Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.

Lord Byron

In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader.  That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it.  Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.

And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print).  All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels.  Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there.  The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there.  Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers.  (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)

The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition.  His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly.  Ex Officio.  Dancing Aztecs.  Kahawa.  Smoke.  You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.

Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor.  You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)

And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace.  Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.

So I can’t really complain that  his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit.  You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.

But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough.  Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades.  And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form.  I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet.  I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.

I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America.  Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death.  But nothing came of them.  And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–

three_library_of_america_covers

Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago?   I could make some guesses, but guess what?  I don’t care why.  There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.

Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?

Maybe not.  Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point).  And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest.  But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).

(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman?  Most people still don’t understand how great she was.  I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)

My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will.  They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).

I truly admire David Goodis.  I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him).  He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake.  Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis.  I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him.  (Psst! They like Westlake too!)

Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers.  Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!).  George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is.  You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart).  I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying.  Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days.  I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!

One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun.  One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy), you start seeing things like this–

(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)

So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection.  But that being said, what would such a collection look like?  I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.

If Leonard got three books, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system.  I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy).  Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way.  But here’s how I’d do it.

Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984

The Spy in the Ointment
Adios, Scheherazade
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Brothers Keepers
A Likely Story

Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997

361
The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us  (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out).  It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe.  A net positive, I think.

I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now.  Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical.  Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms.  And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now.  People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.

Just dreaming out loud.  Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him.  Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar.  Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.)  Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the task of some editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.

I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.

I’m just putting it out there.

And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Review: Money For Nothing, Part 2

Robbie was a good listener, watching Josh’s face intently, almost never blinking.  When Josh finished, Robbie let a little silence go by and then said, “That’s crazy, you know.  That’s completely crazy, all that story.”

“Getting a thousand dollars a month for seven years with no explanation isn’t crazy?”

“I wouldn’t plot it this way,” Robbie told him.  “You have to at least make a stab at believability.”

Mr. Nimrin’s attempt to scoff lacked a certain conviction.  “Disappear?  How do you expect to do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Robbie said.  “Josh probably wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so he’s dead meat–”

“Hey.”

“–but I’m an actor.  I could be somebody else in twenty minutes, stand right in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was me.”

“Oh, fine,” Josh said.  “Now I’ve got two masters of disguise.”

“Not disguise,” Robbie corrected him.  “Disguise is for amateurs.  What I do is character.”

Mr. Nimrin clearly hadn’t liked the amateur crack.  “If you could disappear so readily,” he said, sounding miffed, “why haven’t you done so?”

Robbie spread his hands.  “What–and give up show business?”

Although this is one of my least favorite Westlake novels to read, it’s turning out to be even more of a pain to review.  On the surface, it’s a fairly diverting story, Westlake’s prose is ever a pleasure to peruse, and it’s one of our last chances to enjoy his reverently irreverent take on New York City and its environs.  But the deeper I get into it, the more my head hurts and my spirit flags.  I don’t want to review this book.  Why are you making me?  Oh right.  Another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

“A Novel By the Author of The Ax” says the paperback reprint from Grand Central Publishing (Mr. Westlake’s final redoubt) with its predictably trite artwork.  From one of the finest crime novels of the 20th century (one of the finest novels, period) to this, in just a few short years.  O tempore.  O mores.

That is the precise edition I’ve been using here, incidentally.  I have never purchased a copy of this book.  Last time, I read the hardcover first edition from Mysterious Press, borrowed from the stacks up above my desk.  But visiting with my mom in her gated retirement community in the sunny south, a short spell back, I had occasion to accompany her to the community center, where there is a sort of book exchange.  Basically, people donate unwanted books, and residents can just come in and take them, without even checking them out, returning them at their leisure, or never at all. Mainly mainstream middlebrow pop lit.  You know.  ‘Good reads.’

There were maybe half a dozen or so Westlakes there, including this (no Starks at all, I’m oddly happy to report).  I needed to start on it.  So I took it.  For nothing.  Seemed appropriate.  My mom said it was fine.  Are you saying my mother is dishonest?  By the way, they had fifty-three James Patterson novels–just in the trade paperback section.  It would have taken too long to run a complete tally in all formats.  I already said the o tempore o mores thing, right?

So where we left things last time was that Mr. Nimrin had informed Josh that one of his fellow sleeper agents, when woken up, had professed a desire to go back to sleep, and Mr. Levrin & Co. complied with his request in a most permanent fashion.  Josh, being depressed by this news, retaliates by informing Nimrin that he’s figured out what the target of this operation is–the dictatorial leader of a former Soviet satellite, who is attending a ceremony honoring his country’s sole Olympic medalist at Yankee Stadium.

The dictator is a thoroughly unpleasant and sporadically murderous fellow, as persons in his walk of life tend to be, but the agents will also be shooting quite a few relatively innocent bystanders standing around him (the better to confuse the issue of why this happened and who did it).  They’ll pretend to be among the wounded themselves (fake blood packets, like in the movies), then kill the EMT workers trying to revive them, and disappear without a trace.  Josh responds with a conditional third-person variant on the sort of indignant expostulation you’d normally expect from somebody a different kind of Westlake protagonist was robbing at gunpoint.

They’d never get away with it.,” Josh said.

“Oh, come now.” Mr. Nimrin was insulted.  Glowering at Lincoln Center, he said, “Of course they’ll get away with it.  These are not some religious fanatics, determined to kill themselves and sail off to some matinee heaven.  These are professionals.  Do you think this is the first assassination I’ve been connected with, in thirty years of service?

“It’s my first,” Josh said, “and I don’t want it.”

“Though it isn’t mine, is it?” Mr. Nimrin said.  “They’re keeping me out of the loop on this, aren’t they?”  Then he offered a bitter laugh an said, “Oh, yes, we say ‘out of the loop,’ too.  Everyone does now, though many have no idea what it means.  Part of the Americanization we all so bravely struggle against is the Americanization of slang.  It started many years ago with OK, which seemed to be all right, since OK didn’t mean anything in English, either.  But it was the thin end of the wedge.  See?  There’s another.”

“Mr. Nimrin,” Josh said, “I don’t want to talk about slang with you.  I want to talk about how I get out of this mess.”

(I’d much rather talk about slang, but since Mr. Westlake has chosen to assign his deep fascination with linguistic peculiarities to a curmudgeonly Non-POV character he is going to deal with rather summarily later on, I’ll just refer you to this article from the OED, OK?  Wouldn’t want you to be out of the loop.)

The mention of terrorist matinee heavens seems to indicate that Westlake wrote this book after 9/11, though perhaps he conceived of it beforehand.  But this is the only reference to terrorism in the book, meaning that as far as the characters are concerned, that date has no special significance. So it’s a Post-9/11 novel written from a Pre-9/11 perspective.  Westlake hasn’t figured out yet as a writer what to make of that day, that had a particularly shattering effect on the psyches of all New Yorkers.  He hasn’t fully processed it yet, and once he does, it’s going to be as Stark, and his main takeaway is going to be that it’s made his job a lot harder.  And that he still prefers freedom to security, given a choice.

Westlake is here once again displaying his conviction that at the end of the day, professionals are more dangerous than amateurs (though amateurs may triumph if they find their inner pro), and has created a situation where conventional terror would be unlikely to achieve the desired end.  In this case, I’m not so sure he’s right–if your only goal is chaos and fear, professionalism might prove more of an impediment than an asset.  I guess if we were talking about hackers in the employ of certain governments, trying to overthrow Democracy, he’d have a point, but that would make a very boring book.  In any event, this is not a book about terrorism.

Josh returns home to find Eve waiting for him.  She’s seen Tina Pausto’s slinky Mata Hari gear in his closet, and there follows a domestic scene, at the end of which he shows her the AK-47’s and uniforms she totally missed, because one-track-mind.  Eve is, quite honestly, not much of a character, because she doesn’t need to be, because she’s not The Girl, she’s The Wife.  Westlake could write interesting wives when he wanted to, but not here, for whatever reason.

She’s very attractive (we’re given to understand this, though there is basically no physical description of her in the book), and a good mother, and a loving passionate partner who Josh rightly adores, and very occasionally the source of some pragmatic suggestions.  But mainly she and their offspring are there as an incentive to heroism.

So once she’s been convinced Tina isn’t a threat to her marriage and Josh wasn’t lying (just not telling the whole truth), and he tells her about the need to find the third sleeper before Levrin and his cohorts get to him, she mentions that one of their summer neighbors in Fire Island works for an insurance agency, and has access to amazing databases.  He gives her the name–Mitchell Robbie–and in two shakes of a hound’s tail, she’s got the address.  856A East 2nd St.  The Lower East Side.  He lives in his own theater.  He’s an actor.  No, he’s not Alan Grofield living and working under a false name, but wouldn’t that have been fun? We’ll have to settle for a sort of roadshow Grofield, and another urban sociology treatise.

Alphabet City, it’s called, and as a neighborhood, it could not be more mixed.  The remnants of the waves of immigration can still be seen, fused with newer arrivals.  Parts of the area have become more valuable, but it still contains plenty of pockets of poverty.

Poverty and art have always been more than nodding acquaintances, so another part of life in Alphabet City has a certain La Boheme atmosphere, with coffee shops and performance artists and poetry bars and the most minor of publications and the most marginal of theaters.  Good Rep fit right in.  It was in a corner building, six stories high, the tallest you can erect a building without an elevator in New York City, with a crumbling stone outdoor staircase leading up to a wide entranceway that looked as though it had been gnawed for many years by giant rats, which was probably true.  To the left of the stairs, toward the corner, was a bodega crowded with inexpensive food in very bright packaging, and to the right of the stairs, with a marquee the size of a Honda hood, was Good Rep.

Good Rep is currently hosting a revival of Arms and the Man, which is certainly convenient.  Venturing inside the establishment, Josh quickly encounters a short dark-haired narrow-faced gentleman he quickly divines is Mitchell Robbie, who is understandably 1)Suspicious of Josh’s motives and 2)Unwilling to admit he made a mistake cashing those checks from United States Agent, which he probably thought of as a sort of informal artist’s subsidy.  A poor man’s MacArthur Grant.

Robbie’s skepticism collapses under the weight of Josh’s conviction, and is replaced with deep concern–he hates guns.  Even as props.  He won’t do any Mamet plays (a shot across the bow of the playwright’s cranky public assertions that all gun control is evil, and that the more guns there are, the safer we all are, and it would have been so nice if he’d been right).

And now, as Mr. Shaw might say, a dramatic coincidence–Levrin shows up to activate Robbie.   Josh hides in Robbie’s apartment behind the stage, while Robbie rather admirably improvises a character for himself who might credibly have accepted the job of foreign sleeper agent.  Perhaps a few too many British-isms, and he overplays it a bit, but Levrin is used to odd personalities in his line of work, and leaves, shaking his head, after instructing Robbie to rent a car.  Oh, and he gives Robbie the bank book for the 40k account in the Caymans that comes with activation.  Another grant.  Robbie’s so pleased, until Josh tells him about the impending massacre at Yankee Stadium.

(Sidebar: Would this be a better book if Robbie was the protagonist?  I think it would, yeah. Westlake probably thought it would too, or at least that it would be easier to write. He knew exactly how to do characters like this, freewheeling independents, practical cowards who turn out to be brilliant in the clutch, and of course he loved writing actor-protagonists, while perversely refusing to ever actually show any of them doing their jobs, except in that one book where the main subject of the book is acting.

Robbie first appears on page 106 in my edition, and he takes over the story without half trying.  It wouldn’t have been too hard to reverse the roles, and do the book from Robbie’s perspective, with the opening scene being Josh coming to warn him, and take it from there.  I would assume Westlake at least considered that.

All the previous Nephews–even Jay Fisher, the hapless second string network correspondent from I Gave At the Office, had some exceptional aspect to them, some splash of color in their lives.  And here he’s made his hero an ad agency hack with a wife and a kid and an expense account.  Because he’s trying to break the mold here.  Because he wants to take an organization man, well settled into his mediocre life, and turn him into something better.

That, for him, is the raison d’etre of the story, which is not about espionage, any more than it’s about terrorism.  How a chocolate soldier becomes a real one, under the pressure of severe exigencies. The same story he told in The Spy in the Ointment, only with a hero who has no higher ambition than to work a steady job, go home to his pretty wife, and watch his son grow up.

But to make that work, you have to believe in the person Josh was before all this happened, and speaking for myself, I don’t.  Robbie, with all his eccentricities and impressions [he’s doing spot-on send-ups of Levrin and Nimrin a short time after meeting them], is more believable within five minutes of our meeting him than Josh ever becomes, and he is by no means one of Westlake’s best characters in this vein.  He still gets to steal every scene he and Josh share in this book.  Well, of course he does, he’s trained for that.

Robbie says Josh can’t think outside the box because he lives in the box, and likes it there.  Well, a lot of people do, maybe most people.  But unless you can understand that type of personality, like him on his own terms, you’re not going to do a very good job writing a book about him.  Sidebar concluded.  I am not making this a three parter, even if that means skipping over two thirds of the plot.  Just so you know.)

Let me telescope things a bit.  Okay, a lot.  Nimrin meets Robbie, and is not encouraged, and they have a rather interesting discussion about whether actors or spies are better at disguising themselves as other people.  Robbie arguably wins the point by having Nimrin walk right past him (in character) without recognizing him, but Nimrin scores a point in return, later on, when Robbie follows him to Port Washington, Long Island, then loses him when Nimrin does one of his quick changes.

Josh has now decided that even though Nimrin insists his only chance of survival is to go along with the plot, he can’t do that.  He can’t be a party to all those murdered innocents.  So they have to find some way to steal a march on Levrin & Co., and Nimrin clearly won’t help them with that.   They need to find the safe house, and that’s in Port Washington, where Nimrin is posing as a confused old rich lady’s butler.  (Shades of the next book in the queue, which means they were both written around the same time.)

Robbie is doing all the heavy lifting at this point, using his acting skills right and left to get them the information they need, some of it from one of those helpful cab drivers you somehow never find outside of crime fiction.  She informs them that Mrs. Rheingold is the last in a long line of old moneyed people, the family having ‘daughtered out.’  She married some ne’er do well who turned out to be a real estate developer, and of course she broke it off when she found out how he made his living, because really.

His feelings hurt, he got the rights to half the family estate in court, and built a lot of little tract houses on it.  She retaliated by erecting a huge wall around the family manse, and going into seclusion.  And somehow, her house ended up being a headquarters for Ukrainian spies, but she has no idea about any of that.  I can’t wait to stop typing this synopsis, you know.

(There really are Russian and maybe even Ukrainian spies in New York City and its environs, needless to say.  Up to all kinds of mischief.  But they don’t work like this.  I’m pretty sure.  Well, as sure as anyone can be in this day and age.  Seriously, the main problem with this book now is that Westlake makes them work too hard.  Their safe house now would probably be the big white one on Pennsylvania Ave.)

There’s also some kind of corporate retreat thing on one side, ‘Christian Capitalists’ (oxymoron don’t half say it) and they go around in orange hats on golf carts.  It doesn’t get developed much (hardly anything in this book does), but it’s a plot point later on, so I should mention it.

So they know a lot now, but what good does it do them?  Much as I don’t agree with the narrative’s assumption that going to the authorities is impossible, with that assumption firmly in place, because there’s no story without it, all they’ve learned is the likely setting of their torture and execution, once Levrin finds out they’re ringers.  The thing to do is to stop the assassination, so the spies will go home and leave them alone–but how?  Robbie has an idea only an actor would have–steal the uniforms.  The Kamastan army uniforms hanging in Josh’s closet.  Without the proper costumes, to establish character, allow them to blend into the ranks of the dictator’s honor guard, they won’t be able to put on the play.  They won’t have time to replace them before their target is back home, out of their reach.

Nimrin catches them spying in Port Washington, and is rather hypocritically shocked by their behavior (this is a constant leitmotif with the character–he doesn’t like it when people don’t live down to his expectations,  don’t continue to behave in in the stupid predictable unimaginative manner that gives people like him an edge over the rest of the world).

They need to get him on their side, so they try to bribe him with the 80k in their Cayman bank accounts.  He’s not happy about it, but he comes from a culture where it’s almost rude not to accept a bribe, so he conditionally agrees.  Very conditionally, as it turns out.

Here and there in this disappointing book, there lies the occasional gem–Nimrin has not been happy living as a butler to a crazy old heiress (like Grey Gardens, only no daughter, more money, better clothes, fewer cats), but he had thought he could at least embezzle a little something from the housekeeping money.  He thought wrong.

“An enterprising independent local grocer, for instance,” Mr. Nimrin explained, “I could deal with, pad the account a bit here, a bit there, split the difference.  But the Grand Union!” he snorted, with an angry dismissive wave at the grocery sacks beside them.  “They’re all employees.  Cowards to a man–and woman–and they wouldn’t get the profit anyway, it would go to their corporate masters.  Oh why couldn’t Marx have been right?

Robbie, sounding honestly bewildered, said, “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Socialism, for a clever man,” Mr. Nimrin told him, “is a license to steal.  Capitalism is a license for capitalists to steal.  As the name suggests, you first need capital.”

(Or you could just have a name that suggests capital.  I’m going to keep beating this horse until it drops dead, you know.  Or until I do.)

As I have mentioned already, there is a huge problem with the notion that Josh and Robbie can’t go to the cops, the Feds, somebody.  It’s the 21st century, or nearly.  Obviously Levrin’s surveillance can’t be that great, or they’d both be dead already, and probably Nimrin too.  They have a lot of very solid intel now.  But they also have hostages to fortune–Josh’s wife and child, Robbie’s aged mother in Hartford.

