by Elmore Leonard; New York, HarperCollins, 2009, 288 pages, $26.99 hardcover, $13.99 softcover
Dr. Sowers is director of the Center for Public Service Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The book Road Dogs is the most recent crime novel by Elmore Leonard. Mr. Leonard is a prolific writer in this genre and focuses on criminals as opposed to crime. This was my first experience with his work, and it was entertaining and engaging. Mr. Leonard draws us into a world that is governed by rules and values that are alien to most of our own.
The story begins in a Florida prison, where the protagonist, Jack Foley, develops a relationship with the Cuban criminal Cundo, who arrived in the United States via the Mariel Boatlift and made and protected a small fortune through some criminal activities and vaguely legal investments. Here they became "road dogs," or inmates paired up to watch each other's backs. Cundo hooks Foley up to his lawyer, who manages to get his sentence for bank robbery reduced from 30 years to a little more than time served (about three years!). Cundo pays all the lawyer's fees, leaving Foley in his debt to the tune of $30,000, which he insists Foley does not need to repay because "We friends Jack, you the only one I can talk to." This sets the stage for a story about friendship, trust, ambiguity, and betrayal in the obscurely menacing world of criminal society in Los Angeles, where the two rendezvous after their proximate release from prison.
Cundo's beguiling "wife," Dawn, leads a cast of characters focused on fulfilling their own needs and desires, with little concern for those they use or trample in the process. The relationships of power, risk, cunning, and treachery play out as various plans are hatched and alliances formed in attempts to relieve Cundo of his fortune.
Jack Foley, who is charming, crafty, and agile, is a strange resident of this world, moving through it skillfully, outsmarting or outmaneuvering those who would make him a casualty of their plans. One wonders why such a likeable, bright, and ultimately ethical character has chosen a life of crime and what magic he possesses to allow him to survive and thrive in this criminal world. As unlikely as this seems, we find ourselves genuinely delighted by his progress toward triumph, which seems inevitable. Although this book adds little insight to our understanding of sociopathy, it allows us to observe this version of it without feeling unsettled.