If you love books, you know the satisfaction that comes from picking one up that you know nothing about and then, after diving in, discovering you’ve hit the jackpot. When the author is someone you haven’t read before, the pleasure is even sweeter.
And so, on the heels of reading Katherine Boo’s highly touted nonfiction book about a Mumbai slum, I’ve just breezed through two used bookstore finds that turned out to be delightful. Coming after the intensity of Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” they were a welcome diversion to the world of light fiction.
“Pagan Babies” (2000) was my belated introduction to Elmore Leonard. I picked up the paperback for a buck at a flea market in New Mexico when visiting my dad a couple months ago. I was aware of Leonard’s reputation as America’s foremost crime novelist, with more than 40 books spanning a 60-year career until his death, at age 87, last October. I can see now why the critics loved him. If “Pagan Babies” is any indication, he’s a great storyteller, with a wonderful ear for dialogue, and the ability to both surprise you and keep you in suspense as the plot deepens.
In this instance, Leonard spins a great tale about a rather unconventional priest, who’s from Detroit (like Leonard) but is living in Rwanda, where he drinks whiskey, smokes ganja, wears a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, and occasionally says Mass and hears confession. Turns out this man of God fled to Africa to escape a tax fraud indictment.
When Father Terry Dunn returns to the United States and meets an attractive ex-con and aspiring comic named Debbie Dewey, the two of them join forces to raise money for Rwandan orphans,try to put the screws to her sleazy ex-boyfriend, and in the process run up against the mob.
it’s a fun and fast read, full of conniving characters and delightful plot twists.
“Love Life” (1989) is a collection of 15 stories by Bobbie Ann Mason. I like short stories (in this case, none is longer than 21 pages) and I’d heard good things about Mason, so I was happy to run across her book during a visit to Orcas Island last year. She’s the author of “In Country,” which was made into a movie about a teenaged Kentucky girl whose father died in Vietnam before her birth and who becomes obsessed with finding out about her dad and his experiences.
In “Love Life,” Mason writes about the lives of ordinary people in Kentucky — salt-of-the-earth types like factory workers and schoolteachers, drugstore clerks and divorcees trying out new relationships. Mason is good at sketching her characters and drawing you into their lives, frequently leaving their fates unresolved — just like real life. Their aspirations and frustrations, their hopes and regrets, all ring true as universal experiences we’ve either gone through ourselves or readily recognize.
In one favorite story, she writes about Steve, a mattress factory worker who drives a muscle car with the words “Midnight Magic” painted on the rear in large pink curlicue letters. He’s just had a quarrel with his girlfriend and is still half drunk from the night before. sitting in his kitchen eating a Big Mac and fries and sucking down a beer. He’s the kind of guy who goes to do his laundry and notices a pretty woman in purple jeans reading a book, but decides not to approach her because she might be too smart for him. He’s also the kind of guy who spaces out and forgets he’s promised to pick up friends at the Nashville airport — 2 1/2 hours away. He packs some beer in a cooler and jumps on the interstate but as he crosses into Tennessee, he notices a man lying face down about 20 feet from the shoulder of the road, not moving. Should he call the police?
Mason empathizes with her characters — she doesn’t make fun of them — and she presents them as more than one-dimensional. Though these stories are 25 years old now, they hold up well. And, as is with Leonard, they leave me wanting to read more.
Photograph of Leonard by Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Photograph of Mason by Jenny Lederer