You don’t have to be religious to understand that Elmore Leonard has become the literary reincarnate of Raymond Chandler. Leonard's light-as-a-feather narrations and subtle, pitch-black humor have etched their way into the membrane of mainstream fiction for over fifty years, spawning bestsellers and a slew of provocative films. Like Chandler, the elite mystery novelist of the 1940s, Leonard has continued to focus on the underlying recklessness of urban America, producing slick dialogue and shifty characters with his bone-dry wit and diamond-sharp precision. In fact, if you really think about it, it isn't much of a surprise how one of Leonard's first novels, The Big Bounce, resembles Chandler's first and most-read novel, The Big Sleep. Both novels have love triangles, offbeat antagonists, and suave leading men.
But the comparisons stop there.
The Big Bounce, originally published in 1969, has recently been re-printed so as to match the timing of the second Elmore Leonard film of the same name. The cover of this re-print shows a funky cast of Hollywood stars, wearing vacation gear and goofy smirks; actors who personify the diverse characters found in Leonard's archaic book. But even though events in the film are portrayed differently than what's in between the spine, the truth of the matter is that The Big Bounce is nothing fantastic. The characters are uncertain of themselves, the plot goes nowhere, and the love triangle between the two main characters fizzles right after it begins.
Bounce is a story about desperate dreamers looking for the next big thing and the situations that hold them back. The reader is immediately thrust into the world of Jack Ryan (no, not Clancy’s chivalric hero), a philosophical thief with a passion for baseball. After having used a co-worker for batting practice, Ryan is in court, waiting to hear the verdict. An indecisive loner with an immunity to responsibility, he narrowly avoids jail time and is forced to leave the small resort town of Geneva Beach, Michigan. But before he goes, he is confronted by Frank Pizarro, a migrant worker with an IQ of a cucumber, and the witless Billy Ruiz, both his old co-workers. At the same time, his attention is snagged by a young, doe-eyed vixen named Nancy. Pretty soon, both Ruiz and Pizarro are convincing him to steal some cash before departing, and Ryan, interested in the woman’s flirtatious ways, decides he’ll do just that.
A proposed master at B & E (breaking and entering), Jack does the quick job and then tries to convince himself he’ll head back to his native Detroit. But, as any mystery reader knows, these “promises” are as convincing as an honest liar. Right after the petty score, Jack grows more intrigued by Nancy’s games, so he bunks with Mr. Majestyk, the judge in his prior court case who happens to own beach-front property. Doing odd-end jobs for him in the day, Jack reminisces about his previous robberies and soon finds himself itching to get near the dark-haired tease, a woman who breaks objects for the sheer enjoyment of hearing them attempt to bounce.
But it is not until midway through the book that the reader begins to see the real premise of the novel. The elusive Nancy needs the edgy Jack to help her steal $50,000 from her demanding boyfriend. Ryan, meanwhile, must decide how much longer he's willing to play the pawn in her arbitrary games. What happens next is anything but exciting. After learning about this audacious task (fifty thousand must have been a lot in 1969), the reader can pretty much assume what it is Ryan will do next. If this were a newer Leonard novel, this stage of the book would focus on how to go about stealing the money and getting away with in a flashy fashion. But this is an old work of fiction, and as it progresses, that plan is put on the backburner and the reader is forced to look at the blasé relationship between the two wildhearts. A few complications are thrown into the pot along the way, but eventually, everything just boils over into a puddle of confusing and unoriginal fiction.
When it comes to Leonard's novels, it is understood that he has a style all his own. He can hook you with his salty ideology and lure you into reading about his simple characters, all of whom somehow remind you of a guy you know. His ability to tell a story fast but efficiently is the very reason why bookstores can’t keep his novels stocked during the summertime. And while yes, he often repeats formulaic plots in his books - a mathematical equation, if you will (insert loopy character, add tenacious woman, multiply by oddly-named goons and divide by hectic karma) - this is what makes him the undisputed leader of contemporary mysteries. He's dependable and intriguing all at the same time. Too bad none of this really applies to The Big Bounce. With its flat tone and idling plot, Bounce never really heads anywhere. Perhaps if Chandler had a stab at this material, it would have oozed some more sophistication, more creative energy. But then again, even Chandler had to start somewhere.
Coincidentally, the only thing about this book that makes sense is its title. The Big Bounce haphazardly bounces back and forth between arbitrary plot points and confusing dilemmas, creating a Seinfeld-like book about nothing. Thankfully, with hindsight, Leonard has taken his knack for drama and incorporated it into his later books, making his title as “the best mystery writer ever” that much more believable.