May not seem the best way to begin a book review, making comparisons between two TV shows. But here goes.
The book in question is Raylan, Elmore Leonard’s latest novel. Makes sense, then, that one of the TV shows I’m going to look into here is Justified. Justified is based on a character Leonard introduced in two novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, and a short story, "Fire in the Hole"---Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens, a slow-talking, quick-shooting, white cowboy hat-wearing lawman helping to bring law and order to the coal mining region of 21st Century Kentucky, which is for all intents and purposes Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone circa 1880 with reliable cell phone coverage.
Towns---whole counties---are wide-open. Crime is a bulwark of the economy, particularly the dealing of meth and oxycontin and the growing and selling of marijuana. Armed robbery is a daily hazard. Buses get held up like stage coaches. Banks get held up like...well...banks. People cross back and forth across the line between outlaw and honest citizen, sometimes in the course of an afternoon. Guns are everywhere and it seems more people die by bullet in car accidents or from old age. And many of these casualties met their justified demises after making the mistake of drawing on Raylan Givens.
I’ve lost count, and I suspect Justified’s producers have too, but over the course of three seasons Raylan may have carved more notches in his gun than Marshall Matt Dillon carved in twenty. It’s getting embarrassing to the point that the show has become conscious of itself on that point. Cracks appear in the fourth wall whenever characters discuss Raylan’s latest showdown. In some episodes now, you can feel the writers scrambling to contrive ways for Raylan not to shoot anyone.
Raylan, the novel, chronicles some of Raylan’s adventures outside what we’ve seen so far in episodes of the TV show and recapitulates a few things we’ve seen in episodes of Season Two. So I can hardly write about the book without writing about the TV show.
But the other TV show I’ll be writing about?
Different types of shows. Different settings. Different genres. Different styles. Different aesthetics. Different ambitions. Different almost everything.
But their leading men have more in common than just both being tall, dark, and handsome. Don Draper and Raylan Givens are both men with burdensome pasts. Both have mean streaks that get them into trouble and get them out of it. Both have self-destructive impulses. Both can’t walk away from situations they know they’ll regret not having walked away from later. Raylan is not as self-indulgent as Don but he is not a paragon of self-denial. Put something in front of him he wants bad enough and he’ll reach for it.
Fortunately, Raylan is a man of few needs and ordinary desires, mainly love and sex.
Which is how he’s wound up sleeping with a witness in one of his cases and having an affair with his ex-wife while she’s married to the man she left him for.
Don can’t be happy because everything he has is stolen, in a way. I should say he can’t be allowed to be happy because he is a fictional construct in a moralist’s universe. Matthew Weiner is making an example of him to make a point.
Don is what is wrong with America. He can’t be content or enjoy himself because that takes discipline and focus. He is living a life that many people would consider ideal. On other TV shows and in movies it is ideal. But he’s not living his life. His mind is too much in the past and in the future.
On Mad Men, all the characters are being contradictorily punished. They're being punished for the sin of being themselves and punished for the sin of wanting to be somebody other than who they are. Don is only the chief sinner. The character all the others double. Roger, Peggy, Pete, Joan, Betty, and Lane are just as divided between who they are and what they want to be as Don. Damned if they do and damned if they don't because they are just damned. Their lives are little, private hells of their own making.
Leonard is not a moralist. In his fictional universe, life is what it is. People are happy or they're not. It depends on their circumstances, but more on their temperaments. In Leonard’s world, there are cheerful villains, grumpy ones, soft-hearted ones, tortured ones made miserable by doubt, conscience, personal sorrows, worries, ulcers, headaches, bad backs, bad marriages, leaky faucets, insomnia, or congenital irritability. And it’s the same for the good guys. Sins aren’t punished here. Mistakes can cost you, but not always and when they do not as much as you’d expect or far more than they should. There is no purpose or meaning to life except what we bring to it. It's full of pleasure and pain, sorrow and bliss, but it's all mixed up and spread unevenly, not available to everyone equally. Up to us to make the best of it as we can.
One of the great favors we do for each other is treat each other as if our existence matters and our lives have meaning. The threat from the sociopaths, people for whom order and meaning have no meaning and not the least bit interested in helping you maintain the illusion that you matter, isn't only physical, it's metaphysical.
