Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rwanda book reviews: Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard is perhaps the worst book I have ever read, and I can confidently declare that it’s the worst book ever written about Rwanda. It combines terrible, stilted prose, one-dimensional characters and a flimsy illogical plot, topped off with the perpetuation of incorrect ethnic stereotypes and graphic, exploitative references to the genocide. It’s both tacky and offensive. At the same time, the author displays solid knowledge of Rwandan geography and culture.

The synopsis of the book calls to mind madlibs and will do a better job than I ever could in conveying how ridiculous the plot is:
Father Terry Dunn thought he’d seen everything on the mean streets of Detroit, but that was before he went on a little retreat to Rwanda to evade a tax-fraud indictment. Now the whiskey-drinking, Nine Inch Nails T-shirt-wearing padre is back trying to hustle up a score to help the little orphans of Rwanda. But the fund-raising gets complicated when a former tattletale cohort pops up on Terry’s tail. And then there’s the lovely Debbie Dewey. A freshly sprung ex-con turned stand-up comic, Debbie needs some fast cash, too, to settle an old score. Now they’re in together for a bigger payoff than either could finagle alone. After all, it makes sense (no, it doesn't - ed)…unless Father Terry is working on a con of his own.

Here are a few choice excerpts - by no means the worst the book has to offer:

Ethnic stereotypes

“Father” Terry, who’s pretending to be a priest to hide in Rwanda from charges of cigarette smuggling for the Detroit mob, is hearing confession. On page 3, A man tells him that the guy who murdered his family has come back.
Terry said, “Is the guy bigger than you are?” “No, he’s Hutu.”
Terry is sleeping with his housekeeper, but don't worry - he’s not really a priest anyway (his most priestly duty aside from hearing the occasional confession seems to be consuming imported whiskey, a tradition that is quit). On page 15 is the first of many unnecessary references to Terry’s housekeeper’s stump.
She brought the bottle of Scotch under her arm - actually, pressed between her slender body in a white undershirt and the stump of her arm, the left one, that had been severed just above the elbow. Chantelle seldom covered her stump. She said it told who she was, though anyone could look at her figure and see she was Tutsi.

African stereotypes and bad economics
Another scene from confession, page 2:
“Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. Is a long time since I come here but is not my fault, you don’t have Confession always when you say. The sin I did, I stole a goat from close by Nyundo for my family to eat. My wife cook it en brochette and also in a stew with potatoes and peppers.”
Pretty savage English, huh? Also, any guy starving enough to steal a goat would not have the money to buy peppers.

Or so it’s called, on page 234 and again (!) on page 320.

The sex scene
In which Terry shacks up with Debbie, the private investigator who just got out of jail and is out to get back the money her ex-boyfriend conned from her. Debbie wants to be a stand-up comic, but is not remotely funny, although Terry thinks she is (p. 233 - “There was no question in his mind Debbie could be the right girl. Christ, look at her. And she was funny. How many girls were funny?”). To be generous, perhaps Leonard never intended her to actually be funny - it would add a little bit of sad complexity to her desperate, stupid character.
They left the lamp off but could see each other in the light from the hall, where the bathroom was. She said, “It’s been so long for me.” And said, “I know, it’s like riding a bike.”
Only a lot better. But Terry didn’t tell her that. He wasn’t a talker in bed.
So romantic! So cumbersome to read. Page 128 if you need more.

The prose

If anything in the book is more offensive than the ethnic stereotypes, it might be the prose the reader is forced to endure. On page 149 is a prime example:
Her cell phone, a faint sound coming from her handbag. Debbie got it out and for the next few minutes listened to a lawyer, a good friend of hers, answer a question she had left with his assistant two days ago. As she listened she said “Yeah?” a number of times. She said “Oh?” thinking oh no. She listened and said, “Oh,” a few more times. Listened again and said, “No, I’m outside, on Frank Murphy’s front steps,” and looked up at the building against a dead-pale sky. “I’m with a friend, a smuggler.” Had to explain that, then listened for more than a minute and said, “Get out of here. Really?....
It keeps going but it hurts to keep typing such drivel.

I think most offensive of all is that the reader’s supposed to buy the plot, which twists in turns in ways that are never remotely plausible but somehow predictable anyway. The greatest point of suspense in this “crime novel” is why it was ever published and how the hell it was able to print “New York Times Bestseller” across the front without being sued for false representation. Sad to say, I read all 350 pages and it’s still a mystery.

1 comment:

  1. OMG, that sounds truely deplorable!


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