And that goes from a theoretical possibility to a stark reality, when Josh gets home and finds Levrin there, and Tina, and a few hulking well-armed operatives, and is informed that Eve and Jeremy have, shall we say, been taken into protective custody.  Just to make sure Josh knows there’s no back door.  Well, now there isn’t.  He talks to her briefly over the phone.  She’s very scared, but holding it together somehow, for Jeremy’s sake.  They hang up.  Levrin suggests ordering pizza.  Tina is mildly sympathetic, but this isn’t her first rodeo, you know?

He gets to talk to Eve again, later, and this time she lets it slip there’s this amazing old antique cradle, and he knows–they’re being held at the Rheingold estate.

The plan with regard to the uniforms is to slip Tina some sleeping pills in her drink before Robbie comes in and steals the uniforms (which he covets in their own right, since good costumes cost money, and lots of good plays involve foreign soldiers).   That’s the plan, but that’s not what happens.  Tina and Robbie meet, are immediately taken with each other–she loves his Levrin impression.

And when she mentions she has trouble sleeping, Robbie slyly says Josh must have some sleeping pills handy, which she takes gladly.  Robbie and some of his cast mates from Arms and the Man (their names are literally Tom, Dick, and Harry, cue Ann Miller), come in later and take the uniforms.  Tina never notices.  (Or does she?  She’s a bit of a cipher. But not, I’m sorry to say, a very interesting one.  Too much of a Bond Girl, and that’s probably being unfair to Fleming, but much I care.  Though she may be the only Bond Girl who snores.)

Robbie insisted, for reasons having nothing to do with any of their plans, that Josh bring Tina to the opening of his play, and she is delighted to attend, goes shopping for very expensive clothes, and creates a minor sensation at the theater, wearing one of those little black dresses that never go out of fashion, nor should they.

I have to find things to interest me in this book that mainly doesn’t, and one of them is the third person narrator’s synopsis of a play I have never actually seen performed, though I went to a lot of top flight Shaw productions, back in the day.  It really shouldn’t surprise me that Mr. Westlake is a fellow Shavian, but how is he just now revealing this to us after so many novels?  I guess because the play is a metaphor for the novel.  Or an inversion of it.  I’m not quite sure.

Arms and the Man is a comedy set in a small town in Bulgaria in 1885.  There’s a war going on, Bulgarians led by Austrian officers versus Serbs led by Russian officers.  In the first act, a Serb soldier, who later turns out to be Swiss for some reason (Bluntschli, played by Harry), hides from Bulgarian troops in the bedrom of Raina, the daughter of a Bulgarian major.  She finds him, but he and his pistol talk her into covering for him.  She gives him a coat of her father’s, who’s away at the war, and he leaves.

The next spring, out in the garden (an even more minimal set), there’s some rustic comedy of the rural-lout sort, including the servant Nicola (Dick, with smudged cheeks).  The father, Major Petkoff (Tom, with a pillow stomach), is back from the war, and so is his daughter’s betrothed, the war hero Sergius (Robbie, looking not like just any doorman, but the doorman at Trump Tower).  Sergius and Raina are both devotees of the higher emotions, full of melodramatic gestures and proud stances (a dig at romantic novels peers wanly out of the past).

Bluntschli, the Serb/Swiss, now that the war is over, shows up to return the coat.  It takes another act and a half for everybody to understand that Raina doesn’t really want to be a romantic ninny and that she belongs with the realist Bluntschli rather than the preening hero, Sergius.  A nice around of applause, and out to dinner.

(No, when you eat after the play, it’s supper.  Unless it’s a matinee, of course.  I’m surprised at you, Mr. Westlake.  But not a bad synopsis.  A mite brief, perhaps.  If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.)

Josh gets home from the opening night cast party, and wakes up at nine the next morning to Levrin calling him, to say they should meet where Josh keeps his Toyota Land Cruiser, because he needs a ride to Kennedy airport.  (Okay, it’s one thing to make a man participate in an assassination, store assault rifles in his apartment, force him to billet a gorgeous foreign spy without his wife’s knowledge, then kidnap said wife and their infant son to use as leverage–but to demand a ride to JFK at the last possible minute without so much as offering to pay for gas and tolls is really a bit much.  And people say us New Yorkers are pushy!)

It’s not just Levrin.  Also along for the ride are two of Levrin’s toughs, the one named Hugo, and one whose name doesn’t come up.  And when they get to the airport, Josh is instructed to drive to a little frequented area for longterm parking, and it’s a set-up.  They’re going to kill him.  Josh is cursing his own stupidity, when suddenly there’s a chance for him to grab the gun, so he does–and it’s loaded with blanks.  Because this isn’t when they kill him. This is where they get gunpowder residue on his hand, for later.

They are going to kill him–they were always going to kill him.  And Eve.  And Jeremy.  And make it look like he killed Eve and Jeremy prior to killing himself, and was personally responsible for the assassination, and there’s going to be a suicide note (which Josh later asks to read, surprising Levrin) and for the moment, at least, this is not an exercise in farce, because farce can’t accommodate the kinds of emotions Josh is feeling now.  (That a lot of us are feeling now.)

Meanwhile, those three stood beside the car, up near the front on his side, talking together, easy, calm in their manner and calm in their minds.  How could they do th is?  How could such people exist?  To murder an innocent inoffensive family, for some…what?

For some temporary geopolitical advantage, to somebody somewhere, which would probably, given the history of such things, not even accomplish anything.  If all the schemes and machinations of these realist political tough guys were any damn good, the world would be sorted out by now, woudln’t it?  For good or for ill, somebody would have won.

But they don’t care, they’re pragmatists, they ride roughshod over real human beings for ephemeral advantages in a contest that never ends.  They’ve traded in their humanity for something they think is better.  They don’t smell their own stink.

Do they always have to win?  Do they make their messes, and just move on, untouchable, full of their rotten expertise?  Was there nothing for him to do but play the part of mouse, among these cats?

(Understand, I’m not saying there is nothing whatsoever in this book that resonates with the times it was written in, and maybe even better now.  Though it perhaps might have made mention of the fact that there are real life Levrins and Nimrins much closer to home as well, and not always so professional.  As to Tina Paustos, I really couldn’t say, but that would be some compensation, at least.)

Josh’s question is answered, if not for all time, when Nimrin (who was supposed to be on Josh and Robbie’s side now, but 80k isn’t enough to retire on) arrives at the parking area in Mrs. Rheingold’s car, and runs at Josh, screaming “Where are the uniforms?”  And in fact, Josh doesn’t know where they are.  But they’ll torture him just the same, to try and find out.

And he’s past caring.  To bring up that final Yeats poem once more, “You that Mitchell’s prayer have heard….,” he’s fighting mad, and he’s not going to take it any more.  It’s a cold rage, and it stiffens his spine admirably.  No more the Chocolate Soldier, but the cool hardheaded pragmatist that Shaw’s hero concealed beneath the bonbons.

Nimrin, who is back on team Levrin now, talks to him in the car, hoping to get him to be reasonable (suicide is reasonable?), and when he loses his temper at Josh’s obduracy, tells him he should not think he is in the driver’s seat.  Josh looks at the steering wheel in front of him, and begs to differ.

And then Levrin has him beaten up, and locks him in a room.  And Josh breaks out of that room with Dortmunderian ingenuity, clubs the guard into a coma, takes the dying man’s gun, maneuvers his way through the house like James Freakin’ Bond, sees Tina being tortured by Levrin (with kitchen matches, shades of The Mourner), because she’s suspected of maybe having taken the uniforms herself, thinks about saving her, then thinks again, runs into Nimrin, ends up using him as a human shield against the terrifying Hugo, who much to his surprise ends up dead (Nimrin is just badly wounded), finds Eve and Jeremy, gets them outside, and there’s Levrin, waiting for them.  He did good.  Not good enough.

But then in comes Victoria’s Messenger Riding.  Only they’re riding in golf carts.  Wearing orange caps.  Christian Capitalists?  Not quite.  It’s Tom, Dick, Harry–and Robbie.  They probably never put on The Threepenny Opera, because money, but its 18th century forebear is public domain.  They have the four AK-47s.  And the element of surprise (because the right costume distracts and confuses, see, it works!)  And would you believe Harry was in the Army Rangers, before the acting bug bit?   Sure you would.

“The cast of Arms and the Man were very well-armed.”  (Oh you waited a long time for that pun, didn’t you, Mr. Westlake?)  They didn’t originally steal the guns, but Robbie called the team waiting at Josh’s apartment, and did his Lebrin impersonation, telling them to stand down and run for the hills, the game is up.  He demonstrates to Levrin, who of course insists that doesn’t sound like him at all.  From an invincible villain to a comic one, in less time than it takes to tell about it.  It can happen.  Thankfully.

Levrin tries the standard bad guy shtik, thrown down your weapons or the woman and child die, but then Josh mentions all the explosives in the basement, and Robbie says he needs to get over his fear of guns, and trains his Kalashnikov in that direction.  Levrin screams in terror, while over above his head, Mrs. Rheingold, greatly enjoying the spectacle from an upstairs window, exhorts them to blow it all up (with her inside; dementia has its virtues, never doubt it).

Eve takes Levrin’s gun away from him, and then a somewhat singed Tina comes running out of the house, stark naked, all six feet three inches of enraged femme fatale, and beats her torturer within an inch of his life.  Then she orders Robbie to put down his gun, and drive her away in the golf cart.  He obeys with pleasure.  (And he still has that 40k in the Caymans, of course).  Chapter 56 ends with Dick saying “That’s something the Christian Capitalists don’t see every day.”

I think that’s where the book should have ended.  The classic Westlake abrupt ending, with lots of tantalizing loose ends, never to be tied up in a neat little bow.  But this book is the exception to almost the entire Westlake rule book, and not usually for the better.  There’s a very standard tying up loose ends chapter after that.

The Feds finally show up, and are forced to agree, grudgingly, that they can’t figure out what to charge Josh with, and they’re going to have to let him go.  Tina and Robbie have disappeared without a trace.  Nimrin is alive, but not very happy (well, he basically never is).

In spite of having spent over a day in the Rheingold house believing she and her son were going to be murdered there, Eve has taken a shine to the old place, and to Mrs. Rheingold, poor thing.  Can’t leave here alone there, without her faithful butler.  So they’ll just move in for a while, and Josh can commute via the Metro North, instead of the Fire Island ferry.  No, Josh is not going to quit his job.  And for whatever reason, nobody at his job has missed him while all this was going on.  Back into the box with him.

And then, at the very end, he gets a call from Robbie, that is a direct and self-conscious echo of the final paragraph of the very first Nephew, almost thirty years earlier.  Robbie and Tina are an item now.  She’s negotiating her surrender to the authorities, in exchange for all kinds of useful intel.  Once that’s done, he’s going to find her an agent, make her a star, with him her close personal friend and impresario.  Lots and lots of money.  Maybe even a little for Josh.  Probably for the movie rights to his story. “Money for nothing,” Josh thinks to himself.

Eve asks him who was calling.  Josh shuddered all over.  “The future, I think,” he said.  End of book.  At last.

This book wasn’t the future, of course.  It was an attempt to bring back something that belonged in the past, and it was the last attempt Westlake made to revive the subgenre (maybe more of a sub-sub-subgenre) he’d helped pioneer, which had given him his first big success, and led to him being thought of as primarily a comic writer by so many, not always to his benefit, but it had its compensations.

I doubt he had any trouble getting it in print, and that bothers me, when I think of the three novels he couldn’t publish in his lifetime, all of which were immeasurably more interesting and revealing than this one–but not what people expected from him.  Not hardboiled, like Stark–not funny, like Westlake.  Because sometimes he wanted both polarities at once.  And see, people who really know what’s funny also know what isn’t.  Mark Twain wasn’t always funny either.

Maybe the Nephews had already run out their string, years before.  Maybe they didn’t belong in the new century, at least not the way Westlake wrote about them.  But I think maybe the biggest problem was that Westlake himself didn’t really believe in them anymore, and was no longer up to the elaborate juggling act that went into writing about them.

They always seemed like the lightest of his books, the easiest, but that’s an illusion–like the way Astaire makes his painstakingly choreographed routines seem like improvised throwaways.  Tripping the light fantastic is always much harder than it looks, and as Westlake headed into his final years, he just didn’t have the chops for it anymore (neither did Wodehouse at the end, but he had no other options).  The comic persona began to fall away from him–with just one crucial exception.  But the only first-rate work left in him would be from the other persona–the core persona.

As he falters in these final furlongs, two tall somber dark-haired figures step forth, to catch him as he falls, and hoist him back to his feet, one at each arm.  They have nothing to say to each other, because they don’t live in the same world.  But they share the same father.  And to him, they say in unison, without unction, but with deep respect, “Don’t sweat it.  We’ve got this.”

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Money For Nothing

He’d been bemoaning his fate, on the basis that outrageous things did not happen to ordinary people, but now, focusing on those long narrow strips of yellowy light from the outside world below, bars of butter across the dark ceiling, he reminded himself that anything could happen to anybody, and that only science contains impossibilities: Time does not reverse, for instance, the apple does not fall up, the sun does not circle the earth.

He had been careless.  He had lived his life as though there were no consequences.  If he could forgive his seven-year-younger self for cashing the checks, back when he was footloose and single and broke, what excuse could he find for going on with it as his life had changed, as he had taken on responsibility and maturity?  It had just been passivity, from the very beginning.

This is the very last non-series novel Westlake published in his lifetime, five years before his death.  I believe it also constitutes the tenth and final ‘Nephew’ book, though with so many variations on the basic formula as to render it almost unrecognizable.  To some extent it is an attempt to blend elements from the two of his weakest books–his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and his first major attempt at satire, I Gave At The Office (the seventh Nephew)–among many other sources. I would rank it somewhere between the two.

It’s also revisiting the themes and ideas of The Spy in the Ointment, third of the Nephews, best of the first five (all of which simultaneously relied upon and subverted classic genre tropes).  This is a far less well-balanced narrative, because it’s trying to say more (and thus ends up saying far less), but that’s still what’s going on here.

It returns, one final time, to Westlake’s longstanding fascination with the acting profession he so briefly joined as a young man.  I had completely forgotten that it did that, prior to rereading it.  I had forgotten nearly all of it, to be honest.  That turned out to be both a bad and a good thing.

Its protagonist is an organization man–a copywriter for an ad agency, and not of the creatively tortured Mad Men variety–his primary role seems to be schmoozing disgruntled clients at fancy restaurants, one of which is plucked directly from the pages of I Gave At The Office–there is no firm indication by the end that he is going to quit his job and become an independent, but neither is he going to end up like that earlier book’s harassed lead, on the outs with his employer and stalked by a deranged FBI agent who has fallen for him.  This guy’s employer never seems to notice anything’s amiss, and there is a sexy agent here, but she’s only obsessed with designer clothes and cable TV.

He’s happily married, with a two year old kid, who is centrally involved in the story, which involves seriously imperiling the wee tot’s life.  His wife, unlike all previous love interests in Westlake’s books written in this vein, is not a well-developed or terribly interesting character, nor is she physically present most of the time.   This all marks a break not only with the Nephew books, but with nearly everything Westlake ever wrote in his life.

This protagonist is the sole POV character in the narrative–which is, unlike all the other books in this informal series besides The Busy Body (which it doesn’t resemble at all), written in the third person.  It would have been simplicity itself for Westlake to write this one in the first person, and there was no evident reason to bring in an omniscient narrator to tell us only what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing, when he could tell us that himself.  A distancing device, let us say.  Westlake couldn’t find it in himself to write directly from such a person’s perspective, but at the same time wanted to remain entirely focused upon it.  To see how it might change, develop, under the pressure of certain very frightening stimuli.  I think this would have worked better in the first person, but hey, it’s his book.

I keep saying ‘protagonist’ because it’s an open question for most of the book whether this fellow is going to be the hero of his own story, and you can’t convince me Westlake, a lifelong devotee of Dickens, wasn’t thinking of David Copperfield as well.  But David Copperfield is, of course, the first person narrator of his life, even if Wilkins Micawber is the hero of it–because Dickens still identified more with Copperfield than with Micawber. Westlake has intentionally created a protagonist he will have a hard time identifying with.  (It’s never worked before, but maybe this time..?)

There’s a sort of Micawber here as well (no threat to the original, but fun) and that’s likewise intentional.   He’s rather reminiscent of a subsidiary character from the very first Nephew book, and similarly pops up at the end smelling like roses, with the second female lead.  Though his penchant for doing impressions probably comes, yet again, from the justly forgotten Sassi Manoon.

Which Westlake self-evidently never forgot, never stopped returning to, because when he knew he hadn’t gotten something right in a book, he kept coming back at it, tinkering away until he’d figured it out, at which point he could let it go if he wanted.  Here he is, at the tail-end of an exceptionally successful career, still trying to make his various ‘lozenge plays’ play out as intended.  But never again, after this.  And I don’t know if that’s because he decided he finally had made these ideas work, or if he just threw up  his hands and said the hell with them all, he had better things to do with his final years on earth.

There are few Westlake novels I enjoyed less than this one, when I first got to it, a few years ago, as I was finishing the last few books he wrote under his own name.  But it is true that you haven’t really read a book until you’ve reread it.  Having spent several years since my last reading micro-analyzing all the books that came before, I understand much better now what he was trying to do here.  And I still don’t think it’s much of a book (though the reviews were mainly on an approving note, and almost uniformly missed every single point being made, because that’s the history of Mr. Westlake and the critics in a nutshell).

I greatly enjoyed various bits and pieces of it, there are, as always, fascinating insights and brilliant bits of writing scattered hither and yon throughout it, but I don’t think it works, because it’s a bit of a Diddlebock.  Yes, I’ll explain.  (This is going to be a two-parter, by the bye.  I just decided that now.  I was resisting that conclusion, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it.  How much I like a book and how much I write about it–two different things.)

