I was told at an early age that if a book interests you enough --- whether it be due to a recommendation from another reader, a jacket summary, a review, etc. --- you should give it a chance and read at least the first 100 pages. I thought of this when I picked up DJIBOUTI, Elmore Leonard’s new novel. The book begins slowly as Leonard takes his time assembling his setting and cast of characters. What was really disconcerting for me, though, was his narrative method, which consists of jumps between the present, where the two main characters comment on what happened, and the past, related in flashbacks. It was minimally distracting, but I thought the cardinal flaw was that it took away from the suspense element of the story. How wrong I was. Which, of course, is why it’s important to read the book, particularly if it’s by an author of Leonard’s caliber.
DJIBOUTI has a promising premise. Leonard, never one to take the familiar road, has moved outside of his comfort zone of middle America and into the exotic setting of Djibouti, which, for those of you educated after 1973, is a country on the Horn of Africa. Dara Barr, an award-winning independent filmmaker, has traveled there with the idea of filming a documentary about the Somalian pirates who have been disrupting merchant shipping in the area. While Barr initially has a preconceived notion of the pirates as some sort of modern-day Robin Hoods, she loses that erroneous perception soon enough.
It is Xavier LaBo, Barr’s cameraman, assistant and all-around right-hand man, who has the pirates’ number from the jump. LaBo is a striking figure, six-feet, six-inches tall and 72 years old, a native of New Orleans who in any given situation is quietly the smartest person in the room. He is good at sizing people up, and connecting any number of seemingly disparate elements, an important talent to have when separating the wheat from the dangerous chaff that populated the Djibouti environs. These include Billy Wynn, a Texas billionaire who may or may not be 300 pounds of horse manure in a 200-pound bag, with all sorts of disparate contacts at his beck and call; Helene, Billy’s girlfriend and prospective wife; Idris, a Mercedes-driving pirate who is doing quite well for himself; and Harry Bakar, a self-styled diplomat who seems to be playing both ends against the middle for his own benefit.
The focal point of all of these folks is a natural gas tanker that has been taken by the pirates and held for ransom, and is in the crosshairs of Jama Raisuli, a Miami native who is a prison convert to Islam and a member of al Qaeda. Raisuli is a loose cannon, clever as a jackal and almost as smart. Even when things go right for him, they go wrong, a turn of events that makes him even more dangerous than he already is. Motivated by a combination of fanaticism, hatred and revenge, Raisuli seemingly cannot be stopped or diverted, which puts him on a collision course with Barr and LaBo when they least expect it.
Elmore Leonard has a magnificent body of work that speaks for itself; it is thus all the more amazing that on the back nine of a brilliant career, he should publish a work that I would consider to be among his best. And while there is much to love in DJIBOUTI --- the plot, the wordcraft, and the characterization, particularly that of LaBo --- my favorite element is the manner in which my opinion took a 180-degree turn from mild disappointment at the beginning to exhilaration at the end. You couldn’t ask for more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 4, 2011