And In Review……

Capture

A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.

Donald  Edwin Westlake. Speaking to Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe.  All of whom were also Donald Edwin Westlake.

“The direction of escape is towards freedom.  So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”

Ursula K. Le Guin.

It all really began with Trent Reynolds, and The Violent World of Parker.

I’d started reading the Parker novels because I’d enjoyed two different films based on The Hunter.  I wanted to know more about what I was reading, and Wikipedia wasn’t that informative.  There was only one website on the internet devoted to Parker, at least in English.  It was there I began to acquire context.  Without which, nothing ever makes much sense.  Without which, you can’t fully understand what you read.  Not that anything worth reading is ever simple enough to be understood completely.

There was an official Westlake site, but it wasn’t getting updated much (DonaldWestlake.com has steadily improved as a resource all the time I’ve been doing this blog, and there were times when I didn’t know what I’d do without it).

VWOP was more than a database–it was a community, relating to not only the Parker novels, but many other things relating to Westlake.  Engaging in its format, giving you the sense there was this world of limitless adventure and intrigue waiting for you between the covers of these books.  As a tribute site to a great genre author, I cannot say I  have ever encountered its better.

I’ve told some of this story before, no need to repeat it all, but I did what I’ve usually done since the Mid-90’s, when I find myself obsessed with a given set of fictions–I looked for people I could discuss them with online.  Because preferable as conversations in three dimensions may be, it’s not that easy to find somebody in your non-virtual life who is conversant in everything you want to talk about.

I love talking about books so much, that recently, when a lawyer friend mentioned at another friend’s birthday party that she’d read something called The Essex Serpent, and had been captivated by it, I downloaded the ebook post-haste, polished it off in a sconce, and the very next time I saw her, attempted to engage her in a far-ranging literary debate on the deeper implications of Sarah Perry’s Neo-Victorian venture into the Gothic Realm.  Which lasted maybe ten minutes. Shortly after, she moved upstate.  (That’s one way to get out of having me talk your ear off about books.)

The novel had enraptured her, but to her it was a great love story with a sort of pseudo-paranormal slant–and it’s all of that and much more (Sarah Perry bears watching, is all I’ll say for now).  But that’s all she, with her busy life, full of dogs, horses, and The Law, had time for.  We can’t all be book nerds, nor should we.  For many a book is just something to savor, then put aside.

You can read many thousands of books in a lifetime.  You don’t get a friend for each.  Book clubs are–how shall I put this?–clubbish.  Oprah, for all her powers, can only accomplish so much in one lifetime.  Even if you could afford to go back to school, where it’s normal to want to talk a novel to death, there are no courses devoted to Parker or Dortmunder (plenty for Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  And who has the tuition money?

Somewhere out there in cyberspace, there are people reading the same things you are.  The  internet does have its uses, after all.  (So does a life partner–mine loves both Parker novels and The Essex Serpent, but she’s never really gotten into the rest of Westlake, as I did when I ran out of Starks).

Trent had a comments section for each of his blog articles (some of them written by Nick Jones, polymath proprietor of the more free-ranging Existential Ennui, who Trent had developed a creative partnership with).  I began to comment.  First on Nick’s site, then on Trent’s (there was also a Yahoo!Group thingy, never did much care for that format).

I had a lot to say.  I had too damn much to say, much of it snarky in nature.  I never could bear fools gladly, and where there’s an internet, there be fools, myself not least among them, but false modesty does not become a lit-nerd.  How shall I put this?

There were problems, for which I shall accept my rightful share of the blame, no more.  But the real problem, as Nick deduced, was that I needed my own space, where I could set the parameters of discussion myself.  As narrow or wide-ranging as I needed them to be.  People would dig it or not, but you can’t get thrown out of your own place.  (Well, maybe you can, but I’m not that obnoxious.)

And here we are.  And here we’ve been, for over four years now.  First me, then Ray, then Greg, Mike, jalp5dai, Anthony, Rinaldo, Phil, Adi, J. Goodman, many a kibbitzer passing on through (if I missed your name, doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the input).

It never felt like a book club–more like a loose-knit free-form crew of planners, locksmiths, drivers, assorted specialists and utility infielders, swapping insights, pulling heist after heist together–and the score was enhanced understanding of an author we all loved.  And this blog was the O.J. (sorry I never could figure out how to distill my own brand of virtual bourbon).

And because you were here, egging me on, making this exponentially more than I ever could have achieved in my own, I have finished what I set out to accomplish.  (If you knew me in real life, you’d know how remarkable that is.)  I’ve substantively and in some cases perhaps even authoritatively reviewed each and every Donald E. Westlake novel that isn’t a sleaze paperback.  Plus short story collections.  Plus a few of the less objectionable film adaptations (and one of the most objectionable).

I review by the ‘push’ method, much as Westlake wrote his fiction.  No outlines, just ideas that took shape as I worried at them, making use of various found objects as I went, and at some point I stopped being wondering at how the right object was always found just when I needed it.  (Like I’m still pinching myself over the Adrian Benepe quote from 2006 that I used in my review of Comfort Station.  I bet Westlake was too.)

OR the spooky coincidences–getting to my review of Brothers Keepers right around St. Crispin’s Day, or posting Part One of my Good Behavior review around the Feast of St. Dismas, which fell on Good Friday that year.  And then there was my review of Adios Scheherazade, that I got in on April Fool’s Day. (Thanks again to Mr. Westlake for answering my celestial correspondence in time for that to happen.  Sorry, I still can’t tell you what happened to Ambrose Bierce.)

Sure, if I noticed the temporal convergence, I’d work a bit faster so as to have that date stamp–but if you think I planned that out more than a day or two in advance, you really do not know who you’re dealing with here. I can’t even plan where I go to lunch more than a minute before I head out the door, and sometimes it’s a minute after.  I do my taxes online, right after I get my W2–in about 45 minutes (I’ve spent my refund before you’ve finished itemizing deductions).  I live by the ‘push’ method.  Doesn’t everyone?  Don’t answer that.

My reviews kept getting longer as I went, more complicated, more spoiler-laden, and sometimes less readable, but it seemed like the more I said, the more I had to say, and the deeper into the weeds I had to get.  To some extent, that was true of Westlake as well, so it wasn’t all my fault.  The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.  You know?

Many of my favorite reviews are one-parters, but I hold some of my three-parters in high regard, and as for four-parters, let’s just be grateful I didn’t do a Tolstoy blog.  (Never read Proust; maybe I’ll have the time now.)

As we create our own identities, we create our own realities.  I came to feel that Westlake had been waiting for me.  While I was gestating, getting born, learning how to walk, experiencing my first conscious memories, he was writing his first novels under his own name, and Stark’s, and Coe’s, and etc. We shared two states and a lot of years, as our lives moved on parallel lines, never meeting once.  I could have met him, quite easily, as I’ve met other writers I admired.  He was notoriously friendly and helpful to readers who got in touch with him.  I never even read him until he was gone.  Freddie-come-lately.

And the more I read of him, the more I knew I’d found a mind that worked very much like mine.  Only tougher.  Fiercer.  More disciplined.  I began to perceive that I would never be the smartest person in any room Donald E. Westlake was in.  And by figuring him out, I might figure myself into the bargain.  (Thus answering the Dortmunderian query, Quid lucrum istic mihi est?)

I feel like everything in my life prepared me, in one way or another, to grasp him.  Too much familiarity might have gotten in the way, somehow.  Many knew him up close–I scanned him from afar.  In the best way anyone can scan a writer.  Through what he or she wrote.  Because it is through art, not conversation, or correspondence, that we humans tell the unvarnished truth about ourselves.  What cannot be said can be sung.

And how he sang to us all, of darkness and light, of laughter and pain, of criminals, clowns, calamities and capers, and always, in every word that came out of his Smith Coronas, of self.  Of identity.  Who are you?  What are you doing?  Where are you going? How will you get there?  Will you get there in one piece?  Will you let this world break you down to nothing, or will you stand up, fight back, get away clean?

Sometimes you fight best on your own.  Sometimes you need a string.  But either way, the fight is to be yourself.  The hardest thing in this world to be.  And the only thing in this world that matters a damn.

He hid his theme well, but it was always there, for those who were willing to see that this most diverting and versatile of storytellers was never content with mere diversion, and his experiments with style and form were merely conduits for a vision that went far beyond the normal parameters of his chosen genre.  His hideout, if you will.  Where he could plan his heists without the law catching wise.

His goal was never escapism.  Escape, sure.  We all need a getaway car, now and then.  But escapism, to me (pace Dame Ursula), means wanting to forget the real world entirely.  To lose yourself in stories, when you should be finding yourself there.  To never learn, never confront your problems, never grow up, never become anything. To never be real.  Because it hurts so damn much.  It’s easier to be a phoney all your life.  To never look past the surface of things.  To skate on through, sweating the small stuff, missing the big picture.

If that’s what you want, you are in the wrong fucking place when you open a Donald Westlake novel.  You picked the wrong getaway car (and with no MD plates; I can hear Kelp tsking).  There’s a reason he never had a best-seller in his life, in spite of being one of the best-liked most-admired writers of his generation.  Escapism sells because most people don’t have the guts to stare the world as it is right in the face, stare it down.  He did.

But he did it without pretense, without affectation, without hubris.  Without roaring in the jungles of high culture, like some literary lion, fighting the other lions over prizes and plaudits (and occasionally, plagiarism).

He much preferred to prowl the fringes, like a grinning coyote.  Leaner. Meaner. More cunning. More adaptable.  Built to last.  Always finding a crack to slip through, a score to tide him over. A survivor, as much at home on a city sidewalk as a primeval wilderness. The equivalent of a coyote in Africa is a jackal, and guess who’s going to eat the last lion? The trickster always wins in the end.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?  And much too complicated to be fully understood by any one storyteller.  Brilliant as Westlake was, I was never out to say he was the be-all and end-all, that there were not many wordsmiths who could best him in this or that arena of their shared profession, or that perceptive as he was, he was never wrong.

He would have known too well the universal truth of Charles Willeford’s dictum,  “My work is one long triumph over my limitations.”  But I knew that he merited a bit more attention from the opinion-makers of the book world.  That he was being taken too lightly, and he still is, and will be for some time to come.  So if I overcompensated, let’s at least acknowledge I had something to overcompensate for, and someone worth doing it for.

When I named this blog, I was making an implicit pun.  Yes, it’s The Westlake Review because I’m reviewing everything Westlake.  But it’s also my understaffed attempt at a sort of literary journal.  The kind that many other great writers have been honored with after their deaths (I think they’d have mainly preferred cash, but never mind).

The point of my reviews was never “This book is great, this one’s pretty decent, this one’s okay, this one’s kind of meh”–not to evaluate them as works of entertainment, as ‘reads,’ because others had already done that.  I wanted to evaluate them as expressions of a man’s soul, commentaries on the world he saw around him, the worlds he saw inside himself, and inside all of us.

I wanted, more than anything else, to convince people that he was and is a Great Writer–he may never have won a literary prize more prestigious than the Edgar, but remind me how many prizes Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens ever won?  Is he that immortal? No, and neither are most of the dead writers who actually have their own scholarly journals, where every word is parsed, every sentence deconstructed, every meaning hidden, and only other scholars give a shit.

This is a journal for scholars of the road.  Scholars without portfolio.  The best scholars for a meat and potatoes guy like him, though really, the tenured set might try a bit harder.  We here are looking for a different kind of tenure.