Like Don, Raylan gets himself in trouble over women. Unlike Don, however, he is loyal and chivalrous and always ready to help a lady in distress. Don requires rescuing. Raylan, in riding to the rescue, has done things for Ava and Winona that he knows could cost him his career, his freedom, and his life.
Both men are heroes in the eyes of others, but far from heroic in their own minds. They are conflicted, tormented, guilt-ridden, and tempted towards self- destruction. Raylan’s life is as full of turmoil and worry as Don Draper's and, although not as much or as constantly, still requires some lying, deception, and double-dealing to keep it together. The differences are that Raylan, although by necessity, is a liar he is not a fraud so he can take some pride in himself for doing his job well . Work for Don is at best an escape from himself. He can lose himself in the act of creation, which is to say, by creating new fictions or, if you’re a cynic about advertisting, new lies to sell to the public. Raylan can be himself at his best while at work. And he's basically a cheerful man.
Not a happy one.
Just a cheerful one. And that makes him capable of the kind of small moments of pleasure and joy Draper is denied.
He's also a friendly man. He likes people. He enjoys their company. He gets a kick out of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. He's tolerant of their flaws and foibles, forgiving of their mistakes, and sympathetic in their moments of vanity and weakness. He is glad to see things from other's points of view. To a degree, and, again to a degree, this includes criminals he's come to arrest.
The point isn't that Raylan is a better person than Don Draper. That’s irrelevant to a discussion of fictional characters. But the point isn't that Raylan is a superior creative achievement either. He's a more easily likable character and that makes it more fun in the usual sense to watch Justified than Mad Man. The point is---because remember this is still a book review---that none of that cheerfulness, good nature, or friendliness is in the Raylan we meet in Leonard's novel.
The Raylan of Justified is full of displaced and barely sublimated angers and resentments. The Raylan of Raylan is more ornery than angry. The Raylan of Justified is mostly in control of his wants and desires. Mostly. Raylan’s Raylan is not self-indulgent but he's not self-denying either. The TV Raylan is a social drinker. The novel's Raylan likes a drink and has one when he wants one. He has more self-regard. He is full of self regard, in fact. But he is less self-regarding. He takes himself for granted. It's enough for him that he's one of the good guys and nothing that happens in the book makes him doubt that even in the way the TV Raylan doubts it about himself, by recognizing that he's tempted by the same things as people he knows are bad guys or sinners. The book's Raylan isnt tolerant or forgiving or the least bit sympathetic. He's just indifferent.
People's motives or characters make him no never mind. He doesn't like or dislike anybody. He gets along with them or he doesn't. If it happens that he has to put someone he gets along with in jail, that's how it breaks. Doesn’t mean though they can't go right along getting along until he has to out the cuffs on them...or shoot them. Which is how he nearly winds up in bed with each of the book's two femme fatales, even though he knows both are murdering sociopaths who intend to kill him.
That’s not something it’s easy to imagine happening to Raylan on Justified. His weakness lies in the opposite direction. Justified turns the film noir convention around. It’s not the femme fatales who undo the hero. It’s the good women.
The two Raylans are that much different that as I was reading I wondered what Leonard was up to. I’d expected that the novel would be a companion to the TV show but as it went along it seemed more like a critique and a correction. I suspected Leonard of trying to steal his character back from himself and bring him back in line with Raylan as he was in Pronto and Riding the Rap.
Then I got to thinking that what I see in the character of Raylan on Justified has been put there by Timothy Olyphant who plays him as an affable, easy-going, self-effacing, hopeful and, let me repeat, cheerful man. On the surface, at any rate. He’s turned his lawman from Deadwood, Seth Bullock, inside out. Bullock wore his anger and self-doubt along with his righteousness, his resolve, his grit, and his potential for violence on the outside, symbolized by his black hat, black frock coat, and black mustache. Olyphant plays Raylan as more Jimmy Stewart as Tom Destry by way of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp than himself as Seth Bullock.
But it’s not just Olyphant. The show’s writers and producers, who include Leonard, although Graham Yost is the creative guiding hand, routinely put Raylan in the company of or up against characters he can interact with with kindness and warmth or at least react to with kindly and warm amusement.