One of the most underappreciated geniuses of the silent film era is Harold Lloyd, though that’s been changing, gradually.  After struggling for years to find his own voice as a comedian, building a creative collective with himself at the center, by the 1920’s he was making one sidesplittingly original film after another, all centered around The Glasses Character, otherwise known as Harold, or ‘The Boy,’  a comically over-earnest striver, who is always trying to win both success and ‘The Girl,’ played successively by Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, and Jobyna Ralston.  (Lloyd had real-life romances with all three, the last of which was adulterous, since he’d married Mildred–ardent pursuit of The Girl can be a tough habit to kick for some guys.)

Then came talkies.  Lloyd was still very popular (perhaps even more than Chaplin, at least in America), and he went on making basically the same films, only without the inter-titles.   The Lloyd talkies did good box office for a few years, more or less entirely on the strength of nostalgia and name recognition.   His string had run out by the late 30’s, and he retired to a life of amateur photography (that involved a slew of nubile nude models; see what I mean?).

Cut to the late 40’s–Preston Sturges, who appreciated the debt all practitioners of screwball comedy owed to Lloyd, wrote and directed a comeback vehicle for him, entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka Mad Wednesday). It is an attempt to basically revive the original Lloyd comedies for a later generation.  Like most such attempts at ‘reimagination,’ it was a colossal dud.  There are those who consider it a work of genius.  Auteurists, I suppose.

I’ve seen it in a theater.  An avid admirer of Lloyd and Sturges, I suppressed many a yawn throughout.  Though to be fair, it’s hard to actively dislike a movie where the hero goes around in a checked suit and a cowboy hat, with a real live lion on a leash, and there is one good joke at the beginning, about how Harold had romanced each of his intended’s older sisters, one after the other, and he kept getting older, but ‘The Girl’ stayed the same age.  A great comedian knows how to laugh at himself, above all things.

Artists get old, but great art stays young forever.  Take Lloyd’s best work from the 20’s, pack it in your time machine, show it to people living a thousand years from now (if you can find any).  The cultural references may baffle them, but they’ll still laugh until their bellies hurt, and root like hell for Harold to succeed, outwit his rivals, get The Girl, because those are eternal themes, that never lose their luster.

But you know what does?  Style.  Presentation. Weltanschauung.  What he did in the 20’s was fresh and new, and will remain so, because you can feel the excitement and innovation that went into it, bursting through the celluloid (or pixels, once the Lloyd family finally broke down and let their progenitor’s creations be released on DVD).  The spirit of an era bubbles and fizzes within those films, like homemade beer in poorly capped bottles, and thus it can speak to all eras.

But once The Glasses Character had outlived his specific era, he could never speak to us that way again in any new works–even if films had remained silent, I think.  Even if The Jazz Singer hadn’t happened.  The sin of Harold Diddlebock was his inability to accept that his time had passed–but how could he know that for sure if he didn’t pick himself up and give it the old college try?  A freshman to the end.

The analogy between Westlake and Lloyd is extremely strained, I’ll be the first to admit.  Writers age a lot better than movie stars, as a general rule.  Westlake had a thriving career that stretched across more than half a century.  He produced work of lasting merit throughout that time.  The Nephews were one small part of his legacy.  Never mind a second act; he had at least nine or ten of them.

And his work was not produced by a collective, though he certainly gave all due credit to his editors–it was still his work, sweated over in various small rooms, as he hammered away on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century.  I think Westlake might have envied Lloyd the nude models, but not much else.  (Okay, maybe Preston Sturges, but that collaboration probably wouldn’t have meshed either.)

All that being said, the Westlake Nephews are, in a very real way, his equivalent of The Glasses Character–who is most certainly a picaresque hero (another of Lloyd’s second act problems, once he was no longer young enough to play one).  Like the silents featuring that bespectacled battler, all the Nephews but one were published over a period of ten years, starting with The Fugitive Pigeon  in ’65, and ending with Brothers Keepers (maybe the best of the bunch) in ’75.

And this one’s the Diddlebock to round out the set.  And just like the Sturges film, it’s both a nostalgic look back at something that doesn’t quite track anymore, and a satiric commentary on it–an attempt to update it, comment on it, make it relevant again.  A fairly entertaining and even gripping attempt at points.  But ultimately, a failed attempt. You can’t go home again.  Or if you do, you end up sleeping on a futon in the basement.

I don’t know how well it sold, but if it had moved anywhere near as many copies as the earlier books, he had time for a few more.  Nothing but Dortmunder and Parker, for the rest of his life.  I think that tells the story.  He read between the politely phrased lines of the respectful reviews, and winced.  He rang the curtain down on the Nephews, and it never came up again. A closed chapter.

And yet Money For Nothing, I’m deeply irritated to say, is evailable, when The Spy in the Ointment, Adios Scheherazade, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Brothers Keepers, and A Likely Story are not. Neither are Who Stole Sassi Manoon? and I Gave At The Office, which may be nothing to mourn now, but it’s going to matter someday, when lit scholars finally start to take Westlake seriously, and can’t find the damn books without hitting an archive somewhere.  (Library of America, where are you when we need you?)

The only Nephew books you can actually buy new copies of, albeit in electronic form, are The Busy Body (bad movie adaptation), God Save the Mark (Edgar Award), Somebody Owes Me Money (recent Hard Case reprint), and this one (which came along late enough in the day as to be digitized right off the bat).  The five best Nephews (and I Gave At the Office, so it’s not deliberate irony at work here) are the ones you still have to scrounge around for old copies.  I’ll try not to let such a rank injustice prejudice me against this not too inaptly titled work, but no promises.  Enough prologue; let’s dissect this sucker.

Josh Redmont (I even hate the name) is about to catch the ferry to Fire Island, where he, his wife Eve (oh please), and their two year old son Jeremy (these are very WASPy people) are spending the summer.  Josh stays at their Manhattan apartment during the work week, rejoining his loved ones for the weekend, an arrangement that can also be seen in Two Much!, A Likely Story, and Mr. Westlake’s own personal life, though presumably he could just bring his typewriter with him on the ferry.  (The world famous gay scene there had to settle for Sacred Monster.)

Having moved to New York from Indiana as a young man just out of a short stint in the army (the last time Westlake made reference to his own brief and undistinguished military service), Josh rattled around doing temp jobs for a few years, before getting into advertising.  During that time, he started receiving checks for a thousand dollars, one every month, from something that called itself ‘United States Agent.’

When he changed abodes, the checks mysteriously followed him.  He could not, for the life of him, find out why they were coming, or the slightest trace of any organization by that name, but a thousand bucks is a lot of money to a temp (even in the late 90’s in New York), and he deposited them, and they cleared, and he never got any tax forms in relation to them, so he never reported them to the IRS.

And by the time he didn’t really need the money anymore, he’d just gotten used to it.  Accepted it as a fact of life.  So he went right on cashing the checks, and since Eve wasn’t interested in co-managing their finances, he never mentioned them to her, even though she noticed them in the mail, and never asked about them, and is anyone buying this?  This might be the single most unbelievable part of the book, and that’s saying something.

This is the central plot device, from which the title stems, and I’ve long wondered if some political commentary is intended, perhaps relating to entitlements, and I’m still not sure.  Westlake wrote a short story as a very young man in which Patrick Henry, sentenced to immortality by his having said “Give me liberty or give me death!” sickens because of the welfare state, and is finally done in by Medicare.

There was an ambiguously libertarian streak in Westlake, that Anarchaos seems to be at least a partial refutation of (we do need government and laws to protect us from rapacious corporations and our own nihilistic impulses), but in The Jugger, what does Joe Sheer in is retirement, brought on by his starting to receive Social Security checks under an alias he cooked up, which he thinks is a great joke on The System, but it turns out to be on him instead.

And what might have resurrected this deep skepticism of Mr. Westlake’s regarding checks that come in the mail for services never rendered?  Well, he presumably wrote this book right around the time he turned 70, or shortly before.  And as the SSA website (which I’m greatly relieved to see has not yet been taken down) helpfully informs us, that’s the very latest age at which you may accept Social Security payments.  Or give them back to the government, if you like.  Either way, you’re admitting you’re old now.   And the most important entitlement of old age is the entitlement to be grumpy about it.  We can get back to this later.

Just before Josh gets on the ferry, he is accosted by a gentleman going by the name of Mr. Levrin, who says he works for the people who were sending Josh those checks, and that Josh is now ‘active.’  Josh doesn’t want to know what that means, but he’s going to find out anyway.

Levrin hands him a bank book, relating to an account in the Caymans, in which forty thousand dollars has been deposited in Josh’s name.  Josh is told that his former handler, Mr. Nimrin is now retired (which is not a euphemism for deceased, though in some cases it might be), and Josh has no idea who that is or that Nimrin is the name of an ancient town in Palestine that was depopulated in 1948, and I have no idea what either name is supposed to mean in this context, so don’t ask me.

Levrin says they just need to use Josh’s apartment in Manhattan for a few weeks.  For an unspecified operation that is going on now.  They’ll be there on weekends, when he’s at Fire Island.  They won’t even leave a trace of their presence.  And for this he’s going to be paid 40 grand, plus all the money he got already?  Something smells bad, but Josh is too stunned to notice that.  Yet.  He hands over the keys, numbly, and barely catches the boat.

Still processing what just happened, he spends the weekend valiantly trying to enjoy marital intercourse with Eve, who meets him at the dock wearing a red bikini and an expectant look, and he does his best to keep up his end, so to speak, but is a mite distracted, and she notices (a mite sketchily developed, but no dummy).

Later, he plays with Jeremy, and there’s a faint echo of an earlier Nephew there.  And of Mr. Westlake’s experiences with his own sons, perhaps.

On Saturday, at the beach, he and Jeremy spent a few hours playing the game they seemed to have invented, in which first they made a village, by upending pails of wet sand and shaping their tops to be the houses and poking fingerholes into their sides to be windows and doors, and then watching as a giant–Jeremy–with many a “Ho ho ho,” and “Har har har,” tromped through the peaceful village, destroying it, and, presumably, all of its peaceful villagers.

Josh had never minded this game before, had known that other little boys up and down the beach were also taking the opportunity of summer in the sun to improve their skills as homicidal maniacs, but today, after United States Agent had made him “active,” he found himself regretting that it was too late to train Jeremy in the ways of pacifism.

(Possibly several million years too late, but why dwell on the recent past?   And speaking of time, when is all this taking place?  At no time is September 11th directly referenced, though terrorism is.  What’s going on here isn’t terrorism but rather Post-Soviet Ukrainian espionage disguised as terrorism, and I’m not convinced that’s a thing, though obviously Ukraine has real-life spies, who, like the spies in this book, used to work for the USSR, and got very confused when there was no such thing anymore, which is one of the reasons Josh is having these problems now.

There are cellphones, but Josh rather oddly doesn’t have one, and there are times when he could really use one.  There’s an internet with highly sophisticated search capacities, but it only comes into play on two occasions, doesn’t seem to be a part of anyone’s daily life.  Well, it probably wasn’t ever part of the author’s daily life, is the thing.

That the smoking ruins of the WTC are never even indirectly referenced would tend to argue for this either being set before 2001, or in an alternate universe where 2001 does not have that grim signifier attached to it.  But all of this inevitably creates a rather unfortunate disconnect from its time that gets in the way of what the book is trying to say; assuming we ever figure out what exactly that is.)

Remembering the name Levrin had mentioned, he looks online (in an earlier book, he’d have been visiting a library to do research), and finds an article in the Washington Post, about an Ellois Nimrin who was tried for industrial espionage seven years earlier.  The prosecution was hampered by the fact that so much of the evidence against Nimrim was classified, and he got off.  That’s all he can find. Then Nimrim finds him.

They have a conversation in the waiting room of a psychiatrist of Nimrim’s acquaintance (she later explains he approached her in Europe, got her to pretend they were involved to evade some people pursuing him, and the pretense became real, though the relationship remained informal and open–you know, that might actually have been a better novel than this, but too late now).

Nimrim explains to Josh how he got recruited–as part of a scam Nimrim cooked up to build himself a retirement nest egg.  Nimrim got himself the job of recruiting sleeper agents in New York.  He would get the names and contact info of some likely recruits, get them into the system, and then route their 12,000k per annum retainers to an account he’s set up.  Once he’d recruited enough phony sleepers and harvested their earnings for a decade or two, he’d have several million dollars, tax free, and would disappear to live out his life on some tropical island or other.

Josh finds out Nimrim was tending bar at an establishment Josh frequented as a single guy looking to pick up NYU coeds (Nimrim is a master of disguise, which he later explains simply involves making yourself look like the kind of person people tend not to pay close attention to).  Because he was young and foolish and trying to impress girls, he’d made some radical statements, that put him on Nimrim’s radar, made him a credible recruit.  So for two years, Nimrim was getting the checks made out to Josh, and everything was fine.

But then Nimrim got implicated in a case involving stolen computer tech, his name and picture were in the papers, and he was burned, as they say in spyland. His associates opted not to make him disappear, but they took his passports, kept a close eye on him, and ever since he’s been living a marginal lifestyle at the fringes of the organization, fuming over his lost millions.

Since nobody found out these sleepers never dreamed of being any such thing, the checks started getting mailed to them.  Most of Nimrim’s people did not cash the checks, so they were written off as bad bets–but Josh and two others cashed them like clockwork, and thus were assumed still ready to become ‘active.’ (Which means that if Josh had simply stopped taking the money once he didn’t need it anymore, he wouldn’t be having this conversation now.)

Nimrin tells Josh he should simply do what these people tell him to, and ask no questions, and maybe this way they both stay alive (they still don’t know about his little scam, and it would be bad for his health if they found out, as well as Josh’s.) Under no circumstances should Josh attempt to contact the authorities.

One authority he absolutely must inform, however–his wife.  She’s already noticed his distracted mental state, and suspects him of having an affair.  It’s a bit hard to tell whether she thinks the story he tells her is an improvement over the one she was imagining.  But she believes him.  He strategically neglects to tell her he was recruited before he ever met her because he was spouting a lot of guff in a bar in order to bed college girls, or that Levrin has told him that now they’re going to be storing ‘matériel’ in the apartment next.

Which turns out to be four AK-47’s under the bed, and four green-brown military uniforms with black and red ornamentation here and there, hanging in the bedroom closet.  This is all getting much too real, much too fast.  He goes back to the psychiatrist’s office, and asks her to contact Mr. Nimrim, tell him to get in touch.  She says it will take a while.  In the meantime, he figures out something even Nimrim doesn’t know–what the operation is going to be, and who the target is.

Seems there’s this little country called Kamastan (I believe this is Westlake’s final fictive nation, unless there’s one from one of the remaining Dortmunders I forgot).  It used to be part of the Soviet Union.  Now it’s ruled by an oppressive brutal dictator named Fyeddr Mihommed-Sinn, who is, wouldn’t you just know it, coming to New York next week on his first-ever state visit, because his country’s first and only Olympic athlete won a gold medal in the recent games, and he wants to be there for this special ceremony being held by the United Nations, at Yankee Stadium, to honor the victorious Olympians and give them even more medals to go with the ones they already have.  I don’t think this has ever happened, but okay, sure, why not?

Josh sees footage of Mihommed-Sinn reviewing his troops.  Guess what color uniforms they’re wearing?

Then another bombshell burts, this one of the female variety–Tina Pausto, six feet three inches of black-haired slinky Eastern European pulchritude, is making herself at home in Josh’s home.  Josh has to restrain himself from saying “I’m married” when she introduces herself.  She already knows that, obviously.  She thinks it’s cute he doesn’t try to sleep with her, like most married men do.  He just thinks about it.

Another thing he doesn’t want Eve to know about–he pointedly avoids mentioning it when he calls her on Fire Island, hears his son breaking a plate, and says something about how their damage deposit for the summer house is going to look like the far end of  a Ponzi scheme. (I only mention this because Westlake died the same year the Bernie Madoff story broke, and that’s when I first found out what the hell a Ponzi scheme was.)

So right after he meets Tina, he gets a call from Nimrim. On his home landline. That apparently is not bugged. Barnes and Noble (of course, of course). Broadway and Sixty-fifth. Author reading on the third floor at 7:00pm. Be there. If I could remember when that store was still there, it might be helpful in terms of dating this story.

Well, if Josh can find Nimrin’s trial–ah!  Here we are.  Closed in 2010.  Actually on 66th St, but it was a huge block-spanning store, so that’s not really an error. It was there for all of fourteen years.  So it opened around 1996.  So this story takes place after 1996 and before late 2001, because seriously, it makes no sense at all in a post-911 world.  (And seriously, does anything?  You tell me.)

But you know what does make sense to me?  Westsider Books is still there. Check it out if you’re ever in the area.  Great little used bookshop, very old school, a true anomaly now. Now that would have made a far more colorful and authentic setting for Josh’s meet with Nimrin, but much less conducive to social satire, which is what we’re about to see.  Mr. Westlake is going to engage in a little cross-genre snarkiness, at the expense of the present-day publishing industry, and perhaps an author whose name has since become something of a household word.

7 P.M.  July 26
Author David L. Fogware
reads from
ENCHANTRESS OF NYIN
Volume VII in the
Farbender Netherbender Series
3rd Floor 

Okay, that could be anyone.  But listen to the narrator’s description of the people Josh sees gathering on the third floor of the now-defunct book emporium.

Strange people.  There appeared to be some sixties flower children who’d been cryogenically stored for thirty years and then imperfectly thawed. Scruffy round-shouldered baggily dressed people of both sexes–or indeterminate sex–carried an unmistakable aura of homelessness about them.  Others looked like people who’d lost their luggage, but decided to come anyway.  And down in front were half a dozen burly guys in dark-toned T-shirts and light-toned windbreakers and ponytails and scraggly beards and bent eyeglasses in either tortoise-shell or black.  Josh originally assumed those guys must be a group, but then he saw nobody here knew anybody else, though most people, including the ponytails up front, were amiable about it.