I saw too few highbrows out there even trying to understand him at more than a superficial level–not just because he was genre, but because he was funny. And because he wrote so much, in so many different voices, he was too hard to get a handle on. The blind men never did get their act together with regards to this elephant, but maybe they’ll compare notes someday.  Don’t hold your breath.

There was also a lowbrow section of  his readership I ran into online–mainly Stark readers, and you know the type.  They likewise couldn’t see past the outward trappings of genre, the macho wish-fulfillment angle, which has its place in crime fiction, just as it does in Homeric poetry, but the difference was, they didn’t want to see anything else.  I’m pleased to say I saw very little of that type here–I probably bored them.  The feeling is mutual.

I guess that makes me midbrow?  Do people still use that term?  However elevated my brow may be, it was frequently knit when trying to pierce Mr. Westlake’s mysteries.  (Which I will say one last time were never about whodunnit.)  He put me through my paces, slow dance to foxtrot.  And the dance floor is barely scratched.  I got a small piece of what’s in there.  Waiting now in joyful hope for a greater detective than myself, whose gumshoes I am not fit to shine.

I’ll never say all there is to say about him, but that would hold true for any subject of note. My problem is, I have not yet said all I have to say about him. I’m not done yet.  There are short stories I haven’t read. Nonfiction articles I could look at.  There are sleazy paperbacks he wrote to pay bills, and I can’t give them the same treatment his real work got, but they might be worth a quick pass through (if I can afford to buy enough of them–very collectible). There’s an archive in Boston I could mine for gold, as Greg did before me.  And there are things about books I’ve already reviewed that I just didn’t have enough context to pick up on the first time through.

And there are a few other crime writers I want to talk about–each of whom has some kind of oddball connection to Westlake.   Each of whom had his attention, and they have mine too.  I need more context there as well.  Which means I need time to read up on them.  Which means I may not be posting so often for a while.  It’s going to depend on what found objects surface in the coming year.

But to go back to where I started, this all began with The Violent World of Parker.  Which showed me what could be done with an internet connection, a bit of spare time, and a lot of passion.  It convinced me that you could create an online community devoted to a writer who isn’t yet counted among the immortals, and it also proved that running out of books doesn’t mean you’ve run out of things to talk about.  That was my first model for what I’ve done here.  Showed me the ropes.

It also warned me this is an ephemeral medium.  Back in 2015, VWOP vanished from the internet.  There had been outages here and there in the past, but they never lasted long.  This one dragged on for seeming eons.  Nobody knew the story.  I’d have emailed him, but the only addy I had was from VWOP.   Going by the metaphor of somebody’s blog as his or her getaway car, it began to seem like we’d seen Trent’s last mace.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

Then, days ago, I got an email from him.  Asking if I’d update the link to VWOP in my Known Associates sidebar–which I never had the heart to get rid of, even though it now leads to a site hawking hair products to Japanese men. Don’t ask–well, if you must.

If I hadn’t read so many Westlake farces, I’d call that outlandish yarn of VWOP‘s foreign abduction a bald-faced fib. (You knew that was coming too.)  A Likely Story indeed!

On a purely selfish level, I’m relieved I don’t have to go back and update all those links to sections of his site that I put in my reviews.  What’s that, you say?  Now that the addy for VWOP has changed, however slightly, I still have to do that?  That should keep me busy a spell.  Anybody remember which reviews those were in?

But here we are again with the freaky coincidences.  VWOP was a long time dead.  Nick Jones had pretty much stopped writing about Westlake, before I ever got started.  All that while, I was holding forth here, on my long slog through the canon. What were the odds VWOP would come back–with Nick Jones once more contributing–just as I was writing my last review?  And that, at the very same time, a new voice was heard singing in the marshes?  (Can’t wait for him to get to The Blackbird.) The world is not simple enough to understand.  Neither is the internet.

Ethan Iverson’s vitally important summation, with its unique insights, never left.  David Bratman’s pioneering compendium of pocket reviews not only survives, but has been updated recently.  The Official Site continues to expand, and I think you might say we’ve got a quorum here.  Always room for one more.

Timing is everything.  I came along at just the right time to have a level of access to Westlake’s work that earlier enthusiasts could only dream of.  The last unpublished novel (they’re pretty sure) came out this year.  The Getaway Car came out just as I was starting.  This is, in fact, a golden age for Westlake scholarship and general appreciation.  The only thing we don’t have is–well……

I think sometimes about his very last day on earth.  In a country he loved.  As the country where he lived embarked on a new era, his opinions of which I could not comment on, except to say he’d have preferred it to the one we’re in now. (He really did try to warn us, you know.  We really should have listened, you know.  But hey, what’s the worst that could happen, huh?)

Details are sketchy about his demise.  He took a trip to Mexico, and never came back.  (He and Bierce must have had a good laugh about that).  Seems that he who lives by the ‘push’ method may also die by it.  Were there last words?   I’ve long heard that the famous last words of famous authors are generally more like the last reasonably coherent things they said–penultimate words.  So what were they?  Somebody knows.

I respect his family’s privacy.  In this and many other things.  But there should be a biography of him, and not that far into the future.  I heard somebody was working on one.  That was years ago.  Don’t look at me.  You don’t write scholarly tomes by the ‘push’ method.  And I suppose I’d end up preferring the man I imagined.  The face I could see as I read his work.

At the risk of repeating myself (And don’t I always?  Hasn’t killed me yet.) I shall close this section of The Westlake Review with the same words I finished my review of Kahawa with–the finishing lines of George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens, one of the writers Westlake most identified with.  They work oddly well for him too.  A man born out of his time, who nonetheless chose to live and write in the present, because that’s where the fight is.

He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Sin-é!

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Review: Get Real, Part Last

summer

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.  

“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”

“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”

“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.

“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”

Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.

I love John Dortmunder.

I mean, not that way.  I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here.  Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here.  And I’m hardly alone in this.  My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.

Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved.  Nor does he give a damn if he is or not.  Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him.  Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.

Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but would how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with?  We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.

And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true?  Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon.   You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not.  Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.

I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car.  No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories.  Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all.  (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)

Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy.  Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here.  With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.

One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy.  True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century.  Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it.  He must have known that.  Nor was this such a new sensation.  He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life.  Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.

But there are compensations.  To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them.  You may even get an inkling of things yet to come.  And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning.  So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.

All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work.  The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.

The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them.  We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing.  Must that always be true?  I could not say.

But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970.  And yet, not the same at all.

So what’s different?  This time they know about it.  I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger.  To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before.  Self-awareness is one thing.  Self-consciousness quite another.

And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched.  Most of all when you’re playing to a camera.  Playing yourself.  Instead of just being yourself.  Which was hard enough to begin with.

To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work.  What you do shapes everything about you.  He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.

Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs.  If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere.  (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.)  But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.

And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that.  Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it.  Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins.  The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself.  Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it.  To be is to be perceived.

This is normal for entertainers, of course.  That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?)  But how about a writer?   Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.

Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore.  B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either.  I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed.  Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.

If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.

Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it.  He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower.  Few can claim to be that focused.

Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him.  Maybe not even then.  In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be.  To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.

To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?

I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting.  As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool.  They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies.  They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.

Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars.  Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him.  That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.

So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system.  As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.

Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it.  (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)

Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing.  He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete.  He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff.  I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same.  Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work.  There is no Jobs, no CEO.  Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers.  An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.

It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow.  Creative anarchism.  (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates).  And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea.  No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.

Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it.  Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires.  So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer.  Here’s just one exchange from that process.  (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years).  Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”

Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “

Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”

His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.

Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”

“I got it.”

“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”

“You got it.”

“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”

“Okay.”

“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”

“Done.”

Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “

Yar!”

“Start listening!”

“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—

“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”

“Can’t you hear anything?”

“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”

Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes.  Dortmunder accepts.  Graciously, if a bit stiffly.

Why is this work so good to watch?  Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment.  This, in a nutshell, is fiction.  (And life, or it ought to be.)

Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted.  There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions.  They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”

I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape.  Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.

Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty).  Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap.  But we watch it.  Because it’s fun!  Vérité be damned, we crave variety.

(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon.  Won’t even mention Keanu.  Too obvious.  Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity.  The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)

The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject.  They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.

And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros  in their own field–and what’s their job?  To make you look good doing your job.  Which makes them look good at their jobs.  One hand jacking off the other.   Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.

The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell.  This is not who they are.  If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived.  To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.

They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company).  They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it.  That’s how they get real.

They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all.  It’s not what they do.  Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know.  To thine own self be true.

Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a  huff, because really.  Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.

The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’  You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it.  There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars.  Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.”  Well, maybe if it’s a diner.

The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you.  Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops.  Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet.  Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere?  Andy?  Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom.  The internet is definitely not there.

But Doug is, and that’s even worse.  He doesn’t belong in the real OJ.  They shut the door in his face.  But he persists.  The corporate overlords love the new heist show.  They want to go ahead with it.  Please, please come back!  They’re kind of meh about it.  The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way?  Doug says that’s not how reality works.  John says “Why not?  How real is reality anyway?”  That is the question, all right.

But they come back.  Because money.  And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera.  Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene.  Very stiff.  But that’s okay, they can carry him.  They’re professionals.  They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.

So they pull the job.  The cash is there, just like they thought.  So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that.  Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it.  Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.

To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen.  This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway.  I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.

There’s a ton of cash in there.  Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is.  The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home.  The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again.  They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.

So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was.  They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left.  Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it.  $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.

“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.”  He smiles.  And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past?   The Avalon Bank Tower heist.  The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better?  Because it’s repeatable.  They can keep going back for more.   As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.

Except they don’t work there anymore.  Corporate moves in mysterious ways.  Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals.  They can’t be associated with crime!

(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again.  Westlake was still thinking about Trump.  Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real.  I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.

Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building.  TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real.  And it’s TUI that cancels the show.  I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016.  Much as his insights may be missed.)

So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent.  Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs.  Everybody else is fired.  The show is canceled.  Shut it down.

Just in time, too.  They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news.  Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook.  “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place.  You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”

Like himself, but not himself.  Just like the others.  They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly.  Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio.  Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy?  You can dish it out but you can’t take it!

Marcy is so happy.  This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé.  The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play.  Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned.  Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.

Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one.  10k a hood, I mean head.  Plus they got some money upfront.  Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud).  Plus they got the money from the dishwasher.  Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out.  (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)

“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks.  Already snapping back to his old self.  You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it.  It’s a living.  We suppose.

Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate.  Dortmunder feels bad for her.  She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not.  She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something.  Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash.  “There’s an idea,” says Kelp.  He doesn’t stop walking.  Disappears around the corner.  Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.

John, stop.  Wait.  Come back, John.  Please come back.  You can’t leave us.  We love you. John?

Gone.

Just like the man who first made him real.  I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right?  He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.

But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once.  The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage.  There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits.  And that’s us, get it?  We’re the fairies.  Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.

Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality.  Transcendent reality.  And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again.  (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).

Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming.  I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way.  The best way is to read the books.  Over and over.  Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it?  Which is what I re-read Get Real on.  Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind.  And share it with someone who loves you.  Then you’ll be real too.

Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what?  No more?  Well then.  Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself.  I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my  job.  It’s been real.  You know?  Open bar at the OJ.  Bourbon’s on me.  Tell Rollo Fred sent you.

PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words.  Uploaded it to YouTube.  You can view it here.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real, Part 2

Babe turned to John. “Just so you know what’s happened here,” he said, “the Social Security numbers are much more important than the names. You can call yourself Little Bo Peep for all I care. But a corporation like ours simply cannot employ anybody who cannot demonstrate, with a valid Social Security number, their right to work in this country. We absolutely cannot hire wetbacks.”

