Harry Arno is a bookie who wants to retire. He’s got money socked away. All he has to do is pull up stakes and leave Miami. He might even take his much younger girlfriend, Joyce. Only a fed with a jones on to nail his boss, mobster Jimmy Cap, makes it look like Harry’s about to turn state’s evidence by framing him for skimming. When Jimmy Cap sends an inept shooter from the Everglades to kill him, Harry shoots him and finds himself on a murder charge.
So Harry does what any self-respecting two-bit hustler would do: He flees the country. In the process, he skips out on Joyce and a man named Rayland Givens. Bad for Givens, a US Marshal. Harry’s done this to him before. Joyce and Givens figure out where he went. The Ezra Pound-obsessed bookie has gone to coastal Tuscany to soak up some of Pound’s expatriate vibes (minus the fascist sympathizer part, of course.) Unfortunately, Jimmy Cap also figures it out. He sends two shooters – an ice-cold Sicilian gun man dubbed The Zip and a dim, muscle-bound wannabe named Nick who has trouble using a gun. It soon becomes a race to catch Harry first. If Givens and Joyce find him, all is forgiven in Miami. If the Zip and Nick catch him, it’s over.
Pronto is a typical Leonard romp whose characters, including Givens, eventually the main protagonist, are not nearly as smart as they think they are. There are shades of Tarantino in here. Gangsters, as well as cops, plan meticulously only to trip over something simple like an old lady walking around the corner at the wrong moment. Of all the characters, Robert Gee, who becomes Harry’s reluctant body guard, and Joyce have a clue what’s going on. Then again, Joyce is Harry’s girlfriend. But she knows that and wonders if that’s really such a hot idea through most of the book.
I like this one. Wouldn’t mind seeing it on the big screen, though Harry would have to be changed to a Vietnam vet as a World War II vet would be considerably older these days.
E. David Moulton
(This review originally appeared in Futures in 2003. I just reread the book, and it hold up pretty good. So up goes the original review. It’s a bit bittersweet for me as I was reading this when I learned of the death of Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. – Jim)
What if Mick Jagger had gone into politics like his mother wanted? What if John Lennon had gotten a job on the Liverpool docks after returning from Hamburg? And just where did Pete Townsend and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters get their dark visions of adolescence and childhood anyway?
The answers might look something like E. David Moulton’s Prodigal Child, the story about a child from England’s post-war generation. Moulton gives us the life of Eddie Conner, the son of a war veteran and dockworker. Eddie’s life is shaped first by the Blitz, then his family’s flight from it to rural England, then by his abusive father. During the war, Eddie meets the one man whose words will shape the way Eddie sees the world far more than even his bar-brawling dad. While staying in the country (away from the bombs and nightly escapes to London’s Underground), Eddie befriends an American soldier he only knows as Running Horse. Running Horse is a Navajo Indian and wood carver. Young Eddie asks him how to carve something from wood. Running Horse says, “I do not need to show you how; the Spirit will show you if you let it.”
It is this one line that defines Eddie Conner’s dreams and dictates how he faces adversity. The Spirit of Creativity, as Running Horse calls it in the days leading up to D-Day, carries Eddie from the streets of London’s East End into the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, from running wild with his buddy George, an aspiring thief whose father is a bookie, to the London club scene, where he discovers a talent for something called “rock and roll.” Rock and roll, it seems, that is Eddie’s destiny. His band becomes wildly popular, enough to be featured on the BBC and attract a record contract.
Fate intervenes, however, when Eddie is attacked and seriously injures one of his attackers. While it’s clearly a case of self-defense, Eddie’s violent history and some damming testimony condemn him to prison for three years, starting in 1961. From his cell, he watches the Beatles and the Rolling Stones skyrocket to success. By the time Eddie is released, it’s too late. The British Invasion is underway, and stardom has passed him by.
From then on, Prodigal Child tells how Eddie capitalizes on his creativity first to get through prison, then to start a career as a sculptor, and finally to become a successful businessman in both England and America. Fate slaps him down more than once. In England, his marriage withers away, and in America, his second wife betrays him by getting in trouble with the law not once, but twice. It’s the second time, with Eddie himself facing charges, that destroys the marriage for good.
Yet each time, Eddie thinks back to Running Horse and remembers how he dealt with the previous setback. Eventually, Eddie comes full circle, drifting back into music and finding some of the success he missed in the early sixties. It’s at this point the story actually begins, with Eddie talking to a reporter from Rolling Stone.
The meat of this book is England and the fifties and sixties for Eddie. It’s here you learn first hand why albums like Quadrophenia and The Wall are so dark, and where a lot of their references to the post-war era come from. Eddie Conner is a peer of those musicians, though he can’t seem to escape London’s East End, except through prison.
If the story ended with Conner’s marriage to a coworker and his success as a sculptor, Prodigal Child would be one of the best novels of 2003. On the downside, that would have also made it one of the shortest. Unfortunately, when Moulton moves his protagonist to America, the story seems to rush by at a dizzying pace. We watch Conner go through a midlife crisis, buying a fancy house and a Porsche and marrying a young actress, but those years come off as sketched, really. I would have liked to have seen either more of what happened or simply have Conner pick up as his second marriage fails, backfilling details as events unfold. Told in a more linear fashion, as Moulton does here, the book loses some of the energy that makes the first half of the book.
Still, the book is written to sound like an autobiography, and in a way, maybe it is. On the book’s jacket, Moulton’s bio parallels Eddie Conner’s in many respects, although there’s no mention of prison time. Moulton is also a child of Britain’s postwar generation and a musician in his own right. Like Conner, Moulton’s had more than one career in a winding path that’s taken him from London to the north of England to Los Angeles. Had the book gone on for another couple of chapters, I would not have been surprised to see “writer” added to Conner’s resume. Certainly, Moulton is a natural, writing about England for an American audience. There’s not a hint of condescension or cross-cultural gaffes that usually hamper efforts that cross between two cultures. Moulton neither assumes his audience will understand everything about his childhood environment nor does he treat them as ignorant. His explanations are part of the imagery and the setting. It’s just as easy to get to know his East End or Sheffield as it is to see Southern California and the Arizona desert.
Prodigal Child is a terrific literary work. The insight on a generation of Britons and how one man moved easily from one culture to another makes for fascinating reading. And, for an old Brit rock buff like myself, it’s an eye-opener on what was behind the soundtrack to my early adult life.