Reading Update: “Djibouti” by Elmore Leonard

As seen first in the Birmingham Patch

Elmore Leonard’s latest book, Djibouti, doesn’t have much of a plot, but that’s OK because the author of such cult favorites as Get Shorty and Be Cool still comes out strong with an undeniably cool novel with plenty of thills, high-speed boat chases and even a terrorist or two.

To coincide with the October release of Djibouti and the Birmingham author’s 85th birthday, Leonard will be honored this week at the Elmore Leonard Literary Arts and Film Festival at The Community House. As part of the celebrity-studded event – including local writer Mitch Albom and national sports columnist and author Mike Lupica expected to attend – the crime fiction master will be honored Saturday at a  gala at The Community House. Thursday and Friday will feature panel discussions, the screening of the Leonard-inspired FX series “Justified” and award ceremonies for screenplay and teen short story contests.

Djibouti tells the story of Dara Barr, a documentary filmmaker who travels to the East African nation of Djibouti to film modern-day pirates who hijack ships passing through the Gulf of Aden. Along with her incredibly tall assistant, Xavier LeBo, the two canvas the Indian Ocean, unearth terrorist plots, meet a Texas millionaire and film a documentary that quickly becomes an action film.

As for inspiring the plot of Djibouti, Leonard said he was intrigued by talk of pirates and hijackings in the news, particularly the 2009 hijacking of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somolia.  At a reading at the Birmingham Borders in October, Leonard said Djibouti is more topical than his other books, but he wanted an avenue in which to experiment and explore.

Leonard wanders a bit, to be sure. The book starts off slow, introducing the characters and plot in bits and pieces. Much of the novel’s first half is written in awkward expository chunks, as Dara and Xavier sit in front of her laptop for nearly 20 pages, discussing the past few weeks they spent chasing pirates.  Dara makes a point to remind Xavier that it is her job as a filmmaker to “show, not tell.”  One wonders why Leonard blatently flaunts this cardinal rule. But then, this is Elmore Leonard; at this point, who’s to say he’s not allowed to experiment?

Things eventually pick up once Dara spends some quality time in Djibouti, an unlikely location that feels gritty on the page.  The home of free-boozing pirates and suave double-crossers, Djibouti is exotic and yet reminiscent of the iconic settings from Leonard’s other novels, including Detroit and Miami.

Eighty-five years young, Leonard expertly winds his way through abbreviated dialogue, an almost endless parade of sex and alcohol and plenty of heavy artillery. In addition, Djibouti‘s cast of characters is almost unrealistically cool: Dara is sexy and crass as she sips Cognac with pirates. American-born terrorist Jama Raisuli takes out three Somali guards with one quick sweep. The statuesque Helene vies to be the next wife of the indominable millionare, Billy Wynn, by wielding rocket launchers.

Leonard’s characters are so cool, they’re almost familiar. Perhaps we’ve seen them in a movie? In keeping with a fascination with metafiction, Leonard is liberal with his film references and seems to be imagining who would play his characters should Djibouti ever be picked up by Hollywood (which, considering Leonard’s track record, isn’t unlikely). Billy reminds Helene of Sterling Hayden in “Dr. Stranglelove,” while Xavier is even more straightforward and suggests Dara could be played by Naomi Watts should their “African adventure” make it to the big screen.

The connection with film, however, is important as you make your way through the book.  For readers new to Leonard, such as myself, the lack of typical narration can be jarring. But Leonard isn’t merely writing — he’s filming. He’s setting the scene as only an expert screenwriter can, with prose that sounds like screen directions and a rhythm reminiscent of a camera panning a crowded room.

Once you’ve adjusted to Leonard’s style, it’s easy to find yourself racing through the pages. What will become of the tanker sitting just out to sea, conveniently full of highly combustible natural gas? Will the terrorist be caught before he kills? What will become of Dara’s film?

Leonard’s tale is one to be savored, so in the end, it doesn’t really matter what happens. Like a good movie or television show, the only thing that really matters is that it was fun getting there.

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