For John Espinosa Nelson the height of irony was devouring Elmore Leonard novels in prison.
This post originally appeared at Where Excuses Go to Die
If prisons produce better criminals, I was lucky to come out merely more sarcastic than when I went in. Elmore Leonard helped me get there – and taught me that exclamation points are worse than all the plagues in the Bible.
My family was, and still is, rather incisive, so when it came to the discovery of certain writers, I found authenticity in those who trafficked in quick comebacks and smart-ass remarks. Under the noses of bitchy nuns, schoolmate Chuck Miller and I traded copies of Don Pendleton’s pulp war-on-the-Mafia series, The Executioner. Pendleton’s stories were blunt and read similarly to how movies like The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle felt.
We were just kids then, gaining access to all this stuff through older brothers and neighborhood teenagers. Little did I know what Elmore Leonard would have in store for me. Compared to him, Don Pendleton might as well have been script-writer for Dragnet. Still, though Leonard would be the author to show me a celebration of the criminal spirit, I didn’t discover his novels until I myself was behind bars.
Reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just prior to being sentenced was a philosophical turning point, the likes of which I hadn’t previously experienced. Devouring Leonard’s Maximum Bob while trying to drown out the sounds of cell block idiocy was an comparable epiphany. Leonard’s criminals were very similar to those with whom I was housed: sarcastic, daring, flamboyant, smart, haphazard, mean, self-sabotaging, and double-crossing. They spoke of pistol-whipping, bad lawyers, booze, payoffs to cops, drive-bys, finders-keepers, knife fights, knife fights with women, snitches (both living and “dealt with”), hustling cash like there’s no tomorrow, and detectives, detectives, detectives! They were giant, fat, tired, old, young, short, stupid, one-armed, covered in ink, loud, and witty.
In fact, two of the guys with whom I ate breakfast most mornings were as fast as Don Rickles. They were also murderers, who caused me wipe away tears of laughter with some frequency. It was impossible not to identify with the manner in which Elmore Leonard described the criminal mindset or let it be represented through dialog. Laid out before me were the mentality of both guards and inmates, men whose linguistic stingers ricocheted around me as though I were one Leonard’s own characters. Don’t get me wrong, racial tension and gang politics aren’t anything worth romanticizing, and I would have rather been just about anywhere else. But, as was the case during most of my incarceration, I was able to start seeing people, circumstances, and life lessons in more than two dimensions just as soon as I got over myself. So I could make connections between the heart and humanity that exists in all penitentiaries and many of the criminals housed there. Those connections kept me going.
So in other words, although there were several encouraging influences at work during that time in my life, Elmore Leonard made his mark. You may not know it from my run-on sentences, but you will by my disdain for exclamation points. City Primeval, Maximum Bob, Get Shorty, and Killshot are some of my favorites, though I’ve been told I’m a fool for never having read Cuba Libre. With a tip of the hat to Leonard, I’ll have to change that.
Photo: AP File/Rob Kozloff