Capital of the South," for a
three week engagement at the Tishomingo Hotel and Casino, when he
attracts the unwelcome attentions of a diverse group of
individuals, all of whom are working at cross-purposes to each
other.

Lenahan's dilemma begins when he witnesses an execution performed
at the behest of Arlen Novis, an ex-law enforcement officer, who
controls the area's narcotics traffic through Walter Kirkbride,
whose mobile home construction business somewhat unwillingly cloaks
Novis's illegal activities. Another witness to the execution is
Robert Taylor, an affable Detroit con man who is in Tunica for
purposes that run far deeper than pulling off a brilliant, if
somewhat transparent, extortion sting.

Lenahan's involvement with the individuals is less unwitting and
more unwilling, yet he is attracted to them, drawn further into
their dance of deceit in spite of himself. It is Taylor, perhaps,
who understands Lenahan best, knowing that any man who does what
Lenahan does on a daily, repetitive basis has some self-assuredness
and cool --- qualities that can be utilized if properly channeled.
Matters come to a head, as they will, during a rather metaphoric
Civil War reenactment that tackles old issues and new, with a
morally ambivalent resolution. The good guys here are few and far
between; Taylor, for all of his likability, is really no better
than Novis. Such is the way of the world, the custom of the
country. And it is precisely this quality that illustrates why
Leonard's tales have something about them that have made the man a
genre unto himself.

A reader comes to a book --- any book --- with certain
expectations, wrought to some extent from formula. Let's examine
one of them. Boy meets girl, boy almost loses girl, boy wins girl
(or vice versa). Life doesn't follow this parallel, and it
certainly doesn't in TISHOMINGO BLUES. Lenahan becomes interested
and involved with a number of different women in TISHOMINGO BLUES,
but it is impossible --- and I mean impossible --- to accurately
predict with which one he will ultimately end up. The reader's
initial reaction might be, "That would never happen." In the real
world, it happens all the time. One simply does not expect it in
the context of a novel. Similarly, while the novel's denouement is
ultimately predictable, the way in which it occurs is a total
surprise. Yet, it shouldn't be. Results, in the real world, often
turn on seemingly unrelated factors. Such factors drive TISHOMINGO
BLUES from beginning to end.

Leonard, now into his sixth decade of writing, continues to
surprise, to delight, to entrance. TISHOMINGO BLUES demonstrates
that Leonard's canny eye for observation and analysis of the human
character, and human characters, remains as sharp as ever.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Tishomingo Blues
by Elmore Leonard

  • Publication Date: January 1, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTorch
  • ISBN-10: 0060083948
  • ISBN-13: 9780060083946