Friday 1 October 2021

S.A. Cosby, Elmore Leonard, and White on Black Criminals

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby is a savage, twisty crime thriller set in rural Virginia that delivers the goods in terms of intrigue, pace, and action. It also does something rare in mainstream genre literature: it places a Black protagonist (Beauregard Montage) at the centre of a violent criminal enterprise and lets him survive. What's more, he's the savviest character in the story and a skillful getaway driver. So there are three things Black characters don't normally get to do in in crime fiction, at least when White writers are crafting the stories. 

Basically, Cosby has Beauregard do all the cool things that are usually the exclusive domain of White characters in this type of story. He finesses his way through a heist that goes wrong and its aftermath by being smarter and meaner and deadlier than the White guys he's up against, and manages to still be alive at the end. In this regard, Blacktop Wasteland has a strong blaxploitation vibe, and it's hard not to imagine an alternate reality in which Jim Brown would play the lead in the novel's film adaptation. In White-written crime fiction, Blacks usually don't do much more than flesh out the body count.

Car culture is one of the main pillars of post-war American popular culture, but Blacks, as far as I can recall, have never been given a place in it. The glamour, power, and freedom that the car represents in American life has resolutely excluded Blacks. Lots of films have been made about road trips, car thieves, racing, cruising around, and even more than a few specifically about getaway drivers, but it's almost impossible to recall a Black face being behind one of those wheels, with the very, very recent exception of the Fast & Furious films. Blacktop Wasteland puts Beauregard at the beating heart of car culture (he has a garage, owns and worships a boss Plymouth Duster, and is an ace driver), and the impact of seeing a Black character in that rare position is almost vertigo-inducing.

More than a few of the reviews I've read of Blacktop Wasteland have compared it to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, and, yes, in its detailing of deranged and dopey crooks pinballing off each other as they scheme and backstab, it owes a lot to Leonard, who's had a huge influence on so much of contemporary American crime fiction. This inspired me to go back and reread a few of Leonard's books, especially because Leonard was one of the few White crime writers to put Black characters in major roles. I didn't have to read many of them to see that a common trope in his novels is the White hero thwarting and killing the Black criminal. And while Leonard's heroes are often criminals, they're also lovable or honorable rogues, unlike the Black crooks who are usually just plain bad. Leonard lets his Black antagonists be crafty and cool, but they're always undone in the end by the "good" White crook.

In Swag, two White armed robbers, Stick and Frank, team up with Sportree, a Black criminal, on the robbery of a department store. Sportree double-crosses his partners after the heist and plans to kill them, but Stick and Frank manage to get one step ahead of him and shoot Sportree and his partner. Stick kills four Black characters in the course of story, something Frank notes at the end with amused astonishment. Rum Punch, filmed as Jackie Brown, has a White woman and man turning the tables on Ordell, the Black gun runner she's been working for. He's killed by White ATF agents. Get Shorty has "good" mobster Chili Palmer defeating and killing Black drug dealer Bo Catlett. 

And then there's Out of Sight. Snoopy and Kenneth are the bad Black guys, and they're very bad. Snoopy doesn't even have the saving grace of being particularly clever or cool; he's just a stone cold killer. And Kenneth? He likes to rape White women. In one scene he tries to rape Karen Sisco, a U.S. Marshall and White heroine. She slaps him down with an expandable baton. The episode feels contrived and pointless, as though it was only put there to show a White woman flattening a Black man. Snoopy and Kenneth are killed (the latter just as he's about to try and rape another White woman) by Jack Foley, a good White bank robber, at the climax of the story. It would be hard not to argue that the portrayal of the black characters in this novel borders on racist.

So while Leonard could certainly write interesting Black characters, he was even more interested in showing them being outfoxed and killed by his White heroes. That's why it's so refreshing to have a Black character like Beauregard be involved in a Leonard-influenced plot and come away alive. It's also nice to see the template for American crime fiction be given a colour adjustment. 

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