Josh wonders if it will turn out this Farbender Whateverblender thing will turn out to be a sideline of Nimrin’s–which I think would have made a damned decent plot twist, and probably Westlake considered it–hence ‘Enchantress of Nyin’–then decided there wasn’t enough time.  And anyway, he had a larger target to shoot at–

Introduction finished, the spectacled store employee smilingly made his exist, and a fellow carrying a book came out to take his place at the lectern.  He was David L. Fogware, and he looked exactly like the half dozen fellows in the front row, who gave him the most enthusiastic applause of all, the rattle of hand-clapping that greeted his presence.  He, too, was a burly guy with specs and beard and ponytail and windbreaker over T-shirt over baggy jeans over L.L. Bean boots, and he accepted the acclaim with becoming modesty.

Josh hadn’t had occasion to notice this before, but there are in this world two kinds of burliness.  There’s the burliness of muscle and brawn and large bone, and there’s the burliness of beer.  These fellows, applauders and applaudee alike, represented the burliness of beer.

(Well, as long as it’s good beer…)

Mr. Fogware then gives a little introductory speech prior to his reading, in which he talks about how he’d originally thought the Rearender Foreveronabender series (snark is infectious, you knew that already) would be a mere trilogy, but then the richness of the worlds, the tapestry, the implications–he doesn’t mention the money, but that’s probably one of the implications.

Okay, I don’t know this is George R.R. Martin (to put my spellbook cards on the table), but consider the timing.  A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, followed by A Clash of Kings in ’99, and then A Storm of Swords in ’00.  A planned trilogy that turned into a much longer series (that just so happens to be set to end with the seventh book–if the now severely blocked Mr. Martin lives long enough to disgorge the two remaining tomes, and I hope that he may).

Mention is made of combining Arthurian romance with Buck Rogers, which is a pretty fair description of Martin’s niche as a writer (it’s actually a bit unfair, but again, satire).  He’d have been doing events much like this, in bookstores exactly like this, and Mr. Westlake would have been doing promotional events of his own, not to mention that he liked prowling through bookstores for the sake of prowling.

It’s easy to see him just happening across such an event, sitting inconspicuously in the back, and taking in the spectacle of the bespectacled.  He was bespectacled himself, and wouldn’t too obviously stick out among the regulars, few if any of whom would be readers of his.  And is it wrong of me to find all of this spoofery and speculation more interesting than the story I’m trying to synopsize here? Westlake was never funnier than when he was sending up his own profession.

Just to be clear, I find Mr. Martin’s books to be both majestically conceived and ineffably unreadable.  The brief selection from Enchantress of Nyin does sound a bit like his somewhat overworked prose, but overworked prose tends to sound alike, no matter who’s typing it.

It wasn’t long after this highly readable but not so well-conceived book we’re looking at now came out that a certain development deal was struck with a certain cable network, and now I live for those few weeks of the year when I may gaze upon the dark designs of the the variously decent and devious denizens of Westeros and Essos, and I think if Mr. Westlake knew the ultimate fate of Mr. Martin, if Martin was indeed his target here–to have his magnum opus completed on television by other writers, long before he could complete it in print–he’d have been a bit less snarky, and a lot more sympathetic.  But satire must needs be pitiless as Littlefinger and bloody-minded as The Hound. Back to the spy crap.

Nimrin is not, in fact, David L. Fogware.  He’s a fat old woman with a walker. Disguise yourself as people other people don’t want to look at, and you’ll never be recognized.  He’s got news for Josh, and much to his consternation, Josh has some news for him.

Nimrin’s news first–one of the three sleeper agents he recruited who took the money without knowing who sent it has turned up dead–an apparent suicide, but in reality, Nimrin informs a suitably horrified Josh, he was eliminated by Mr. Levrin, for refusing to participate in the upcoming operation.  If the remaining sleeper, who has yet to be activated, should prove similarly intractable, the organization will realize something’s amiss, and Nimrim will be the only possible culprit.  So Josh and the remaining United States Agent have to be cooperative–if not, they’ll be killed, and so will Ellois Nimrim.  Only Nimrin can’t find the third man to warn him.

If Josh goes to the authorities, as Nimrin knows he desperately wants to do, he’ll be spotted, stopped before he gets through the door–and even if he got through to somebody–who’d believe him?  What proof does he have?   He’s been taking a foreign government’s money for nine years.  Best case scenario, he goes to jail. Worst case scenario, he ends up another apparent suicide.

And here I must cavil yet again–there have to be confidential tip lines and emails.  Apart from the main FBI field office in Manhattan, there are also a number of satellite offices scattered about the greater New York City area, and Levrin’s people can’t possibly watch them all.  He’s got canceled checks,  names of two enemy agents, a bank account in the Caymans he hasn’t touched, and a fairly convincing story of how he got recruited without his knowledge.

And once Nimrin accepts that Josh has correctly guessed the target of the operation is Mohammed-Sinn (which somehow he didn’t figure out himself, even though the impending state visit was all over the news and he’s supposed to be really good at this kind of thing?), he quickly deduces that their plan is to use the four uniforms to blend into the Kamastani troops assigned to Yankee Stadium (whose AK-47’s will be loaded with blanks for an honorary fusillade), and kill not only the dictator, but a very large number of innocent people standing around him.  Meaning that Josh has to consider the fact that it’s not just his and Eve’s and Jeremy’s lives at stake here.  (Nimrin’s pretty much exclusively concerned with his own neck, which is going to be a plot point later on.)

Yes, it would be risky to inform the authorities, but much less so than what is to follow, and this wouldn’t be a serious problem if the book wasn’t trying to dabble in dark modernity and realism, while still remaining a madcap criminal farce–updating this kind of story for a new era can be very challenging, even for a younger writer.

The Spy in the Ointment still works, and beautifully so, precisely because it deals with a fictive American intelligence agency contacting the radical pacifist hero who has been mistaken for a different type of radical, recruiting him as a double agent, and then very predictably screwing up their surveillance of him, after first giving him enough training for him to haphazardly triumph over some very unprofessional menaces to society.  That story still makes sense on its own terms. This one, Diddlebock that it is, is shot full of some pretty gaping plot holes.

But as John Ford once said, when asked why the Indians didn’t just shoot the horses in Stagecoach, “Well, that would be the end of the movie, wouldn’t it?”

And this, I think, is the end of Part 1.  Finally.  Sorry for the delay.  I’ve been a bit of a sleeper myself, the past two weeks.  Pretty sure I’ll be back well before Game of Thrones premieres.  But I’m increasingly of the opinion that David L. Fogware shall never emerge from the  Nevereverender series.  Last one.  I promise.  Okay, maybe a few more in the comments section.  Feel free to come up with a few of your own.  Ho ho ho.  Har har har.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Scared Stiff

In the meantime, I had of course started another book.  It was not a departure, like The Ax, nor was it exactly like the several books I’d earlier published in the nineties.  It was a little comic insurance fraud novel, closest in spirit to books I’d written in the seventies.  I finished it, and gave it to my editor and my agent, and the gloom could be heard to descend. (It sounds like a grounded blimp losing air.)

Gently I was told that this could not possibly be the book that would follow The Ax, nor could it be the book that followed the return of Richard Stark.  I did see that.

Unfortunately, I did.  I saw what they meant, and I had to agree.  I had a certain responsibility now.  The book I published after The Ax and Stark redux could not just be any book.  I had newer readers now, who would come to that book with a certain level of expectation.  They wouldn’t necessarily need The Ax again, they could certainly understand that I also had my comic moments, but there was a level of emotional truth that really should be present in whatever book was published next.  Later, in the future, I might return sometimes to my more frivolous ways.

Donald E. Westlake, from an unpublished article found in his files; now collected in The Getaway Car

Early in the morning, before I snuck out of the Inter-Nación to climb back aboard my Vespa, we had a conversation we’d had before and was the basis of our life together.

“I’ll be here,” I said.

And she said, “Of course you will, you’re the net.”

“And you’re the net,” I said.

“You know I am.”

We smiled at each other.  I said, “We’re out there alone, nobody to be sure of in the whole world except you and me.  I’m your net and you’re my net. The only net we’ve got.”

“The only net we need, Barry,” she said.

Okay.  First of all.  This is a book about a guy who fakes his own death in a fictional country in South America, to defraud an insurance company.  A white Volkswagen Beetle is involved, as is a (literally) breathtaking river gorge.  Look at the covers up top.  How hard was that to figure out?  Japan, take a bow.  Your artist was the only one who got it, best as I can tell.  Anata no hādowāku o arigatō.

But there’s much about this book that is mysterious: for example, why did Westlake think he could get away with publishing it under a pseudonym? The country in question is named Guerrera, and it had a head of state named General Luis Pozos, after whom a highway has been named (which doesn’t necessarily mean the fat egotist is dead, but we can only hope).

Westlake had been writing about variant versions of this country and its ubiquitous dictator since the 1960’s.  Originally in some of the Grofield novels, most notably the first, where it shared a border with Mexico (not in this one). When Stark was writing the book, it would be called Guerrero.  When it popped up in a Westlake novel (as in the Dortmunder novel, Good Behavior), it would be Guerrera.   (I would never have had the nerve to inquire of the great man if this meant Westlake represented his feminine side.)  The name Pozos never changed, though Guerrera seems to have shifted its geographic position much closer to the equator than its Starkian equivalent, migrating across the map in response to the narrative’s needs, just as Monequois kept showing up in different parts of upstate New York.

Guerrero, Guerrera, Pozos, Pozos, he never called the whole thing off–but he almost did when he was told by just about everybody with any influence over his professional life not to publish this book right after The Ax.  We know now that he took such warnings seriously, which is why we’re just now getting to read Forever And A Death.  But this one he finally did publish, in 2003.  Under the name Judson Jack Carmichael.  The ultimate nom de plume for a writer who possessed an inordinately large number of them.

As you can see, that alias did not hold up in subsequent editions.  Well, how could it?   This is so obviously a Westlake, he might as well have credited it to one of his porn pseudonyms (who, for all I know, might have written about Guerrero/a as well; Westlake and his fast-typing poker buddies could keep injokes like that going for decades).  The dust jacket informs us it’s the pseudonym of a best-selling author (arguably true after The Ax), and that was clearly intended to gin up interest.

Best guess: Westlake still wanted to publish the book.  His agent still thought it would somehow damage his ‘brand.’  Otto Penzler agreed to act as the go-between to Carroll & Graf (it’s stated to be an Otto Penzler Book), and they would tantalize potential readers by saying this was a famous writer going incognito (Penzler’s name would narrow the list of guesses some).  I can see no indication there were any reviewers who twigged to it being Westlake, and the New York Times didn’t even review it.  Later editions were credited to Westlake, including the foreign editions.  I don’t know if Westlake was disappointed by this or not.

It neither damaged nor expanded his brand. Because honestly, there’s nothing much new here–it’s just time-tested material arranged somewhat differently. His enduring fascination with Latin America. His interest in large extended families, and how they can work together and/or be at cross purposes–most prominently featured in Ex Officio and Dancing Aztecs.  His love of befuddled and increasingly terrified first-person narrators in jeopardy, comic criminal picaresques, sometimes referred to as Nephew Books–but the classic Nephew is either in his 20’s or just around 30, and just about to choose his path in life.  This one is 35, married for 14 years, and he’s made his major life choices already, good and bad–now he has to find a way to live with them.  Or not.

I’d call it more of a Cousins Book.  A bit of a throwback to what he wrote in the 60’s and 70’s, but a variation on all themes, most of all in the way it deals with Latin America, which is much more than just a scenic backdrop for misadventure here.  This time the half-fluent hero is going to have to try the total immersion route.  His identity is going to be so thoroughly erased by his schemes (he goes to his own funeral), that his sense of self, his past choices, including his choice of mate, will all be tested to their limits.  An experiment, and an interesting one–hardly a complete departure from what came before.

I honestly don’t know what the problem was with publishing it, but I’m not in publishing.  I’m more into synopsizing, but I’ll be atypically brief here, since I don’t feel like doing a two-parter for this.  Which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like it, but of Mr. Westlake’s south of the border sagas, I think this definitely takes a back seat to High Adventure.  Let’s appreciate it for what it has to offer.

Barry Lee is a Long Islander by birth, classic American mutt with a hefty dose of black Irish in him, giving him a decidedly Latin look when he’s working on his tan.  Perhaps that helped him win Lola Tobón, a Latin beauty of the first water, who immigrated from Guerrera, seeking her fortune, and finding Barry instead. They found each other, let’s say–knowing from the first that they were far more together than they could ever be apart.  But the fortune-seeking thing never did pay off.

The problem is, the world keeps changing. It just keeps changing all the time, too fast for a simple little couple like us to keep up, much less to succeed.  Today it’s VCR, tomorrow it’s DVD.  Today it’s day-trading, tomorrow it’s Chapter 11.  Today it’s dot com, tomorrow it’s dot bomb, and we managed to get burned, one way or another, on every one of those.  But through it all, through it all, Lola and I just kept hustling.  What else was there for us to do?

And it’s caught up with them.  Mired in debt, the walls closing in fast, unable even to borrow on their life insurance.  It’s not that kind of policy, but it is the kind that pays double-indemnity for accidental death.  Lola wakes Barry up one night with a brainstorm–if they go back to her country, as they do periodically, to see her family, Barry can fake his death, and she can collect the insurance–a full 600k.

Her family, properly induced (and loving Lola very much, Barry perhaps bit less but if he makes her happy…), will help him create a new identity (the old Westlake dodge of using a dead child’s birth certificate to apply for a driver’s license, and build a new identity from there).  He’ll pose as her brother, join her in the States, and they’ll live incestuously ever after.  That’s the plan.   And whatever Lola wants–oh please, you knew that was coming.

With the help of Lola’s good-natured older brother, Arturo (a man of many talents, but a cab driver by trade), his new name will be Felicio Tobón de Lozano, but he can’t assume that identity while he’s hiding out in Guerrera, because people will know he’s not Lola’s brother.   For one thing he speaks very poor Spanish (the Guerraran dialect is quite distinctive).  So he needs an interim self, Ernesto Lopez, a deaf-mute from Ecuador who is an old friend of Cousin Carlos, whose house Barry is staying in.  Barry is not thrilled to learn that his unfortunate disability stems from a bad case of syphilis, but he’s not going to be romancing the local girls, right?  Well, si y no.

As fate would have it, Carlos is married to an intimidatingly beautiful Argentinian sculptress, named María, who likes to swim in the pool a lot (Carlos is quite prosperous by Guerreran standards, and he doesn’t like to talk much about how he makes his living).  Barry isn’t sure if he’s being seduced or tested here.  Possibly neither.

But a more serious temptation manifests itself in Carlos’ niece, Luz Garrigues, who Barry already knows by reputation.  Half the ribald stories in Lola’s large interesting family originate with her, and it would be hard to say if they’re apologizing or bragging when they tell them.  Possibly both.

My first thought was: I don’t want this woman to think I have syphilis.  She was a beauty, probably in her mid-twenties, black-haired, chisel-cheeked, with a generous red mouth and large dark fiery eyes.  Her body was hard and tightly curved, as though it had been constructed to contain electricity.  She looked like Lola crossed with a panther, and I thought, Oh, my!

Half the fun in an insurance fraud story is how you fake your death.  Westlake had done this before, of course.  In the short story, The Sweetest Man in the World, which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1967, and subsequently appeared in a few anthologies (I gave it a very brief once-over in my review of The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

As is the case here, the ersatz dead man is in league with his spouse, assumes a false identity, and is the first-person narrator, and that’s really all you need to know–there he disarms the claims investigator by a rather unlikely (but not wholly implausible) ruse.  Also, there’s a very real dead body, which requires some explaining.

This is an entire novel about insurance fraud and death-faking, so the reader has more time to nitpick, and the investigator is unlikely to be so easily bamboozled.  Barry’s got to make it look really good–it helps that Guerrera is not known for its efficient record-keeping.  It helps that officials there are notoriously easy to bribe.  And most of all it helps that dead bodies nobody wants to claim are not exactly thin on the ground.

So he and Lola have rented a white Volkswagen Beetle.  They’ve driven to a very scenic restaurant, cantilevered over a river gorge, to the point where every meal you have there might be your last.   They have acted out a truly horrific marital spat, at the close of which Barry storms out in high style, and heads for the parking lot, which can’t be seen from inside the restaurant.  He opens the driver’s side door, starts the engine running, but in fact the driver’s seat is already occupado–by the aforementioned corpse, decked out in a shirt of royal blue that matches Barry’s.

This unclaimed body has been provided by a professional yet pliable undertaker, who will also serve as coroner, because that’s how things are done in the Guerreran countryside, which is admirably efficient when you think about it.  Barry experiences a moment of doubt, when he notices how surprisingly well-groomed his doppelgänger is, but it’s too late to turn back now.  Arturo, good brother-in-law that he is, rams his Impala into the Beetle, which is parked at the very edge of the aforementioned gorge.

Out it arched, into all that light above the river, a white descending balloon. No. A white descending refrigerator.

Arturo slammed on the brakes, and the Impala stopped just before the drop. He backed around in a tight circle, and I turned away from the dramatic instance of my death.  As I ran for the Impala and jumped into the backseat, I heard the screams start inside the restaurant.

I could pick out Lola’s scream.  It was the loudest one of all.

When next I saw her, Lola described for me the scene after my departure from the Scarlet Toucan.  Into the at-last-calm atmosphere of the restaurant, the shiny white Beetle made a sudden dramatic appearance in the middle of the air, hung there like a surrealist painting, then crashed with a great geyser of foam and spray and auto parts.

Not only satisfactory from the standpoint of convincing the insurance company, but highly artistic as well.  Lola is inconsolable, and all the more rapturously beautiful in her feigned grief.  The police who show up belatedly at the scene are fighting over who gets to console her.

The ranking officer, Inspector Rafael Rafez, insists on accompanying her back in her cab, and in-between telling her how he thinks he’d make an excellent addition to the NYPD because of his multi-lingualism and general crime-solving prowess, forces his sincere and well-meant condolences upon her to such an extent that she has to sock him hard in the mouth, and she worries he’ll never get the blood out of his suit, which suits Barry just fine, once he hears about it.  (But they have not heard the last of Inspector Rafez!)

So then it’s back to his interim pseudonym of Ernesto, trying very hard to think about his eventual reunion with Lola while María swims in the pool, trying to stay on Carlos’ good side, and trying to be convincing as their chauffeur, suit and all, though I think the fact that we’re told he’s chauffeuring them in a late model Buick Riviera (possibly the very last model) would make that challenging, since all Rivieras were coupes, unless I missed something, and yet we’re told this one is a four-door.  Perhaps one of Mr. Westlake’s intentional errors, made to avoid angering the gods.

Carlos doesn’t want Barry to miss his own funeral, which may be his sense of well-hidden sense of humor at work, or perhaps his way of reminding the man spending so much time with Carlos’ lovely wife of his own mortality.  Either way, Barry finds the experience fascinating, and particularly what a ravishing widow Lola makes, but he’s also got some fairly trenchant social observations to relate to us.

Both of Lola’s parents come from large families, well scattered around Guerrera and the neighboring nations and also well scattered through the economic classes.  Some of her cousins were schoolteachers and administrators, and some were day laborers and mild farmers, poor as squirrels.  Carlos was a cousin with money and influence, but there were other cousins, illiterate and unpropertied, who barely existed in the modern world.  We don’t get that kind of diversity in the States because our society is more settled, so the ranges of class within a family are usually not very broad.

(Oh, I don’t know.  Give us a few more years with the current POTUS…)

Between María and Luz, Barry needs himself a little Lola-time, so a brief rendezvous is arranged at a hotel, before she flies back to America to commit felony fraud (which amazingly, as is pointed out several times in the book, Barry himself has not committed, since faking your death isn’t strictly illegal, though certainly frowned upon).  That’s where the passionate conversation up-top takes place.

Shortly afterwards, while driving María to the airport, she mentions that she was wondering if he was going to be ‘difficult’, as in make a pass at her, as men must be doing constantly, but never when her very dangerous husband is around.  She would have refused, and is not at all displeased he never made any such tiresome attempt, but she is, all the same, curious about the source of this restraint–it surely does not come from his deep sense of morality.  She says something about how faithful husbands are rare in this tropic clime of hers.

“I think that’s true everywhere,” I said.  “But Lola and me…it isn’t that I’m being faithful to her. It’s that I don’t have any other way to live.  To go do something else would be like breaking a bone.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, and switched to look at the back of my head again, speculatively.  “It seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t,” she decided.  “You aren’t the faithful type, actually, you’re a rogue.”

“Thank you–I think,” I said.

“Oh, I know you like being a rogue,” she assured me. “What the English call a chancer. You’re unfaithful to the entire world, so why are you faithful to your wife?”

“Maybe that’s why,” I said, and met her eyes in the mirror.  “Maybe I need one little island in a sea of untrustworthy water. And so does Lola.”

“You’re each other’s island.”

“We are the island,” I said, “and I need to be with her again.”

“Poor Barry,” she said, which was the first time she’d used my former name, and without the usual mockery.

I didn’t think I could stand sympathy.  Smiling back at her, I said “Poor Felicio, in fact.”

That made her laugh and restored our relationship. “You aren’t a man,” she said, “You’re an anthology!”

Soon to be expanded into further editions, but we’ll get to that.  After they have an unpleasant encounter with Inspector Rafez (while Barry prays not to be recognized–he’s grown a heavy mustache, but still), it comes out that there is bad blood between Carlos and the the Inspector–the first an honest crook, the latter a dishonest cop, obviously their paths must cross at times–María is thrilled to hear of Lola’s bloodying the man’s white linen suit.  They part as friends, but with María out of the country on art-related business, Barry’s situation has become more tenuous, and this is thanks to Luz.  Who is going to assail Barry’s roguish fidelity as María never could.

Her cousins.  She didn’t know they would be so stupid.  Which cousins, Barry wants to know, and stupid how?  The cousins from Tapitepe, she responds–Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro.  She was never told directly what Barry and Lola were doing, she was supposed to believe the cover story, but she’s not stupid, just impulsive, and she figured part of it out, listened to vague family gossip, and supplied the rest from her imagination, just as fertile as the rest of her self-evidently is.  In her version of events, Barry and Lola are getting millions of dollars, and sharing it with the entire family, and all they have to do is keep the secret, or the insurance company won’t pay.

And then she told this to the cousins from Tapitepe, who responded to the joyous news in a way she, in her sublimely sexy innocence (I would assume all women in Eden were like her, which is why it was such a terrible punishment to be expelled from there), had not anticipated.

“So they say,” she went on, “if the family gets all this money if Barry Lee is dead, how come he’s alive?”

I looked at her.  “Say that again?”

“Why have the risk? she asked me.  “That’s what they say.   Why have the risk? If the insurance find out Barry Lee ain’t dead, nobody gets nothing.”

“Luz,” I said, they were never going to get anything.

“Millions,” she said

“Not millions,” I told her.  “Listen to me, Luz.  Not millions.  It isn’t millions.  Carlos is getting a couple hundred, and Arturo is getting some, and Mama and Papa are getting some, and that’s all.  The rest of the family isn’t getting anything.”

“Millions,” she said, blinking at me.

I would say both are having equal difficult getting their points across (in Barry’s case, the problem is exacerbated by the way Luz’s breasts keep jumping out of her top), but Luz’s point is the more crucial one, because the cousins from Tapitepe are coming to make sure Barry Lee is dead for real.  They are honest men, and do not wish to commit fraud. Only murder.  Wouldn’t Carlos protect him?  Carlos was never 100% Barry wasn’t sleeping with María when he was away, and now María is away, and he’s not going to get involved.  This seems a bit cold-blooded, since the cousins are also going to kill their housekeeper to make things look good, but Carlos may not realize this, and good help is not that hard to find in Guerrera, I guess.

Luz sneaks him out of town, over to her place in a nearby town, and they go dancing.  No, seriously.  People dance there.  Barry is a good dancer, which is no surprise to Luz, since Lola would never have married him otherwise.  She thinks Barry has been very good for Lola, who was always very snobbish and tiresome before.  She is certainly not trying to drive Barry insane with adulterous lust. That’s just a natural consequence of being around Luz Garrigues.

So now he’s being passed off as a truck driver she took up with, his fourth identity of the book to date, and of course that is never going to hold up, since he can’t even speak fluent standard Spanish.  But you can see him almost warming to the role–if he stayed there long enough, his Spanish would improve, he could come up with a better story, he could just blend into the scenery, illegal immigrant that he is, and they’d go dancing every night, and Luz would probably end up pregnant, but none of that happens because the cousins from Tapitepe show up there, and he has to jump in the filthy river next to her house (no modern plumbing there) so they don’t find him.  Afterwards she showers him off, which isn’t helping matters at all.

He gets Luz to phone Arturo, who shows up in the Impala, and it’s off to Lola’s parents’ house, where an insurance investigator named Kaplan then shows up, along with the indefatigable Inspector Rafez.  Barry has to spend some time with Madonna, the family pig, in her shed.  She tries to take it in good humor, but he smells so bad….

Arturo is disgusted with the stupid cousins from stupid Tapitepe (the word bufons is bruited about, no translation needed) but he wants Barry to understand something.  His little sister is not going to jail.  If the only way to prevent this is to make Barry Lee disappear, for good–well, let’s hope it never comes to that.  But the thing about countries like Guerrera is, people form broad-based social webs (and were doing so long before Facebook). Arturo knows somebody who might help.

An old girlfriend, in fact–Dulce.  Who is still quite sweet on him, even though he’s married to someone else.  And she manages a luxury resort for rich gringos. Can Barry play a rich gringo for a while?   Two, actually–Dulce will be told he’s a film producer hiding out from a vengeful wife he’s divorcing, and his name is Garry Brine (because he’s been salted away, nice pun Barry!)  But while he’s there, he’ll be going by the name Keith Emory, so the wife doesn’t find him.  So now his alias has an alias.  Caramba.

Barry’s feelings about Casa Montana Mohoka are mixed–it’s so–fake.  You’ll never get to know the country this way.  And yet he’s already gotten to know Guerrera so much better than he ever wanted to, and they have modern plumbing.  Also satellite TV.

What a place.  This was the kind of resort being built all over the world these days, in out-of-the-way locations where the costs are low and the regulations nonexistent.  Corporations use them for all kinds of conferences, and then the corporate executives come back and use them for their vacations.  They fly into some little country like Guerrera, go straight to the resort, spend their three days or their week, fly back out, and they’ve never been anywhere at all. Corporate people love that kind of place, because it comes with a guarantee of the removal of all doubt and danger.  A vacation with no surprises: what a concept!

And then–a dramatic coincidence!  Dulce is married to a local doctor (there is certainly nothing improper in her mildly flirtatious relationship with Arturo), who went to college in America, and an old school chum of his happens to be in the country, would ‘Keith’ like to meet him?  Charming fellow.  Works for an insurance company now.  Leon Kaplan.  Who doesn’t recognize Barry either. Man, a mustache can certainly hide many a sin (assuming you don’t think mustaches are a sin in themselves).

As they chat over dinner, Kaplan confirms all of Barry’s worst fears–he suspects the death was faked.  He can’t prove it yet, but he knows how–find out if there are any dead Guerreran children requesting drivers’ licenses of late.  Barry excuses himself from the table–he suddenly isn’t feeling well.

So he calls up Arturo and the Impala once more, and he’s got bad news for Arturo as well–it was Arturo’s wife, Ifigenia, who wrote the letter to the insurance company, darkly suggesting that Barry Lee’s death was not all it should be.  She has, as you might expect from the name alone, a somewhat dramatic temperament.  And if they don’t do something fast, this is going to be a Greek tragedy in no time.

First, Arturo has to explain things to his wife, with whom he enjoys a somewhat on and off relationship (he shows up every few years, and she has a kid, and sometimes she makes him a dessert before he goes) just what a horrible thing she’s done–most of all in trusting the Guerreran post office to get that letter to America before the intended crime had already been committed.  She is tearfully apologetic, and makes them both a dessert, which they spent the next few chapters fighting over, but we can’t get into that now.

Turns out Ifigenia writes for the fotonovelas Luz so adores (small country), and she also has a cousin, Carlita Camal who works in TV news (and is thus the only blonde in this book packed with sultry brunettes, because Spanish language TV). They figure she can get into the hall of records, make them a map of the place, and then they can sneak in there and heist the documents.  Barry says they can eat Ifigenia’s quesilla while they wait for the coast to be clear.  He’s actually looking forward to it.

Instead, she just lifts the license application herself, the only copy, and walks out with it, and gives it to them at the best Chinese restaurant in Guerrera (I can’t dwell on that either, and I really want to–Westlake would have made a fine food columnist if the novelist thing hadn’t worked out).  Now Kaplan can’t prove a damn thing.  Back to the resort.

Where, two days later, the cousins from Tapitepe show up.  Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro. Security is very tight there, but they found a way in, after finding out he was there, and to sum it up, the problem with a country where you can always find somebody to do something not strictly legal for you is that the people who don’t like you can always do the same.

This is the extreme peril part of the program, and we’ve been through enough Nephew books by now that I don’t feel the need to go into detail.  Off to Tapitepe in a beer truck, being hit over the head occasionally while in a sack.  Escaping the not-very-bright cousins once he gets to Tapitepe, stealing one of their trucks, causing them a few fairly serious injuries in the process, which causes Barry not the slightest guilt–though seeing the truly abject poverty they live in (by Guerreran standards), he can certainly understand why some gringo in-law’s life means nothing to them.  Understand, but not approve.  Bufons.

He runs out of gas.  Naturally.  Then he’s found by the police.  Obviously. Specifically by Inspector Rafael Rafez.  You were inspecting maybe Speedy Gonzalez?  (Referenced in this book, I should mention, he’s very popular down there.)

He looks at Barry’s very convincing fake ID–convincing because it’s real, just misleading.  In the true spirit of Westlake police detectives, the Inspector manages to jump to just about every wrong conclusion in the book but then a ray of light dawns–he remembers Lola Lee.  Well, how could he forget?

And then Barry tells him everything.  Between chapters, needless to say.  And without implicating any members of Lola’s family he still likes.  And it turns out that this makes Rafez like him, because I was a rascal now, and he could control rascals.   And you know what the best thing about corrupt cops is?  They’re corruptible.  Have Lola bring sixty thousand dollars from America, and we’ll call it even. He won’t even throw in the cleaning bill for his white linen suit.

So having been under Carlos’ protection from Rafez, he’s now under Rafez’ protection from Carlos (who probably was never going to do anything to him, but it’s good to be protected, and the Tapitepe cousins might still show up again). No more worries of being murdered for illusory millions.  Now he just has to worry about him and Lola actually getting their 600k, and Lola staying out of jail.

And here’s the thing–he talks to Lola on the phone.  Risky in itself, but she’s using pay phones (there are still pay phones in America?). Her passion for him has not abated, but she’s holding something back.  He can tell.  Something is wrong.  That she can’t talk about.  Even over a pay phone.

The days slip by.   The insurance check has still not arrived, even though the company has decided to pay up.  Rafez is expressing mild impatience over his 60k.  Barry tells Arturo he feels like he’s ‘nailed to the floor’ (which in itself should have been enough to out ‘Judson Jack Carmichael’ as an alias, in this novel of endless aliases).  Inspector Rafez may not have proven to be much of a detective, but that’s precisely the role Barry Lee has to play now–only he has to figure out what Lola’s problem is without her telling him in words.  (In that limited sense, I suppose you could say all men in long-term relationships have to play detective sometimes.)

The crisis comes when he learns Lola has turned her phone off.  To him, this is clearly a signal that somebody on the other side has something on Lola, and is threatening to turn her in.  And on his side, there’s only one thing he can do to counter that.

Arturo said, “Are you crazy?  Turn yourself in?”

“It’s the only way,” I said.  “If Lola’s in trouble somehow, it’s only because of the money.  If I say I’m alive, there won’t be any money, and she won’t be in trouble anymore.”

“And you don’t get the money.”

“But I get Lola,” I said.  “She and me, once we’re together, we’ll figure something else out. There’s always a scheme somewhere.”

He’ll say he faked his death because he was tired of the marriage (documented by the fight they faked in the restaurant), wanted to start a new life (documented by his living with Luz), and Lola knew nothing about it, filed the insurance claim in good faith.  He’ll call Leon Kaplan, who is back in the states by now.  Explain the whole thing, except not the parts that would put Lola behind bars.  Even if the insurance company wanted to try and go after him, it would be too much trouble and expense.

Just one problem.  Kaplan refuses to believe he’s Barry Lee–refuses to believe Barry Lee is alive.  Why would he refuse to believe that?  He just spent a lot of time trying to prove it.  Unless he had something to lose by Barry being alive? Oh wait…..

Change of plans.  Barry tells a dumbfounded Kaplan about that time they had dinner together, you know, at Casa Montana Mohoka?   Remember how they were in on the insurance fraud scheme together?  No?  He’ll remember it after Barry calls the police over there and tells them about it.  Which won’t happen if Barry very shortly gets a phone call from Lola, telling him she’s got her money, along with whatever evidence Kaplan was using to blackmail her.  Check.  Mate.

Everybody’s happy now, except Kaplan and the Tapitepe cousins, who deserve each other, far as I’m concerned.  Barry has Lola, Lola has Barry, and they both have six hundred thousand dollars (don’t even ask how much that is in Guerreran siapas), minus sixty thousand for the intrepid Inspector Rafez, who has proven to be more honest in his own way than his American counterpart, so maybe he’s better off staying where he is after all.  Those gringos can’t be trusted, Inspector.  Probably shouldn’t drink the water either, now that Trump is in charge of the EPA.

But Barry no longer counts as a gringo, because he is, and evermore shall be, Felicio Tobón, living happily ever after in America with his loving sister, “Hansel and Gretel out of the woods; or at least until the six hundred thousand dollars ran out.  But that’s another story.”  The End?  Far as we’re concerned, yeah.

Okay.  If I were compiling a list of Westlake’s fifty best novels, this would not be on it.  But it might just make my list of his fifty most oddly charming novels–the very bottom, perhaps.  It’s fun to read, and I would think it was even more fun to write, particularly right after The Ax, which must have been quite depressing and painful, and so full of death.

And so he wanted to write about Life, not necessarily at its most felicitous, but at its most vivid, vibrant, and vivacious, and what setting could be more conducive to that than Latin America, where government may at times be a work in progress (or its opposite, and that’s not just Latin America these days), but living is an art form in itself, at least when material circumstances even barely allow for its practice.  There is much gentle mockery here, intermingled with great admiration, and a willingness to understand–and obviously if you really want to understand Latin America, there are far more fluent authors you could check out.  Probably even some who write great mysteries, though I suspect most of those don’t get translated much.

I said it’s a Cousins Book, and by that I mean it’s saying we’re all cousins, parts of a huge far-flung maniacal clan, and wherever we may roam, we’re always staying with family, with all the good and the bad that comes with family, even poco Pedro.  And could there be anything more unpardonably rude than to build a wall to keep family out?  Could anything have filled Mr. Westlake with more inchoate rage than to even suggest such a thing?  Is it not cold enough up here already?  Or do we think we’d still be welcome down there, where so many of us love to venture, once we’ve shut the door on any impromptu return visits?   Rich relations give crust of bread and such...  The day might dawn when we’re the poor relations, you know.

I’m glad he got to see this one in print, and I believe it gave him great satisfaction to see the books, in spite of all the bafflingly misleading covers (and the one from Japan).  I also must note in passing that he wrote an awful lot about morally ambiguous yet oddly faithful rogues, as he must have sometimes liked to see himself, facing death down below the border–so often that it might mask a secret desire to meet with Death down there, if he had to die at all.  If so, he got his wish five years later.  But that is also another story.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Breakout, Part 2

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The three of us were together now in Q and I knew from old experience that anyone in Q would sell his old mother for a pack of cigarettes.  But all the same, I was puzzled and depressed.  Puzzled because I couldn’t clarify what I had really meant to say when I got up to speak at the meeting, depressed because if there was no liberty which I could define then equally there was no escape.  I remained awake for hours that night thinking of it.  Beyond the restless searchlights which stole in through every window and swept the hut till it was bright as day I could feel the wide fields of Ireland around me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not wide enough.  Choice was an illusion.  Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one with the largest possible array of modern amenities.

From the short story Freedom, by Frank O’Connor

“Tile,” Parker said.  “It’s a tile wall.”

Mackey reached in to pull a strip of the Sheetrock away.  He held it in both hands and they looked at the face of it, which was pale green  “It’s waterproofed,” Mackey said.  “We found a bathroom.”

Williams said “We won’t know if there’s a mirror on it until we break it.”

“A mirror in a bathroom,” Mackey decided, “this far to the back of the building, isn’t gonna wake anybody up.  If it comes down to it, I’ll volunteer for the bad luck.”

“We’ve got all the bad luck already,” Williams told him.  “Parker and me, we already broke out once, and here we are again.”

Picking up a hammer and screwdriver, Parker said “We’re running out of time,” and went back to work.

Parker makes a good point.  I spent all of Part 1 of this review on Part One of this novel.  Part 2 has to cover Parts Two, Three, and Four.  Let’s get back to work.

Westlake started writing this book with the idea that it would be about Parker going to prison, escaping, and then doing a quick heist near the prison before heading back to New Jersey.  Now just that bare bones concept suggests a daunting array of technical challenges–how to get Parker out of prison, how to execute the heist, how to get him through the police dragnet.

But then came an even more daunting challenge, in the form of Lyme Disease, perhaps picked up while walking near his rural upstate New York home.  Westlake managed to keep typing until he’d gotten Parker out, and then went to the hospital for four days; couldn’t work for six weeks after he got out of the hospital.  Westlake was almost 70, and it’s reasonable to assume he hadn’t fully recovered by the time he started writing again.  If he ever did.

But as he said later, it was when he reviewed what he’d already written that he realized escape was the overriding theme of the entire book, not just the section dealing with the prison.  There are all kinds of prisons in this world that we may have to try and get out of–hospitals, for example.  Physical afflictions.   Prisons within prisons within prisons (to repurpose Thomas Merton).

So Parker and his ‘friends’ (maybe not quite the right word, and that’s another theme in the book–personal and professional reciprocity, the pros and cons of it, no pun intended but there it is anyway) will have to break out again and again, before they win free of this morass, and live to heist another day.

We pick up in Part Two, right after Parker, Brandon Williams, and Tom Marcantoni, have  escaped the previously escape-proof Stoneveldt Prison, with the help of Ed Mackey, and some of Marcantoni’s criminal colleagues.  They drive to an isolated area by a lake to change clothes, and take stock.  Parker and Williams gave Marcantoni their promise they’d help him and his buddies out with a heist in the nearby midwestern city he and Marcantoni both hail from.

This is the multi-POV part of the book, where we get to know some of the players other than Parker.  We start off with Williams, who enjoys the distinction of being the first African American POV character to appear in a Parker novel (not the first black POV character by a long shot; see The Black Ice Score).  He’s reacting about the way you’d expect a black man to react when surrounded by strange white men, all of whom are capable of violence and not much for PC. He’s wondering if he’s going to be alive much longer.

He’s also noticing that the man he knew as Kasper is being referred to as Parker. Even though he’s been a heistman for much of his adult life, he’s still the fish out of water here, but there are reasons Parker, one of the best talent scouts in his field, picked him for the escape crew, and we learn a bit about how he came to be the man he is.

Brandon Williams had grown used to this level of tension, never knowing exactly how to react to the people around him, who and what to watch out for, where it was safe to put a foot.  Part of it was skin color, but the rest was the life he’d lived, usually on the bent.  He’d had square jobs, but they’d never lasted.  He’d always known the jobs were beneath him, that he was the smartest man on the job site or the factory floor, but that it didn’t matter how smart he was, or how much he knew, or the different things he’d read.  The knowledge would make him arrogant and angry, and sooner or later there’d be a fight, or he’d be fired.

The people he mostly got along with were, like him, on the wrong side of the law.  If wasn’t that they were smart, most of them, but that they kept to themselves.  He got along with people who kept to themselves; that way, he could keep to himself, too.

I’d say Williams is a somewhat overdue homage to all the black men who’d written fan letters to Westlake (as Stark) after the Parker novels started coming out–not all of them necessarily felons, but all of them feeling alienated from society, at odds with it, and liking Parker so much because they knew he’d understand their problems, if not necessarily give a damn about them.  Not reacting to Parker as a white man, but just as somebody who knew the score, and cared about as much about color as blood type.  And we all bleed red.

So Williams doesn’t trust any of these people, but he needs them, and as long as they need him too, it’s all cool.  He doesn’t like having to pull a job right out of the joint any more than Parker does, but that was Marcantoni’s price for coming in with them.  Macontoni’s crew do have a good base of operations, at an abandoned building that used to be a beer distributor.

Next chapter is Marcantoni’s, and it’s where we learn about what the heist is–a jewelry wholesaler.  But in a most unusual location.  Back around the Mid-19th century, a huge brick armory was constructed in the town, of the type Americans are well familiar with. Municipalities all over the country are still looking for something to do with these white elephants, built like fortresses because that’s what they were, now that most of them are no longer needed for their original purpose.  Williams remembers when they used this one for track and field, but that didn’t last.

(Up top, you can see a picture of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, an exceptionally fine example of the general architectural form; built in 1910, and New York is still looking for something useful to do with it.)

The city finally gave up on the place, sold it to developers, who turned the upper levels into expensive condos.  But the ground floor was a problem, because it really had been built to repel invaders (‘like if the Indians had tanks’ Marcantoni snarkily observes).  Very thick walls, very narrow windows.  Who wants a place like that?  Somebody with something valuable to protect, but no need to bring in customers off the street.

Marcantoni, needing a job after his parole, got hired to work on the reconstruction project.  And he found out something really neat (seriously, if I found this, I’d want to pull a heist too).  The original builders put in a secret tunnel in case the defenders, (perhaps under siege from Lakota warriors armed with medieval trebuchets) needed to escape.  Not in the official plans, completely forgotten about.   And the other end of the tunnel is in the old library building across the street.

Williams, smartest man in the room as usual (with one possible exception), has some concerns about the structural stability of a 150 year old tunnel, but here’s the problem.  Marcantoni is in love with this job.  He can’t see past it. He’s waited a long time to pull it (so nobody would remember he was on the reconstruction crew).  It’s the main reason he escaped.  He knows he needs a big crew to deal with the logistical problems, and he doesn’t mind splitting the very substantial proceeds six ways.  He will take it very personally if Parker and his friends don’t live up to their end of the agreement.  It’s agreed they’ll do it Sunday.  Nobody much feels like waiting around.

Chapter 3 is from the perspective of Goody, a lowlife Williams has the misfortune to be acquainted with.  He’s heard about the escape.  He knows Williams’ sister, about the only person on earth Williams is close to.   He goes to see her, and says if her brother gets in touch, let him know, maybe he could help. Help himself to a nice fat reward, is what he’s thinking.  Like so many a minor Stark POV character, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and before long his plans come to naught, but he will figure into the plot later, so worth mentioning.

And then we’re at an exercise class inside the armory, and who should we see but Brenda Mackey, attending an exercise class.  She doesn’t need to get in shape, her shape is delightful as always, but she knows her husband Ed is going to rob this place, and she knows sometimes he needs help out of a jam (like that time in New York when he almost died), so she’s there to scout the place out in case she’s needed again.  Ed didn’t tell her to do this, but then again, he didn’t tell her not to do it.

(Later, we have another nice raunchy sex scene between the two, just before the heist–reminiscent of the one in Plunder Squad, and Brenda doesn’t seem to speak ersatz Chinese during coitus anymore, but she’s still quite vocal.)

It all goes fine, except Brenda catches the eye of Darlene Johnson-Ross, the woman who owns the studio, and this woman seems bothered by Brenda.   In the chapter after that, we find out this woman is having an affair with Henry Freedman, he whose jewelry wholesaler is about to get broken into, and she’s very worried this very attractive fit young woman taking a class much too easy for her is some kind of detective, or IRS agent, or something.  And all Henry is worried about is his wife finding out about Darlene.

Next we meet CID Detective Jason Rembek, who has been charged with recapturing the three escapees from Stoneveldt.  He knows most guys who break prison have no plan for what to do once they’re out, so are easily rounded up again.  He’s wondering if these three will be more of a challenge.  ‘Kasper’ is the one that attracts the most attention from him.

Rembek studied the few pictures he had of Kasper.  A hard face, bony, like outcroppings of stone.  Hard eyes; if they were the windows of the soul, the shades were drawn.

So.  The heist.  As happens surprisingly often in this book, it’s very cleverly written, takes up just one chapter, and is, shall we say, not 100% successful. They go in through the library, as planned. They get into the tunnel, as planned. They shore up the tunnel with folding tables, as planned. They get the jewels as planned. The ancient tunnel, in long-standing disrepair, compromised by street work above, collapses on Marcantoni and his two friends, Angioni and Kolaski, on their way out, very nearly smothering Williams too, except Parker pulls him out by the legs.  Not quite exactly as planned.

So they have a fortune in gems and watches.  Nobody knows they’re there, no alarms were tripped.  But the way the place is set up, and with the tunnel now permanently closed off, there’s no obvious way of exiting this part of the building without alerting security, who will alert the law, and it’s back to prison for all three of them (including Mackey, who wasn’t even in prison–he was just doing Parker a favor here–no good deed, huh?).

Williams wants to thank Parker for pulling him out of that hole, and Parker won’t let him.  He didn’t do it for Williams.  He did it because once again, he needs a crew to break out of a prison.  And this one they walked right into of their own free will.  He knew it was a mistake.  But he did it anyway.  End of Part Two, which is the only part of the book that isn’t about escaping from somewhere.

Part Three is the shortest of the four sections (Part One is the longest).  44 pages of Parker, Mackey, and Williams trying to get out of that armory without getting caught.  First thing they have to do is drop the loot.  It’s only going to slow them down, and they don’t have a fence for it–that was Marcantoni’s side of things, and the contact info died with him.

I like this part of the book a lot, the desolate desperate lonely feel of it, but there’s not much point in carefully synopsizing it.  It’s purely about three guys expert in breaking into places they’re not supposed to be trying to figure out a way to break out of a place they’re not supposed to be before morning, when none of them, of necessity, has ever been in there before, or done any advance scouting (Brenda did, but she isn’t there).  That quote up top tells you how it’s going to go.  Finding tools, breaking through walls, trying to avoid making too much noise, or setting off any alarms.  There are a lot of people living in this place.

They finally get out to where they could make it to the street, but not without passing the doorman for the apartments.  They need a distraction for him.  Mackey has a brainstorm.  They’re in an office.  There’s a yellow pages.  There’s a phone.  He finds an all-night pizza place.  He orders a pie.  Pepperoni, if you’re curious.  The guard goes to let the delivery guy in.  They get to the stairwell–but the stairs only go up.  Not down to the parking garage, where they wanted to go. An interesting exchange follows.

Parker said, “It’s the goddam security in this place.  They don’t want anybody in or out except past that doorman.”

“Well,” Mackey said, “that’s what people want nowadays, that sense of safety.”

Williams said, “Bullshit.  There’s no such thing as safety.”

“You’re right,” Mackey told him.  “But they don’t know that.”

We still don’t.

So they finally get to where they can get out to the street, but now they have a new problem.  Donald Westlake was a born problem solver, and this is the kind of problem he can truly relate to.  The physical challenges, but also the strategic ones.  They need more than just a means of egress–they need a means of escape, transportation, so they’re not trapped on  the empty streets outside, just waiting around for the law to scoop them up.

Mackey figures they can call Brenda–she can come pick them up.  Except none of them has a cellphone.  They have to go back into the trap, break into another office, use the phone there.  And then it turns out Brenda’s motel room phone is set not to receive calls until tomorrow morning.  And she doesn’t have a cellphone either.  They need somebody to come get them.  Williams has a really dangerous idea.

Goody.  Williams knows, for a stone fact, that Goody wants to sell him to the law. But he also knows Goody is stupid and greedy enough to come get him.  He and Parker work it out–set up a meet at a camera store across the street.  He’ll say he wants Goody to drop him in a little town nearby, where some relatives live, and he can hide out with them.  Goody will figure he can bring him there, then call the law on him–low risk, high reward, except Goody doesn’t know about Parker and Mackey.  They’ll just take the car and go.

(All three are heeled.  Parker has his usual go-to, the five shot Smith & Wesson Terrier .32 snubnose.  Now I’ll quibble, very briefly.  We’re told back in Part Two that Mackey has a Beretta Jaguar .22–we’re told he equipped Parker and Williams similarly.  Then we’re told in Part Three that Parker has a Terrier.  Let’s do a side-by-side comparison, shall we?

Okay, they’re both small handguns.  Other than that, not terribly similar.  And this is easily explained by Mackey knowing Parker’s tastes in armament.  And it still bothers me.  And this is why authors of crime fiction should think twice about getting specific about guns.)

Now what I left out of the Part Two synopsis is that Goody, who is a smalltime drug dealer, ran into problems with his supplier, who is a bit less small-time, and who had his men do things to Goody until he told them about the reward money he planned to get for Williams.  They’re going to come along and make sure they get their share.

So things get a bit confusing once they run out there to Goody’s black Mercury, and all of a sudden there’s a Land Rover pulling up, and three men with guns jump out.  Parker quickly figures the guy in the back of the Land Rover as the boss, drops him, and the other two are nothing without their brain.  Williams gives his old pal in the Merc a proper thank you for his loyalty.  So they end up driving away in the Land Rover, Williams at the wheel, the four interlopers left behind with bullet holes in them, and that’s the end of that subplot.  Goody.

Except a lot of gunfire in the street was never the ideal version of their plan. There’s jumpy security-obsessed rich people calling the police in those fancy apartments up above.  They figure on ditching the Land Rover for a carMackey has stashed nearby.  There’s a lot of maneuvering through a parking garage they take refuge in, and let’s just skip over that part.  “All I want,” Williams said, “is to be in a place I’m not trying to get out of.”  You said a mouthful, brother.

They get to where Mackey stashed a Honda, and it’s still too soon to contact Brenda–who has a car of her own.  So they offer Williams the Honda so he can get over the state line, start over.  He’s touched.  He gets the hell out of there before they can change their minds.  Strange strange white people.  They get some sleep, but then Mackey wakes Parker up.  Brenda has been arrested.  They have to break her out of jail.

Hey, maybe now would be the time for a little musical interlude, what do you say?  I posted an image of a watchtower in Part 1.  Here’s the song to go with it.

(I could have gone with Dylan, but you know, The Experience was two ofays and a brother as well.  Though this power trio we’re looking at is maybe a bit more even in the talent department.)

Part Four is less focused, more freewheeling.  Lots of ground to cover.  Parker comes downstairs, and finds Mackey and Williams sitting at the table.  He was supposed to be headed for the border, but just when he thought he was out, he pulls himself back in.  He heard about Brenda’s arrest on the radio, figured Parker and Mackey might need a hand. This is the first thing he’s done in the book to lower Parker’s opinion of him.

The radio provided Williams with a lot of information.  The cops found Marcantoni and the others in the rubble, dead of course.  They figure Parker and Williams were involved too.  Brenda got arrested by doing what she always does–hanging around nearby when Mackey is doing a job, in case he needs her to rescue him.  Like she did that time in New York, which is how Mackey is still alive, but without cellphones, there was no practical way she could help out, and that woman from the dance studio saw her hanging around and called the police. They figure she’s the brains of the outfit.  Which might be true if it was just her and Ed.

They have her in a city lock-up.  Williams knows the place.  Not as tough as Stoneveldt, but tough.  Ed’s all for going in.  Williams is dubious, but game.

Parker wants no part of this.  It’s long past time for him to get out of this hick town, like he should have done to start with.  Ed senses his reluctance, is angered by it.  Please remember, not only did Brenda save Ed’s life once–she’s the one who made Ed stick around and wait for Parker after that heist they pulled in Comeback.  Ed helped him break prison just now, stood by him on a heist that clearly wasn’t planned out properly, just out of loyalty.  If Parker owes anybody in this world, he owes Brenda and Ed Mackey. But in his mind, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.  Parker didn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off; is what the narrator tersely informs us.

Excuse me?   Mr. Stark?  Have you forgotten every previous book in this series?  ‘Debts accumulated and paid off ‘is basically all Parker lives by, starting with the debts he collected from his wife, and his former partner, and an entire criminal syndicate, in the very first of those books.  Debts Accumulated And Paid Off might as well be the epitaph on his tombstone, assuming he gets one.  Parker has risked himself far more seriously than this to pay off a blood debt to somebody who wronged him.  He’s also risked himself several times to help criminal associates like Handy McKay and Alan Grofield, though there were other factors involved besides loyalty each time.

You can, if you want, explain this away.  Parker comes after people who wrong him in some way because their treachery triggered a response he has no control over, and he needs to kill them to restore his mental equilibrium.  He helps fellow heisters he’s working a job with because that’s part of his professional ethic, and because he might need to work with them again someday–in this case, the job was over as soon as they got out of the armory.

He tells himself he’ll have to help Ed and Brenda now, because otherwise if he and Ed work together again someday, Ed won’t trust him anymore–but seeing as we never see him work with Ed again in the series, and he’s got a lot of other names stored away in his head, that doesn’t seem like enough of a reason.

It’s a much bigger motivational problem than the one in The Jugger, that bothered Westlake so much, and Westlake should have seen that.  If Parker isn’t helping the Mackeys out of professional solidarity, or out of a sense of obligation for what they’ve done for him–as Williams, a near-stranger is willing to do, just because Ed let him have the Honda–why the hell is he doing it?

Because Stark can’t let him do anything else.  Stark can’t ever let Parker appear ignoble.  But neither can Stark allow his pragmatic anti-hero any virtuous motives.  And usually that works out fine.  And this time, it feels a mite forced. As if Westlake, still hollowed out by his recent illness, couldn’t fully access that part of himself that could interpret Parker’s thoughts for us.  I had only read two previous Parker novels when I first got to this one.  I already knew it was wrong to say Parker doesn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off.  But how else would you say it?

But in critiquing the way Stark does it here, I still appreciate what an important question is being asked.  No matter how independent you are, you are still going to need help sometimes.  In order to reliably receive help, you will need to offer it in return.  Was Brenda right when she pulled Ed out of that burning lumberyard, but wrong when she was waiting around outside the armory to see if he needed her again?  How could she ever know for sure?  How can you know when you’ve crossed the line between legitimate obligations and sucker bets?  And isn’t there anything in this world besides debts accumulated and paid off?

Ed doesn’t care if he owes Brenda or not, because he loves her (he never says it, and he doesn’t need to).  If he walked away from her now, he’d be nothing. (Parker would never walk away from Claire either, of course, because she’s a part of him).  Williams just wants to respect himself in the morning–to feel like the man he was born to be, that society wouldn’t let him be in any other walk of life. Parker and Mackey see that man when they look at him, and that’s why he came back.

Parker feels none of this, for any of them.  But he’s caught in a web of conflicting obligations (my Celtic ancestors used to call them geasa and they’ve killed no end of tough guys). Another kind of prison.  Ed’s sense of obligation to him is the only reason he got out of the actual prison he ended up in because of a confederate who acted as if his only obligation was to himself.  There’s no solution to this equation.  You just have to decide what feels right to you, and accept the consequences.  And never know if you’ve chosen correctly until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Ultimately the only answer to this conundrum is that Stark is a romantic, and Parker isn’t.  Let’s get back to the synopsis.

As romantic as it unquestionably would be to shoot their way into the jail, like the 1920’s heisters, or the Old West outlaws, Parker has a less sanguinary plan. He still has the card for the criminal attorney Claire got him.  A very capable shyster, Mr. Jonathan Li.  And if they can just get Brenda released on her own recognizance, the charges against her dropped, she can go on living  in the straight world, instead of being a fugitive like Parker and Ed.

Li knows he is now dealing with fugitives from the law, and as long as they don’t implicate him, and the check doesn’t bounce (or hell, just send cash), he’s got zero problems with helping them.  The problem lies with Darlene Johnson-Ross. She’s the one who spotted Brenda waiting in the car, recognized her blonde hair, called the law.  (I don’t accept Brenda is a blonde, it’s never been mentioned before now, but we can talk about that in the comments section.)

If this woman dropped her complaint, they’d have nothing to hold Brenda on, and Li could do the rest in his sleep.  But she has to drop it.  She can’t just disappear, conveniently and forever, or Brenda will be held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder.  Li knows who he’s talking to here, never doubt it.

What follows is probably my least favorite part of the book, that involves finding Johnson-Ross at her house, with her lover (the guy they almost robbed), and using a variety of threats (none of them terribly veiled) to convince her to go tell the police she made a mistake, and this is definitely not the same dame.  If she doesn’t, then they’ll kill her boyfriend.  It’s a bit hard to understand why she cares, given that he’s possibly more terrified of his wife finding out about them than he is of these three desperate criminals with guns, but who can explain it, who can tell you why, fools give you reasons, Freedman doesn’t die.  Turns out he makes really nice sandwiches, and Ed figures you don’t shoot a guy who feeds you.

This is the last prison they find themselves in, unable to leave her house until they know Brenda is out, wondering if the police will come by and check, which they do, but not seriously.  Williams makes his exit (in Freedman’s Infiniti) before they find out what happens, because seriously, he’s done his share and then some.  They never would have even found the house without somebody who knows the area.

(It’s a bit too cute, this part.  Too Dortmunder-esque, except you know that these guys actually can kill people.  Mackey is his usual jocular self, even helps Darlene with the dishes.  Freedman gets Stockholm Syndrome, starts identifying with his captors.  I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it’s just a bit much that we spend more time on this hostage caper than on the robbery.  Well, anything for Brenda.)

Endgame.  Brenda’s been released, Li worked his magic.  She’s taking a cab to the airport.  Ed will rendezvous with her there–the cops don’t know his face. They’ll get the car they have in long-term parking, and drive out of state.  Of course the law is tailing her.  Parker can’t go with them.  He’s going to need another ride.

And who should he spot in a remote area of the airport but Detective Turley–you know, the one who talked about game theory so much.  They’ll get to talk about that some more.  Parker commandeers Turley and his vehicle.  Turley’s a pro, and he knows by this time Parker is no less professional on his side of the law. He wants to live to type up his report.  So he gets them past security, and they get the hell out of Dodge.

Bit of driving to do now.  Might as well chat to pass the time.  Turley mentions that even though he’s a state cop, the car they’re in belongs to the local police.  A few years back, there was a proposal floated to the city government–equip all the squad cars with location devices–so that if a car went missing, they could find it.  You know what the city fathers said?  “You boys are local law enforcement, you know exactly where you are.”  Turley’s having a good chuckle about that now. Parker is less amused.  He’d probably have had to kill Turley and find another car if they’d shelled out for that tech.  Turley’s not done gabbing, and Parker knows why.

Just as Parker had known what Turley was doing underneath his words back in Stoneveldt, he understood now what this cosy chat was all about.  Turley was a good cop, but he was also mortal.  His second job, if he could do it, was to bring Parker in, but his first job was to keep himself alive.  Talk with a man, exchange confidences with him, he’s less likely to pull the trigger if and when the time comes.  Like Mackey deciding to do it the more difficult way because Henry had made him lunch.

This wouldn’t work on Parker, but he doesn’t need Turley dead.  There’s a railroad town coming up.  Also a major truck stop.  He leaves Turley by the roadside, in the middle of nowhere, throwing his gun into a cornfield where he’ll take some time finding it (but won’t be humiliated by Parker having taken it away from him).  Parker ditches the police Plymouth, and looks for his ride out of this goddam flat state.

He has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for, or rather, whom.   A couple in their 40’s or 50’s, who own and operate a big rig together.  More and more of those on the road now–must have been a fairly new trend back when this book was written.  (Parker, like his creator, never stops watching people–you never know what bit of information will come in handy).  They’ll invite him aboard just to have somebody to talk to, chat on the porch, so to speak.  A lone trucker wouldn’t want to risk it.  A couple seeks out company, to spice up their own relationship.

Then here they came.  He knew they were right the instant they walked out of the cafe.  Mid fifties, both overweight from sitting in the truck all the time, dressed alike in boots and jeans and windbreakers and black cowboy hats, they were obviously comfortable together, happy, telling each other stories. Parker rose and walked toward them, and they stopped, grinning at him, as though they’d expected him.

They had.  “I knew it,” the man said, and said to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Well, it was pretty obvious,” she said.

Parker said, “You know I want a lift.”

Marty and Gail.  Quite possibly the nicest people Parker’s ever met, which I suppose isn’t the highest praise that can be given, but they’re pretty darn nice. They can get him as far as Baltimore.  He says he could walk home from Baltimore.  They’ve got a Sterling Aero Bullet Plus.  Probably not unlike this one. Don’t really know much about trucks.  I do know the drivers matter more than the trucks do.   At least until it’s all done with computers and GPS.  Watch your backs, Martys & Gails of the world.  Google Trucks is coming for you.

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Parker has a good story to tell them about how he lost his car and his money in Vegas, and there was a woman involved.  He doesn’t get into detail much about it.  They can fill in the blanks themselves.  All they know is that he’s headed for New Jersey.  Well, that’s all they know officially, put it that way.  Marty in particular knows more than he’s saying.

There’s a police roadblock coming up.  Marty tells Parker he doesn’t feel like dealing with it, so he’s going to take the scenic route, on the side roads.  Get back on the highway once they’re past the cops.  And he’s got a little story of his own to tell Parker.  He did time once.  Attempted robbery.  Served four years, which was the minimum.

“Four  years is a long minimum,” Parker said.

“Oh, you know it.”  Marty concentrated on the road awhile, then said, “I know there’s fellas belong in there, I know there’s fellas I’d prefer was in there, but after being in there myself I could never put a man in a cage, personally.  Never.”

“I know the feeling,” Parker said.

“If a man wants to learn from his mistakes, fine,” Marty said.  “You look at me.  You see the job I gave myself.  Coast-to-coast hauling.  You can’t get much farther from a four-man cage inside a six-hundred-man cage inside a four-thousand-man cage.”

Prisons within prisons within prisons.  But there’s always a way out, if you look hard enough.  And there’s people who’ll help you, if you ask.  The decent people of this earth.  The sane ones.  They do exist.

But Parker, I’m just wondering–what if  things turned out so that you had to kill these good people, who are helping you for no reason at all other than that they feel like it?  What if that was the only way you could stay free? Would you do it? Could you? I’m asking you a question, Parker.  Answer me, damn it.  Silence. That figures.

They pass the roadblock, and Marty says the state troopers are just doing what they were told.  “They aren’t hunters.  They’re just boys doing a job.”   Maybe he knows what’s sitting next to him in the cab, while his wife sleeps peacefully in back.  Maybe not.  We don’t see Parker say goodbye to them.  Which means we don’t know if they were still alive when he left them–knowing what they do about him, where he came from, where he was headed.  We don’t even get that much of an answer to my question.  But Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to.  That I know.  He’s not one of us.

And Chapter 17 of Part Four is so short, I can type the whole damn thing.  Why not?

Claire rolled over when he walked into the room.  Her eyes gleamed in the darkness, but she didn’t say anything as she watched him move.  Out of his pocket and onto the dresser went the three Patek watches that were the only result of the jewel job.  He stripped and got into bed and then, folding into his arms, she said, “Gone a long time.”

“It felt like a long time.”

“I knew you’d be back,” she said.

“This time,” he said.

Just FYI, some Patek Phillipe & Co. watches sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars–some can even cost millions.  Probably a midwest wholesaler wouldn’t have the top of the line watches, but Parker would have picked the best of the bunch available, and he can find a fence for three watches easily enough.  He really does not like to walk away empty-handed from a job.  Neither did Donald E. Westlake.

What I walk away from this book with is a sense that the walls are starting to close in on Parker, in a way we haven’t seen before.  Yes, he got away, but the law caught him, photographed his new face, connected it to his old fingerprints.  He’s got a few more killings to his official credit, not that he needed any more to go away for life.  He’s still having a harder and harder time finding jobs he can pull in this strange new world of electronic cash, electronic surveillance, ever-faster information sharing between far-flung police departments.

He still has to work with unreliable people sometimes, which creates points of vulnerability–and when he works with people he can trust, because they trust him, that creates other points of vulnerability, perhaps even more dangerous.

He’s free, but it’s not unqualified freedom, liberty without caveats.  I suppose there’s no such thing.  He’s certainly got a wider range of amenities in that house, with Claire (a fine amenity in herself).   But he has to keep paying for them.  He has to keep hunting, like any predator.  And sooner or later, every predator becomes the prey.  Nobody runs forever.  Yes, this is foreshadowing. Three more books left.  Which can, arguably, be seen as one long book.  Or one multi-faceted work of art.

The next Parker novel was published two years after this one, and by all rights, I should get to it in a few more weeks.  But I’m going to break with my usual habit of reviewing books in the order in which they were published.  Two rather unsatisfying standalone books are next, neither of them books Westlake will be remembered for, though both with things to recommend them.  Then a whole lot of Dortmunder: novels, novellas, short stories, workout routines.

And then we’ll get to the defacto conclusion of the Parker Saga, along with the very last Dortmunder, and the very last Westlake novel ever to be published.  The end, in fact, of the primary literary oeuvre of Donald E. Westlake, hard and painful as that is to believe.  And by extension, the end of my needing to publish an article here every week or so.  One prison I’m feeling rather ambiguous about breaking out of.  But there’s always another one waiting outside. Right?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Breakout

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I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect.  Every instant was intolerable.  I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.

Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question: How can you live in an intolerable state for years?  I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?

The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations.  Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early.  Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality.  This becomes where you live now.  And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?

From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car.

The first week is the hardest.  The change from outside, from freedom to confinement, from spreading your arms wide to holding them in close to your body, is so abrupt and extreme that the mind refuses to believe it.  Second by second, it keeps on being a rotten surprise, the worst joke in the world.  You keep thinking, I can’t stand this, I’m going to lose my mind, I’m going to wig out or off myself, I can’t stand this now and now and now.

Then, sometime in the second week, the mind’s defenses kick in, the brain just flips over, and this place, this impossible miserable place, just becomes the place where you happen to live.  These people are the people you live among, these rules are the rules you live within.  This is your world now, and it’s the other one that isn’t real any more.

Parker wondered if he’d be here that long.

Marcantoni said, “How come you trust Kasper, that’s what I don’t get.  He’s a white guy.”

“He looks like a door to me,” Williams said.  “I never did care what color a door was.”

You ever wonder why stories about prison breaks are so perennially popular?   I don’t means someone imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, like that famously vengeful count, or Steve McQueen escaping the Nazis, or Jean Gabin escaping what came before the Nazis, and a meaningless bloody war along with it–that doesn’t need explanation.  Good vs. evil, freedom vs. confinement, is all that is.   (Granted, the prison comandante in Grand Illusion wasn’t so bad, but the system he worked for was, and so was the system Jean Gabin’s character worked for, and that’s the story of pretty nearly every war ever fought, kids.)

I’m talking about the prison break stories where there’s no question the escapees are guilty of the crimes they were imprisoned for, that society had legitimate reasons for locking them up,  and short of some Shawshank silliness (put me with those who say that film is wildly overrated), there’s not much chance of them going straight once they do break out.  They’re not breaking out to make a new life.  They’re breaking out because they can’t do anything else; a reflex action, as unavoidable and automatic as jerking your hand from a hot stove.

And we root for them to escape their escape-proof cells in fiction, even though if the same exact guys escaped in reality (and they do, frequently), we’d be screaming at the law to round them up and throw them back in the hole they just crawled out of.   It seems that we identify with them more behind bars than when they’re out in the world with us.  What are we seeing in these stories?

It’s a sub-genre better known from the movies than from prose fiction (though many of those movies were based on prose fiction).  Let me run down a few of my personal favorites.  Cool Hand LukeEscape From AlcatrazLe Trou.  But I think maybe the king of them all is Jules Dassin’s Brute Force–from 1947, back when Law&Order always won, and boy do they ever (with casualties on both sides). If that movie doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.

You’ll see an image from the opening of that film I posted up top–I had to do the screen capture myself, from YouTube, and I’m not any kind of wiz at that, so if your screen isn’t hi-res enough for you to make out the words beneath that grim watchtower, they read Westgate Penitentiary.  Yeah.  You want to bet Westlake didn’t notice that?  Any takers?  No?  Smart.

This type of prison break story is almost always tragic, of course.  Just like heist stories are mainly tragic.  Yes, we want to see these prisoners escape, just like we want to see daring robbers steal things, but something has to go wrong.  They have to fail in the end, go down bloody, or be dragged back into chains, perhaps after winning some symbolic moral victory.  You know what Richard Stark had to say to that?  Nothing terribly polite.

Yes, realistically speaking, violent death or renewed imprisonment is the likely fate of anyone who breaks prison and/or robs a bank. One or the other.  Sooner or later.  But what would make it later, as opposed to sooner?  Next time, instead of this time?

Parker was partly a reaction to Dillinger, who robbed banks and broke prison, and the law sure wasn’t taking any chances with regards to him doing it again.  Why didn’t Dillinger last longer?  Because he liked publicity too much.  Because he was too flashy.  Because he made himself a walking target for the equally publicity-hungry G-Men, his face on every post office wall, his name making headlines everywhere he went. Because he was apparently out to prove something.

And Parker goes out of his way not to do that–part of the point of these books is Westlake trying to solve the problem of how to be like Dillinger without ending up like Dillinger.  Parker couldn’t care less about being famous.  Parker isn’t fighting the system.  He’s subverting it, avoiding it, confusing it, blending into it, defeating it.  He slips through the cracks and he’s gone.  He won’t be writing any letters to the editor about it afterwards.

Parker is a wolf, not a man.  Wolves don’t have existentialist crises.  Wolves just want to make another kill, get back to the den, live to hunt another day.  Like any wolf, he needs a pack to make that work.  So he looks around him for the rare individuals in his line of work who share at least part of this lupine ethos with him.  The professionals.  But  those are rare in any field of endeavor, and sometimes he has to settle for the half-wit hare-brained helots that probably do belong in prison.  That’s where this story begins.

An alarm goes off in a warehouse somewhere in the flat dry midwest.  Parker and his string had been stealing pharmaceuticals to be sold offshore, but the local boy they had to recruit got greedy, went into the office to see if there was something extra he could take.  Their lockman hadn’t disarmed that one.  The cops are coming.  The screw-up, named Bruhl, panics and takes their truck (then crashes it).   There’s nowhere to hide in the desolate industrial park at night (no amusement park this time).  Parker runs, knowing it’s futile.  A squad car fixes its searchlight on him.  He gives up.   The law finally got him.

The second time we know of that Parker has been arrested–first time he’s been arrested for a felony.  The other time was for vagrancy, after Lynn shot him, in The Hunter.  He gave them the alias Ronald Kasper (I feel pretty sure Parker wasn’t referring to Kaspar Hauser, but not so sure about Stark).

They got his fingerprints, and stuck him in a prison camp in California.  He only had to wait out his short sentence and he’d be free.  He escaped, killing a guard on his way out,  made his way east to deal with Lynn, Mal, and The Outfit.  So very long ago, but fingerprints don’t age.  Parker knew that from the start.  Now he’s being confronted by an investigator from the state police, who knows too much about him.  And unlike that hick police chief in The Jugger, this one’s honest, and smart, and Parker can’t just kill him.

“The system makes mistakes,” Parker said.

Turley’s grin turned down, not finding anything funny here.  “So do individuals, my friend,” he said.  Looking into his dossier again, he said, “There is no Ronald Kasper, not before, not since.  In the prison camp, out, left behind these prints, one guard dead.  Do you want to know his name?”

Parker shook his head.  “Wouldn’t mean anything to me.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t.  We have some other names for you.”

Edward Johnson.  Charles Willis.  Edward Lynch.  Even ‘Parker, no first name’ (how does Turley know it isn’t a first  name?).  They have that one too.  They have him on Murder One, in California, and California wants to extradite.

Turley makes some mention of game theory–aka The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  They have all of Parker’s colleagues locked up.  Bruhl is badly hurt, but he may live. The others are in the same temporary holding facility Parker is on, but on different levels, so he can’t talk to them.  Turkey suggests that whichever one of them spills the beans first about who their buyer for the drugs was is going to get a better deal with regards to future incarceration.  Parker says he’s heard of game theory.  But that was never his game.   And he’s more about praxis.

(If I go into detail about all the connections between this book and Put A Lid On It, I’ll  use up too much space.  Game theory, a temporary holding facility for prisoners awaiting trial, having to do a job right after getting out of the joint–Westlake sometimes treated his research and the basic framework of a plot like a theater set where many different dramas–and comedies–could be enacted before he tore it down and built a new one. Part of how he was able to put on so many lively productions.)

Parker is assigned a public defender, a black man, who is clearly going to do no more than the bare minimum, because that’s all he’s got the time and energy for (and his client is clearly guilty of all charges).  He advises Parker to cooperate. Parker sizes him up as somebody who can’t do the job that needs doing–delay the extradition, give him time to plan–but can be trusted to keep his clients’ confidences.  Parker gives him a letter to mail to Claire.  Claire will get him a criminal attorney.  Parker isn’t part of the public, and he can defend himself.  He will need the help of a very different black man, though.

The new lawyer hired by Claire is named Jonathan Li, and he knows the score.  He gets paid very well for doing whatever his clients ask of him, as long it’s (somewhat) within the law.  He will delay the extradition, throw grit into the wheels of justice, slow everything down.  He doesn’t argue with Parker about the futility of his requests.  The customer is always right. He also informs Parker that his former brother-in-law wants to see him.  Parker has no in-laws, past or present.  But does he say that?  No, he just waits to find out who it is–Ed Mackey.  Claire’s been busy.

Parker is once again baffled by the way some of his criminal associates will go to bat for him in ways that he finds excessive.  One of the identity puzzles of this book is trying to figure out Parker’s rationale for when you help somebody and when you don’t.  In this case, Ed, is going to try and spring Parker because of what happened with Ed Liss, back in Comeback, the first of this five-book series of interlocking titles, of which Breakout is the last.

Parker stopped Liss from killing them both, then finished Liss off later on, and Ed feels like he owes Parker one.  Parker isn’t in a position to complain about what he sees as illogical behavior, so he says nothing about it.  He asks Ed to check up on four guys in the same cellblock as him, see if any of them can be trusted–or not.  Williams.  Jelinek.  Clayton (bit of a nod to The Mercenaries?).  Marcantoni.

And on Ed’s return visit, three full decades after Plunder Squad, we finally find out why he’s still alive–and why he always has his wife Brenda with him when he’s working.

Some years ago, Brenda had trailed Mackey and Parker, though she hadn’t been asked to, when they went to deliver some stolen paintings in a deal that then went very bad.  At the end, Parker left a lumberyard’s burning main building, with the paintings destroyed, and he’d believed Mackey was dead, shot by one of the people who’d been waiting in there.  Brenda, seeing Parker take off alone, went into the building, found Mackey on the concrete floor, and dragged him out and into her car before the fire engines arrived.

“Fortunately,” Mackey said, “life is usually quieter than that.”

Unfortunately, Jelinek is a prison rat, who sells information about his fellow inmates to the bulls (another overlapping detail from Put A Lid On It, much more significant to the story here).  Clayton is serving a short stretch, escaping makes no sense for him, don’t even bring it up.  Williams and Marcantoni are smart solid pros heading for long sentences, just like Parker.   Bingo.  He knows what he’s got to work with in terms of putting a crew together–now he just has to get them to join up.   Ed can reach out to them through mutual acquaintances on the outside.  But they still have to trust Parker–and each other.  Williams, a black man, is one of Parker’s cellmates–him first.

“You’re facing twenty-five to life,” Parker told him.

Williams turned his head to look at Parker’s profile.  “Your friend Ed got this on the outside.”

“Nobody gets anything in here.”

Williams shrugged.  “And so what?”

Parker said, “I’m not good at prison.”

Williams laughed.  “Who is?”

“Some are,” Parker said.

Williams sobered, looking away again at the scene below.  “And that’s true.”  He sounded as though he didn’t like the thought.

“I don’t think you are,” Parker said.

Williams shook his head.  “I can feel myself getting smaller every day.  You fight it, but there it is.” He turned his head to study Parker’s face.  “You aren’t thinking of breaking out of here.”

“Why not?”

“This is not an easy place.”

Parker thinks Stoneveldt could actually be easier to escape than a regular penitentiary.  (That name, by the way, is a definite nod to Stonevelt, the penitentiary from Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Westlake’s only novel set entirely in a prison–well, not exactly true–read the review, or better still, the book).

What makes it hard to escape is that there’s no time for short-term the inmates to get to know each other, form connections, team up.  The gangs, white and black, that exist in long-term lock-ups aren’t here, because there’s no point to them.  It’s just a bunch of individuals, waiting to find out if they go free sooner, later, or never.  Many lack the brains, others lack the ambition (since they don’t know yet how long they’re in for), and all of them lack the organization, because it’s a place that encourages that old every man for himself attitude.

For this reason, perhaps, there’s not enough guards for the overcrowded facility.  Security isn’t nearly as tight as some places.  A small gang of motivated pros could beat this joint.  They just need one more.  But self-evidently a guy named Marcantoni is white.  And just because there’s no race gangs in this joint doesn’t mean race isn’t on everybody’s mind there.   Like it is everywhere else, whether we admit it or not.  Marcantoni’s not one for mincing words.  Though he avoids the obvious one, to his credit.

Marcantoni made a sour face and shook his head.  “You want to work with a black guy?”

“Why not?”

“Group loyalty,” Marcantoni said.  “One of the first things I learned in life, stick with the group where there’s a chance for loyalty.  There’s never a guarantee, but a chance.  A black guy doesn’t feel loyalty for you and me.  He’d trade us for chewing gum, and we’d do the same for him.”

As we saw in The Black Ice Score, Parker doesn’t give a damn about this tribal crap.  Wolves don’t see color, because color doesn’t tell them anything they need to know.  He needs people he can work with, there’s damned few available, and no time to wait around for a color-coordinated crew to appear.  If Marcantoni doesn’t like it, he can stick around, serve his time, and Parker will find somebody else.  Marcantoni decides the one color he can’t stand is prison gray.

They have to be careful about where they talk.  Even though there’s no gangs, blacks and whites don’t mingle, unless they’re in the same cell, like Parker and Williams.  The three of them confer while using the weights to work out.  Williams and Marcantoni size each other up, and find they have plenty in common.  Most of all a desire to get out of this place.

There is a catch, though–Marcantoni has had this heist all planned out for a while now–he was getting ready to pull it when the cops grabbed him for something else.  He’s pretty fixated on it. It’s in the nearby city–his hometown, Williams’ as well (they never met before, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining).  He needs a large string to pull this one off, and he wants Parker and Williams to join–which means sticking around a while after they break prison.  That’s his price for taking a chance on escaping with two strangers–a show of good faith, you might say.  Neither of them likes it–Parker least of all–but they need a third man.  They agree.

Jelinek, the rat, doesn’t miss much in the world he’s chosen for himself.  He’s one of those people who are good at prison.

Walter Jelinek was a man, but he looked like a car, the kind of old junker car that had been in some bad accidents so that now the frame is bent, the wheels don’t line up any more, the whole vehicle sags to one side and pulls to that side, and the brakes are oatmeal.  Half the original body is gone, the paint job is some amateur brushwork, and there’s duct tape over the taillights.  That was Walter Jelinek, who Mackey had told Parker not to talk to, since he had a reputation for carrying tales to teacher, but now Jelinek on his own wanted to talk to Parker.

He’s been seeing these three mismatched men keeping company, over by the weightlifting area–he tells Parker he knows they’re planning a break, and he wants to join.  Parker knows he’s lying–he wants to sell them to the authorities.  But Jelinek has to be handled gently–until it’s time to leave.  Then he’ll be handled a bit more roughly.

Parker got some information about the prison layout from Mackey, and he knows their only way out is through the library–there’s a locked door there that leads into a hallway that ultimately leads to a fenced-in parking lot for personnel.  It’s not enough information, but he gets more when Turley calls him in for another meeting, and Parker get marched down that very hallway–this time he’s memorizing every twist and turn.

As in past encounters, he gets more out of Turley than Turley gets out of him (one thing to talk a good game about game theory, another to know when you’re the one being played)–he realizes that Jelinek has already made some vague noises about him and the others–but nothing specific, not enough to act on, because he wants to get something out of the bosses (a softer prison to retire to)–and the bosses, through Turley, are trying to see if they can get it themselves, so Jelinek gets nothing (nobody likes a rat).  Turley really tips his hand when he tells Parker nobody’s ever escaped from Stoneveldt.

All this means to Parker is that he and his crew have very little time now–in a few days, they’ll be moved to different floors, and the whole thing’s off.  It also means, as Marcantoni helpfully points out, that Jelinek needs to die.  Parker didn’t need to be told that.

Parker gives the word–Thursday at 5:00pm.  Prisoners on their tier can use the library from 2:15 to 4:45 (nobody is let in after 4:15).  To pass the time, or pretend to themselves they’re coming up with some brilliant legal defense, whatever works for them.

Jelinek is reading a magazine in the game room, all by himself.  Parker acts as if he’s ready to talk about the escape.  Well, it’s a kind of escape.  He chokes Jelinek slowly, with one hand, while Williams and Marcantoni provide cover.  But he doesn’t want an obvious strangulation.  So once he’s got Jelinek subdued, he breaks his neck.  They cover him with a few blankets and head for the library.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen Parker kill somebody with one of those hands of his.  One weapon that can’t be confiscated at the gate.

They get into the library just before the cut-off time, each entering separately.  The state provides legal volunteers there, law students mainly, to work with the prisoners on their cases.  Pro Bono, you know?   And as soon as the moment is right, Marcantoni grabs the one remaining volunteer by his necktie, and headbutts him, hard.

What follows is a tutorial in psychological intimidation that any interrogation expert on the other side of the law would be forced to grudgingly admire.  Williams plays good cop, telling Jim, the volunteer (never volunteer) that he doesn’t want anybody hurt, but damn, these two other guys he’s with, you just do not want to irritate them, Jim.  He’s going to do whatever they say, and he hopes Jim will do the same.  Jim is all ears.

What they need Jim to do is very simple.  He calls in some guards to help carry out some heavy law books.  They’ll do everything else.  Nobody will have a gun.  Nobody will get killed.  Williams tells Jim he saw the organ donor card in his wallet.  That’s an admirable thing to do, man.  But you don’t want to do it sooner than you have to.  Jim decides he’s not ready to be an organ donor yet.

Chance favors the prepared felon.  The two guards that come in are both races.  Armed with blunt objects scavenged from their surroundings, Parker’s crew renders them both equally unconscious.  Parker will dress in Jim’s clothes–much too tight, and the guard uniforms won’t fit Marcantoni and Williams perfectly either, but the sheer tedium of routine will render the other guards unobservant of such minor details.

And they just walk out the door leading to the parking lot.  And right at that moment, as planned, Mackey is waiting with a van marked State Corrections ID.  He doesn’t get all the way in the gate, but he doesn’t have to.  The three escapees throw down the books and file boxes, and jump into the getaway car.  In the confusion, whoever was on the gate started it closing–and by the time they get it open again, Parker and his associates are off in the wind.  Free as a bird.

Well, no.  It’s not that easy.  It’s never that easy.  This is just Part One of a four part novel.  There’s still a heist to be pulled.  Parker still needs to get out of this flat featureless state, back to New Jersey, back to Claire.  And on his way back, he will find himself imprisoned again and again, forced to keep devising new ways to break out.  Until it seems like every prison door simply leads to another kind of prison.  It might have been simpler, and quite certainly safer, for him to serve his time–maybe make a deal, if that really was an option.

Why didn’t he?  Because he couldn’t.  Because imprisonment wasn’t a viable state of being for him.  Not for him.  You see the two longer passages up top.  Westlake wrote them both around the same time, though only the one from this novel was published in his lifetime.  Both times he was remembering that brief imprisonment he himself endured, the torment of it, the horror of it.  And even after he learned from real convicts that you get used to it, that it becomes your normal everyday waking reality, he wondered–what would that mean?  What would you have become, after making that mental adjustment?  How could those scars ever heal?  How could you ever be yourself again?

What would Parker be, after serving years in prison?  Well, he might be John Dortmunder, as we met him at the beginning of The Hot Rock.  That’s where Westlake chose to open that saga of an alternate universe version of Parker–a man broken down by long and repeated imprisonment, walking with a slouch, cowed, fatalistic, a sad sack, one of life’s losers.  His spirit broken.  Yes, he gets it back, now and again, defies the odds, defies authority, gets his own back with interest.  But the damage done to him is permanent.  He can rally, rise to a challenge, but he can never truly escape.

It would be permanent for Parker as well.  Possibly much worse.  Assuming Parker could go on living at all.  Lobo didn’t.  Some people can bear imprisonment–some can even rise above it, like Mandela–and some, like Walter Jelinek, seem almost born for it, not broken so much as trained, assimilated.  But a wolf can’t recite Invictus to himself, find freedom in some sanctum of his self-captained soul.  For some creatures in this world, there is only freedom or oblivion–nothing in-between.

But life is always looking for ways to take that from us.  It can come in many different forms, imprisonment.  As it came to Westlake, while he was working on this book.

Breakout came about when I realized that, in all these years, Parker had never been jailed except once before the first book. Get him arrested, and watch how he handled it. At the end of part one he’s out of jail, but not out of trouble, and at that point I came down with bad Lyme disease, in the hospital four days, unable to work for six weeks, and I kept saying, ”Well, at least he’s out of jail.“ We both hated the experience, and we both worked very hard to get him out of there. When I got back to the book, I realized the title meant the whole book so the entire thing is Parker clawing himself out of places he doesn’t want to be. They usually find their subject and their path that way, and if they don’t I simply give up writing, move to another city and use a different name.

I’ve never had Lyme disease, but I had pneumonia once.  You know what that’s like?  Like drowning inside your own body.  Afterwards, I found out there’s a vaccine, that you only need to get twice in your life.  I highly recommend it.  But I still remember those  days I struggled against my confinement, flailing endlessly for the surface, my lungs bursting, knowing that I’d either win free or die.

Lyme disease creeps up on you stealthily, like the bloodsucking bastards that carry it. Stands to reason Westlake was already sick for much if not all of the time he was writing Part One.

And here’s the suggestion I’ll leave you with, before we go to the break, and I get to work on Part 2.   This is a solid Parker novel–it has some problems, a few false notes, a few minor mistakes, a few questions I don’t think it answers to my full satisfaction, and I wouldn’t rank it quite as highly as the best of the Final Eight, let alone the First Sixteen.

But Part One is as Stark as Stark gets.  I can’t find anything wrong with it.  I’d stack it against anything Westlake ever wrote under that name, or any other.  And he wrote much of it while he was progressively struggling with a disease, an insidious spirochete that breaks you down, physically and mentally, as the pneumonia broke me.

And he’s writing as well as he ever wrote in his life while this is happening to him.  For as long as he’s able to write at all.  And what this says to  me is that when a complex system begins to break down, it’s the most basic parts of it that are the last to fail.  And Westlake was writing as Stark.  And that tells me Stark is the core identity, the foundation on which everything else was built.

He couldn’t have written so well as Westlake in that condition, or any of his other personas.  Beautiful as they are, truthful as they are, valuable as they are, they are still peripheral, ancillary.  But when he felt the grip of the disease tightening around his throat–like one of Parker’s huge veiny hands–well, Dr. Johnson did say it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  And the mind was Stark.  So is Life, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Until we break out.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

First Read: Forever And A Death

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and frequently much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t, not even close–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.  He tried with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver