It started as an adjective among jazz musicians, it played a role in the theories of Marshall McLuhan and it became omnipresent in the language of teen-agers.Somehow, "cool" evolved into a pervasive catchword, but its meaning remains slippery, as with all argot. On Thursday morning's CBC News, Ontario Premier Mike Harris could be heard trying to explain what his 13-year-old son considers "the coolest" kind of hair-dye job.
So it's no surprise that the master of American patois, Elmore Leonard, has installed it in the title of his dazzling 36th novel, Be Cool (Delacorte, 290 pages), a thriller that tells us a few things about the self-intoxication of people who make mass culture.
Before the 1940s, "cool" could describe either temperature or temperament, as in "cool, calm, collected." The word began its larger career in the 1940s, among jazz musicians. At first the meaning was almost precise: It meant understated, behind the beat, light in tone. In 1948 a band led by Miles Davis made some delicate, pastel-sounding records that appeared in 1950 as an album, Birth of the Cool.
By then the meaning was becoming more general: Among musicians, cool meant admirable, something like hip. In 1948, The New Yorker reported that for boppers it was simply an expression of approval. In the 1950s it spread to the larger population, through the Beat Generation writers. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan barged in and began telling us that some media (such as radio) were hot while others (such as TV) were cool. A hot medium uses a single sense, pouring its information through (in radio's case) the ear. A cool medium engages several senses, leaves some empty spaces, and lets the audience complete the message. Those definitions became so famous that when Haskell Wexler made a feature movie about TV at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, he borrowed from McLuhan for his title, Medium Cool.
Chili Palmer, clearly a cool character, appeared first in Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty as a loan shark's collector who blunders into a shady corner of the movie business and finds it exciting. A movie fan, Chili (the name isn't accidental) begins to see the violent world around him as script material, plot points. Soon he's planning a movie about a guy like himself. Published in 1990, Get Shorty anticipated Neil Gabler's recent book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality,which argues that show business is the "primary value of American life" and people regard daily existence as a form of entertainment.
John Travolta played Chili with great success in the movie, so Leonard's decision to use Chili again in Be Cool may owe something to the promise of a sequel. But Leonard also has more serious reasons. He wants to make Chili even more media-intoxicated, push him to another level of narcissistic plot-spinning. We learn Chili has succeeded with one film (Get Leo)and failed with the sequel (Get Lost). Now he's operating on the violent edges of the music business, but still turning life into scripts. When he's threatened by a violent hoodlum, he points out the flaws in the fellow's dialogue. He makes an enemy of a gigantic thug because he fails to get the man a promised screen test. Chili keeps forgetting to distinguish between art and life, just as in Neil Gabler's nightmare -- except that Leonard makes the point with far more style and wit than Gabler.
As a man so drunk on mass storytelling that he never learns his own story (or wants to), Chili is an emblematic figure, like another of Leonard's symbolic characters -- Ben Tyler, the cowboy at the centre of Cuba Libre, a novel that appeared last winter. Running guns to Cuban rebels in 1898, Ben embodies the American experience abroad; he plans a quick and profitable trip, slowly gets sucked into the action and soon realizes he's permanently committed.
The characters in Be Cool would be struck dumb if deprived of that word. Someone is a cool girl, very smart, someone else just acts cool because he's lazy, and someone is accused of hiring a homosexual bodyguard just because "You think it's cool." At one point the word occurs six times in 23 lines. My favourite appearance: "I can get out here's cool." Meaning: You can drop me off here.
Eventually, Leonard charges this infinitely malleable word with an almost religious meaning. As Chili and his friends incessantly talk about what's cool, Leonard suggests that at an unconscious level they're trying to move toward a higher condition of being -- a state of grace, or satori. For Chili, cool may be the gateway to the enchanted life he dreams of leading.