Sleazy is as Sleazy does.
And little lambs eat ivy. Oops, wrong song.
It’s a funny thing about book reviews—especially when someone is turning a critical eye to your own work. Often, you realize that other people don’t always view your characters in the same light you do. An example:
Steve Moore just wrote a nicely-crafted critique of my hard-boiled mystery Shotgun Start for Book Pleasures dot com. He liked the book, for which I am grateful, and gave it a generally positive review and recommended it. All good. But he had an interesting take on my protagonist, Neal Egan, a former cop who is eking out a living as a golf hustler. Steve says: “Egan is a jerk, cad and misfit.” My immediate reaction: “A cad? A jerk? Is not.” The misfit part of the equation, I’ll concede. But a cad? Steve, this isn’t a Noel Coward play. You might as well have called him a bounder.
But then, I began to think about it. Neal was tossed from the police force because of anger management issues. He makes a living fleecing rich suckers out of their money on the lush country club and resort golf courses of the Albuquerque area. His P.I. partner is a serial adulterer. Now past his 40th birthday, he still drives a vintage muscle car and listens to headbanger music turned up to the bleeding ears range. He withholds evidence from the police. Estranged from his mother, he hasn’t talked to her for ten years.
He doesn’t call his mother regularly? Okay, maybe he is a bit of a cad. A bounder even. But, I would say, Steve understood the changes I was trying to bring about in Neal’s life and outlook. He notes: One thing I will give him, though, is that he stays away from drugs, something hard to do in his sleazy life where drugs seem to be all around him. “Sleazy” refers more to his obsessions with drink and women—his roomie calls him Slick many times in the book and the name is appropriate.
Sleazy? Sleazy? Okay, I was willing to admit Neal is a cad, but sleazy? Does sometimes starting his day with a Negra Modelo, sharing a house with a beautiful bohemian painter of erotic art, occasionally sleeping with strangers and busting into a biker bar, handgun at the ready make his life sleazy? I think not.
A conversation with my wife revealed that she agrees with Steve about most of these observations about Neal. This made me think about context and frame of reference. As a teenager and college-age whelp, I was one of those kids your parents warned you about. I stayed out late, hung out at pool halls, learned how to French-inhale Marlboros and, had testosterone slapping through my arteries like the Rogue River funneling through a narrow slot in the rocks and would have pretty much slept with anyone of the female persuasion unwise enough to encourage me. My favorite pub featured a bartender nicknamed "Dirtbag" who earned his moniker on a daily basis. I also may have inhaled some marijuana, although Arkansas Bill asked me to deny it. Is it any wonder I drifted into a career as a disc-jockey and professional ne’er do well?
Carolyn, on the other hand, earned a 6.45 on the 4 point grade scale, treated her parents with respect, worked hard at part time jobs and flew through the University of Arizona with flying colors. After that she joined Volunteers In Service to America and helped improve the plight of poor people in Little Rock. I’m pretty sure she was overqualified for sainthood. From what I can gather, she also stayed away from boys like me.
Here’s the point. Because of the direction I steered at that stage of life, Neal’s lifestyle doesn’t seem sleazy to me in the least. In some ways, it mirrors my own experience. I too popped a top while watching Mr. Rogers in the morning. I, too, gambled on the golf course. (Mostly losing). I too, had consensual sex with people I hadn’t been properly introduced to. The people he hangs with are very much like the folks I chose to surround myself with. For Carolyn, (and apparently Steve) Neal and his gang (we’re not a gang, mijo, we’re a social club) were people you crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. That’s too bad. You probably would have enjoyed having a cad or bounder in your life.
I’m not suggesting that writers should change their approach to characterization to cater to the predilections of the more innocent and naive among their potential readership. I do think we need to keep in mind that the impression your characters make on readers may not always be what you expected.