Elmore Leonard’s split image

Guest post by Charles J. Rzepka

Aside from family and friends, only devoted fans widely read in Elmore Leonard’s fiction were likely to understand why the children of a writer famous for his gritty, violent, and profanity-laced prose would have asked that, after their father’s death, donations be made in his memory to the Maryknoll Sisters, whose motto is “Making God’s Love Visible.” A conventionally devout Catholic well into middle age, Leonard was moved during the 1960s by the social justice message of Liberation Theology and the ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. More radical changes were to come. In 1974 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, where he learned to recognize a “higher power” transcending sects, liturgies, and doctrines. Within five years he had divorced his first wife, married a non-Catholic, and stopped going to Mass, rejecting “all the rubrics and the smoke and the goings on” of formal religion, as he put it in one of our interviews. Though lapsed, however, Leonard never lost faith in a higher power. He just began to make a more personal investment in works as an expression of that faith.

Leonard’s transformation is evident in his four “Catholic” books, as I call them in Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard. This quartet includes Touch (completed in 1977, but not published until ten years later), The Hunted (1977), Bandits (1987), and Pagan Babies (2000). Taken together, these novels address a problem that was becoming urgent by the time Leonard’s alcoholism sent him to the hospital in 1974. Writing, as much as he loved it, was no longer a sufficient foundation for a meaningful life. The question that armed-robbery-wannabe Ernest “Stick” Stickley, Jr., asks himself in Swag, published the year Leonard joined AA, is a question that will keep popping up in the Catholic books, in one form or another, for the next four decades: “What do you want to do with your life?”

Stick asks himself this question when faced with the crass materialism of his partner in crime, Frank Ryan. Fast cars, flashy clothes, and limitless sex and booze are enough for Frank. Stick wants something more, but can’t put his finger on what. Three years later, one solution will appear in The Hunted, in the dying thoughts of fugitive Al Rosen: want nothing, do nothing—just be.

Rosen, a crooked Irish Catholic mortgage broker whose real name is Jimmy Ross, has just been fatally wounded by the gangsters he testified against. He’s spent his life trying to “be something,” and only now realizes how wrong he was: just “being was the important thing.” It all sounds very Zen, until Rosen discovers that “just being” is harder than he thought. Even near death, he keeps planning, wishing, wanting—in short, “doing something.” “He wished he could stop thinking” . . . and soon enough he does. You can’t “just be” and remain among the living. To live means doing something, and for Leonard, you are the “something” you do. The key to happiness for nearly all his characters, as it was for him as a writer, is to do what you love, and love what you do. If you can’t, then find another job.

But beyond the personal satisfactions of doing your job and doing it well, there stretch wider, more inclusive horizons of meaning—marriage, family, community, ultimately the human race. Leonard’s Catholic books all dwell within these horizons. You can’t just have and you can’t just be, and even doing what you love is not enough. To make your life meaningful you must do something with it.

In Bandits, former nun Lucy Nichols thinks she’s found the answer to Stick’s question. Helping the poor and the lepers of Nicaragua as a Sister of St. Clare, she had experienced “unconditional love, love of God through love of man, love without limits, without the language of theology.” But that was before Colonel Dagoberto Godoy sent his troops to destroy the mission hospital where Lucy worked. Now Godoy is scamming donations from right-wingers in the United States—ostensibly to fight the Contras, in reality to line his own pockets—and Lucy is planning to rob Godoy at gunpoint to rebuild her clinic. Is becoming a bandit, perhaps even killing the Colonel if he resists, doing something meaningful “with your life?” Sister Lucy’s struggle to answer this question is the spiritual heart of Bandits.

Terry Dunn, in Pagan Babies, has no illusions about God’s love in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Hanging out in a remote village, pretending to be a priest so the Feds will relent on the fugitive warrant they’ve issued for his arrest, Dunn returns to the States to negotiate having the charges dropped, and to make some money on the side by conning gullible parishes into parting with their collection plates on behalf of the “pagan babies” of Arisimbi. By the end of the book, Terry’s had a change of heart, but not a change of profession. He returns to Arisimbi and uses his ill-gotten gains to support its devastated population, telling his Rwandan lover, Chantelle, that when he runs out of money, he “can always get more.” Doing what he loves and loving what he does, Terry is finally making his life—the life of a thief—meaningful.

Touch, written the year The Hunted was published, is an outlier in Leonard’s body of work. It’s not about crime, although plenty of scammers appear in its pages, but about miracles. In some ways it’s an inverted mirror image of the later Catholic books, which ask what you should do with your life. God keeps doing something with young Brother Juvenal’s life by giving him the power of healing through touch. But God’s gift to humankind is a curse for Juvenal, because he has no control over it. It’s not something he does, but something done to him, unexpectedly, without his consent or direction. Meanwhile, every huckster and religious fanatic from here to Dalton, Georgia, has his own idea of what to do with Juvenal’s gift: make money, boost ratings, or found a sect.

Touch conveys a pretty clear message: if you don’t do something with your life, someone else will, either a “higher power” or the princes of darkness. Taken as a whole, the Catholic tetralogy extends that message: just being is not enough, nor is just having. Begin by doing what you love and loving what you do, then find a way to express the “love of God through love of man.”

And the Maryknolls?  According to Jane Jones, Elmore Leonard’s oldest child, she and her siblings learned just before their father died that for decades he had been the sole means of support for a mission in Cambodia staffed by a nun who was a close family friend.  Donating to the Maryknolls in his memory, they thought, would be a good way to continue “making God’s love visible.”

rzepkaCharles J. Rzepka is a professor of English at Boston University. His latest book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, is available from JHU Press. Rzepka’s tribute to Leonard can be read here.