Plug: listen, there’s a hell (of a good discussion going on next door, so go)

As I said in the comments section yesterday, it does not look like I’m going to get any more articles finished before the end of August.  I believe this would be the first time I ever let a whole calendar month pass without a new article, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, this time I definitely was wrong, because here’s an article.  About somebody else’s article.

Pete has been doing a bang-up job on his Gaping Blackbird blog, and I’ve mentioned it before (plus there’s a link to it in my list of Known Associates.)

However, he’s just finished one of his best reviews yet, of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.  Which I always meant to read, and I will someday, but do I let that stop me from commenting?  Nah!  A fine discussion already going, and a few more voices wouldn’t hurt.

So not sure how much of my readership has read that magnum opus of dystopian SF, but if you have–or if you always meant to, and need a bit more encouragement (it’s evailable!), why not head over there and check it out?

It is, shall we say, a timely work.  And much as I’ve touted Mr. Westlake’s penchant for prophecy, I  think even he would acknowledge Brunner his superior in that regard.

He’d also appreciate the man’s taste in typewriters–another Smith-Corona man, was Mr. Brunner.  He used electrics, which Mr. Westlake might deplore, but he’d have appreciated a legend that Brunner emblazoned on his typewriters, reading “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE STUPIDITY OF EDITORS.”  (To which I would append the modifier ‘some’, but Brunner may never have had a Lee Wright or a Bucklin Moon in his life, and modifiers are wimpy.  Sometimes. Arg.)

(And how do I know what typewriter John Brunner used?  I’m so glad you asked me that.)

See you in a few weeks.  Barring catastrophe, of course.  There’s been some kind of upheaval in the world every single time I’ve visited Ireland as an adult.  It’s a thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Addendum: A Titled Man

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In my shamelessly self-indulgent David Murray review, I was pleased to open with a quote from  Joe Goldberg, referencing a lunch he had with Donald Westlake in Beverly Hills, in the 90’s.

I’ve referenced Goldberg several times here, because that friendship is of interest to me, and I’d like to know more about it.  Westlake dedicated Somebody Owes Me Money to Goldberg (congratulating him on his recent book by referring to him as ‘a titled man’).  He loved to repeat the story about how he was lamenting that Parker had been played by actors as diverse as Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, and Anna Karina. Goldberg (who had been working as a script reader for various studios) quipped “The character lacks definition.”  

I just got a copy of his landmark collection of essays, Jazz Masters of the 50’s, and am reading it now.  He had to give up music criticism for a time, because all the clubs closed down, and he made the exodus to the left coast.

Did you ever wonder how Donald Westlake became friends with Joe Goldberg? They were both born in Brooklyn, but Westlake moved upstate when he was very young.  You probably assumed they met at a club in Greenwich Village, or possibly a record store. Maybe just I assumed that. Whoever assumed it was wrong.  As I just found out.

Turns out there’s a blog for everybody–

It didn’t last very long. Not a lot of articles, and most of it seems to be recorded interviews of a very old Joe Goldberg done for an oral history project.  Which are mainly about his work in Hollywood, and I couldn’t find any references to Westlake, but I skimmed.  Because they got a bit depressing.  (I’ve done oral history myself, and you know, probably these things should not be done just before somebody dies, though I guess better late than never.)

Even though this blog only lasted about two months, there’s gold in them thar hills.  My eyes bugged out a little when I spied this entry–do I need to tell you who ‘Hal’ is?  He is, one might say, a man who wrote dirty books.  Then gave up that respectable living to write for Hollywood.  The cad.

Hal writes:

In 1958, I was churning out paperback pornography along with other writer wannabes like Larry Block and Don Westlake.

One of us found a magazine called SWANK or STANK or SLANK that had an article about pulp porn that praised Don Holliday (my pen name) and Sheldon Lord (Larry’s pen name) and Edwin West (Don’s pen name) as being the only pornographers who could write their names in the dirt with a stick.

The article was written by Joe Goldberg which we assumed was a pseudonym. In fact, I thought that Larry had written the piece and Larry figured that Don had and Don was certain that it was my work. But ten or twelve drinks later, one of us had the bleary idea to see if a Joe Goldberg existed in the Manhattan phone book. And sure enough, one did and he became a life-long pal to all three of us.