He has his friends among the other marshals and lawmen and women. He has, on and off, Winona and Ava. He had someone I won’t mention by name in case any of you who watch the show haven’t made it through Season Two yet. He has bonds of sympathy and history with any number of villains he’s crossed paths with. Most dramatically intriguing he has his complicated relationship with his sometime friend, sometime enemy Boyd Crowder. And then there are the victims of the bad guys’ crimes and depredations towards whom Raylan is usually, although not always, comforting, protective, more than necessarily and professionally helpful, and deeply sympathetic.
In the novel, the other marshals are on hand only to provide exposition. Ava is offstage entirely. Winona only enters to be quizzed about Raylan by the femme fatale but never gets near Raylan himself. Boyd figures prominently in the story but he and Raylan barely come into contact. The villains are all either lowlife scum with no redeeming characteristics even as comic relief---except for Dewey Crowe who appears pretty much as he does in the TV show, being so stupid you can’t help but feel sorry for him and rooting for him to survive even though he’s put himself in a position where his continued survival isn’t just in doubt it would be a gigantic mistake on the part of fate---or they are grinning and leering sociopaths, including the femme fatales. And the only victim Raylan has any fellow feeling for is himself.
But the even bigger disappointment waiting for fans of Justified is the immediate recognition of having been there and done that.
The central storyline of Raylan is taken pretty much straight from three episodes of Season 2 of Justified in which Boyd is hired as a “security expert” and bodyguard by a scheming mining company executive who intends to manipulate him into committing murder. And if the Raylan as written in the novel makes you appreciate what Timothy Olyphant has brought to the role, then Boyd’s appearance in the novel will have you in awe of what Walton Goggins has been doing with the character on Justified.
Meanwhile, the chief villain of the subplot, Dewey Crowe’s uncle Pervis Crowe will seem awfully familiar and sadly imitative. He’s a male Mags Bennett. Almost. He runs a criminal fiefdom similar to Mags, being, like her, the chieftain of all the marijuana growing and the attendant criminality in Harlan County. He runs the same legitimate business as a front, a general store. He has two equally dimwitted sons with the same first names as Mags’, Dickie and Coover. He even repeats many of Mags’ lines of dialog, word for word.
But since he’s not played by Margo Martindale or written to be played by Margo Martindale, he has none of Mags’ superior intelligence, none of her deceptively cuddly parental warmth, none of her wit, none of her manipulative charm, and none of her capacity for real hate and violence because he doesn’t have a heart, even a black and twisted one like Mags’. He’s just a mean and greedy old coot who doesn’t care who gets hurt as he pushes people out of his way as he schemes for what he wants. We believe it breaks Mags’ heart to have to smash her own son’s fingers to bloody pulps with a hammer, because for her it’s the case that a mother has to do what a mother has to do. And we believe that Pervis could shrug off without a tear or a pang anything that might befall his boys as long as it also doesn’t befall him. But who’s the more interesting and fun to believe in, the dirty old man with a hole where his soul ought to be or the devoted mother whose love is perverted to the point that she can think of torture as just her version of a grounding and who assures a man she’s just poisoned that she will look after his about to be orphaned teenage daughter as if she’s confident he will appreciate and be grateful for this kindness as he writhes in agony?
Which brings me back to the question of just what Leonard is up to with the novel? Who did he write it for? For fans of the show looking for something to enjoy while waiting for Season 3 to come out on DVD or Season 4 to roll around, it fails for the obvious reason---if you want repeats you can watch Season 2 on DVD. As an introduction to the TV show for fans of Leonard’s writing who may not have watched any of Justified yet, it has the problem of leaving out just about everything that is likeable, enjoyable, and intriguing about the show. And for fans of Leonard’s writing who don’t care that there’s a TV show with the same characters, I think it’ll be a disappointment. There’s a slapdash quality to Raylan, as if it was put together in a hurry out of spare parts with the intention of just putting something on the road until something better rolls out the shop doors. And I think I know why.
Raylan is a cut and paste job.
I think what we have here is a hastily stitched together collection of adaptations of scripts and treatments Leonard wrote for Justified that Graham Yost and his writers re-wrote and made better.
In the last fourteen or so months I’ve written around twenty-five book reviews and only two have been negative. This one makes three and wouldn’t you know, it’s of a book by one of my favorite writers.
But there are reasons Leonard’s one of my favorite writers and those reasons are on display in the book, so reading it wouldn’t be a total waste of time.
I just think that if you haven’t seen Justified yet, you’ll have more fun introducing yourself to that.