Chapter Excerpt

LaBrava

Chapter One

"He's been taking pictures three years, look at the work," Maurice said. "Here, this guy. Look at the pose, the expression. Who's he remind you of?"

"He looks like a hustler," the woman said.

"He is a hustler, the guy's a pimp. But that's not what I'm talking about. Here, this one. Exotic dancer backstage. Remind you of anyone?"

"The girl?"

"Come on, Evelyn, the shot. The feeling he gets. The girl trying to look lovely, showing you her treasures, and they're not bad. But look at the dressing room, all the glitzy crap, the tinfoil cheapness."

"You want me to say Diane Arbus?"

"I want you to say Diane Arbus, that would be nice. I want you to say Duane Michaels, Danny Lyon. I want you to say Winogrand, Lee Friedlander. You want to go back a few years? I'd like very much for you to say Walker Evans, too."

"Your old pal."

"Long, long time ago. Even before your time."

"Watch it," Evelyn said, and let her gaze wander over the eight-by-ten black and white prints spread out on the worktable, shining in fluorescent light.

"He's not bad," Evelyn said.

Maurice sighed. He had her interest.

"He's got the eye, Evelyn. He's got an instinct for it, and he's not afraid to walk up and get the shot. I'll tell you something else. He's got more natural ability than I had in sixty years taking pictures. He's been shooting maybe four."

Evelyn said, "Let's see, what does that make you, Maury? You still seventy-nine?"

"Probably another couple years," Maurice said. "Till I get tired of it." Maurice Zola: he was five-five, weighed about one-fifteen and spoke with a soft urban-south accent that had wise-guy overtones, decades of street-corner styles blended and delivered, right or wrong, with casual authority. Thirty-five years ago this red-headed woman had worked for him when he had photo concessions in some of the big Miami Beach hotels and nightclubs. Evelyn Emerson -- he'd tell her he loved the sound of her name, it was lyrical, and he'd sing it taking her to bed; though never to the same tune. Now she had her own business, the Evelyn Emerson Gallery in Coconut Grove and outweighed him by fifty pounds.

Evelyn said, "I sure don't need any art deco, impressionistic angles. The kids like it, but they don't buy."

"What art deco?" Maurice looked over the worktable, picked out a print. "He shoots people. Here, the old Jewish broads sitting on the porch -- sure, you're gonna get some of the hotel. The hotel's part of the feeling. These people, time has passed them by. Here, Lummus Park. They look like a flock of birds, uh? The nose shields, like beaks."

"Old New York Jews and Cubans," Evelyn said.

"That's the neighborhood, kid. He's documenting South Beach like it is today. He's getting the drama of it, the pathos. This guy, look, with the tattoos ... "

"He's awful looking."

"Wants to make himself attractive, adorn his body. But you look at him closely, the guy's feeling something, he's a person. Gets up in the morning, has his Cheerios like everybody else."

She said, "Well, he's not in the same league with any number of people I could name."

"He's not pretentious like a lot of 'em either," Maurice said. "You don't see any bullshit here. He shoots barefaced fact. He's got the feel and he makes you feel it."

"What's his name?"

"It's Joseph LaBrava."

Evelyn said, "LaBrava. Why does that sound familiar?"

She was looking at Maurice's tan scalp as he lowered his head, peered at her over his glasses, then pushed them up on his nose: a gesture, like tipping his hat.

"Because you're aware, you know what's going on. Why do you think I came here instead of one of those galleries up on Kane Concourse?"

"Because you still love me. Come on -- "

"Some people have to work their ass off for years to get recognition," Maurice said. "Others, they get discovered overnight. September the second, 1935, I happen to be on Islamorada working on the Key West extension, Florida East Coast line, right?"

Evelyn knew every detail, how the '35 hurricane tore into the keys and Maurice got pictures of the worst railroad disaster in Florida history. Two hundred and eighty-six men working on the road killed or missing ... and two months later he was shooting pictures for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the face of America during the Depression.

She said, "Maury, who's Joseph LaBrava?"

He was back somewhere in his mind and had to close his eyes and open them, adjusting his prop, his heavy-frame glasses.

"It was LaBrava took the shot of the guy being thrown off the overpass."

Evelyn said, "Oh, my God."

"Joe had come off the 79th Street Causeway going out to Hialeah. He's approaching I-95 he sees the three guys up there by the railing."

"That was pure luck," Evelyn said.

"Wait. Nothing was going on yet. Three guys, they look like they're just standing there. But he senses something and pulls off the road."

"He was still lucky," Evelyn said, "I mean to have a camera with him."

"He always has a camera. He was going out to Hialeah to shoot. He looks up, sees the three guys and gets out his telephoto lens. Listen, he got off two shots before they even picked the guy up. Then he got 'em, they're holding the guy up in the air and he got the one the guy falling, arms and legs out like he's flying, the one that was in Newsweek and all the papers."

"He must've done all right."

"Cleared about twelve grand so far, the one shot," Maurice said, "the one you put in your window, first gallery to have a Joseph LaBrava show."

"I don't know," Evelyn said, "my trade leans more toward exotic funk. Surrealism's big now. Winged snakes, colored smoke . .

"You oughta hand out purgatives with that shit, Evelyn. This guy's for real, and he's gonna make it. I guarantee you."

"Is he presentable?"

"Nice looking guy, late thirties. Dark hair, medium height, on the thin side. No style, but yeah, he's presentable."

Evelyn said, "I see 'em come in with no socks on, I know they've got a portfolio full of social commentary."

"He's not a hippy. No, I didn't mean to infer that." Maurice paused, serious, about to confide. "You know the guys that guard the President? The Secret Service guys? That's what he used to be, one of those."

"Really?" Evelyn seemed to like it. "Well, they're always neat looking, wear suits and ties."

"Yeah, he used to have style," Maurice said. "But now, he quit getting his hair cut at the barbershop, dresses very casual. But you watch him, Joe walks down the street he knows everything that's going on. He picks faces out of the crowd, faces that interest him. It's a habit, he can't quit doing it. Before he was in the Secret Service, you know what he was? He was an investigator for the Internal Revenue."

"Jesus," Evelyn said, "he sounds like a lovely person."

"No, he's okay. He'll tell you he was in the wrong business," Maurice said. "Now he spots an undesirable, a suspicious looking character, all he wants to do is take the guy's picture."

"He sounds like a character himself," Evelyn said.

"I suppose you could say that," Maurice said. "One of those quiet guys, you never know what he's gonna do next.

But he's good, isn't he?"

"He isn't bad," Evelyn said. LaBrava. Copyright © by Elmore Leonard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.


Excerpted from LaBrava by Elmore Leonard
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