Get Shorty: Act 1, The Book

Get Shorty is a TV series with two seasons in the can and rumors of a third. The first season was released by a lesser-known subscription service, Epix, in August 2016 and found its way to Netflix this year. The second season was released by Epix in August 2018 but has not been shared to Netflix, a gripe of fans. (Netflix has nearly 118 million subscribers; Epix only 14 million.) Each season is 10 episodes, and the acting is excellent, especially from stars Chris O’Dowd, Ray Romano, Sean Bridgers, Lidia Porto, Goya Robles, and Carolyn Dodd.

As you might imagine, there are significant differences between the TV series and the 1995 movie with John Travolta and Gene Hackman, as well as with the 1990 novel by Elmore Leonard. Relative length alone would account for that, but the new series is also darker, more violent, and arguably more meaningful than its predecessors.

At the time the series was announced, then-Epix President and CEO Mark S. Greenberg said of its creator, “Davey Holmes is a tremendous talent and has created a fantastic new series that is in the spirit of Leonard’s unique brand of social satire and strong narrative voice.” (Holmes worked on Shameless (Showtime), In Treatment (HBO), and Damages (FX), and he has a series in development based on Hunter S. Thompson’s life.)

Different animals are often made from the same narrative spine. Think of things made “in the spirit of” Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, or Jane Austen. It is hard not to watch versions and think about what the original animal used to look like, how it behaved, what parts became vestigial, and whether the new version has the teeth to eat meat or veggies. This evolution of narratives is often given a meta-nod by descendants, as when creator Stan Lee was given cameos in Marvel Comics films.

Get Shorty, in all its versions, is about a criminal with enough brains and self-respect to want out, so he targets Hollywood as his next hustle. The main character has always loved movies, but he is also taught the supposed equivalence between the movie business and criminal rackets—their shared ruthlessness, risk, and opportunism.

Leonard did well with the novel in part because he filled it with comic oddities, colorful characters and landscapes, grotesque behavior, plotty twists, and cowboy justice. He is often lumped in with “South Florida crime writers,” such as Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, for these qualities, also a genre popular on film.

I read a lot of Elmore Leonard when I was a young guy, the way I used to read Stephen King, and Ian Fleming and his narrative heirs. There is a case to be made that we enjoy books that have to do with how we see ourselves. Not that we necessarily think of ourselves as James Bond or Get Shorty’s Chili Palmer, but something in the work’s worldview resonates, and Leonard, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, resonates best, I would guess, with young-minded men invested in a certain kind of humor and belief about power. Detroit News said accurately in a review of Shorty, “Nobody but nobody on the current scene can match his ability to serve up violence so light-handedly, with so supremely deadpan a flourish.”

This ability and others made Leonard rich and somewhat famous, with 45 novels and at least 20 box-office movies, nine TV movies, and three series adaptations. But despite the admiration of many, including Martin Amis, who said (carefully and craftily, perhaps) that Leonard was the “nearest America has to a national writer” and had “the depth and mass of [Dickens’] appeal,” Leonard was the kind of tone-deaf writer who could write, of Atlantic City tour buses:

 

“Two thousand a day came into the city, dropped the suckers off for six hours to lose their paychecks, their Social Security in the slots and haul them back up to Elizabeth, Newark, Jersey City, Philly, Allentown. Bring some more loads back tomorrow—like the Jews in the boxcars, only they kept these folks alive with bright lights and loud music and jackpot payoffs that sounded like fire alarms.”

 

Reviewers often say things to the effect that Leonard is “a poet of the vernacular” and has “a gift for dialogue.” By that I suspect they mean Leonard has Palmer still using the word “coloreds” as some marker of character authenticity, or dropping lines such as, “I told the limo guys it wasn’t any of their fuckin business, period. They don’t like it, that’s too bad.”

“The Dickens of Detroit,” a name for Leonard first used in Time, was almost completely wrong, and Leonard himself was said not to like it. But it is on his tombstone, which means somebody thought it a better pitch for posterity than “a writer who hated—and I don’t mean disliked …—literature,” as his interviewer says at NPR.

The biggest superfan of Elmore Leonard I ever met was a midlife lawyer who quit to become a literary writer, because he had had success as a fantasy-football blogger. He went Leonard’s hatred of literature one better by insisting no one who wanted to write should read—anything, ever—because it sullied one’s natural genius. His one allowance was Elmore Leonard, who he insisted was the greatest writer who ever lived.

Of course he adored Leonard: he was a Leonard type himself. He was from South Florida and witnessed its development absurdities. He did things on intuition, then defended them with longwinded, legalistic briefs. He lay awake at night, sweating over the single hair left behind after he made his girlfriend get $10,000 of laser removal for all but the hair on her head, because her body hair, unlike his bushel beard, was filthy. He professed an admiration for Hitler and claimed Jewish ancestors. Pedant, bore, contrarian, with a love for power and a dim view of women: he was a type of American grotesque made for the Leonard page.

That is what Elmore Leonard did do in the Dickens vein: create memorable types. Those in Get Shorty have legs enough to carry them into film and TV, which I will get to next.