A reader expects certain things from a veteran, favorite author.
Those of us who worship at the altar of Elmore Leonard crack open a
new Leonard novel expecting an intricate plot, unforgettable
characters, and great dialogue that reads as if it is being spoken
rather than coming off the printed page. At this point in his
career --- 36 novels, a passel of short stories, a number of
screenplays --- he could probably phone it in and still make it
read well. But he never phones it in. And just when you think he
might run out of ideas, he finds another corner to turn, another
way to twist things around, another way to make it all wonderfully
unpredictable yet perfectly plausible.
Leonard once again reveals the depth and breadth of his talent in
PAGAN BABIES. The narrative begins in Rwanda --- yes, Rwanda ---
with Father Terry Dunn, a rather unconventional priest who says
Mass when he feels like it, could drink Johnny Walker Red with a
straw (if he had a straw), listens to reggae music while smoking a
spiff, and has a one-armed housekeeper with whom he makes the beast
with two backs. Don't think for a second that you've walked into a
Tom Robbins novel, however. This is Leonard all the way. Father
Dunn is in Rwanda for good reasons, and when he returns to his
native Detroit he has reasons as well.
Father Dunn left the States five years previously due to a tax
fraud indictment. When he returns to Detroit to clear up that
little matter, he finds himself pursued by his former partner in
crime in a cigarette smuggling scheme, a partner who rolled over on
the erstwhile padre in order to escape jail time. A lady named
Debbie Dewey gets to Father Dunn first, however. She has just been
released from prison after serving three years for assaulting her
chiseling ex-boyfriend with an automobile and she wants the money
that he stole from her, with interest. She and Father Dunn hit it
off almost immediately --- they are definitely kindred spirits ---
and they have a way of making their respective interests both
mutual and interesting. But they have a slight problem...how can
either of them entirely trust the other when they know each other
Two things here. First of all, Leonard gets Rwanda down perfectly,
right down to the putrid homegrown beer. Our visit there with
Leonard is short but unforgettable. Secondly, there are ten pages
or so in the second fifth of PAGAN BABIES --- almost entirely
dialogue between the good Father and Ms. Dewey --- which may well
be ten of the best pages of writing that I have ever read. And the
rest of PAGAN BABIES, before and after, sustains the quality.
Elmore Leonard --- 36 novels, and his latest work is his best. The
Neil Young of literature. Give PAGAN BABIES ten stars out of five.
Hell, give it the whole sky. Just don't miss this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011