Andy said, “Wetbacks?” sounding incredulous.

Babe patted the air in his direction. “Listen, I know you guys are homegrown, I know you’re not illegal aliens.”

“We are,” John said, with dignity, “illegal citizens.”

When they first started to do the camera thing, Dortmunder found himself, to his surprise, itching all over. That was completely unexpected, the idea that all of a sudden he’d be feeling this great need to scratch, all different parts of his body. He didn’t want to scratch, he just felt compelled to scratch, but he fought it off, because he was damned if he was going to stand there and look like an idiot, scratching himself like a dog with fleas in front of a bunch of cameras.

And the cameras themselves were intrusive in ways he hadn’t guessed. They were like those barely seen creatures in horror movies, the ones just leaving the doorway or disappearing up the stairs. Except that the cameras weren’t disappearing. They were there, just incessantly there, at the edge of your peripheral vision, their heads turning slightly, polite, silent, very curious, and big. Big.

Between the nudging presence of the cameras and the maddening need to scratch all these itches, Dortmunder found himself tightening into knots, his movements as stiff as the Tin Woodman’s before he gets the oil. I’m supposed to act natural, he told himself, but this isn’t natural. I’m lumbering around like Frankenstein’s monster. I feel like I’ve been filled up with itchy cement.

Dortmunder’s last dance is, in many ways, his most off-beat.  You know the tune, but the cadence keeps throwing you off.

It goes back, as I said last time, to the more focused approach of the first few books–there is one idea here, pursued to its conclusion, logical or otherwise. The usual story elements are trotted out.

There is a heist–attempted several times, finally successful, which goes back to the very first book, the variation here being they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for, or where exactly to find it.  It all takes place in New York.  No new string members are introduced (none that are going to stick, anyway). Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and (like him or not) Judson.  The core group.

The ladies auxiliary, of May, Murch’s Mom, J.C., and Anne Marie–so important to previous books–present and accounted for but mainly sidelined.  This isn’t about them.  It’s about whether the men in their lives still count for something. Do they have a place in this world?  (Technically, they should be on Social Security by now, but who says Social Security is going to have a place in this world?)

What’s missing?  An identifiable enemy (unless you count Dortmunder’s arch enemy, change). Nobody is out to murder them. Nobody is out to jail them. Nobody is out to cheat them of their rightful due.  The closest thing to a nemesis is this authority figure who keeps storming in, saying “This show is canceled, shut it down.”  I am not the first to detect a metatextual overtone to this leitmotif, anymore than I’m the first to try and plumb the existential mysteries of maybe the most consummate storyteller the mystery genre ever had.

Am I too fanciful or is Babe, the executive producer, somehow Westlake’s own grim reaper, circling like a vulture before ringing down the curtain? Read carefully. At the least, it is rather chilling and moving how Babe sits in the corner, a “stiff” actor, while Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, and the kid are asked to reminisce “about the hits of yesteryear.” It’s the last book but the normally unsentimental author gets it in:

“The group cut up old jackpots, the bank in the trailer, the emerald they had to keep going back and getting again and again, the ruby that was too famous to hock so they had to put it back where they got it, the cache of cash in the reservoir. The time just seemed to go by.”

You know, it has at that.

The other Westlake completist (who never bothers much with the pseudonyms), says this one sticks out as well.  He is, nonetheless, gratified our champion goes out a winner.  “John Dortmunder, sad sack no more.”  Might as well say John Dortmunder no more.

And what would Westlake want to do for the brainchild who was, in many ways, closest to his heart?  If he suspected this was the final outing, and there’s reason to think he did.  The elder and fiercer of his thieving progeny, self-reliant to the last, would always take arms against a sea of troubles, and in opposing end them. That younger, timider screw-up of a prodigal–who had still done his dad proud, so many times–he maybe needed a little help.  A final bequest, let’s say.  If he had the gumption to claim it.  If to his own self he was true.

Although I have given less virtual ink to much better (and longer) Westlake novels, I have come to terms with the fact that there’s a lot to say about this one.  Get Real is at least as good as Dirty Money.  So a three parter this shall be, after all. (What happened to the Fred Fitch who polished off Ex Officio in 6,205 words?  I suspect foul play.)

Let me try one final subheading motif, to move us along more briskly.  We’ll begin with–

STORAGE WARS:

When Kelp came strolling down Varick Street at two that afternoon, he saw Dortmunder ahead of him, facing a building in midblock, frowning at it while he frisked himself. Kelp approached, interested in this phenomenon, and Dortmunder withdrew from two separate pockets a crumpled piece of paper and a ballpoint pen. Bending over the paper held in his cupped left palm, he began to write, with quick glances at the facade in front of him.

Ah. The right third of the building, at street level, was a gray metal overhead garage door, graffiti-smeared in a language that hadn’t been seen on Earth since the glory days of the Maya. To the immediate left of this was a vertical series of bell buttons, each with an identifying label. These were what Dortmunder was copying onto a cash register receipt from a chain drugstore.

Reading the labels directly, since Dortmunder’s handwriting was about as legible as the Mayan graffiti, Kelp saw:

5 GR DEVELOPMENT
4 SCENERY STARS
3 KNICKERBOCKER STORAGE
2 COMBINED TOOL

The building, broad and old, was made of large rectangular stone blocks, time-darkened to a blurry charcoal. On the street floor, to the left of the garage, were two large windows, barred for security and opaque with dirt, and beyond them at the farther end a gray metal door with a bell mounted in its middle at head height. The upper floors showed blank walls above the garage entrance and three windows each, all looking a little cleaner than the ones down here.

Putting paper and pen away, Dortmunder acknowledged Kelp’s presence for the first time: “Harya doin?”

“I wanna see the inside of the place,” Kelp told him.

“We can do that,” Dortmunder said, and pushed the button for five.

The gang has accepted Doug Fairkeep’s offer to build a reality show around them–while using the access they get to seek the caches of corporate cash, earmarked for illegal overseas bribes, which they now believe might exist within this grimy downtown edifice, occupied by several businesses, all of which may in fact be related to each other in some obscure way.

They meet Doug’s boss Babe Tuck, who introduces himself with the foreboding remark that they’re lucky to only have to worry about U.S. prisons.  Aside from the occasional rape, stateside stir is so much cushier than what he encountered back during his foreign correspondent days.  Life expectancy is much longer.  Kelp says maybe it just seems longer.  Babe likes that, says they have to keep a mike on this guy, he’s a character.  Oh he is that, Babe.

The idea of the meeting is to figure out which aspects of the gang’s working life could be best translated to television.  The subject of a hang-out is raised (‘lair’ is the word they actually use), and the TV people learn of the OJ Bar and Grill.  They express a desire to see it–not to film there, they assure an alarmed Dortmunder, but to recreate it as a studio set, where the gang can be seen plotting their next job.

This show is going to be a bit different than your usual reality TV gig.  Because they’re going to film people committing crimes, there will have to be a lot more artifice than is the case even with a ‘normal’ show of this type.  (Which it seems to me is ever more true of the genre as a whole. Mission creep, you could call it.)

As the book goes on, the gang alternates between learning how to play edited versions of themselves, and trying to find that cash.  As John puts it, the heist the TV people see and the one they don’t see.  One of those other businesses, Combined Tool, has a door with a very sophisticated alarm system.  Hmmm!  Andy’s expertise with locks (no Wally Whistler or Herman X this time) is going to be tested as never before.

There is, as you see, an actual storage outfit  in the building, which is a potential target for the TV heist–but that turns out to have nothing but people’s old worthless junk in it.  Like, you know, a normal storage outfit.  That has not been salted in advance with all kinds of rare wacky collectibles–which would have been one solution to the problem of how to pull a legal  heist that people would enjoy watching on TV, but nobody suggests this.  (Storage Wars premiered in 2010).

Doug Fairkeep is happy with how things are developing (or so he thinks), but the need for him to develop this new show is going to be accelerated by revelations concerning the previous one, as shall now be detailed in —

SAY YES TO THE DRESS:

“I’ll tell you,” Doug said, “I wouldn’t kick Darlene out of bed.”

“Kirby would,” Marcy said, and the other two sadly nodded.

Doug said, “Does he have a reason?”

“Yes,” Marcy said. “He says he’s gay.”

Gay!” Doug made a fist and pounded it into his other palm. “No! We shall have no gay farm boys on The Stand! Who gave him that idea, anyway?”

Marcy, on the verge of tears, said, “He says he is gay.”

“Not on our show, he isn’t. In the world of reality, we do not have surprises. Kirby has his role, the impish younger brother who’s finally gonna be okay. No room for sex changes. What does Harry say?” Harry being the father of the Finch family.

Josh shook his head, with a weak apologetic smile. “You know how Harry is.”

Not an authority figure; yes, Doug knew. Whatever they want is okay by me, you know? So far, that had been a plus, meaning there was never any argument with the producers’ plans for the show. Except now.

Marcy said, “I think Harry has the hots for Darlene himself.”

“No, Marcy,” Doug said. “We aren’t going there either. This is a clean wholesome show. You could project it on the wall of a megachurch in the South. Fathers do not hit on their sons’ girlfriends. Come next door, fellas, we’ve got to solve this.”

Meanwhile, over at The Stand, Doug’s other show, about an upstate New York farming family trying to hawk their produce by the roadside (in Putkin’s Corners, which you will remember from Drowned Hopes, though Dortmunder would much rather forget), things are not well, as you see.  The show is about the family’s dynamic, and that is disintegrating, due in part to the pressure of being incessantly filmed. (What does that remind me of?)

A lushly proportioned blonde named Darlene has been hired to play the younger son’s love interest, spice up the storyline a bit, and he’s refusing to play along, because girls are yucky. The older son is deemed unsuitable because he’s established as the gloomy loner who is going to leave the old farm to study engineering.  These people need to stay in character, dammit!

And the father, who would happily leap into bed with Darlene, is just too darned old.  It’d be creepy.  (I know what you’re all thinking, and so am I, about Doug’s assertion that older men hitting on really young women won’t play in the evangelical heartland, but let’s stay focused here. This is a family blog.  Pretty sure nobody’s reading it while attending a megachurch, but maybe if the sermon goes long….)

Doug wants Darlene on the show, it should be mentioned, because he’s hoping to get her into bed himself (off camera, funny how the people who make these shows never seem to aspire to be in one themselves).  This does not work out as planned either, but we’ll get to that.

The subplot with the Finch family goes on through the book, and ultimately ends with production on The Stand shutting down–the family just doesn’t want to play along anymore.  They aren’t getting rich from it, fame hasn’t made them any happier, and business at their stand hasn’t picked up that much, probably because loyal viewers can’t navigate the secondary roads in upstate NY. (Can anyone?)

We never get to know any of the Finches, only hear about them through scattered reports, but they make an impression, regardless.  I would describe them as the secondary heroes of the piece.  Westlake himself hailed from that part of the world, and I think the point is that all inducements to the contrary, they just can’t help being themselves.  Their real identities reject their fabricated identities, like an implant that didn’t take.

