Touch, by Elmore Leonard — a book review

The last time I read one of the late Elmore Leonard’s novels was around this time last year. The book was Hombre, a western.

I’ve read a few of the author’s westerns, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. Of course, I’m a fan of the western genre and will occasionally read a novel about gunslingers and rustlers and [insert your favorite western trope here] as sort of a mental palate cleanser.

But, I prefer Elmore Leonard’s relatively modern-day crime novels. Several have become movies or television series. Among the movies are Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch), and Mr. Majestyk. The excellent television series Justified was based upon the Elmore Leonard-created character Raylan Givens, who appeared as a character in at least three Leonard novels and “Fire in the Hole,” the short story that the television series was based upon. Get Shorty has been a television series as well.

Touch (also a movie, by the way) is a departure from the other Leonard crime novels I’ve read. It was written in 1977, but didn’t get published until 1987. The reason for the delay is the same reason I called this novel a departure.

The character Charlie Lawson, a former Franciscan monk who goes by the name Brother Juvenal, has the ability to heal the people he touches, and when he does so, he manifests the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ during his crucifixion. Other characters include an unstable militant Catholic traditionalist who thinks it’s a sin for the Mass to be delivered in English, a beautiful young record promoter, and a former Southern evangelist who now sells RVs. There’s quite a bit about Catholicism, faith healing, stigmatists and religion in general. Juvenal quit the Franciscans and is working at a Catholic-affiliated alcohol rehab center in Detroit. Other characters find out about his gift for healing, each seeking to exploit him in their own way. Including, of course, the media.

It’s difficult for me to determine the depth of the author’s own religious beliefs in this novel. At times, Leonard comes across as quite devout, while at other times I’m left wondering if I should just read this as a satire. Leonard typically didn’t write stories about people with supernatural abilities, and it was this bit of magic realism in the novel that made it difficult for publishers to pigeonhole the book in a set genre, delaying its publication by a decade.

I was okay with the fact that Charlie Lawson is a faith healer. Do I believe in faith healing on this side of the page, in what we refer to as the real world? That doesn’t matter. In speculative fiction, you sometimes have to accept an unlikely premise, to suspend your disbelief, as long as the rest of the story treats it realistically. Touch definitely accomplishes this. The rest of the action of the book is as realistic as that found in any of Leonard’s crime novels. In fact, there is crime in this novel also. Leonard couldn’t prevent himself from including at least one gun in the story.

I don’t want to ruin the entire book for you. I found it an easy, brisk read with Leonard’s trademark dialogue and sense of humor. At its heart, this is a love story, which also seems to be a slight departure for Leonard.

What else can I say about this one?

It’s not my favorite Elmore Leonard novel. Today, I would say that was Get Shorty, but I’ll have a different title for you tomorrow. This makes me sound like a horrible person, but there wasn’t enough crime and violence in this story to satisfy my compulsion to read Leonard. Plus, the dialogue and story itself seem, for lack of a better word, a bit thin. Not quite the Leonard I wanted to read.

Which is not to say that this is a bad novel, because it’s not. A bit more literary than the rest of his output, maybe, but still recognizably an Elmore Leonard book.

In many ways, it reminds me of another novel that was a departure for its author. John D. MacDonald, another writer influenced by Hemingway (like Leonard), wrote mystery novels that were mostly grounded in reality. But, he also wrote the science fiction/fantasy novel The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything, in which its protagonist could stop time using a magic gold watch.

I’m not equating anyone’s religious belief in miracles to a fictional gold watch that can stop time, but the curveball being hurled by the authors seems similar. In both novels, the author’s unique voice came through, loud and clear. It’s just that they were stories unlike the ones the writers usually told. This doesn’t make the novels bad. Just different.

And, for me, these different types of novels by these authors could never be my favorite. Lou Reed, before he passed away, naturally, cut an album with the hard rock band Metallica, titled Lulu. I bought the CD after its release, because I’m a Metallica fan, and I enjoyed some of the Velvet Underground stuff as well. I listened to the CD exactly once and couldn’t even tell you where it is now, because I don’t care. I’m still a Metallica fan and have enjoyed material produced after Lulu. But, for me, this particular album was a huge failed experiment.

While I don’t consider Touch to be a failed experiment at all, I don’t consider it to be up to the same standard Leonard sets in his other novels. I encourage you to read it, as I encourage you to read all of Elmore Leonard’s fiction, including the westerns. This one is probably not where you want to start unless you’re already a fan, however.

Firewater’s How-Do-You-Reconcile-Religion-and-Sex? Report Card: B

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