By Elmore Leonard
Morrow. 304 pp. $25.95
nolead ends When Walter Schoen and Honey Deal meet after Mass one Sunday morning in 1938, it doesn't take Walter long before he's asking Honey if she thinks there's somebody he looks like. She nails it right off the bat: Walter Schoen is a dead ringer for Heinrich Himmler. Walter says that he and the head of the SS were born on the same day in the same hospital. Walter is convinced that Himmler is his twin and that they were separated at birth.
Walter and Honey marry, but - an important detail - not in the Church, and by the time Up in Honey's Room opens, the marriage is kaput.
" 'I valked out,' " Honey tells her sister-in-law Muriel over the phone. " 'I'm free as a bird. You know what else? I won't have to do my roots every two weeks. Dumb me, I spent a whole year wanting him to think I'm a natural blond.' "
" 'He couldn't tell other ways you weren't?' " Muriel wonders.
You may, too, but you'll have to read the book to find out Honey's explanation.
Which you ought to do - read the book, that is. Elmore Leonard may be moseying toward his 82d birthday, but his 40th novel provides ample evidence that the old boy is still at the top of his game.
Most of the action takes place in April 1945. U.S. Marshal Carl Webster - the title character of Leonard's last novel, The Hot Kid - drives to Detroit from Oklahoma on the trail of Jurgen and Otto, a couple of German prisoners of war who have escaped from a camp near Tulsa, Okla. That's how he meets up with Honey and Walter and Walter's friends, notably Polish Countess Vera Mezwa Radzykewycz, spying halfheartedly for the Germans, and Bohdan Kravchenko, Vera's cross-dressing factotum and lover.
There's violence eventually - nicely done, of course - but while it's crucial, it's not central. The pleasure of the tale comes from the telling of it. Leonard would probably think the comparison pretentious, but the way in which the voices of the characters and the threads of narrative are introduced and interwoven reminds one of nothing so much as a well-crafted fugue with its subject, countersubject, episodes, false entries, and stretto (where everything can seem to be happening at once).
Most of the story unfolds in dialogue, but even the third-person narrative has a pungent drawl to it, which makes the transition from one to another seamless:
Now they were at opposite ends of the cushy sofa with their highballs and cigarettes, both sitting back with their legs crossed: Carl showing a cowboy boot, old but polished, Honey a plain black pump hanging from her toes, showing Carl the delicate arch of her foot. She asked him if he always wore cowboy boots.
"About all my life," Carl said.
"Because you live in Oklahoma?"
"They're my shoes," Carl said.
As this snippet suggests, Leonard's handling of sex is about the best around: matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. He knows just how much to tell and when to fade out. He's hardly skittish about it, but he doesn't invest it with any pseudo-mystical significance, either.
Up in Honey's Room is a perfect example of a master storyteller spinning a tall one. Like a good caricaturist, he exaggerates details, but never strays too far from an accurate likeness. Where else but in Elmore Leonard's America would one German POW yearn to be a rodeo rider and the other - the SS officer, no less - fall in love at first sight with a beautiful Jewish con girl?
The fact is, Leonard's novels give you a better feel for America than any of the brooding fictional meditations on the emptiness of suburbia come close to doing. It's not just the tang - and twang - of the language, either. It's the eye for detail: "Carl was in the hotel coffee shop having breakfast, his eggs scrambled with onions, fried potatoes and pork sausage, all of it doused with Lea & Perrins, a few small sweet rolls and black coffee."
Leonard also has a keener eye for the absurd than any French existentialist has ever had. To wit: He never, ever fails to see the humor in it.