They say no to the show, refuse to  hit their marks, and that’s how they stop being marks, sink with relief back into middle American mediocrity.  Overoptimistic?  We can ponder that question as we sink (metaphorically!) into our next topic, namely–

THE STARLET:

Darlene didn’t believe they were really serious. This was her third reality show—fourth, if you counted The Stand, though you probably shouldn’t—and in her experience nothing that happened in reality was serious. She’d been a contestant on Build Your Own Beauty Parlor and a survivor on The Zaniest Challenge of the Year! and would have been a fiancée on The Stand if that fellow hadn’t turned out to be all icky, and she had to say that not one of those shows had been any more serious than first love.

This one, that Doug Fairkeep kept calling The Gang’s All Here although apparently he really didn’t want to, would just be more of the same. This “gang” wasn’t going to steal anything. They were just a bunch of guys who could look like bank robbers in some B movie somewhere, that’s all.

Just look at the variety of people inside the “gang”: that was the giveaway. All of these cast-to-type characters, the ugly monster for the “muscle,” the sharpie with the line of patter, the gloomy mastermind, the testy driver, and the innocent youth, that last one so the audience would be able to see it all through his eyes. Everything but a black guy, so maybe you didn’t need a black guy any more.

Of the peripheral characters in this book, Darlene Looper is by far the best-developed (you know what I meant).  Sexy in a way that probably won’t age well, but too young to let that bother her right now.  Does she care about fame?  No.  Does she care about acting?  Hell no.  Will she take any excuse on offer to get the hell out of the dustbowl she was born in?  Now you’re talking.

Darlene Looper was a product of North Flatte, Nebraska, a town that had had its peak of population and importance in the 1870s, after the railroad arrived and before the drought arrived. The railroad turned out to be a sometime thing, but the drought was the natural condition of the Great Plains, it being a kind of a joke on the European settlers that they got there in the middle of a rare rainy streak.

All the time Darlene was growing up, North Flatte was getting smaller, until there was nobody left who cared enough to correct the POP. sign on the edge of town, which would apparently read 1,247 forever. (In truth, the comma had moved out a long time ago.)

Darlene followed suit, and since then she’s played her assets for all they’re worth.  But just because you invariably get cast as the dumb blonde doesn’t mean you have to play her in real life.  Darlene gets a lot of things wrong, and her cynicism isn’t quite lived-in enough yet, but she knows her way around.

However, she’s so grounded in the fake world of entertainment as to see everything within that frame, translating the gang into a bunch of no-name bit players like her, posing as something they’re not, because she can’t grasp they’re legit thieves (though, of course, they were built by their creator along precisely the genre-based lines she perceives–and so was she–and so are lots of real people all around you, but they’re still made of flesh and blood, same as you.)

She knows why Doug Fairkeep really cast her, what extracurricular role he wants her to play, and she just plays along, giving him nothing.  And he, thankfully, is no Harvey Weinstein (give him a few more years…..).

Darlene is no longer surprised by anything, so she no longer takes joy in anything.  A hardened trouper in her early 20’s, whose jaundiced reaction to reality TV is that it’s a lot like first love.  A whole lot of fuss over nothing.  What is there in this world for someone simultaneously so naif and blasé?

How about true love?  She meets somebody, on the new show, that she got drafted onto after her role on the one about veg peddlers went away.  She figured she’d just end up sleeping with this or that member of the gang (either Kelp or Judson, doesn’t even think to find out if either is spoken for).

Then The Real Thing hits her right between the eyes, as it always does, when you least expect it.  And all at once she realizes there are things in this life you can’t fake your way through, and there is no script.  Even reality can get real, sometimes.

The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein, as he wrote this final book.  And what he has on offer could be called–

HUMAN RESOURCES:

RAY HARBACH (Dippo) is pleased to be back in the Excelsior Theater, where he appeared three seasons ago as Kalmar in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Other theater roles have included work by Mamet, Shaw, Osborne, and Orton. Film: Ocean’s 12; Rollerball. Television: The New Adventures of the Virgin Mary and the Seven Dwarfs at the North Pole; The Sopranos; One Life to Live; Sesame Street. I want to dedicate this production to my father, Hank.

Doug goes for a meeting with Babe Tuck, only to find Babe has recruited an actor to play one of the gang members.  Not like Darlene.  A bonafide thespian, with a long list of past roles, and just a trace of a criminal background (more like he used to hang out with guys who used to hang out with guys who may have done something).

The story for the gang is that Ray Harbach is there to teach them how to act for the camera.  The real story is that he’s there to report back to Babe, make sure nothing’s amiss with these felons.  He’s game, as long as they make sure he’s covered on the legal end.

He’s got an applicable skill–he can climb walls like a human fly.   The gang’s very impressed.  But once they’re out of earshot, Kelp asks everybody what they think of the human fly.  “He’s a human plant,” Tiny growls.  Because obviously.

So they work it this way–they pretend to ditch Murch (Doug’s afraid they’ve killed him).  Murch is still part of the genuine job they intend to pull, at Combined Tool.  But he’s out of the show (even though it was  his mom who got them on the show in the first place).  Ray Harbach can take his place on the fake heist–but they will freeze him out of anything real.  Same goes for Darlene, which means even Judson isn’t going to hook up with her (kid never gets a break).

And since they’re the only experienced actors on the show, and there isn’t much of anything else for them to do, they get assigned the obligatory fake reality romantic subplot.  Guess what?

The setup was this: Ray, the wall-walking specialist of the gang, had recently met Darlene and had wanted to show her off to the guys, but when he did, the contrast between her nearly fresh innocence (it’s all in the acting) and their jaded disbelief (no acting required) had shown him his life in a whole new light.

So they’d gone off to Central Park together, that was the idea, to be away from the others, unobserved, so they could talk things over. What was their relationship, really? (In reality show terms, that is.) What was their future? Did they have a future together?

They spent most of that day filming all over the park, with all the necessary permits, that was part of what made the day so special and so much fun and so liberating. They rowed a boat together on the lake, they wandered together in the Ramble, they watched the joggers endlessly circling the reservoir (without joining them, although Marcy would have dearly loved it if they had), they walked around Belvedere Castle, they observed the imposing stone buildings that stood like sentinels in long straight rows all around the periphery of the park, and they talked it all out, coming to several different conclusions in the course of several different takes of each sequence, because Roy wanted to keep his options open. (At that time, so did Ray.)

And they shared one brief tentative tremulous kiss, late in the day, on the path beside the Drive, surrounded by taxis and hansom cabs and joggers and bicyclists, all of whom, this being New York, ignored the smoochers in their midst.

And then they all went home, walking out of the park, Darlene and Ray and the others, and they didn’t even hold hands. But they knew, they both knew, and a little later that evening they confirmed their knowledge.

Basically, nothing else happens with Ray and Darlene, and far as we know, they lived happily ever after in Ray’s nice little actor’s apartment, full of his old Playbills and 8×10 glossies, and maybe she even became a real actress with his tutelage.  One hopes it won’t end up like another damn remake of A Star Is Born (he’s at least twenty years older), but something tells me these two will always be supporting players, and those are the best kind. HR did its bit, and the rest is up to them.

Meanwhile, back at the OJ–wait a minute–we’re at the TV studio!  What’s the OJ doing here?  Somebody call–

BAR RESCUE:

“It’s like a set,” Kelp said.

“From the wrong side,” Dortmunder said. “Is there a way in?”

There was. Around the rough unfinished wall they came to an opening, and now they could see that what had been built was a broad but shallow three-walled room without a ceiling. A dark wood bar, a little beat-up, stretched along the back wall, on which were mounted beer posters and mirrors that had been smeared with something that looked like soap, so they wouldn’t reflect. A jumble of bottles filled the back bar, plus a cash register at the right end. Barstools in a row looked as though they’d come directly from the wholesale restaurant supply place next door, and so did the two tables and eight chairs in the grouping in front of the bar. At the right end of the bar stood two pinball machines, and at the left end a doorway into darkness.

Kelp, in wonder, said, “It’s the OJ.”

“Well, it isn’t the OJ,” Dortmunder said.

“No, I know it isn’t,” Kelp said, “but that’s what they’re going for.”

John and Andy first come across The Fake OJ while trying to find a way into Combined Tool one night.  Kelp is impressed at how real a fake it is–Dortmunder is disgusted.  He says he feels like a guy who fakes an autobiography.  “We haven’t done anything and already this is a lie.”  (Too pure a soul for this age, I sometimes fear.)

Before you know it, The Fake OJ has a Fake Rollo the Bartender (played by Rodney, another fine supporting player), and as for the barstool brigade–

When Kelp and Dortmunder and Tiny and the kid walked into the fake OJ Tuesday afternoon at two, Doug and Marcy and Roy Ombelen and Rodney the bartender and the camera crews were already there, clustered around the left end of the bar, where in the real joint the regulars reigned.

As they approached the bar, Rodney was saying, “No way Shakespeare wrote those plays. He didn’t have the education, he hadn’t been anywhere, he was just a country bumpkin. An actor. A very good actor, everybody says so, but just an actor.”

Doug said, “Isn’t some duke supposed to be the real guy?”

“Oh, Clarence,” Rodney said, in dismissal.

“I heard that, too,” Marcy said. “That’s very interesting.”

“No, it wasn’t him,” Rodney said, scoffing at the idea. “In fact, if you study those plays the way I did, you’ll see they couldn’t have been written by a man at all.”

Marcy, astonished, said, “A woman?”

“No sixteenth-century guy,” Rodney said, “had that kind of modern attitude toward women or instinctive understanding of the woman’s mind.”

One of the camerapersons said, “My husband says it was Bacon.”

Another cameraperson, dripping scorn, said, “They’re not talking about meat, they’re talking about Shakespeare.”

“Sir Francis Bacon.”

“Oh.”

Roy said to Rodney, “I venture to say you have someone in mind.”

“Queen,” Rodney pronounced, “Elizabeth the First.”

Kelp and Dortmunder looked at one another. “You build it,” Kelp murmured, “they will come.”

(Malcolm X thought it was King James.  You know, the one with the bible.  Everybody’s got a pet theory.  Mine is that it was that Stratford bum.  Because who else had the time?)

Marcy, the writer who can’t call herself a writer, is hanging at the fake OJ as well, which kind of makes sense.  If anything here does.  She’s got some ideas for how to save their show that keeps threatening not to happen (I could do a Project Greenlight segment, but this is getting long).

Marcy and the rest of the cast were now clustered at one of the side booths, and Marcy waved to Kelp and called, “Come on over, Andy, we’re working out the story line.”

The story line. 1) You go in. 2) You take what you came for. 3) You go out. If civilians are present, insert 1A) You show, but do not employ, weapons. Marcy’s story line would be a little more baroque.

Kelp went over, found a sliver of bench available next to Tiny, perched on it, and Marcy leaned in to be confidential, saying, “I hope you held out for a lot more money.”

“Oh, sure,” Kelp said. “You know us.”

Because, of course, Marcy didn’t know anything. She didn’t know why they’d left, and she didn’t know why they were back. So, as with the reality show, she was making up her own story line, which was perfectly okay.

“What we need, in the next couple weeks of the show,” Marcy told them, “is some sense of menace. Not from you guys, some other outside force.”

Dortmunder said, “Like the law, you mean?”

“No, we don’t want to bring the police in until the very end of the season. The escape from the police will be the great triumph, and it’ll make up for you not getting the big score you were counting on from the storage rooms.”

Kelp said, “Oh, we’re not getting that?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Marcy said. “I don’t want you to know the story too far ahead, because it can affect the way you play it. But I can guarantee you, the escape from the police will be the climax of the first season.”

“I’d watch it,” the kid said.

“For a menace from the outside,” Marcy said, “what do you think of another gang going after the exact same target?”

