Artist of the floating world . Elmore Leonard's great gift is to show us as we really are: with little inner life or any real faith in the future. John Gray on a hard-edged master of the spoken word

Tishomingo Blues

Elmore Leonard <em>Viking, 320pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0670912956

Like many of Elmore Leonard's characters, Dennis Lenahan takes big risks chasing small gains. A man with few talents and no prospects, he makes a living jumping from the top of an 80-foot ladder into a nine-foot tank of water. He has ended up taking the dive at the Tishomingo Lodge and Casino because, nearing middle age, he found he could not stomach any more years doing one-man shows in amusement parks: "It meant dirt-cheap hotel 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, finally, were the amusement parks, the tiresome pizzazz, the smells, the colored lights, rides going round and round to that Calliope sound forever."

A high-diver's life can be tedious. For Lenahan, the Tishomingo Lodge is a pleasant change of scene - until he witnesses a murder there. From the top of his 80-foot perch, he sees the shooting of a small-time hustler, and realises that the killers have seen him. He has stumbled into the territory of the Dixie Mafia, a ramshackle, bungling outfit that controls the local trade in amphetamines and channels the proceeds into a mobile-home dealership. From this point on, the book follows a pattern familiar to readers of Leonard's spare, deadpan novels. The owner of the mobile-home business is a bizarre but believable Southern type who dresses up as a Confederate general in re-enactments of civil war battles. The weaknesses of the general and his fellow re-enactors are exploited by Robert Taylor, a subtle black Detroiter whose role becomes clear only as the plot's strands are pulled satisfyingly together at the finish. Along the way, Lenahan keeps body and soul together with a diet of ill-defined deals, flexible hopes and quickly negotiated sex.

Tishomingo Blues is classic, inimitable Leonard. Unlike Raymond Chandler, with whom he is sometimes compared, Leonard is a powerful storyteller. Yet the beauty of his best work is not in its stories. Nor does it lie in his characters. In contrast with the staples of crime fiction, no one protagonist recurs throughout Leonard's novels, and his characters are rarely exotic or out of the ordinary. A latter-day John Aubrey, Leonard chronicles the brief lives of America's small-timers and no-hopers, men and women who never quite make the one big hit that will set them free. When Dennis Lenahan calls himself "the edge guy", he is not talking only about the way he makes a living. His entire life is spent on the edge: the narrow ledge between a past he prefers to forget and a future that is strictly hypothetical. Leonard's characters have declared a moratorium on their previous lives. For them, the past means prison or alimony, a failed career or sour business venture. Invariably, they have a dream of the future, but it is usually thoroughly banal - reading National Geographic magazine on the beach, as one of them put it in an earlier novel - and, for nearly all of them, unreachable. At the end of Tishomingo Blues, Taylor realises that Lenahan saved his life, and tells him so:

Dennis said, "Yeah, I know it."
Robert said, "Man, I owe you, don't I?"
Dennis said, "Yes, you do."
Robert said, "Tell me what you want."
Dennis said, "Let me think about it," and paused and asked Robert, "You know anybody in Orlando?"

As Leonard tells it, the short-order life has no finale, unless it is one that comes about by chance. It also lacks anything that can be called morality. Again unlike Chandler, Leonard's characters are not pitted against the world by a stubborn sense of honour. His hard-pressed small-timers may have one or two sticking points, but they have nothing in common with Sam Spade, wearily keeping the faith through tacky times. It rarely occurs to any of them to ask whether what they are doing is right or wrong. This is not because they are affectless sociopaths of the sort that roam the novels of Patricia Highsmith. For the most part, they are just average human types, unromantic men and women who know they will never be able to afford a conscience.

There is an interesting question about Leonard's attitude to his characters, but it is not one that is easily answered. Is he for or against them? Well, he never judges them, but nor does he take their side. He is nearly always invisible, recording their lives with minimal interpretation or comment. There is no dreary psychologising; moods and motives are shown, not described or analysed. In fact, Leonard's characters have very little inner life. Their lives are composed of the settings in which they act; there is nothing beyond, or beneath, what they do. It is this absence of inner life in his characters that makes them so realistic - in other words, so like ourselves, as we actually are. Maybe this is what accounts for Hollywood's fondness for Leonard's books. If they sometimes have the flavour of film scripts, it is not because they are written with an eye to being screened. It is because they are like films, reporting the surfaces of our lives, the outward world of places and things that novelists usually ignore in order to focus on an inner world of consciousness that is itself mostly fictitious.

Leonard's impatience with anything that smacks of the stream of consciousness underpins his dialogue. He is not the only writer to have used dialogue as the basis of his novels - so did George V Higgins, in books such as the marvellous Friends of Eddie Coyle. It is a technique that links him with Hemingway and Steinbeck, who seem to have influenced him more deeply than has any crime writer. But Leonard's use of the rhythm of the spoken word creates a style of writing that is uniquely his own. His perfect ear allows him to capture, more faithfully than any of his contemporaries, the edgy existence of people who live from day to day in the mistaken belief that tomorrow will be different. His world of small-time crooks and scheming no-hopers may not be yours or mine, but it latches on to something we all recognise - the permanently provisional way we construct our lives. The supreme artist of this floating world, Elmore Leonard has once again pulled off the trick of entertaining us with the truth.

John Gray's next book, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, is published by Granta in September