Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty is a novel that winks at the reader throughout. In fact, reading the last page I actually laughed out loud. It has been a long time since a novel has made me do this, but Leonard pulled it off. In a way, Get Shorty is less of a crime novel/detective fiction and more of a novel about gangsters and movies. I suppose I was expecting more gritty crime but there is surprisingly little of this. This might be an aspect of overexposure on my part to violence, but I also think it is cleverly done on Leonard’s part to continually toy with our expectations. There are two murders in the novel, some drug dealing, and Chili Palmer, the main character, is a former loan-shark, but on the whole Get Shorty is surprisingly tame especially in comparison to Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked. But I think part of the point of Get Shorty is that crime is not as spectacular as people think it is. At various points, Chili has to explain to people that he never had to break people’s legs in order to collect on their debts. Despite already explaining to Harry Zimm, a B-movie producer who is hoping to resurrect his career, how he doesn’t break legs, Chili says “Or the guy thinks he could get ’em broken … You have to understand the loan shark’s in business the same as anybody else. He isn’t looking for a chance to hurt people. He’s in it to make money” (41). In many ways, Chili downplaying his loanshark activities becomes a motif that comes up at several points in the movie. If anything, he has to be more violent and cruel in the process of trying to get a movie off the ground.
Which brings me around to the plot: this is a novel about making a film rather than a novel about criminals and crime. Chili initially comes out to Hollywood and LA looking to collect one last debt for his employer, but it soon becomes clear he is also looking for a way out of the business. He meets Zimm at Karen Flores’ house, a B-movie actress whose career Zimm launched, and through them eventually meets Michael Weir, a Tom Cruise-like actor. What at first seems to be a sideplot – Chili’s idea for a movie – soon becomes the central core of the book itself. Along the way we also meet an LA drug dealer, Bo Catlett, a former movie stuntman, The Bear, and a few other movie executives. Reflecting on the novel now, it is almost as if Leonard intentionally brings the realms of the criminal underworld and the movie-making business together to look at each other. Both are enamored with the other although their misconceptions often prevent them from truly engaging with the other.
I am not really sure how to classify Get Shorty. If you read it as a crime novel, then it disappoints a little. It seems too intellectual, too invested in meta-ideas, to be a satisfying quick crime fix. So you almost need to approach it as a work of metafiction – a work about the making of movies, work that typically is invisible to the average movie-goer. Overall it was a very enjoyable reading experience, but I am also not sure what to do with Get Shorty either. The film adaptation was quite well-received and stars John Travolta as Chili. The Wikipedia page says that the film stays pretty close to the book’s script, so this might be the odd case of the film adaptation being as good (maybe even better?) than its literary source material.
I would recommend this book to hardcore cinema fans and people who like the mobster genre.
Leonard, Elmore. Get Shorty. New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1990. Print.