Kelp said, “Wasn’t that in a Woody Allen movie?”

“Oh, it’s been in dozens of movies,” she said. “That’s all right. Nobody expects reality to be original. People will see that, and they’ll laugh and they’ll say, ‘Just like the Woody Allen movie, and here the same thing happens in real life.’ ”

Dortmunder said, “That’s what they say, huh?”

(Nobody gets it when Dortmunder uses irony.  He has one of those faces where ironic is the default expression, so it goes unnoticed.  Much like the reference to Take The Money And Run, which came out about the same time Westlake was working on The Hot Rock, and long before Too Many Crooks, a more organic and sustained use of the basic gag, but credit where credit is due, assuming the Woodman didn’t steal it from somebody else, which I don’t.  He’s got bigger stuff to worry about these days.  Like when did he have his funnybone surgically removed?  Does Blue Cross cover that?  Wonder Wheel, Schmonder Wheel.)

In the midst of all these media-based meta-isms, there is actual thievery going on, most of it from none other than Stan The Man Murch, or as he shall now be known–

KING OF CARS:

Vehicles, vehicles everywhere. Big ones, little ones, new ones, old ones, valuable ones, junk. Whistling behind his teeth, Stan wandered among all these wheels and used his cell phone to take pictures of the ones he thought might be of interest. He stopped after he’d chosen six, not wanting to be greedy, then picked for tonight’s transportation a relatively modest black Dodge Caliber, mostly because it was pretty close to the garage door and wouldn’t require shifting too many other vehicles around to get it out of here.

The Caliber had apparently been used one way or another in movie- or television-making, because the passenger floor in front was littered with several random screenplay pages and the entire back area was a foot deep in plastic coffee cups and fast food trays. The glove box contained four different lipsticks, a package of condoms, and a cell phone; people are always leaving their cell phones.

Well, all of this would be somebody else’s problem, farther down the line. Stan merely drove the Caliber out to Varick Street, then left it athwart the sidewalk as he ducked back in to close the garage door.

Satisfied with the day’s work, he steered the Caliber down through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and thence by many secondary streets across Brooklyn to Canarsie, pausing along the way to pick up from a closed movie rental place a DVD of Pit Stop (1969, Brian Donlevy, with a cameo from George Barris, famous custom car builder) to watch that night with his Mom.

Leaving the Caliber at the curb on a side street a couple blocks from home, he returned to it Thursday morning to find it was still there, so he drove it onto an even more remote area than Canarsie, a neighborhood—if that isn’t too fancy a word—somewhere out there that was in a way Brooklyn, in a way Queens, and very nearly but not quite, Nassau County.

Murch has been thrown off the fake heist, and as matters work themselves out, he won’t really be needed as a driver on the real one, but as the ultimate rolling stone, he’s still going to gather some moss.  There is a huge parking garage on the ground floor of Get Real’s headquarters on Varick Street.  Conveniently located near a tunnel leading out of Manhattan. Full of all kinds of cars used for shoots. So many that it will take some time for anyone to realize some of them aren’t there anymore.

There aren’t a lot of fake names for American-made autos here, a running gag in the late Dortmunders.  I thought Dodge Caliber might be fake, particularly since Westlake uses it to make a pun, but it’s an actual car, a five door compact. (Not sure what caliber that would be, .32 maybe?)

There’s a Chevy Gazpacho–I don’t want to know if that’s real.  There’s a GMC Mastodon, and I think we already had that one?  No?  They kind of blur together after a while.  Much like the cars themselves, which is one of the many reasons Detroit is having problems now.

He pops over to Maximillian’s Used Cars, where things proceed much as always, except Harriet the receptionist has a computer now, and Max is all agog at the photos Stan presents him of creampuff after creampuff, all of them his for the asking (and cash, needless to say). “What’d you do?” he asked. “Follow them to their nest?”  More or less, yeah.

But he hasn’t reckoned on the mama bird, namely Babe Tuck, who marches in (for the second time in the book, to proclaim “This show is canceled.  Shut it down.”  Because somebody’s been taking cars from the garage downstairs, and guess who Babe thinks that would be?  Dortmunder doesn’t need to be any kind of detective to solve that mystery.  And he was just working on a way to monetize the prospective storage heist (this is before the discussion with Marcy at the Fake OJ), which brings us to our final easily-named segment–

HARDCORE PAWN (the other one was too easy):

For instance, last week they kind of took the show on the road. All of them except Ray, since there was to be no actual planning or wall-walking involved, went to a real pawnshop and talked to a real pawnbroker, who wasn’t like old suspenders-wearing pawnbrokers in the movies, but was some kind of Asian guy, very thin, who talked very fast with a hard click-like thing at the end of every word. He thought what they were doing was hilarious, and he kept cracking up with high-pitched giggles, his whole face scrunched around his laughing mouth. Marcy and Doug kept at him to stay serious, to remember the actual cash money they’d be paying him, and eventually he did settle down enough so they could get through it.

But it wasn’t any good. That is, it wasn’t any good on purpose. The whole point of the week was that Tiny knew this pawnbroker, so they all went over to talk with him (taxi scenes, with Tiny all over the front seat, and another reason not to include Ray), because this pawnbroker would be willing to take whatever it was they would be removing from the storage company.

But then it turned out he was only willing to take the stuff on consignment, and consignment was not going to cut it. Thieves don’t work on consignment. Thieves obtain the goods, they sell the goods, they take cash on the barrelhead. That’s why they finish with such a small percentage of the value of whatever they’ve taken, which was all right, because it meant they had something where they had nothing before.

The question must be asked–why do they need to steal anything?  I mean, other than whatever Get Real sets up for them to steal, or fail to steal, or maybe get stolen from them?  However the season finale works out, they get 20 grand apiece.  That’s better than they’ve done in most of the previous books, even allowing for inflation (they got bupkus in a lot of the previous books, and inflation does bupkus to bupkus).

It’s even been worked out so that they don’t have to provide things like Social Security numbers, through a clever dodge (that Kelp thought of, naturally) involving paying them through a related company in the UK.  (Been a lot of clever dodges like that going around lately, wouldn’t you say?  Deutschebank, Deutschebank, uber alles.  Andy, have you been moonlighting again?)

And the reason is, this is what they do. They are thieves.  Not ‘reality’ thieves. Real thieves. And once you’re real, you can never become unreal again–right?

That is the question we shall ask next week.  When I finish this review.  Yes, really.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Possibly for the last time, but be that as it may, thanks to Patti and Todd for all the plugs.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real

So, a minute later, when May reappeared, unencumbered except for three beer cans that she distributed, Dortmunder said, “I got a very strange proposition today.”

She didn’t quite know how to take that word. Settling into her chair, she said, “A proposition?”

“A job, kind of. But weird.”

“John’s gonna describe it to you now,” Kelp said, and looked at Dortmunder, as alert as a sparrow on a branch.

Dortmunder took a breath. “It’s reality TV,” he said, and went on to describe how Murch’s Mom had introduced Doug Fairkeep into their lives and what Doug Fairkeep had proposed, including the payoff.

Somehow, every time he told that story he got the same kind of dead-air silent reaction. Now May and Kelp both gave him the glassy-eye treatment, so he said, “That’s the story, May, that’s all there is.”

She said, “Except the next day, when they drag you all off to jail.”

“Doug Fairkeep says we’ll work around that.”

“How?”

“He doesn’t say.”

May squinted, much the way she used to squint back when she chain-smoked. “I’ll tell you another question,” she said. “What is it you’re supposed to steal?”

“We didn’t go into that.”

“It might make a difference,” she said.

Dortmunder didn’t get it. “How?”

“Well,” she said, “if they were going for laughs, like. Like if you hijacked a diaper service truck, something like that.”

Kelp said, “I’m not gonna hijack any diaper service truck.”

Like that,” she said.

Dortmunder said, “May, I don’t think so. What they do is, they find people got some sort of interesting lifestyle or background or something, and they film the people doing what they do, and then they shape it, to make it entertainment. I don’t think they’re goin for jokes, I think they’re goin for real.”

“Jail is real,” she said.

Dortmunder nodded, but said, “The problem is, so is twenty G.”

“Looks to me,” Kelp said, “as though you oughta go back and see this guy and ask him a lot more questions.”

“I’m realizing that,” Dortmunder admitted. “You wanna come along?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kelp said, as casual as an aluminum siding salesman. “No need for me to poke my face in at this point. Murch’s Mom didn’t rat me out to the guy.”

“No, she didn’t,” Dortmunder said.

“But I tell you what I’ll do,” Kelp said. “Come home with me and I’ll Google him.”

Dortmunder frowned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kelp said.

It’s 2009.   Almost half a century after you wandered into a drugstore, and found The Mercenaries.  Hard to believe. Time flies when you’re having fun.  You need something to read, so you surf on over to Amazon.  Hey, there’s a new Dortmunder out!  A few clicks later, you’ve got it on your device.  No more gaudy paperbacks at newsstands, no more revolving racks at drugstores, damned few bookstores of any kind in New York now.  (The rent is too damn high.)  Progress. One supposes.

As always, Dortmunder dissents.  But the world keeps changing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  As inevitable as death and taxes.  Well, as the latter.  Apparently some people aren’t going to pay taxes anymore.  More for the rest of us, huh?

Somewhere, Donald E. Westlake is rolling his eyes at us.  But not on this mortal plane.  Mr. Westlake has left the building, after making one last statement about identity–and how we keep confusing it.  He’s been here with Dortmunder & Co. before, decades earlier.

In Jimmy The Kid, he was talking about the increasingly blurry line between fiction and reality.  Real criminals getting a plan from a paperback crime novel, only to learn that real life is more complex, more contingent, and nobody knows their lines, heeds their cues.  Because everybody in this world is living out his or her own story, as the protagonist, you can’t control life the way a writer can control a narrative.

In Get Real, he’s talking about the increasingly nonexistent line between fiction and ‘reality.’  As in reality TV.  Semi-scripted documentaries, where people narrate their daily existence, improvise dialogue in place of having conversations–become fictional characters in their own lives.

That erudite Irishman, Bishop Berkeley, once opined that to be is to be perceived.  That the world around us is created by the act of viewing it, God being the divine perceiver who holds the fabric of reality together.  I don’t know about all that, but we 21st century humans sure behave as if the Bishop spoke gospel.  Only for us, God is a camera.  And a boom mike.  Budget lacking, a webcam, or smartphone.  Life must be dramatized.  Like it wasn’t dramatic enough already.

Let’s learn about this one.  The last one.  Not just the last Dortmunder.  The last book in our queue.  (If there are any outstanding wagers, with regards to my reaching this milestone, time to settle up).

Given how much earlier Dirty Money appeared, we should probably assume this is the very last piece of work Westlake submitted for publication in his lifetime.  Marilyn Stasio’s review for the New York Times came out in late August of 2009, eight months after Westlake departed this mortal coil by way of Mexico.  After a long series of affectionate thumbnails, she put more time and effort into this one, as a final homage, even praising the wry social commentary that was always a part of this series.

It’s quite a nice review, one of the best he ever got in the Times, which routinely gave short shrift to far better Westlakes than this.  His humorous writings in particular tended to be dismissed as enjoyable diversions, but now his satiric edge begins to be appreciated.  All he had to do was die.   (Why am I thinking of Daffy Duck again?  Oh right.)

(Censored!?  Is literally nothing sacred?  Oh never mind.  Overture.  Curtain lights.  On with the show, this is it.)