If we neglected to thank him for the puff piece, well, we do now. Mucho gracias, buddy.

(There actually was–and still is–a dirty magazine named SWANK, but for all I know the other two exist as well, along with SANK, SKANK, and SPANK. Presumably not SHRANK.)

There’s an earlier contribution from Mr. Dresner, but it’s less germane to our interests here.

So.  Let me see if I have this straight.

To pay the bills, in the late 1950’s, three men who were someday going to be successful writers were turning out what was then considered pornography, under false names.

And to pay his bills, a guy who was someday going to be a very influential music critic was reviewing their dirty books for a dirty magazine. Under his own name. (I guess that was considered more respectable?)

And this is how they became friends.

Well, I said it was an addendum.

Joe Goldberg passed in 2009.  Here’s a very informative obit with a link to him ably dissecting the Ken Burns Jazz history docu in 2001.  Nobody thought to do an oral history of him then?  Oh well.

Far as IMdB knows, Hal Dresner is still alive.  He’d be in his early 80’s.

What are the odds, you think, that he would be able to tell me which sleaze novels credited to which pseudonyms of which Westlake poker buddies contain uncredited Parker cameos written by Westlake, as attested to by D. Kingsley Hahn?

I’ve thought about asking Lawrence Block, but how the hell do you open up a conversation like that?  Trying to come up with a segue…….”Mr. Block, you’re probably the only member of your clique who expressed nostalgia over writing those things…..”  Well.  I’ll work on it.

 

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Review: David Murray and Class Struggle, Village Vanguard, 6/22/18

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Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the label and now its co-chairman and co-CEO, and his late brother Nesuhi were already jazz fans when they moved to the United States, and were fortunate enough to be able to invite jazz musicians to play at their home, which was the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., where their father was Ambassador. This remarkable life, and Ahmet’s ability to function on all social levels, are documented in an extraordinary two-part New Yorker profile by George W.S. Trow. (I remember that the mystery writer Donald Westlake and I had been discussing the articles when we walked into Carroll O’Connor’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ahmet Ertegun was sitting there. Westlake didn’t know who the elegant man in the blazer was, and when I told him, he called his wife in New York to tell her who he had seen.)

From an article by Joe Goldberg, in Billboard, 1/17/98

First they stopped at Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise Inn at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue and stood for a moment at the front of the circular bar.  They drank two whiskeys each and talked to each other about the caper.

The bar stools and surrounding tables were filled with the flashily dressed people of many colors and occupations who could afford the price for air-conditioned atmosphere and the professional smiles of the light-bright chicks tending bar.  The fat black manager waved the bill on the house and they accepted; they could afford to drink freebies at Small’s, it was a straight joint.

Afterwards they sauntered toward the back and stood beside the bandstand, watching the white and black couples dancing the twist in the cabaret.  The horns were talking and the saxes talking back.

“Listen to that,” Grave Digger said when the horn took eight on a frenetic solo.  “Talking under their clothes, ain’t it?”

Then the two saxes started swapping fours with the rhythm always in the back.  “Somewhere in that jungle is the solution to the world,” Coffin Ed said.  “If we could only find it.”

“Yeah, it’s like the sidewalks trying to speak in a language never heard.  But they can’t spell it either.”

“Naw,” Coffin Ed said.  “Unless there’s an alphabet for emotion.”

“The emotion that comes out of experience.  If we could read that language, man, we could solve all the crimes in the world.”

“Let’s split,” Coffin Ed said, “Jazz talks too much to me.”

“It ain’t so much what it says,” Grave Digger agreed, “It’s what you can’t do about it.”

They left the white and black couples in their frenetic embrace, guided by the talking of the jazz, and went back to their car.

“Life could be great but there are hoodlums abroad,” Grave Digger said, climbing into the car.

“You ain’t just saying it, Digger; hoodlums high and hoodlums low.”

From Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes.

It had been a long time.  In the nabe of thirty years.  I moved to the Bronx.  I went back to school.  I went into debt.  I fell in love.  I developed other interests. I got old.  I needed sleep.  I’m not saying any of these are good enough reasons. But whatever the reason, I stopped going to jazz clubs and following David Murray around like a stalker.

