By Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
January 2002; 0-060-00872-5; 320 pages
Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that's what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder. The tank itself was twenty-two feet across and the water in it never more than nine feet deep. Dennis said from that high up you want to come out of your dive to enter the water feet first, your hands at the last moment protecting your privates and your butt squeezed tight, or it was like getting a 40,000-gallon enema.
When he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they'd put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn't it like really dangerous? Dennis would tell them you could break your back if you didn't kill yourself, but the rush you got was worth it. These summertime girls loved daredevils, even ones twice their age. It kept Dennis going off that perch eighty feet in the air and going out for beers after to tell stories. Once in a while he'd fall in love for the summer, or part of it.
The past few years Dennis had been putting on one-man shows during the week. Then for Saturday and Sunday he'd bring in a couple of young divers when he could to join him in a repertoire of comedy dives they called "dillies," the three of them acting nutty as they went off from different levels and hit the water at the same time. It meant dirt-cheap motel rooms during the summer and sleeping in the setup truck between gigs, a way of life Dennis the high diver had to accept if he wanted to perform. What he couldn't take anymore, finally, were the amusement parks, the tiresome pizzazz, the smells, the colored lights, rides going round and round to that calliope sound forever.
What he did as a plan of escape was call resort hotels in South Florida and tell whoever would listen he was Dennis Lenahan, a professional exhibition diver who had performed in major diving shows all over the world, including the cliffs of Acapulco. What he proposed, he'd dive into their swimming pool from the top of the hotel or off his eighty-foot ladder twice a day as a special attraction.
They'd say, "Leave your number," and never call back.
They'd say, "Yeah, right," and hang up.
One of them told him , "The pool's only five feet deep," and Dennis said no problem, he knew a guy in New Orleans went off from twenty-nine feet into twelve inches of water. A pool five feet deep? Dennis was sure they could work something out.
No they couldn't.
He happened to see a brochure that advertised Tunica, Mississippi, as "The Casino Capital of the South" with photos of the hotels located along the Mississippi River. One of them caught his eye, the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. Dennis recognized the manager's name, Billy Darwin, and made the call.
"Mr. Darwin, this is Dennis Lenahan, world champion high diver. We met one time in Atlantic City."
Billy Darwin said, "We did?"
"I remember I thought at first you were Robert Redford, only you're a lot younger. You were running the sports book at Spade's." Dennis waited. When there was no response he said, "How high is your hotel?"
This Billy Darwin was quick. He said, "You want to dive off the roof?"
"Into your swimming pool," Dennis said, "twice a day as a special attraction."
"We go up seven floors."
"That sounds just right."
"But the pool's about a hundred feet away. You'd have to take a good running start, wouldn't you?"
Right there, Dennis knew he could work something out with this Billy Darwin. "I could set my tank right next to the hotel, dive from the roof into nine feet of water. Do a matinee performance and one at night with spotlights on me, seven days a week."
"How much you want?"
Dennis spoke right up, talking to a man who dealt with high rollers. "Five hundred a day."
"How long a run?"
"The rest of the season. Say eight weeks."
"You're worth twenty-eight grand?"
That quick, off the top of his head.
"I have setup expenses -- hire a rigger and put in a system to filter the water in the tank. It stands more than a few days it gets scummy."
"You don't perform all year?"
"If I can work six months I'm doing good."
"I've been a ski instructor, a bartender..."
Billy Darwin's quiet voice asked him, "Where are you?"
In a room at the Fiesta Motel, Panama City, Florida, Dennis told him, performing every evening at the Miracle Strip amusement park. "My contract'll keep me here till the end of the month," Dennis said, "but that's it. I've reached the point... Actually I don't think I can do another amusement park all summer."
There was a silence on the line, Billy Darwin maybe wondering why but not curious enough to ask.
He said, "Can you get away before you finish up there?"
"If I can get back the same night, before showtime."
Something the man would like to hear.
He said, "Fly into Memphis. Take 61 due south and in thirty minutes you're in Tunica, Mississippi."
Dennis said, "Is it a nice town?"
But got no answer. The man had hung up.
This trip Dennis never did see Tunica or even the Mighty Mississippi. He came south through farmland until he began to spot hotels in the distance rising out of fields of soybeans. He came to signs at crossroads pointing off to Harrah's, Bally's, Sam's Town, the Isle of Capri. A...
Dennis Lenahan is a daredevil and the girls love him. Things are going along okay with his gig at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, "the Casino Capital of the South," until the day he looks down from the high-dive platform and witnesses a mob hit -- Dixie style. The killer looks up and says, "Let's see you dive." Suddenly, being a daredevil has lost its kick.
Turns out there was a second witness, Robert Taylor from Detroit, who carries a picture of his great-granddaddy's lynching along with a gun in a briefcase and listens to Marvin Pontiac while cruising the back roads of Mississippi in his black Jaguar. Robert works for a man from up north who has come to play General Grant in a Civil War battle reenactment, but like Dennis, Robert has a death-defying act of his own: he's sleeping with his boss's wife.
Thirty-seven miles from Tunica is the famous "crossroads" where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for a style of funky blues that had never been heard before. Robert Taylor is about to introduce Dennis to a "crossroads" of his own. He has a secret agenda for taking on the Cornbread Cosa Nostra and wants Dennis in on it.
To complicate matters are the women. Some are dressed in hoop skirts, and all of them have plans of their own. Vernice lures Dennis with the whitest thighs he's ever seen. Diane comes to do a story on him and wants to take him to Memphis. And still another comes along to give Dennis the surprise of his life. But it's the scams Robert Taylor plays, drawing Dennis into his game, that move the action through all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. Before he knows it, Dennis has agreed to join Robert in the battle reenactment, which leads to a showdown between the bad guys and the really bad guys.
Tishomingo Blues rings true with the bestselling author's dead-on dialogue, capturing the flavor and rhythms of the South, and finds him plotting at his unpredictable best.(back to top)
Elmore Leonard has written more than three dozen books during his highly successful writing career.. Many of his books have been made into movies, including Get Shorty,Out of Sight and The Big Bounce. He is the recipient of the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Bloomfield Village, Michigan.