The quote up top gives us the premise.  One fine day in New York City traffic, Murch’s Mom struck up a conversation with her fare of the moment, a TV producer working for Get Real, a shingle devoted to reality shows, owned by a media company called Monopole, majority controlled by by Trans-Global Universal Industries, the same mega-corporation referenced in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  (No mention of its disgraced CEO, so maybe he’s in prison.  Or the White House.  Details.)  TUI in turn is controlled by Somnitech, which we heard about in The Road to Ruin.  It is, quite literally, a rich tapestry.

Right now, the only show they’ve got on the air is The Stand, which is not, you should know, about a post-apocalyptic world in which the fate of humanity shall be decided by a war between Boulder and Las Vegas.  It’s about a failing roadside farm stand in upstate New York.  The kind of thing you come across channel-surfing, and you wonder what the hell is keeping Captain Trips.  Should have been here decades ago.

You know how proud mothers can never resist talking about what their sons do for a living.  So when our Gladys summons both Murch and Dortmunder to her cab for a confab, she has worrisome news to impart.

Stan said, “Hello? You started telling him what about me?”

“I’m looking to see,” his mother told him, “could he get you a job.”

“In TV? What am I gonna do, sports?”

“Whatever,” his mother said. “Face it, Stanley, your previous occupation is coming to an end.”

Stan frowned at her profile. “How do you work that out?”

“Cameras,” his Mom said, and pointed at one mounted on a nearby pole. “Security. ID. Tracking. Records of everything. Global positioning. Radio chips. It’s harder for people like you and John every day, and you know it is. It is time, Stanley, you underwent a career change.”

Dortmunder said, “It isn’t that bad.”

“Oh, it’s all right for you,” she told him. “You go on doing what you’re doing because what else have you got, but Stanley’s possessed of an actual marketable skill.”

“Mp,” said Dortmunder.

Stan said, “Which skill is that?” “Driving,” she said. “Keeping your wits about you. Anyway, the point is, I liked this guy, Doug Fairkeep his name is, so I wound up I gave him a little more of your background than I originally planned.”

Fairkeep wasn’t looking for any new drivers, but when he realized he was talking to somebody who could put him in touch with professional heisters, he got very excited.  He immediately saw the potential for a new show.  Title to be determined (I’d stick with the King motif–MiseryNeedful Things–I think he just had a book out called Finders Keepers?)

She gives Stan the guy’s card and it looks legit.  What he and Dortmunder do isn’t, so how could they ever pull a job on national TV and not end up in a reality show about prison, perhaps on MSNBC?  (With Dortmunder’s luck, it’d be Animal Planet, and he’d be a teaching aide for German Shepherds who chase burglars.  Rrrrr!)

While they ponder that,  Chapter 2 introduces us to Mr. Fairkeep, and his production assistant, Marcy Waldorf.  Who would like to be called a writer, since that’s what she’s doing for her meager living, but alas–

“It is not writing, Marcy,” Doug said, “for two reasons. In the first place, The Stand is a reality show, the cameras catching real life on the fly, not a scripted show with actors. The Finches aren’t actors, Marcy, they are an actual family struggling to run an actual farmstand on an actual farm on an actual secondary road in upstate New York.”

“But,” Marcy objected, “they’re saying the words we write, down here in the production assistants’ room, Josh and Edna and me.”

“The Finches often,” Doug allowed, “follow our suggestions, that’s true. But, Marcy, even if they followed your suggestions one hundred percent of the time, you still wouldn’t be a writer.”

“Why not?”

“Because The Stand is a reality show, and reality shows do not have actors and writers because they do not need actors and writers. We are a very low-budget show because we do not need actors and writers. If you were a writer, Marcy, you would have to be in the union, and you would cost us a whole lot more because of health insurance and a pension plan, which would make you too expensive for our budget, and we would very reluctantly have to let you go and replace you with another twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college. You’re young and healthy. You don’t want all those encumbrances, health insurance and pension plans.”

(Perish the thought.  And quite possibly the bodies producing said thoughts, but that’s a whole other issue, currently in the capable hands of the former CEO of TUI.  We just had to know what was the worst that could happen.)

Doug is delighted to learn that he’s got a call from the son of that Murch woman–now he can get to work on the new show (working title The Gang’s All Here, there goes the motif).  He’s even more pleased to learn that he’s going to meet Dortmunder as well–the criminal mastermind.  (Hey, he is sometimes!)

He’s a bit nonplussed to learn he’s going to meet them across the street from his office on Third, at the outdoor cafe pertaining to a bar/restaurant named Trader Thoreau.  (We are spared a description of the thematically decorated walls inside, since they never go inside).

The meeting is short, not at all sweet, and mainly involves Fairkeep trying to get pictures and tape recordings of our heroes, while they make very sure he gets no such thing to hold over their heads. And then politely suggest that they might throw him under a slow-moving bus if he keeps trying.  No shortage of those on Third.

The main thing is the offer, and it’s tempting.  20g per man, plus six hundred a day in working expenses.  The storyline, to unfold over one season, is them finding a place to rob, planning the job, then pulling it.  And the sticking point is how they can legally commit an illegal act on national TV.

(There is a poignant moment where Marcy, tasked with taking surreptitious photos of the duo with her smartphone only to have it confiscated, makes a plaintive request for its return, saying her entire life is on that phone.  Stan deletes the photos, hands it back.  Chivalry is not dead.  Certain other things, perhaps….)

Kelp is brought in to consult, and he brings in The Ultimate Consultant, as you see up top.  Doug consults on his end with his boss, Babe Tuck, a former foreign news correspondent, who has seen it all before, or so he thought.  Just a preliminary consult, they’re not ready to commit to the concept yet, and even Babe, who has been held hostage by terrorists, is somewhat taken aback at the threat of bus-related violence on Third Avenue.

“I didn’t take it literally,” Doug assured him. “I took it to be Stan telling me he would do what it took, so he was showing me the extreme case. Naturally, I gave him the recorder before we got anywhere near there.”

“So there’s a threat of violence,” Babe said, “without the actual violence. That’s good, I like that.”

“These guys,” Doug said, “have a certain grungy kind of authenticity about them that’ll play very well on the small screen.”

Nodding, looking at his notepad, sucking a bit on his lower lip, Babe said, “What are they gonna steal?”

“That’s up to them,” Doug said. “We didn’t get that far.”

“No widow’s mites,” Babe cautioned. “No crippled newsie’s crutches.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Doug said. “Our demographic would like to see some snooty rich people get cleaned out.”

(For all we know, many similar conversations have taken place at production offices with regards to many a Dortmunder movie that did or did not happen, as well as the TV pilot threatened in the trades a short while ago, of which nothing has been heard since.  Marcy should try applying for a job on one of those, they have writers. Kind of.)

Doug gets a call from Dortmunder.  He and Kelp are waiting to see him.  In his apartment.  (Kelp must have decided this was too interesting a meet to pass up, Post-Google).  They tell him to bring a sixpack.  Heineken, please.  It was Beck’s at Trader Thoreau, so I’m guessing the beer choice is Andy’s.  (Nobody ever has DAB in stock these days. My dad used to like that.)

And the moral here is that Google is a very good thing indeed–when you are the Googler.  As opposed to the Googled.  Googlee?  Whatever.

Doug is having mixed emotions about these people.  On the one hand, they’re breaking into his place like it’s no big deal, making themselves at home, pawing through his personal effects, learning about him while they wait (Like Google in three dimensions.  With lockpicks.) On the other hand, this does prove they’re–you know–for real.  That’s what he wanted, right?  Reality.  Of course, for people in his business, the meaning of the word is more flexible

Let’s say we rent a house, and we furnish it,” Fairkeep said, “and we put spycams all through the house, and we get a bunch of college kids, boys and girls, and we pay them to live in the house. But the gimmick could be, they have to spend the whole summer vacation there, they can’t ever step outside the house. Anybody leaves the house, they’re out of the game. We ship in food, and they can watch TV, and like that. And they don’t know each other before they start. And we can make up any rules we want to make up, make it different from any other show like that.”

Dortmunder said, “And you get people to do this? All summer?”

“We’ve got waiting lists,” Fairkeep said.

Dortmunder nodded. “And people watch this.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I am surprised.”

“The point being,” Fairkeep said, “in a situation like that, what’s gonna happen? Who falls in love, has a fight, can’t hack it. We do the setup, but then they just do themselves. Same with you.”

Andy said, “Only, where’s our setup?”

Which in Kelp-speak means “What do we steal?”  This remains the sticking point.  And the logical solution would be that they’d steal from Get Real, or one of its sister companies–a sanctioned theft, indemnified under the corporate umbrella.  Doug doesn’t like this logic, but he has no convincing counter to it.  If Dortmunder & Co. can’t commit legal larceny, the show will not go on.

Doug protests that Get Real doesn’t have anything worth stealing–the other companies have things like aircraft engines that make for an impractical heist.  Having done his Googling well, Kelp knows how rich the corporate tapestry is, rattles off a list of names, knocking Doug even further off-balance.

Dortmunder, focusing on the essentials, insists that somewhere in this capitalist crochet there must exist some cash.  Hearing this assertion, Doug Fairkeep hesitates for a nanosecond, then issues a rote denial.  It’s all electronic impulses now, no cash anywhere (this in spite of the fact that he’s already told them he pays restaurant checks in cash so he can skim his expense account).

The thieves spot this wobble like a shark smells blood in the water.  So. There’s cash.  And it has to be somewhere Doug could have seen it.  The game’s afoot!

Next, we are with young Judson Blint, still slaving away at the enviable behest of the enticing J.C. Taylor, keeping her minor fraudulent operations afloat, while she busies herself with the great nation of Maylohda she conjured out of thin air to scam the entire planet.  She tells him to go have some fun.  He says yes ma’am.  She does not like that.

“Ma’am,” she said, with a scornful look, and left. Judson shrugged—it was so hard to know the right reactions to people when you were barely a person yourself at nineteen—and went back to, face it, work.

He always saved the music business for last, because those people were the most fun. The people who just wanted to be a detective at home in their spare time or just wanted to look at dirty pictures at home in their spare time were pretty cut-and-dried, merely sending in their money, but the people who sent music to Super Star Music to have lyrics set to it, or alternatively, lyrics for an infusion of music (sometimes A’s request meshing just fine with B’s, so what came in could be shipped right back out again, neither participant any the wiser), tended to write confessional letters of such mawkish cluelessness that Judson wished there were, somewhere in the world, a publisher gutsy enough to put out a collection of them.

But that was not to be, since dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race, so not enough people would find the product funny. Oh, well; at least he could enjoy the sincerity of these simpletons, to ease his own stress in the workaday world.

Ah; this grandmother of eight had been compelled at last to her true vocation as love-song lyricist by the flaming car-crash death of her favorite seventeen-year-old grand-daughter. Well, Grandma, lucky for you she bought it.

He’s only delighted when Dortmunder calls, saying something about getting the group back together.  To play a very different kind of song.

And for the penultimate time in the annals of world literature–stop booing, it’s not my fault!–

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Wednesday night at ten, the big low-ceilinged square room was underutilized. The booths along both sides and the tables in the middle were all empty. At the bar, along the rear of the room, Rollo the meaty bartender, off to the right, was slowly carving tomorrow’s specials onto a black blackboard with a stub of white chalk, a gray rag in his other hand. The regulars, as usual, were clustered along the left side of the bar.