For a while there, though, I was going to see the greatest musicians on earth, playing in rundown bars and basements, sometimes every week.  Sometimes in tonier establishments.  Sometimes even in concert halls.  Or at the old Central Park bandshell, in Summerstage season (Olu Dara once changed the weather while I was listening to him blow cornet there.  Go ahead, roll your eyes.  I saw it.)

I’ll run down some of the names.  Dizzy Gillespie (past his prime, still a showman with few equals).  Benny Carter (his prime somehow never ended).  Sonny Rollins (once at the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, once at the Damrosch bandshell).  Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and McCoy Tyner–both at Mikell’s, one of many great uptown clubs that went the way of all things.

I never got to the vocalists much (more of a night club thing, not my scene, stuck to records), but I saw Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton.  All yours for dinner and drinks, maybe a cover charge.  Hell, the Rollins concerts were free.

I caught Murray’s Big Band at the Town Hall Theater once (best acoustics imaginable in a venue that size).  Benny Carter at the Cooper Union with the American Jazz Orchestra and an ambitious new composition (good acoustics, tricky sightlines).

Mainly it was clubs.  I don’t remember all the names, and most of them are gone now anyway.  (The rent is too damn high).  Saw Murray with the World Saxophone Quartet at one place I couldn’t find on a map now.  There was this girl bending Julius Hemphill’s ear about what a great saxophonist she was.  I guess if you want to break in, you can’t be the shy type.

Sweet Basil was good if you wanted to see Murray’s Octet–more space, great acoustics and sightlines.  Decent food, too.  Good beer for the time period (Becks).  One time between sets, he sat down next to me to chat with a friend.  They talked about his marriage and stuff. I just sat there and questioned the nature of reality.  I have never once tried to engage him in conversation, even though we’ve been inches apart.  Never figured me for the shy type, did you?

But the place I kept going back to was the Vanguard.  Down those stairs, to the most storied basement on earth (smaller than some apartments I’ve been in).

You weren’t necessarily going to see the very biggest marquee names there, during the 80’s.  If they were there, you’d have a hard time getting in.  But you saw the finest workmen–the ones who drew the people who wanted more than just marquee names. Don Pullen.  Kenny Barron.  Art Farmer.  Milt Jackson. Sonny Fortune.  George Coleman. Harold Mabern.  Lester Bowie.  George Adams.  Danny Richmond.  Jim Hall.  And David Murray.

Max Gordon was still alive when I started going there.  I’d see him in the back sometimes, by the bar.  Three sets back then, and I’d invariably stay for all three, getting home maybe three in the morning sometimes (these were weekday gigs–back when I could get up after eight and still get in to work on time).

I’d sneer at all the one and two set wimps, who filtered out as the evening went on, until sometimes the band outnumbered the audience.  But they still played like it was to a full house composed of crowned heads of Europe.  The last set is always the best. Because by that point, they’re playing for themselves.

And much as I might rant to anyone who’d listen about the sheer injustice of it–how musicians with not a tenth the ability had a thousand times the audience (or more)–I wasn’t really bitching so much as bragging.  ‘You think you know what music is, but I know.’  Just like I am now.  Well, that goes with the territory.

You can go see your rock god in some looming amphitheater, up there in the nosebleeds, far away.  Maybe as he ages, you can catch him at a smaller venue, showing his age more and more (I suppose if you’re rich enough, you can do better–a cheap victory, purchased at exorbitant rates, never really about the music.)

It’s the jazz buff who can worship his or her gods up close and personal, hear every nuance, be bathed in the music, lifted by it, know for a few hours what it is to stand atop Olympus–perhaps only pilgrims to Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem ever experience anything comparable.  But so briefly, after so arduous a journey.  The Vanguard was my Kaaba, my St. Peter’s Basilica, my Wailing Wall. I can be there in 40 minutes if the trains are running right.  What took me so long?  Did I mention I got old?

I wonder if sometimes he was down there with me.  You know.  The guy whose name is up top.  If not those particular nights, then others–more than me, I’ll bet.  The Vanguard, once a speakeasy called The Golden Triangle, opened as a music/comedy club in 1935–not even two years after your man was born in Brooklyn.

It was a full time jazz venue by 1957,  by which time he’d come to live in the then-affordable Village, and was writing short stories and sleaze paperbacks to pay the rent.  He could have walked it.  Cover charge for one set today is thirty-five bucks.  I believe it was fifteen when I was a regular, in the mid-to-late 80’s.  So maybe a five spot in ’57?  When the biggest names in jazz were down there.  I think we can assume he was there.  (And at the actual Five Spot in Cooper Square, and the long-lost 52nd St. clubs–when he had the time, and the funds. Romance without finance–always a nuisance.)

But far as I know, he never mentioned it.  He didn’t write about jazz that much–I think maybe because it was too sacred to him, and (I’m guessing) because he didn’t feel qualified to cover the finer points–but it was part of everything he wrote.  Nobody ever valued improvisation more highly than Donald E. Westlake, master of the ‘push’ method.  And he was all about collective individualism, if that makes any sense (individualist collectivism?)

And here’s the analogy I can imagine him making: A jazz combo is a string.  A group of talented specialists, who band together in a loose-knit confederation to make a score, then go their separate ways.

Somebody has to lead, and some show more talent for that than others, but it won’t always be the same one leading, and it’s never an absolute dictatorship–maybe to some extent with a big band, which requires more regimentation, but that was a short-lived era (too expensive) and the best bands–Ellington, Basie–were never known for over-drilled martial discipline.  You don’t lose your identity in a great band, you develop it.  And everybody gets a chance to solo.  From each according to his means.

At that time in my life I hadn’t heard of him (and as the article snippet up top illustrates, having heard of someone doesn’t guarantee recognition).  He could  have been sitting behind me, or next to me, and I wouldn’t have known.  Though not in front of me, because I was always up front.  I don’t think he was living in the city at the time, so maybe our Vanguard eras didn’t overlap.  There can be no doubt at all that his ghost is one of many haunting that bass-ridden basement.  As mine will be someday, I hope.

So this is all very Jesuitical of me.  I want to review Murray’s gig.  I don’t have a jazz blog.  I don’t feel like starting one, or think there’d be any reason to read it if I did.  (I can’t even read music.)  So I’ve sought and found a way to justify posting my review here.  And having done so–the review.  (Not a long prologue by my standards.)

(It should be noted, I’m hardly the first Westlake buff to give Mr. Murray his due.)

So what happened was, I read that Lorraine Gordon died. I felt like paying my respects.  I checked the website (used to look in the back of the Village Voice to see who was playing, but you know,  most Bohemian institutions haven’t aged as well as the Vanguard).  Guess who’s coming to visit?  Used to be I just paid at the door, and if I could go in the middle of the week, maybe that’d still work, but I reserved online for Friday.  Both sets.  I may be old, but I’m no wimp.

Jumped on the #1, got there shortly before the first set began, grabbed a slice at Tivoli Pizza (still there!), burned the roof of my mouth wolfing it down , went downstairs, and displayed my virtual ticket on the screen of my smartphone.  Some things change, some don’t.

Sold-out house.  Would I mind sitting right by the stage?  Oh, I’ll bear up somehow.

Same pictures on the walls (maybe some new ones, but they all looked the same age).  Same beat-up tuba (one of these years, I’ll ask whose that was.)  Same wobbly circular tables.  Same Philip Stein mural by the bar.  (Did you know he studied at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico?  Same town Westlake wrote about in The Damsel?  Me neither.)

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(Taken between sets.  You are basically supposed to forget cellphones ever existed while the music’s playing, and make sure nobody else is reminded of their existence, all of which is fine by me.)

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(Taken from my seat.  Piano used to be a Yamaha.)

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(I checked for a dialtone.  Just to make sure I hadn’t gone back in time.  Not that far, anyway.)

So not much had changed since last I was there.  And then the band got onstage, and Murray hadn’t either.  He turned sixty-three last February.  Looked about the same as he did thirty years ago, carrying a bit more weight, not showing it much.

Craig Harris, Murray’s longtime collaborator, maybe the best trombone player alive, showed every one of those thirty years, though he is not even one year older than Murray.  He’d gone the other way, grown thinner, legs a bit shaky, and he needed to sit down catch his wind frequently.  Life is not fair.  His chops were strong as ever.  Jazz is.

And when he was between solos, he’d come over and sit by me on the long cushioned bench, apologizing when he jostled me a bit.  (Craig Harris stepped on my foot.  I can die now.)

When it was time for him to stand and deliver again, Murray would shoot him a meaningful look, and Harris never missed that cue.  I think I know now, in a way I did not before, what musicians meant when they talked about Benny Goodman giving them ‘The Ray.’  And why Harris, at that Town Hall concert I mentioned, referred to Murray as ‘The Little General.’

Though I was there to hear Murray, in some ways Harris’ performance moved me even more.  Every solo took a lot out of him, but he kept finding more.  That’s a tough instrument, the slide trombone.  As analog as a horn can be, sticking way out in front of you, demanding big moves, as well as a strong embouchure. Takes finesse and power to make it talk the way it should. It’s fairly high-maintenance (I know a guy who has become legendary in the ranks of brass and reed players for his ability to fix their ailing axes).  Harris would stop here and there to apply some lubricant to his ax.  Then back to the woodpile.

There were moments of unspeakable eloquence, when he teased at the bell of his horn with a plunger mute (the kind you get at the hardware store),  kneading it into just the right shape to get just the right note.  Sam Nanton never did it better.

(I was also reminded of the existence of the trombone spit valve.  Got a little on my foot–I was wearing Birkenstocks.  Anointed, you might say.  Jazz is not purely an aural sensation at the Vanguard.)

It’s a sextet, Class Struggle.  A mix of older and younger musicians, the senior statesmen being Murray and Harris, both well into their sixties.  The younger generation is represented by Murray’s son Mingus on electric guitar, Rashaan Carter on bass, and Russell Carter on drums (that must get confusing sometimes).  They all soloed ably, laid down the rhythm track with elan.  If I’m being honest, I don’t come to clubs to hear bass and drum solos, and my tastes in jazz guitar run more to the Jim Hall school.  But if you were napping (not that I ever was), Murray the Younger’s acidic biting licks would jolt you awake PDQ. Everybody solos in jazz, or it’s not jazz.

In the middle was the piano man, Lafayette Gilchrist, who is fifty.  As Murray himself says, it’s rare to have guitar and piano in a small combo.  I had never seen him play before, and I dug his style a lot (also his porkpie hat–wish I could pull that look off).

Murray tends to favor pianists who can go barrelhouse when the occasion merits it.  Gilchrist used his elbows some, as well as his educated fingers.  He’d play finely articulated arpeggios on the right, then come down hard with his funnybone on the left.  That’s a fine way to treat a Steinway.  If he anchors a group of his own at the Vanguard, I’ll be there.

But I was there to see the best tenor sax player of the late 20th, and I really doubt anybody has knocked him off so far in the 21st.  Bring back Lester Young, and we’ll see.

Back in the 80’s, Murray moved his shoulders while he played, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, which is what he is.  I saw less of that this time. (Rotator cuff trouble?  Maybe he just decided it wasn’t helping anything.)

But he still swung like nobody else.  This is a man who took a bite off of just about every great tenorman’s plate, though most often they talk about Gonsalves and Webster in his mature style.  He still retained what learned from Ayler and Shepp–that beauty comes in many forms, some of them outwardly dissonant, but melodic down deep.  Old, new, borrowed, and deeply blue.

He is the living embodiment of jazz history–all the lessons learned along the way, all the accumulated influences, distilled into something alive, thoughtful, questing–neither rejecting the past nor living in it.  Drawing upon it, like fuel, to provide the escape velocity into a better future.  (Westlake would have approved.)

He only picked up his bass clarinet once during the second set,  and man I missed that deep sound it makes.  A lot of sax players have used the bass clarinet as an alternate, including Dolphy and Coltrane, but none of them treat it like Murray–he recorded the best-ever version of Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz on that horn, and that’s what he does–he waltzes with it.

He didn’t play Jitterbug Waltz this time, or Morning Song, or Bechet’s Bounce, or Dewey’s Circle, or any of the numbers I remember from the 80’s (some of which are better suited to a larger ensemble).

I wish I’d taken notes about what they played, but then again, I really don’t.  A bit of Ellingtonia, a bit of Albert Murray (not related), and of course some compositions of his own.  He mainly didn’t even bother to tell us what they were playing, because after all, isn’t that what we have ears for?  Mine were rusty, after so many years.  But they appreciated the grease.

While Harris, for all his inspired blowing, needed to take frequent breaks, Murray played as hard as he did in his 30’s–and stayed on his feet the whole time (I think he did take a bathroom break at one point, but I didn’t ask.)  Some players, like Benny Carter, like Max Roach, just don’t seem to tire–age doesn’t touch them, at least until it’s time for them to go.

Each set ran close to ninety minutes, with very little in the way of verbal asides, because they were there to talk by other means.  To anybody who could hear them.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.   (Nobody agrees who said this first.)  Then again, why not dance about architecture?  Why not sing about novels?  Why not write poems about lovemaking? (Actually, isn’t that something most poets do?)

David Murray does all of that and more, and hard as I’ve tried to explain what he does, I didn’t come within a parsec of what Mr. Himes said in that little passage up top.  Jazz talks too much to us, and most of the time, we don’t listen that long, or well.

I watched, a bit smugly, a bit sadly, as most of the people at the first set (sold out) got up and left to make room for the people coming in for the second set (also sold out).  That hadn’t changed either.   (Though back in the day, the third set was never sold out).  They’d had their fill.  My appetite was barely whetted.

Well, the seats aren’t exactly built for comfort (as my ass was telling me by the end.)  The drinks aren’t what you’d call cheap (much fancier bar menu than I remember–no Molson Golden anymore.)  I had Pellegrino the first set, Wild Turkey the second.  Got to watch the alcohol lately.  Long story.  Aren’t they all.

Between sets, I briefly met one of Max and Lorraine Gordon’s daughters, and I suppose I should have said I was sorry for her loss, but she’d heard plenty of that already, and I was thinking more of  our gain–that there was another generation of Gordons to keep the flame lit a while longer.

Long enough for me to get down there a few score more times before my flame goes out, I hope.

Good morning to all of you, and here’s a song.  (And I’m pleased to say, that neon sign was a brief aberration–some change is for the good.)

 

 

 

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Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, Часть третья (Part 3)

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They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov.  I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.

I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.)  I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests.  I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened).  But alas.  Not to be.

Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery.  And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves.  Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.

And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth?  Nations as populous as China,  as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea.  This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today.  The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland.  I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)

And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them.  There are organization men, seeking to be controlled.  There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap.  And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.

And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone.  That they can prevail.  If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills.  You can make a sound in this world.  You can be someone to reckon with.  Oleg was one of those.  That I know.

But this is an enconium.  Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy.  Nothing at all like an obituary.  So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the other kind.  Title page and end papers.

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(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)

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Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.

Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.

The optician.

Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.

As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.

It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.

Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.

The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.

(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed  Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing.  Also product placement.  I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)

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The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel.  Little Feather?   Ehhhhh….  women are under-represented in these illustrations.  One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)

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“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.

And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”

They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.

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(Ho ho ho.  Merry Heistmas.  The Perfect Crime, at last.)

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(Villainy receives its just retribution.  From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)

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Just one more.  And so fittingly, it happens to be—

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The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”

Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”

“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”

“Wow,” Anne Marie said.

“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”

(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books.  Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May.  None of Gladys Murch.  Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have.  I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books.  Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well.  Or do I mean that the other way around?)

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(This image I could have done without.)

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(Not this one, though.)

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“The shoes, Rumsey.”

He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”

“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”

“Take them to the shoe repair?”

“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”

“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”

She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”

In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?

“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”

“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”

“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.

Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”

“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.

“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.

Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”

“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.

Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.

The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”

What, was he crazy?

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(The final image.  Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)

In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot.  (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)

And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations.  I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).

Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt.  Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.

(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say.  Hmm, which one you think has an accident first?  Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea?  I guess we’ll find out.)

Why do I do all this?  To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him.  Why did Oleg do all he did?  To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough.  He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.

This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!)  He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections.  (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)

But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations.  And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after.  But he was a Westlake reader.  And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader.  So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?

It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.

Good shooting, Tovarishch.

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Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, часть вторая (Part 2)

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“It just looks small.  To me it looks small.”

“Dortmunder,” Stan said, losing his patience, “it’s a tugboat.  It’s the safest thing in New York Harbor.  This boat has pushed around oil tankers, passenger liners, big cargo ships from all over the world.”

But not recently.  Labor strife, changes in the shipping industry, competition from other eastern seaboard ports; what it all comes down to is, the New York City tugboat is an endangered species.  Most of the sturdy little red and black guys with the hairy noses and the old black tires along the sides are gone now, and the few still struggling along, like the hero of a Disney short, don’t have much of a livelihood to keep them going.

There’s nothing new, let alone revolutionary, about publishing editions of books you don’t have the rights to.  It’s happened to some of the most famous and popular books ever written.  It even happened to Shakespeare, after his death–that’s why we still have Shakespeare’s work.  Because a small group of friends and admirers (in a time before copyright) collected and published it, in a limited deluxe edition.  You may have heard of it.

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Long after most of you reading this are gone (and perhaps myself as well), the rights of the literary estate of Donald E. Westlake will expire, and anyone with access to a printing press (if such things even exist by then) will be able to publish any or all Westlake novels in any quantity or format they choose.  (Going by e-books I’ve seen, some of his short stories are already in the public domain, though none of his best ones).

From that time onwards, whether the books stay in print or not will depend entirely on whether the interest in reading them, originals or translations, still exists, passed from one generation to the next, across the centuries.  The one thing that keeps fiction in print after an author’s death is passionate readers.  And it was passionate readers who committed this unprofitable act of minor theft.  Relating to 14 novels about a unprofitable pack of minor thieves.

I find great symmetry in this.  I still think copyright laws exist for good reason, and must be enforced strongly.  But of all the storytellers who ever lived, surely this one would be most inclined to turn a blind eye when it came to theft committed in a good cause.  Or even just for the sheer fun of it.  Anyway, no doubt he and Oleg have already discussed it over a few bourbons, if Mr. Westlake had any bones to pick.  Speaking of which–

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In this case, the end paper illustration relates to the first part of the omnibus.  (Though I can’t say I recall this precise scene.)

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(This one I remember.  How are things in Tsergovia, Grijk?)

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(Oh no!  Dortmunder is going to be tortured by Zippy the Pinhead’s evil round-headed cousin!)

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(Kelp on the prowl, seeking a saintly femur.  Probably my favorite illustration from this book.)

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(The stalwart men of the Continental Detective Agency on the job.  After eating drugged pizza, see up top.)

(Your guess as good as mine. Haven’t read this one in a while.)

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(So this guy gets a nod, and J.C. envisioning the great nation of Maylohda does not?  There is no justice.)

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(Finishing up with a nice bit of heraldry.)

Time for one more?  Why not?  Or as they say in Russia–

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(I don’t think Dortmunder and Gus Brock were dressed like this at the Carrport Mansion–where nobody was supposed to be–but what the hell.  Looks cool, don’t have to draw whole faces.)

(And now Dortmunder is in his usual shabby suit.  Continuity with regards to personal appearance and dress is an occasional problem with these editions, but with art like this, am I complaining?)

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(I like the Superman insignia on Wally’s jacket, although it does make me wonder if in some parts of the world, he is considered to be the true hero of the novels he appears in.)

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(My vote’s for this Wally!)

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(Dead.  Solid.  Right.)

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(You all know how I think Max Fairbanks looks.  I suppose that in present-day Russia, it might not be politique to portray him that way.  Still, way too distinguished looking–though I must admit, there is a reference to him being a brandy drinker.  Also, there are Stars of David in the I-Ching?  Who knew?)

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(Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into. He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”)

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(Two Golden Carriages.)

(Laugh clowns, laugh.)

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(For the last laugh shall be ours.  In a Westlake novel, anyway.  Hey, maybe even in real life!  What’s the best that could happen?)

TO BE CONCLUDED–

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Quick Fix: Hey, where’d the blog go?

I think I may have overloaded it with high-density scans. Let me just post this and see if that clears up the problem.

No, that doesn’t seem to work. Hmmm.

Well, for the moment, you can find the comments section and other paraphernalia over at ‘About The Westlake Review.’

In the meantime, anybody have the number for WordPress Tech Support?

(editing) Okay, I deleted the full-sized scan of the cover and spine for Vol. 3.  The operative phrase would be TMI, I guess.  Seems okay now.

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Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened.Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked him on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too.  They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.

 

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(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

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(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

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(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

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(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

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(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

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(If at first you don’t succeed….)

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(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

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(The best-laid schemes…..)

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(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

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(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

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(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

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(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.

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