It being April, the regulars were discussing taxes. “I might declare my bowling ball as an expense,” one said.

The guy to his right reared back. “Your bowling ball!”

“We wager certain amounts,” the first regular explained. “Only then I’d have to declare how much I won, and then pay tax on that. I asked the guy at the drugstore, which way do I come out ahead, he said he’d get back to me on that.”

As Dortmunder angled toward Rollo, he saw that the barman was groping in the direction of “lasagna,” but hadn’t quite reached it yet. Seeing Dortmunder, he nodded and said, “Long time no see.”

“I been semiretired,” Dortmunder told him. “Not on purpose.”

“That can be a drag.” Rollo pointed his jaw at the black-board. “Whadaya think?”

Dortmunder looked: LUHZANYA. “I don’t know about that H,” he said.

(I don’t know I’d necessarily want to eat lasagna at the OJ, no matter how it’s spelled, but if that was the price of attendance, gladly would I pay it. That’s what they invented Bismuth Subsalicylate for. )

Dortmunder and the next-to-arrive Kelp proceed to the back room, as one of the regulars insists that the flat tax means you owe the Feds the equivalent of one month’s rent.  Past the pointers and setters, past where the phone booth used to be when there were still phone booths.  They take a seat, pour themselves some Amsterdam Liquor Store bourbon (Our Own Brand), and wait.

Not for long.  Thunderous footfalls sound in the distance, like you hear at the opening of a Kaiju Eiga film.  Want to see how you spell Tiny Bulcher in Japanese?

As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled with enough person to choke Jonah’s whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn’t make you think of Easter Island so much as Halloween Island. In his left fist he carried a glass of what looked like, but was not, cherry soda. When he spoke it wasn’t a surprise that bass notes of an organ sounded: “I’m late.”

Judson arrives, and behold–he’s got his own drink.  From now on, Rollo the Bartender will refer to him in absentia as the Campari and Soda, we may safely infer.

So everybody gets into the loop with the Get Real thing, and the meeting at Fairkeep’s apartment, and the momentary wobble when they asked if he knew of a place that had cash.  Incidentally–

Dortmunder said, “Andy and I had a discussion with the guy this afternoon, at his apartment.”

Stan said, “Oh? Where’s that?”

“One of those Trump buildings on the west side.”

“And how is it?”

Dortmunder shrugged. “Okay.”

“A little too bronze,” Kelp said.

Tiny said, “Over here, I’m still working around this.”

“Okay,” Dortmunder said.

“Andy did some computer trick—”

“It’s no trick,” Kelp said. “I Googled.”

“Oh, sure,” Stan said.

“Whatever,” Dortmunder said. “Turns out, this guy’s little company is owned by a bigger company, owned by a bigger company, and like that. Like those cartoons where every fish is getting eat by the bigger fish behind him.”

So Trump now officially exists in the Dortmunderian universe.  As if they didn’t have enough problems there.  But leaving that to one side, the gang being all here, they try to figure out exactly what Doug’s little wobble would signify, and of course the Campari and Soda nails it.

“Oh!” said the kid. When they all looked at him, he had a huge happy grin on his face. Lifting his glass, he toasted them all in Campari and soda, then knocked back a good swig of it, slapped the glass down onto the felt, and said, “Now I get it!”

That was the annoying thing about the kid, who was otherwise okay. Every once in a while, he’d get it before anybody else got it, and when he got it, he got it.

So Tiny said to him, “If you got it, give it to us.”

“Bribes,” the kid said.

They looked at him. Stan said, “Bribes?”

“Every big company that does business in different countries,” the kid said, “bribes the locals when they want to come do business. Here, buy our aircraft engines, not that other guy’s aircraft engines, and you look like you could use another set of golf clubs. Here’s a little something for the wife. Wouldn’t you like to run our TV show on your station? I know they don’t pay you what you deserve; here, have an envelope.”

“I’ve heard about this,” Kelp said. “There’s a word everybody uses, it’s chai, it means ‘tea,’ you sit down together, you have a cuppa tea, you move the envelope.”

Tiny said, “So? That’s what they call business.”

“Somewhere around thirty years ago,” the kid said, “the US Congress passed a law, it’s illegal for an American company to bribe foreigners.”

Stan said, “What? No way.”

“It’s true,” the kid said. “American companies have to be very careful, it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony, they all gotta do it, but they really don’t wanna get caught.”

Kelp said, “So we’re shooting ourself in the foot, is what you’re saying.”

“Both feet,” said the kid. “And not for the first time. Anyway, what this guy Doug saw was the courier, the guy who carries the cash. He’s a known guy to everybody, he works for this television outfit, he travels for them all the time, they’re used to seeing him go back and forth, he always carries all his movie equipment with him.”

Tiny said, “That’s very nice.”

“And one time,” the kid said, “maybe more, Doug saw the cash going into the DVD boxes. So the guy who carries the money works in Doug’s outfit.”

“Him,” Dortmunder said, “we’ll find. It may take a little time, but him we’ll find.”

“What’s extra nice about this,” Tiny said, “it’s like those guys that knock over drug dealers. You heist somebody already committing a crime, he doesn’t call the cops.”

“At last,” Kelp said. “The perfect crime.”

I was somewhat bothered by the assembled thieves’ stern disapproval of sound anti-corruption legislation, but then I remembered–they’re thieves.  There really is nothing objectionable about small time crooks snookering major leaguers.  Inverting that cartoon of the big fish eating the little ones.  You never heard of piranha?

I don’t know about that H, but I do know that as they walk out of the OJ, and Rollo has lasagna spelled correctly on the blackboard because he called The Knights of Columbus to check, I have to restrain myself from hugging him.  Could be misinterpreted.  With the exception of a brief episode near the end, what we get from now on is a simulacra Rollo, overseeing an ersatz OJ.  In a tediously predictable Part 2 to this review.

I used to be a lot terser when I started doing this.  As the blog rolled on, the books got longer, more sophisticated, the author finding new ways to restate his themes, and of course he wasn’t writing short paperbacks anymore–I found myself getting lost in the devilish details.  And there is no pleasanter place to go astray, but even so, I miss the pithier me, sometimes.

All the same, I thought I might manage one final one-parter for this one.  It’s one of the shorter books in this series, bit of a throwback to the early days.  Westlake was focused here, not going off on tangents, not introducing a lot of character arcs that don’t go anywhere, not taking elements he might have intended for some other novel he never wrote and retro-fitting them for Dortmunder.

There are the usual satiric asides–it’s never just about quirky crooks pulling half-assed heists–but the satire here stems entirely from the A-Plot, and there is no B-Plot. Very focused indeed.  Almost as if the author knew he didn’t have much time left.  For as Dr. Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind like the realization you’ll hang tomorrow.  Let’s see how well that axiom applies to Fred Fitch.

Those who want to hold off paying their bets until next time will not be considered welshers.  There will be no Part 3.  (Unless it becomes unavoidable)  I only have two more (nearly identical) cover images.  And no more novels at all  Get ready.  The end is nigh upon us.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Mr. Reese and the Candids

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It’s not hard finding images of movie stars online.  When putting together my recent piece on the seven actors I thought might have played Parker in the past, but never did, I had an embarrassment of pictures to sift through.  I picked the ones I thought got my points across best.

With one exception.  Tom Reese.  Born 1928, six feet three inches tall.  My personal favorite of the bunch.  By far the least famous.  (Compared to him, William Smith was an A-Lister.)  Call it my love of the underdog.  That’s an IMDb link, incidentally.  Google “Tom Reese, Wiki” and you get an article about a cricketer from New Zealand.

You can find the odd few screen captures of Reese, from this or that film, but the only one I could find from The Outfit was of very poor quality.  The others I found, relating to different roles, did not do him justice.  To be honest, most of his film roles did him no justice.  He fared somewhat better on television, where many a first-rate thespian eked out a living back in the day (and still does).  In no way shape or form could you call him a movie star.

I mean, when one of your career highlights on the big screen is playing an Oddjob style villain named Ironhead in one of those ultra-kitschy Matt Helm movies, and you have to pretend Dean Martin can beat you up–you get the picture.  Or you would, if you Googled around some.

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(At least Harold Sakata got to knock Sean Connery around some before he took a dive.  Geez, Reese was asked to autograph these things.)

Hating injustice as I do, I ordered a brand new remastered DVD of The Outfit, which just arrived this morning.  I did some screen grabs, and from now on there will be decent pics of Tom Reese online.

In The Outfit, Tom Reese plays a hit man.  Whose name in the credits is “Hit Man.” He’s the first character of any note we see in the film’s opening scene, where he kills Macklin’s brother, while dressed as a priest (which makes no sense, like most of the film). He’s accompanied by another hitter, Frank Orlandi, played by Felice Orlandi.  But Reese’s character is the one that matters, the boss killer, who plans hits for The Outfit.

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Reese and Duvall have no scenes together–Macklin isn’t interested in taking revenge on mere mechanics, seeing the organization itself as his target.  I suspect they didn’t have the budget to write more scenes for Reese, give him a name, motivation, etc–that way they’d have had to pay him more.  Their loss.  He gives the most interesting performance in this movie, far as I’m concerned.  (Okay, tied with Joe Don Baker, having fun with his second banana role.)

Reese comes on like a major player in every scene he appears in, somebody Macklin will eventually have to reckon with.  But for whatever reason, he’s treated as secondary (maybe more like tertiary) to Timothy Carey’s sneering over the top underboss.  Carey, who played small roles in a lot of important films, has something of an online cult, and maybe he earned that elsewhere, but not here.

“Hit Man” pops up again at a restaurant owned by Cody, the Handy McKay of this story, played by Joe Don Baker.  This time, he’s dressed as a hunter.  Suits him.

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He and a different partner (played by former boxer Roland La Starza) are there to kill Cody, but because the local law is eating there, that gets called off.  Reese, realizing the game has to be called on account of cops, gets up to go, nonchalantly tosses a coin on the counter, walks out, pausing at the door to say–

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“You know something, Cody, you ought to play the races.  You’re that lucky.”

No outward emotion.  He plays every scene, reads every line, 100% deadpan.  Not because Reese couldn’t do emotional reactions, if the director needed some.  He’s making a deliberate choice to keep it all inside.   You can see just a glimmer of annoyance when he realizes he can’t do the job now.  But he’s not frustrated.  If at first you don’t succeed…..

The attempted hit on Macklin, borrowed in a ham handed way from the novel, doesn’t involve Reese’s character.  They send Orlandi, without back-up, even though he’s nowhere near as good as Reese’s hitter.  (I mentioned this movie makes no sense, right?)

But as The Outfit begins to realize Macklin and Cody are a threat, they get the A-talent back in the game, and Reese is seen talking to a man outside the motel Macklin, Cody, and Karen Black’s Bett are staying at.  He walks off, a cheroot in his mouth, arms swinging at his sides, and I’ll say again–I don’t give a hoot what the credits say.  This is Parker!

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And after all that build-up, he is seemingly killed off in a perfunctory manner, almost as an afterthought, along with Carey’s character Menner and some other guy I don’t care about, when they use some bought cops to try and whack the independents out on the highway.  They come driving up slowly from the other direction, while the fuzz have them distracted, and you can just barely make out Reese in the back seat of the car.

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As they close in for the kill, you see Hit Man’s gun (same one he used on Macklin’s brother) stick out of the rear window–it’s a terrible position for him to be firing from.  You can sort of infer what happened, if you read between the scenes–he found Macklin, scouted the terrain, planned the hit, but Menner, looking for revenge, forced his way in, took it over, screwed it up. Kibbitzers.  They’ll get you ever time.

Macklin and Cody, having neutralized the cops, respond with superior firepower, the Outfit car goes off the road, turns over, bursts into flame–after Menner comes out shooting, with predictable results.  Bett gets killed in the crossfire.  You don’t see Reese or the other guy at all.  The implication is they’re unconscious/dead, and will get burned to a crisp, leaving an interesting puzzle for the real law when they show up.

Macklin, now having both his brother and his girlfriend to avenge (::sigh::) will mount an improbably successful attack on Mailer’s mansion (they do not reconnoiter before moving in, like Parker and Handy), then drive away with a wounded Cody in an ambulance, yelling “The good guys always win!”  Yeah, but you didn’t win any money, did you?

Flynn later explained that an MGM exec insisted on an ‘upbeat’ ending.  Which sounds a bit odd to me.  The end of the novel isn’t at all depressing.  It’s one of the most upbeat Parker novels I can think of.  Parker and Handy kick ass and get paid.  Nobody they like gets killed. I don’t know if Flynn’s story means Cody originally died in his script, Macklin went back to jail, or they just had to throw in the good guys joke at the end to send the audience out happy.  If it was either of the first two, I’d say the suit was the good guy here.

I know I’ve been very down on what is, for many, a classic of the genre (and a movie Westlake is known to have called his favorite of the Parker adaptations–I have my own opinions as to what he meant by that).

For me, it’s an exercise in frustration.  This could have been something amazing, if the script wasn’t so lousy.  Great cast, great atmosphere, great cinematography, great music.  Flynn does a fine job coordinating all this; he knew how to do that.  But he just had to write it himself, didn’t he?  Be the auteur. He didn’t know how to do that.  Anymore than Menner knew how to plan an ambush.  Kibbitzers.

After the shoot out on the highway, we never see ‘Hit Man’ again.  There’s never any direct confirmation he’s dead.  He and Macklin never once eyeball each other, even though he was the one who got the whole story kickstarted, before we ever laid eyes on Macklin.  It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion to a character arc.  If you want to call it that.

Here’s what I say happened–I’m imagining a post-credits scene, which they didn’t have very often in the 70’s, but what the hell.  Hit Man gets out, after Macklin and Cody (and the now deceased Bett) drive away, before the car explodes.  He dusts himself off.  He walks away calmly, arms swinging at his side.  He bides his time, makes his plans, no amateurs this time.  A few minutes after that ambulance leaves the mansion–well, turns out the good guys don’t always win.

I’m allowed to be prejudiced on my own blog. In a good cause.  Giving an honest workman a bit of overdue credit surely qualifies as that.

And speaking of honest workmen–hello, John.  You seem upset.  What’s that you say?  Fourteen straight posts about the other guy?  Fancy that.  Funny story, I actually reread your book like a month ago, but the other thing kept expanding, and I figured you could wait.  Save the best for last, you know?  Technically, Ask The Parrot was better, but your final outing is quite interesting.  I just have a few more things to say about the finer nuances of the Starkian aesthe–I beg your pardon?  You want your review now?

John, I’m sorry you’re upset, but you must recognize, I’m in authority here. Anyhow, what are you going to do about it? Everybody knows you never hurt anyb–oh.  Hi Tiny.  Didn’t see you looming in the shadows there.  You move quiet for a big guy.

No, I would never want to be rude, Tiny.  Proper etiquette is the driving force of my existence.  Ha, that’s a clever pun.  Yes, I heard the story about what you did to that procrastinator who annoyed you.  I know all those stories.  I should probably start working on that review now.  Good seeing you guys.  Regards to May and Josie.  Tiny, please don’t slam that–damn.  Better call the locksmith.

Well, no point putting it off any longer, folks.   All good things must come to an end.  Time to get real.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder, Parker film adaptations, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Addendum: The Mystery of Joseph Albert

“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.

“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed.  “On the floor.”

“I’ll carry it now!  I’ll make a phone call!”

“Who to?

Meany licked his lips.  His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head.  “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”

“What’s his name?”

Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice.  “Joseph Albert.”

Parker looked at Arthur.  “Do you know that name?”

From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.

“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.

Then I got it.  “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.

“You look a lot more like her. I know.  I see your father in the mirror every morning.”

I laughed at him.  “You’re crazy, or you think we are.  Or are you just wisecracking again?”

“It’s true,” he said.

Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve written my last Stark review.  (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery.  I think we’d know by now.)  Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot.  There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.

But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of  Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries  Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong.  I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.

Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses.  Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.

Arthur Bronson.  Walter Karns.  Adolf Lozini.  Louis Buenadella.  The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’  Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.

To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him.  He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group.  His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed.  In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.

The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.

But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert.  We never see him,  Parker only talks to him on speakerphone.  We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded.  He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s).  A CEO of crime.  If that’s not too redundant a term.

By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan.  He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts,  for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas.  Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.

He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.  A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those).  Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise.  The biggest he’s ever made.

The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices.  But he never flinches from those.  Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer.  But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.

Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him.  In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany.  And carrying out the contract in person, as usual.  Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat.  On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike.  More of a Karns than a Bronson.

So what would have happened if there had been more novels?  Would this arrangement have held?  There are reasons to doubt it.  Parker has effectively shared his score with them.  Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists?  Suppose they decide he really is their employee?  Suppose they have little errands for him to run?  How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown?  He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).

You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown.  Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars.  But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top.  And that’s not Meany.  That’s Albert.  Interesting name, that.  Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle?  You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.

I don’t know how I missed this for so long.  Granted, when I started reading these books, I  had almost no background info on their author.  But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father.  Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.

And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers.  You know.  People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things.  Import/Export.  A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.

So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke?  I don’t think so.  He’s telling us something.  He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first).  The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same.  Mystery writers give you clues.  It’s up to you to put the pieces together.  To look underneath the surface of things.  These books were never just about stealing and killing.

But what is this about?  Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment?  Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago.  The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?

We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think).  We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.

We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there.  We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war.  We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another.  That’s it.  He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that.  He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”

His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old.  Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker?  Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison?  Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all?  Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature?  Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.

The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name.  (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.)  It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss.  The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father.  Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father.  Doesn’t go well.

Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young.  The mobster tells him she was–different.  She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him.  Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly.  Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways.  He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner.  Not an organization man.  Independent to the core.

And he wants the truth, at all costs.  He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity.  He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form.  And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us.  Always holding back.  A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.

It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family.  The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return.  As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change.  Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship?  Gratitude and guilt?

Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel.  On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed.  When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months.  Because that’s what he thought a man does.  Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.

Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it.  What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob.  He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path.  His father never lived to see him succeed on that path.  Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?

With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships.  He came at them obliquely, for the most part.  So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him.  Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself.  Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.

But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations?  Literary agencies, publishers, film studios.  Yes, freelance work.  What’s the difference?  It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones.  He was more creative than his father, sure.  More independent.  Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him.  As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.

What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph?  Could be both.  Not neither.

Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him?  Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was?  Would we at least find out who his mother was?

Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon?  Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence.  And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self.  Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be.  Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too.  But would Stark allow that?  Could he prevent it?  The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.

I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers.  But as matters worked out, we got none.  Just a question that was never asked out loud.  Who is Joseph Albert?  And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?

Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it.  I do that sometimes.  But the mystery remains.  Everyone in this world faces the same mystery.   Who was my father?  Who was my mother?  That relationship can span most of our lives.  We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them.  Do we ever know them?  And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?

Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call, Part 2: Guns of The Reminiscent Seven.

To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come.  By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running.  So what are we doing here?  I won’t speak for  you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.

To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation).  To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option.  Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).

It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four.  (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.)  I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation.  Starting with–

RYAN, Robert.  Born 1909, Chicago IL.  Height: 6’4.  Eyes: brown. 

This may seem an odd pick.  By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.

Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine.  But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for.  He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check.  He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.

But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch.  He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers.  He could play the hell out of just about anything.  The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd.  His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh.  If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.

More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side.  As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning.  He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome.  More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.

So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat.  My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act.  Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for).  He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed.  But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.

Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction.  Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.

MITCHUM, Robert.  Born 1917, Bridgeport CT.   Height: 6’1  Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.

With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit.  With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties.  The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage.  And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him?  In a courtroom scene, sure.  Or a western.  Not anything hardboiled.

But he never needed to play the toughest man in town.  Never mattered much to him.  Never took himself that serious.  When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself.  Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in.  He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it.  But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn.  Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)

Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy.  Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.

Though he was more often cast as sympathetic characters, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well.  If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved.  Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex.  I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with.  But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either.  Lucky bastard.

He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made.  He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode.  Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist.  About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford.  Strange be the ways of Hollywood.  Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–

HAYDEN, Sterling.  Born 1916, Montclair NJ.  Height: 6’5.  Eyes: dark–something. 

The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made.  It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.

He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol.  He hated being forced into any kind of mold.  Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made.  You know the one.

I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books.  He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.

Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck).  See what you think.

He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde).  But again, born a bit too soon.  And a bit too fidgety.

Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation.  Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–

PALANCE, Jack.  Born 1919, Hazle Township PA.  Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black.  Onyx, one might almost say.

Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra.  Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit one.

Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag.  Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it.  In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault).  In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap.  I prefer the latter approach for him.  And for Parker.

He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out.  There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun).  But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.

He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s.  Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was.  It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in.  He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard.  A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.

The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for.  All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe.  He might not have found that interesting enough.

But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers.  He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind.  And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.

Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously.  But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all.  I speak of none other than–

ARNESS, James.  Born 1923, Minneapolis MN.  Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots).  Eyes: blue.

Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career.  James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly.  So why am I bringing him up?

I guess because of scenes like this–

In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice.  In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder.  His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history.  I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.

Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish.  We’re told Parker just looks at him.  And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap.  How many actors could pull that off?  This one could.

So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains.  He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.

I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight.  Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.

Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons).  So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness.  Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career.  Go in a bit over eleven minutes.

No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation.  I’m talking about someone  I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit.  He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin.  I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive.  Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win.  And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–

REESE, Tom.  Born 1928, Chattanooga TN.  Height: 6’3.  Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable.  Wouldn’t swear to their color.

You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect.  Tom Reese never played the lead in anything.  But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something.  He’s my personal pick.

Big. Tall. Blocky.  Face like chipped concrete.  Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless.  Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent.  There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake.  This is Parker.  Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.

He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any).  Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap.  Suits him.  He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them.  He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares.  They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.

And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online.  I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit.  Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up.  My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained.  Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home.  Perfect.

But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–

SMITH, William.  Born 1933, Columbia MO.  Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary).  Eyes: dark as dark gets. 

Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality.  Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit.  Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up.  Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.

And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out.  Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then.  And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter.  Or better able to embody the menace of the character.  Or his dangerous sex appeal.

Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen).  He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).

Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say.  He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man.  He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do.  Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him.  But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment.  Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)

Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford?  He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)

The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it?  Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy.  He sure as hell would have been available.

I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one.  Somebody born to play the part.  Willing to just let the character step forth,  unedited, unbidden, unforced.  Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.

Think about what any casting director would have to find here.  Tall.  Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy.  Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed.  Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law.  Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body.  Nothing to it, right?

That’s right.

So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now.  Michael Shannon.  Kevin Durand.  I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice.  Not enough to justify a Part 3.  Anybody else got a pick?  If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue.  Call it an addendum to my previous review.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark