Mr. Westlake, The Baroness, and The Mysterious Affair at Nottingham

Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages.  The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible human being, not a cardboard cut-out to be ritually knocked down in the last chapter.  And in a self-contained community–hospital, school, office, publishing house, nuclear power station–where, particularly if the setting is residential, the characters often spend more time with working colleagues than they do with their families, the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy, and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence.  The isolated community can also be an epitome of the wider world outside and this, for a writer, can be one of the greatest attractions of the closed communal setting, particularly as the characters are being explored under the trauma of an official investigation for murder, a process which can destroy the privacies both of the living and the dead.

From Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D James. 

Since the First World War and Prohibition combined to create the atmosphere in which the puzzle would be transmogrified into something new that would reflect the new reality, I think it’s nice that the phrase for that new thing should itself combine words from the war and the bootleggers.  Hardboiled dicks.  Tough guys who were interested in a very rough kind of immediate justice having to do with this particular case at this particular moment, because there are no reliable long-term social truths or social contracts.  The determination to turn the puzzle story on its head shows very clearly in its changed treatment of class, of persons in different social strata.  In the previous form–previous in origin but by no means dead, then or now, very much still with us–the detectives and the victims alike tend to be from the upper classes, or at least not below the professional middle class–I mean, no tradesmen–while the murderer could be of any class at all.  Frequently, however, he would turn out to be jumped-up, to belong actually to a less exalted class than the one to which he’d been pretending.  I mention only Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance.  The puzzles tended to be rather more like crossword puzzles, in that the solution might hinge on esoteric knowledge, of bell-ringing, or Chinese vases, or Turkish cigarette ash.

But on come the hardboiled dicks, and everything goes out the window.  Puzzle solutions require knowledge no more esoteric than that people are sometimes greedy, people are sometimes jealous, people are sometimes afraid.  The hardboiled dick himself was middle-class at best, more probably working-class in his background, never claiming much more than a high school education, and the only thing he will ever offer as special knowledge is that he knows where the bodies are buried.  He’s an insider, in other words, in this topsy-turvy unsentimental world.  As for the upper classes, who are popularly thought of as having caused the war and profited from it–much of which turned out to be true, by the way–they don’t even come off well in these stories.  When they appear at all, they are made fun of and despised, they are gullible patsies for con men and professional gamblers, their daughters are dumb enough to run away to Mexico with ex-cons.  They are even, at times, the murderer, and their motivations are as human and messy as anybody’s.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, by Donald E. Westlake (originally a talk given at the Smithsonian in 1982, now collected in The Getaway Car.)

Looking over articles relating to Westlake’s demise recently, I was reminded of a story I first encountered in the article archive for The Violent World of Parker (that site’s long lamented absence is one reason I had a tough time remembering the specifics).  A minor episode in Westlake’s life, that just slightly outlived him.

Right after Jimmy Breslin died, I did a piece about what seemed to me to be a sort of between-the-lines feud going on with him and Westlake.  Maybe more of an unstated rivalry, since both wrote about comic criminals.  Westlake put a few shots over Breslin’s bow across the years, Breslin finally took umbrage when one of them was a scathing NY Times review of a less than scholarly biography he’d written of Damon Runyan.

Based on a reference to Breslin in Dancing Aztecs, it seemed to me that they had rubbed shoulders here and there–and they definitely met at least once, since they participated in a writer’s panel in 1997.  And I never could find a transcript for that.  I’m probably not finding any transcripts relating to this story either.

But the link here is my enduring curiosity about whether Westlake ever had any literary vendettas going on, of the type well-known authors so often engage in.  It wasn’t his habit to self-publicize much, so we wouldn’t necessarily know if he did.

Closest he seems to have come was when he announced his resignation from the ranks of science fiction writers in a polemic submitted to a little-known fanzine, in which he disparaged (among other things) the editorial style of Frederick Pohl (who according to Lawrence Block, never forgot nor forgave the slight).  But they both seem to have spent the rest of their lives ignoring each other.  It’s hardly in the same league with Saul Bellow telling a prominent bookseller he’d never speak to him again because the poor schlub had praised John Updike in an interview.

I don’t believe there was any feud between Donald Edwin Westlake and Phyllis Dorothy James, aka Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, ETC., creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who pops up on the telly quite often. I don’t believe they held each other in low regard.  Nor was there any kind of mutual admiration society in session there. Guarded distant respect?  Something like that.

I know they met once at a dinner party, because that was mentioned when this story I’m trying to understand came out, to the mutual embarrassment of all concerned, other than Westlake himself, since it came out in response to an obit for him in a British newspaper, that seems to have been hastily researched, as obits often are.

There is no reason to think they ever corresponded.  There is some reason to think they glanced at each others’ work here and there (Westlake probably more at James’ than vice versa, because he had more catholic tastes.)

They were not enemies.  They were not friends. I have to think neither would have approved of the word ‘frenemy.’ They were only colleagues in a peripheral sense, inhabiting as they did different ecological niches within the same genre biosphere.  They didn’t even occupy the same land mass.  So how did this happen?

I probably rely too much on links (that may someday cease to function), so let’s sum up for the record.  P.D. James said something she really should not have said, on a late night shortwave radio program being broadcast to the planet in the wee wee hours (I can’t find out if it was live or on tape–if she was there in the studio at that hour, everybody should have cut her a break, since nobody not holding high office should be held responsible for what they say or do at two-thirty in the fucking morning.)

The comment that got her in trouble was–

“in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don’t get moral choice, you don’t get contrasts between good and evil…”

Let’s be fair, and give her a chance to state her point more elegantly, which is to say, in print, in Chapter 6 of that instructional of hers I quoted up top, which is entitled Telling The Story–after quoting W.H. Auden’s semi-serious essay on murder mysteries, which compares the stereotypical corpse in some idyllic place to a mess left by the family dog on the drawing room carpet–

He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawing room floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, precisely because it is indeed shockingly out of place.

Please note the “So Say We All!” tone of that sentence–not at all sure Auden would have concurred, but never mind–combined with what seems to be a complete ignorance of how Raymond Chandler wrote mystery stories, that seems informed more by Hollywood than the novels.

I haven’t read all that much Chandler, and have my own critiques to make, as did Westlake–but as I recall, it was usually just a body here, a body there, and they weren’t all found on streets.  There were plenty of rich classy dames in mansions, and one sadly neglected redhead in a nice little suburban cottage.  His main problem as a writer was bad plotting and spotty characterization, which happens quite often in the cozies as well.

But imagine, if you will, how the author of Killing TimeButcher’s Moon, and The Ax might react to the notion that a high death toll in a story somehow invalidates it emotionally,  renders the audience incapable of pity.  (Not that Westlake would have read this, it came out in 2009.)  Hell, imagine what Shakespeare would say!

She caught hell from a class-conscious group of fellow mystery writers in the UK, and took umbrage to their criticisms like she was Lady Bracknell instead of Baroness James (she’d been made a non-hereditary peer in 1991).  Her words were debated heatedly in Red Herrings, the newletter of the Crime Writers Association, Britain’s answer to the Mystery Writers of America, and the controversy leaked out to the mainstream press.  As a direct result of this brouhaha, she canceled an appearance at Bouchercon 1995, which was held in Nottingham.  Yes. That Nottingham.  Writes itself, really.

Of course Westlake was there.  You can’t seriously think the creator of John Dortmunder and his Not-So-Merry Men (complete with Little John), was going to miss a convention held there.  Named after his most important critical champion, to boot.  You can read a bit about the goings on here. Sounds like fun.

The furor over her ladyship’s remarks died down.  She made other controversial remarks years later, but she got the better of that exchange (and a bit of her own back from the Beeb, like it was their fault she’d put her foot in her mouth).

After the great unpleasantness she’d been through, she got so concerned over ‘political correctness’ (I’m not convinced anybody knows what that means) that she ended up as the Conservative whip in the House of Lords.

(Oh I say–did she get a real whip?  Please, someone tell me she had a real whip.  I mean, the Lord Mayor of London gets a whacking big mace.  I’m imagining her with a whip, right now, and you can’t stop me.  Ker-rack!)

Then came the Westlake obit in the Telegraph, where (without any source whatsoever, or a byline even) the writer(s?) said Westlake had, in the context of the aforementioned furor at the Nottingham convention, called P.D. James a nitwit.

This was followed by emphatic denials, from everyone involved, that he’d said any such thing (and, confusingly, the article denying the insults also added to them).  Mrs. Westlake went so far as to say she didn’t think her husband had ever used the word dimwit.

FYI–he did–at least twice.   Both times in Dortmunder novels.  That appeared Post-Nottingham.  Search engines weren’t as good back then, and ebooks couldn’t be searched via Google.  They can now.  (The Kelp in me rejoices.)

From What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (1996).

“How was I to know some dimwit crook would choose that night to attack the place?”

(That’s Max Fairbanks speaking; I need hardly mention of whom he is speaking.)

From Bad News (2001)

Kelp said, “Aren’t you gonna get in trouble for this?”

“Oh no,” she said. “Everybody thinks I’m a dimwit anyway, I’ll just be flustered and embarrassed, and apologize to everybody, and they’ll all shrug their shoulders and get on with it.”

That’s Marjorie Dawson, a minor but sympathetic character in the narrative, who is not a dimwit.  In fact, neither of the characters referred to as a dimwit is a dimwit.  It’s the people who think of them as dimwits who turn out to be the dimwits.  So that’s confusing.

There are probably other instances of his using the word, but I confess, my first reaction was also that I didn’t remember him using it.  I’ve just learned not to trust my powers of recall.   (And neither should anyone else.)

The first use is the more incriminating, since he presumably would have been working on What’s The Worst That Could Happen? in 1995.  He might have submitted it before he left for Nottingham, or  he might have finished it after the convention was over.  It might be a reference to something he said (then wished he hadn’t), something somebody said that he said, or it could be a coincidence.

But it doesn’t prove anything.  What are we trying to prove, precisely?  That a deceased author of comic capers (and much else of consequence) did or did not belittle a subsequently deceased crafter of ‘cozies’ (not so cozy as all that), because she insinuated that you couldn’t write a satisfactory detective story about moral choices anywhere but the white middle class suburbs?

And anyway, isn’t there freedom of speech in the UK?  Unwritten Constitution, you say?  English Common Law, you say?  Let’s just say we’re curious.  That’s probably covered under English Common Law as well.  I mean, going by the tabloids alone.

I looked around, and while a transcript for the offending BBC interview with James did exist, and probably does still, it doesn’t seem to be available to the general public now, and of course context is everything.

But there’s a lot of context one can pick up where such a prominent and vocal author is concerned, and I think we can, with cool heads, and a temporary disabling of our outrage circuits, figure out what she meant.  “This is the kind of story I want to write, this is the way I want to write it, and I have to believe it’s the only proper way to write it, or I couldn’t write it with complete conviction.”

Some writers (including some of the very finest) are like that.  Westlake wasn’t. To utilize the parlance of Isaiah Berlin, he was a fox. She was a hedgehog. I shall elucidate, of course. (Though really, the way she curled into a spiky ball after her fellow scribes berated her tells the tale in itself.)

He’d met her.  He knew she was anything but a dimwit.  But he also knew she was one of those people who tend to selectively narrow their horizons.  Which is not necessarily the same thing as dimming your wits.  Focus can be a good thing. And the middle class is well worth writing about, in any setting or genre (Westlake certainly concurred).  Along with all the other classes, which is where we reach our sticking point with the Baroness.

When you need to know, every day, that you are doing the right thing, living the right life, writing the best stories, you will be be forced to conclude that certain other people are doing the wrong thing, living the wrong life, writing the wrong stories.

She hadn’t had much of  a formal education, but neither had Westlake.  They were both autodidacts, who learned by reading, living, and cross-referencing the two (it’s a good system).  They were both children of the lower middle class who had risen above their station by dearth of hard work, but there the similarity ends, because Westlake went on identifying with his lowly origins, and developed a powerful dislike for the high and mighty.

James never forgot where she came from, but the memory had quite a different flavor for her.  Her philosophy seems to be (and I’m not just extrapolating here, I’ve been reading a collection of nonfiction articles she published)  “Yes, the social structure is inherently unfair, but some of us can move up, and we can all hope to move up, so let’s all be content with that.”    (I don’t believe she’d have ever used a term so vulgar as ‘trickle-down.’)

She was no Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet, pardon mum), but she was quite chummy with Mrs. Thatcher.  She was active in Tory politics.  She had a whip.  (Okay fine, but she’s got a straight razor in that photo up top.)

The American descendant of Irish Catholic peasants, who spent his life lampooning the rich and powerful, wasn’t going to think much of Thatcher or Tories, not that he was so PC either.  But politics was never the most important thing to him.  And I can only assume he’d have wondered, later on, why any successful writer would accept a voluntary demotion by going into politics, even if she never had to attend any hustings, or whatever they’re called.

Back to Nottingham: He was going to have been imbibing at least a bit at a trade convention (that’s why they hold the damn things).  Her absence and its proximate cause would have been the #1 topic of conversation.  He always liked a lively bit of backchat.  Gossip is fun, and for any writer, fondly slagging one’s competitors in their (willful) absence is sheer heaven.

She’d promised to be there, and had then absented herself in a snit, her knickers in a proverbial twist, because she’d been raked over the coals in a newsletter nobody but other mystery writers ever read.  The temptation to snark among those who were present (and had in some cases crossed an ocean to get there) would have been nigh-irresistible.

He said something.  Which somebody remembered.  It passed down the grapevine, which made its way to Fleet Street by obscure byways.  Transmission error (combined with wishful thinking, the Brits like a spicy obit) could have done the rest.  It might have happened like that.  How the hell would I know?

But there’s the word ‘dimwit’ in two books he wrote afterwards, only pointed more at the people using the word than the ones subjected to it.  And there’s the other thing, that perversely came out in the process of rebuttal.  “She was lost in words years ago.”

See, I find it impossible to believe he’d just out and call her stupid in dead earnest, knowing she was no such thing–but that other phrase has a familiar ring of satire to it–this is, please remember, the man who once said of Ross MacDonald “He must have terrific carbon paper.”  The implication being that MacDonald kept writing the same Lew Archer book, over and over again.  That mot juste was published.  In an anthology of articles by and about mystery writers.  That saw print in 1977.  MacDonald died in ’83.

Westlake could be scathing about other mystery writers, and writers in general. He could also be supportive and sympathetic, but something of the gamecock might come out in him, when a fellow scribbler got on a high horse.

For example, if a fellow mystery writer said something along the lines of “I know how you write a mystery, and everyone else is wrong.”  Which, you know, would mean Dashiell Hammett was wrong.  (The Telegraph obit writer’s most egregious error was to say Westlake wrote in the style of Chandler, a writer he had many times publicly disparaged.  Obits are sometimes written by dimwits.)

It wouldn’t be about political correctness for him, though the elitism would have rankled.  It would be more about professional pride.  Not only his, but that of many others he admired.  P.D. James wrote a very popular and enduring type of mystery, is widely acknowledged as a sophisticated proponent of that form, but she was, at most, one tiny alcove in a rambling old manse, built over the course of centuries, in every architectural style imaginable.

She’s a leading example of her style.  It’s still just one style.  Many will never agree it’s the most rewarding style.  Though it’s really what you do with the style that matters.

Westlake was one of those very rare mystery writers who could convincingly straddle the hard-boiled and cozy styles, meld them, cross-reference them.  Starting out in the school of Hammett, he explored more of the manse than any crime writer I can think of.  (Much more than James, whose oeuvre stands at fourteen Dalgliesh novels, two Cordelia Greys, and three miscellaneous entries, one of which is a Jane Austen pastiche with a murder in it–and short stories, but not that many.  She had a late start.  Better late than never.)

I don’t know if he spoke scathingly of Agatha Christie, as the infamous obit declared, but he sure as hell read and learned from her, as we’ve seen in the course of reviewing his mysteries. He may, at times, have been satirizing the conventions of classic whodunnits, but he knew them, backwards, forwards, sideways.  He read everything.

He did locked room mysteries.  He did manor mysteries.  He did closed society mysteries, though they might be closed societies of outsiders.  His manor might be a house in a small New Jersey town that’s being used to bring mental patients back into the world, but it’s the same basic set-up James talked about–and nobody ever wrote a better mystery in that vein than Wax Apple.  In which no one is truly good or evil, the detective refuses to think of himself as a detective, and yet right and wrong are very much the subject at hand.  Morals, and misunderstandings, which is certainly the subject at hand for us now.

Perhaps no writer was ever better qualified to see both sides of the conflict that James’ remarks created, between the ‘cozy’ and ‘hard-boiled’ schools in Britain.  But was he really in a position to play referee?  He was just visiting.

She’d been a bit dismissive, perhaps unintentionally so, about those who wrote mystery novels set in high crime areas.  Some of the hard-boiled kitchen sink school, resenting their elders and their higher book sales (because they’re aiming for a younger crowd, and older people make up a disproportionate section of the overall mystery audience, for reasons we needn’t dwell on now, but look who started a mystery blog in his 50’s) had been dismissive of her kind of story too.  Both sides oversimplified.

There should have been a reasoned discussion of why what she said was wrong, but self-centered calumnies were more fun to write, and to read.  The younger neo-noir crowd were chafing at the old guard, the old guard was bristling defensively, and Westlake would have remembered how he chafed under a different old guard, when he was writing science fiction.

(Which James also wrote, later in life, and refused to call it that. The Children of Men is an adaptation of her novel of the same name in much the same way Point Blank is an adaptation of The Hunter–if you look really close, you might catch a glimpse of the original plot and characters. She said she liked it, which in author-ese usually translates to “The check cleared.”)

Westlake had written about moral (and immoral, and amoral) choices, in all classes, in all kinds of settings.  So had others. Even allowing for context, what she said was stupid.  Nobody has ever lived who hasn’t said something stupid.  But to say you can’t write a mystery story about moral choices in a crime-infested ghetto would, to me, indicate a complete ignorance of the work of Chester Himes, or anyone like him.  And that kind of ignorance, for a writer, is a form of betrayal.  A breaking of the ranks.

Because, you see, a writer is supposed to take interest in the whole world and everyone in it, and in particular everybody who writes about it, even if he/she can’t personally cover every corner of it, or read every book.  You can still appreciate those who go where you can’t, tell you things you didn’t know, explain perspectives that differ from yours.  That’s one of the reasons we have books.  (To many of us reading or viewing ‘cozies’, an English middle class suburb is as exotic a locale as any–strange accents, odd food, arcane etiquette.  I feel much more at home watching The Wire than I ever will Downton Abbey.)

At least in this instance, she didn’t appreciate those who ventured where she didn’t.  Perhaps because she couldn’t.  To her, the world she lived in and wrote about was The World.  Everything else was just a shadow.  Even her sophisticated suburban killers were more akin to her than the many good and decent people who lived in some violence-ridden slum.

(And you know, there are many gradations between a toney English suburb and ‘the pits of the worst possible inner city area.’  Yeesh.  Not hard to break that code, and nothing she said afterwards could take away the taste it left in the mouth.)

She reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith, in her fascination with a more intellectual abstracted form of villainy–but James’ morality was a lot more simplistic (makes for better book sales, don’t you know).  Highsmith, for all her many prejudices, knew there were all kinds of worlds out there, all kinds of people, and even if you didn’t like them, it never paid to ignore them.  The boundaries between class, between race, are always porous.  A hermetically sealed social environment is not only boring–it’s a fantasy.  Doesn’t exist.  Never did.  Westlake wrote a book about cloistered monks, just to uncloister them.  That’s where the fun is.

Some people read this type of murder mystery to feel safe.  Cut off from the more complicated world that really scares them.  A lot of people are like that, you know.  All over the world, in all classes (it’s the peasant mentality in a nutshell, and we’re all peasants, you go back far enough).  My world is the real world, my people are the real people.  And they’re all wrong.  There are as many ways to live a life as there are lives to be lived.  And the sheer variety of life–and literature–was the principal delight of Donald Edwin Westlake.  As they are to all foxes.  (Though he had his comfort zone as well, and it got larger as he aged).

Now one other thing–her primary series character–a police detective.  And a poet.  A man of no moral failings at all, almost priestly in his devotion to duty, his lack of personal attachments.  Her ideal.  Westlake understood ideals.  He also knew about Mary Sues.  There’s a danger in getting so wrapped up in a character that you can’t see past him or her.  He distrusted heroes, and perfect ones most of all.

James didn’t write police procedurals, where the department as a whole was the hero.  She created a man who was born to be an independent sleuth–then made him an errand boy for the state–and never dealt, best as I can see (it’s not like I reviewed all her books, or any), with the contradictions that entailed.  Well, that’s the sub-genre–in many ways, Lestrade has more descendants than Holmes.  The brilliant heroic police inspector, seeking truth at all costs, has a large and legitimate place in the genre.  (When they show up in reality, people tend to be less enthused, or have you never heard of John Stalker?)

A sub-genre she wanted to enlarge, make more complex, more challenging, and she did.  But then, so did Westlake, when he wrote as Tucker Coe–whose cop-without-portfolio found moral choices in the oddest places.  Even while he denied he was a detective.  “The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.” Preach it, Brother Tobin.

There’s something else–if you’ve been reading Westlake for any length of time, you know how he felt about cops.  You know how he felt, in particular, about detectives (and one of the reasons why, relating to his arrest as a young man–he sure didn’t meet any poets in that interrogation room).

And police detectives–well, they could be professionals, do their jobs honorably and well, and that was worth respecting.  But to set one up as the ideal to which the rest of humanity should aspire?  This was a man who spent much of his career writing about modern Robin Hoods (who robbed from the rich and kept it) and who’s her hero?  The Sheriff of Fucking Nottingham.  Who writes poetry on the side.  There is an innate gulf of understanding there.  To be sure, he wrote with great sympathy about Abraham Levine–but that’s the only series character he ever killed off.

James was herself often quite critical of other mystery writers–she and Westlake had that in common.  She had an acerbic side, wasn’t afraid to deploy it in print. I think she suspected Westlake had said something critical of her, if only as a bit of backroom slagging, and the press had garbled it, as they so often do.

So like a good sport, she let the matter pass.  It had been years ago, he’d just died, his family had shown the proper respect.  To have even acknowledged an offense wouldn’t have been cricket (and might have revived the whole subject of her own dubious remarks).  So she denied any offense had been given (which it might well not have been, she wasn’t there, a good detective never assumes).

Classy.  It seems fair to say, P.D. James was all about class.  Well, maybe that’s an oversimplification too. ( I wonder how many I’ve perpetrated here, but there’s only so much time I can devote to this quaint little cul de sac I’ve pulled us down.)

It seems entirely fair to say I pulled most of that out of my ass.  But this story bugs me.  It’s a mystery, begging to be solved.  For crime writers, words alone are certain good, the ultimate murder weapons, and they can deploy them with cold-blooded efficiency.  In this case, there’s no way to dust the weapon for fingerprints.

But there was means, motive, opportunity.  Circumstantial evidence.  As to James herself, I’d like to read a transcript of that Beeb interview–just based on what we know, we’ve got her dead to rights.  But she had a right to her opinion. And to her legacy,  which I wouldn’t take from her if I could, and couldn’t if I would.

I do wonder what he really said at Nottingham.  We’ve established he knew the word dimwit.  He knew worse than that, I’ll bet.  So did she.  But their respective schools both live on, in altered form, each serving its purpose.  There’s plenty of room for both of them in the Mystery Manse, and thousands more besides.  The game’s afoot!  (Just try not to stick the foot in your mouth.)

But you know, I realize now, I’d much rather know what they said to each other at that dinner they both attended, and whether they had a chance to talk shop, talk books–maybe discuss their mutual admiration for Trollope?  A writer whose predilection for political satire, disguised as melodrama, certainly influenced Westlake.  And I might give that a look next.  Ex officio, you might say.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake

Plug: Scott Bradfield’s Westlake Review

Came across a link to this on VWOP.  One of the best overviews I’ve ever read.  

And still quibble-worthy.  Not everything in Westlake is about money (not that Bradfield said it was, and I can understand him needing a focal point).  Money isn’t something his heroes seek for its own sake, but rather so they can remain independents, remain free, remain themselves.  Identity was his topic, money was the modus operandi. But a damned important one, and he’s got the right idea here.  The Organization Men vs. The Independents, and it’s never hard to tell which side Westlake is on.

Loved the reference to Harlan Ellison–see, Westlake was never that colorful.  He didn’t tend to draw attention to himself (even in school, he said, he wasn’t the funny kid, he was the kid who hung around with the funny kid).

So he developed his readership, attracted many a prominent admirer, while he operated below the radar–like most of his protagonists.  Because he was afraid, I think, that if too many people had an image of him, it might screw up his self-image.  And that’s a legitimate fear.  Writers who become too famous often lose track of what made them writers in the first place.

And it too often happens that The Next Book becomes a monster they have to slay, instead of a new friend they can’t wait to make the acquaintaince of.  They end up spending most of their time burnishing their sacred reputations–always with that Memento Mori echoing in their heads, reminding them that posterity will stick most of them on a dusty neglected shelf, to make room for new names.

Westlake was never one of the writers everybody talks about.  Never a Literary Lion, an icon of the book world, a celebrity.  He was something better than that. He was a storyteller, who people showed up to read just because he was fun, and he told people things they needed to know to survive in this world.

I recently advocated for him to get a Library of America collection, and no doubt at all his work merits it–but I had other doubts.  Maybe that would be a kind of prison for a writer like him. I definitely don’t think his work that’s perpetually in print should get that treatment.

Some of his best novels have been out of print a long time now, because they fall through the cracks, don’t fit the mental images of any of his disparate readerships, and those are the ones I’d like to see revived, somehow, because you can’t understand Westlake without them.  Vital pieces to the puzzle, like Adios Scheherazade and Up Your Banners.  Which do still have a lot to say to the world as it is now.  I know what Bradfield means about the WASPy gangsters (though there were a lot of Micks and Dagos and Jews thrown in the mix), but Westlake did not always write about white folks.

Because he broadcast on so many different wavelengths, often represented by different author names,   it was more like he had many reputations, instead of one–everybody knew him, but nobody knew the same guy.  You could never nail him down, pigeonhole him, bring him to justice.  He’d always find a crack to slip through, and get away.  Like Dortmunder.  Like Parker.

Let me quibble once more with this superb piece.  Bradfield makes it sound like Grofield is tender-hearted, refusing to go on a job where innocent people might get hurt.  In The Stark Lands there is no such thing as innocent people.  He just figures the less mess you make, the less attention you draw to yourself.  Unlike Parker, he can feel guilt, but he doesn’t tend to let it stop him.  It would be self-deceiving for him to go around thinking you can rob supermarkets and payrolls with loaded guns and nobody but other criminals will get hurt.  Grofield has his flaws, but he doesn’t lie to himself.

I agree he’s a great character, but he’s not in the same league as Parker, and there’s a reason Westlake stopped writing about him.  Too many internal contradictions, and no way to resolve them in that kind of book.  Grofield is a fascinating experiment, that didn’t work out as well as Westlake hoped (so Stark pulled the trigger on him).

But see, this is my point–Bradfield has his Westlake.  I have mine.  You have yours.  They’re all real.  And they’re all projections.  And there the real Westlake goes, out the back door, laughing at all of us.  Well, we’re funny.  Bradfield refers to the Trumpian adversaries of Westlake’s fiction (at least one of whom was partly modeled after Trump). We made Trump President (some of us).  We’re funny as a heart attack, man.

But he was in deadly earnest, and never more when he was joking.  It wouldn’t kill us to recognize that more.  This is one of the greatest and most enduring American writers, who pulled off an amazing magic trick–to publish one popular well-received novel after another, for five decades, without ever really becoming famous, or revered–or forgotten.  The cover art changes, the books go on.  Not because they’re ‘important’ but because people can’t stop reading them.  Now they’re impulses on the internet.  Next….?

Missing my comments section cohorts, so if anybody else has quibbles–with Bradfield or me–speak up.  Hey, I’ve got another one–why has there never been anything like this in the New York Review of Books?  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.”  Mark that well.  (Had to get a pun in there somewhere.)

18 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 2

(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.

You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change.  It’s almost a requirement of the form.  I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack.  They can’t possibly do the missionary, right?  Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces.  A body like that you don’t want to damage.  I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story.  An eloquent silence, let’s call it.

Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves.  Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.

As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me.  I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right?  Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up.  But we still try.)

 

Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment.  God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts.  He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey.  But yeah, old.  Him and the whiskey both.

The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.

Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth.  The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit.  He reached for a second glass on the table.

“Drink?”

“No.  Thank you.”

“I’ll pour you one anyway.  You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.

“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?”  Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him.  If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time.  Of course, He had eternity.

God’s face got serious.  “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John.  Understanding you, and the others.  What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two.  It was never easy.  I got it wrong sometimes.  But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you.  To hear your prayers.  I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.”  His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.

Dortmunder noted the past tense.  “You retiring or something?”

“After a fashion.  I won’t be telling any more stories.  You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t.  Moving on.”

“To what?”

God spread His hands.  “I’m not that omniscient.  It is what it is.  I’ve got an author too.  Maybe He’s got one as well.  Or She.  I’d prefer a She.  Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”

This was going nowhere.  “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own.  Best as I can tell, I always was.  I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”

“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit.  Call it an homage.”

“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”

“I’m sure you can.  Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary.  You or the Other Guy.  Words were never going to be your thing.”

“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“The one I made damn sure you never met.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.  I protected you more than I ever did him.  I gave you better scores.  A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies.  A more reliable string.  You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John.  You surprised me.  That’s the best thing a creator can hope for.  C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”

Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank.  It was good.  Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey.  That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.

“Remember that, do you?  Not one of my better efforts.”  Lips pursed, in self-disapproval.  “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle.  Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”

“Get out of my head!”

“You’re always in mine.  You and a host of others.  Tormenting me with all your potential.  That most of you never came close to using.  But that’s free will for you.  I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not.  You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”

Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.

“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole.  How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him?  But I had to look into that abyss…..”

God was starting to ramble.  An occupational hazard, perhaps.

“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.”  Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.

“Be a little more specific.  I mean, there was so much…..”

“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”

“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”

You invented parimutuel betting!”

“That was Joe Oller.  A higher deity than myself.  Anyway, it was always going to be something.  You had fun spending it, right?”

“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs.  I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat.  This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”

“Yeah?  Meet anybody that day?”  Looking much too pleased with Himself.

A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes.  The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.

“You’re welcome.  See?  Give and take.  Can’t have one without the other.  If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist.  It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session.  Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.

“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”

“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate.  What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis.  You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department.  But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand.  Might as well be playing a video game.”

“So you’re saying I was lucky.”

“I’m saying it could have been worse.  You had friends.  You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you.  You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness.  They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin.  So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”

“Max Fairbanks.”

“Yeah.  Him.”  A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.

“Why?”

“That’s not on me.  I told you, most people make bad choices.  They had all the information they needed to make good ones.  I can’t do everything for you people.  You need to take responsibility for your mistakes.  But I have to say–that was a doozy.”

“I didn’t vote for him.”

“You never vote.”

“Nobody I know voted for him.”

“Most of them don’t vote either.  Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”

“You made Max Fairbanks!”

“I made a lot of people.  If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”

“Fair.”

God was pissed now.  He proceeded to wax wroth.

You want life to be fair?  You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir.  I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf.  If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”

“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”

“I served five.  You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six.  It felt like a lifetime.  I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time.  But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”

“I felt it anyway.  You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again.  You kept changing the rules.  It wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful.  Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game.  While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”

He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.

“You’re not supposed to swear.”  Dortmunder looked more subdued now.

“I didn’t take my own name in vain.”  God looked embarrassed at having lost his temper.  “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”

“What’s that mean?”

“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before.  You could do it again.  I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”

All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”

“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you.  But no.  If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine.  That’s really all anyone should have to do.  That’s all I did, most of the time.  I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though.  Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know,  à chacun son goût.  

(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo?  But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)

God seemed to be wrapping up now.  “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled.  But it’s time I was out of here.  Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you.  You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview.  You should be proud.”

“I’m overcome by the honor.”  Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.

God was delighted.  “Sarcasm!  See, I never could manage that with the Other Guy!  Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.

“What did he have to say when you braced him?”

“What did I just tell you? I didn’t.  I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit.  Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally?  He knows me by a different name.  I’ve got a lot of them.  You might say my name is Legion.”

God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.

“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected.  “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”

The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look.  “Say–that’s right!  I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things.  I’m the narrator.  Nothing gets narrated without me!  What gives?  Stop, thief!  I still have copyright!”

He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself.  “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time.  All the hallmarks of an amateur.  I just hope it’s not a script treatment.  Too wordy.”

“A what?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.  They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”

What did you call me?”

“Who do you think wove that basket you came in?  Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”

Dortmunder did not like the sound of that.  “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while.  Meet the gang.”

“I made the gang.  But you were always my fair-haired boy.  Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood.  But lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon.  My Own Brand, you know.”

“Wait—”

He was gone.

*************************

Dortmunder blinked.  He looked at the bottle.  Still there.  Still more than half full.  He sipped.  Still much too good to be from the OJ.  Something had happened.  But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.

He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar.  He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale.  That’s what it sounded like, anyway.

Cries of “DUDE!  Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch.  (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)

And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.

“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from.  He was holding a tray with more glasses.

“There was somebody else here.  Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out.  He left us some good stuff.  Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy?   You too, J.C.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door.  “The day I’ve had, I could use it.  So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets.  Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country?  That guy owes me money!  Who else wants some of this?”

Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.

“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded.  “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore.  I might as well indulge.  Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.”  (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)

“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.

They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business.  “There’s two things to discuss.  First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh.  John and me had a look, seems like a possible.  Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”

“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.

“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly.  “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”

“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.

“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score.  He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash.  Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.

“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”

Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab.  The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books.  This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor”  Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.

“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused.  “What did he say about this information he wants us to get?  It’s about the election?”

“Connected with that, yeah.  Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it.  They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing.  It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a  strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”

“Pass,” Tiny decided.

“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.

“John?” Kelp inquired.

“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.

As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity.  “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor.  “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”

Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed.  “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”

“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.

“We don’t have a back door.”

“He made one.”

As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.

“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.

“I’ll walk.  Need to clear my head.”

“Tiny?”

“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”

“Stan?  You got a car nearby?”

“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste.  “Sure, why not?  Just drop me at the A train.”

“Great, I’ll get an Uber.  Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”

Uber?  Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation.  Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb.  A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”

“You all know about congestion pricing, right?”  It was Gladys Murch.

“Mom!  Not you too?!  This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”

“Got to get with the times, Stanley.  Cash or credit?  It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”

Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.

*************************

He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all.  What was he supposed to do?  Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks?  Not likely.

But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks.  That had all been settled in Vegas.  If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune.  Nothing to do with him.

He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee.  That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.

He got to the shop.   He stopped.  His jaw dropped.

It was boarded up.  Covered by a wood scaffolding.  Along with everything else on the block.  They were out of business.  For real.  Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone.  No more store.  No more score.

He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility.  Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure.  Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises.  Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries.  Oh shit.

Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.  

Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.

He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now.  And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon.  Because its author had left the building.  By the back door.  That sly bastard.

“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward.  “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”

And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively.  Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn.  Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.

A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier.  She dutifully relayed it onwards.  It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it.  And a note saying only “You win.”

Max was enraptured when he got it.  Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself.  It fit like it was made to order.  This really was going to be his year.

And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY  YOU.”  Happy New Year.  I mean, why not, right?

11 Comments

Filed under John Dortmunder, Uncategorized

Pastiche: Mysterious Ways

Wheater-Header

(Disclaimer: John Archibald Dortmunder and most other people who appear in this story are creations of the late Donald E. Westlake, and have appeared under the auspices of numerous publishers.  They are currently under the control of his estate.  Donald E. Westlake himself was a real person, far as I know, but so were Jesus and Buddha.  Max Fairbanks is real, all too real.  I am not profiting in any material sense from writing and self-publishing this, nor would I have any idea how to do that.  I present this travesty as an homage, as well as an act of hubris, but mainly as an expression of latent OCD, because I know he would have written a lot of the same gags for this crew, if he’d stuck around a bit longer.  It is, of course, possible he did write some of them already, and I’m just regurgitating them without realizing it. C’est la mort.)

 

John Dortmunder, a man chosen by fate to march resolutely against the currents of his times, was now marching disconsolately against the currents of midday traffic in Times Square, which didn’t look anything like it did when he first came to New York, though this would have been true even if he’d arrived last year.

There is some obscure and ancient city edict that militates unceasing change for Manhattan’s palpitating heart, and insists furthermore that the changes lean towards ever-increasing displays of commercialism, not that it was the Piazza San Marco to start with.  The pigeons inhabiting both spaces don’t seem to care much either way, being the Philistines of the bird world.  One supposes this would make Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks the Davids, but the Gotham branch of Columba Livia bears their slings and arrows with equanimity, so long as the bread crumbs keep coming.

Pausing beneath a billboard devoted to the boxer-clad crotch of a model who may have eaten at some point in life, Dortmunder’s eye was drawn to a massive video screen ahead of him, now displaying the bloated features of his old nemesis Max Fairbanks, three stories high, in glorious HD, which stood for Hellfire and Damnation, going by the expression in Max’s glazed baby blues.

The world was wrong, Max Fairbanks was right, and the world had better just grow up and accept this, was the general gist of his remarks, as spelled out in the word crawl beneath the screen (the ‘or else’ was only implied).  If it were possible for a human face to look triumphant, mocking, gleeful, embittered, enraged, and terrified, all at the same time, that would be a fair description of his expression, assuming you wanted to call that a human face.

Dortmunder, who paid about as much attention to current events as he did to modern dance, had been forced, much against his will, to note the meteoric rise of his former foe, and deemed it irritating.  “You are vanquished,” he muttered at the looming screen.  “I vanquished you.”  Max didn’t look vanquished. Dyspeptic, maybe.  The scowling visage was then replaced by a Tums ad, which seemed synergistic, somehow.

Dortmunder stalked onwards, feeling the need for some digestive relief of his own, but he had an appointment to keep, which was all that had brought him through the world’s neon-crusted navel to begin with.  (Nor would it have comforted him to know neon itself was a relic of the past, much as he was.)

*************************

GOING OUT OF BUSINESS read the banner over the store on Seventh, which had hung there since time immemorial, whatever that means.  The display windows were a cornucupia of overpriced electronic devices, varied optical equipment, and garish objets d’art with a decided oriental twist, including what appeared to be ornately carved elephant tusks (strangely, no animal rights picketers; well the store was going out of business, right?)

Times Square is the Mecca of rubes.  Suckers from all over the planet descend upon it, wallets bulging, and they don’t know that the store has been going out of business since the Carter administration.  They assume they’re getting a deal.  If the merchandise turns out to be defective, they don’t even try to bring it back, since that’s the chance you take when you participate in a going out of business sale.

(This visionary business plan has since been adopted by many modern mall chains, for which its originators, whoever they may be, have received neither credit nor compensation, an injustice they have accepted philosophically, since everybody’s got to make a dishonest living.)

It was Kelp’s latest idea that they should plunder this treasure cave, thus putting the store out of business for real.  Dortmunder had voiced an objection to the effect that Times Square is also a Mecca for cops, not to mention surveillance cameras.  It had been decided they would meet there, and determine whether Kelp’s idea was workable, as if any of them ever had been.

Approaching the store on Seventh, Dortmunder saw the familiar sharp-eyed narrow-nosed visage, out on the sidewalk.  Kelp was already deep in conversation, with an invisible companion.  He gesticulated with both hands in an agitated manner, pacing back and forth, as he expressed sundry emotional grievances to the world at large, in an unnecessarily loud voice.  The passersby ignored all this, walked a little faster perhaps, praying there were no sharp objects concealed in the madman’s many-pocketed coat.

Approaching, Dortmunder picked up from context that Kelp was arguing with Anne Marie Carpinow, the woman he had lived with for some time, who was of course nowhere to be seen.  The litany of past injustices flowed unstinting from Kelp’s agitated lips, as he laid bare to the world at large the most intimate disquiets of his private life, and then paused, as if listening to a voice in his head with many similar accusations to levy at him.

Dortmunder surveyed his colleague with bemused sympathy.  He’d always known it would come to this.  The slender thread that was Andy Kelp’s sanity had finally snapped.  He even had some kind of strange earring on.  Dortmunder had noticed these adornments on other street corner shouters.  Some kind of cult?

Andy looked up from his curbside tirade and saw Dortmunder.  His face brightened, and he said “Anne Marie, John’s here, gotta go.  We’ll talk later, okay?  Bye.”  He reached down to his belt and pushed a button on the phone hanging there.  “Hey John, what’s up?”  He took the earring off, and shoved it into one of his waiting pockets.

Dortmunder, just then grasping that the world was not, in fact, experiencing a mass outbreak of schizophrenia, tried to conceal his relief, mingled with a certain thwarted feeling.  Still just a matter of time.

“Harya,” John responded, and headed over the store window without further commentary, hoping Andy wouldn’t feel the need to share any further details regarding his domestic troubles.  If May ever burned the tuna casserole (which she never did), it’s not as if Kelp would ever hear about it from him.

The ruse succeeded, Kelp snapping right into business mode.  “So what do you think?  Doable?”

“Probably alarmed.  They don’t take those down until they really are out of business.”

“Yeah, but my feeling is response time would be slow.  I’ve seen cops shopping here.  Fresh out of Long Island, don’t know the score yet.  When they find out, they get sore.  They hate being taken for suckers, even when they are.”

“They’d always rather nab crooks like us than crooks like them,” Dortmunder observed mordantly.

“Yeah, there’s that.  But anyway, I bet these guys did their alarm on the cheap.  Fits the profile.  And they’re middle eastern, so no dogs.”

“We could maybe get in and back out again.  How much you figure all this stuff is worth?”

“Some gray-market goods, nothing first-rate, but I could unload it easy with MyNephew.  Just opened a new store in Gowanus.”

“I thought Victor was back with the Feds?”

“Not that Nephew.  And yeah, happy as a clam, my sister says.  The job is finally what he always dreamed it would be.  He landed a spot on that squad investigating the election.  I guess some cops go in for the other kind of crook, after all.”

“Seems only fair,” Dortmunder said, not wanting to hear anything more about it.

*************************

But just in case someone does, let’s take a quick hop over to 26 Federal Plaza, and check in on our old friend Victor, happier at present than any bivalve mollusc born since the Cambrian Explosion.  (Those were the good old days.)

Much has changed at the Bureau since last we saw him, and from his perspective, all for the better.  For one thing, nobody there thinks he’s paranoid anymore.  For another, the secret FBI handshake he once got in trouble for advocating is being discussed at a policy level.  The true visionary always senses when his moment has arrived.

It had long been Victor’s dilemma that he identified with lawmen and outlaws at the same time, and now to his amazed delight he was both.  The better he and his fellow G-Men and G-Women did their dreary fact-finding jobs relating to the last election, the more roundly excoriated they were by The Powers That Be, while the underground counterculture spoke of them as brothers in arms.

Everyone talked about shadowy government conspiracies now, without the slightest sense of self-consciousness, or in most cases, evidence.  It was the fashionable thing to do.  He tried very hard not to look smug, having been so far ahead of the curve.

Cable news (one channel in particular), had become a guilty pleasure.  Special Agents had never heretofore been so special.  To be an FBI employee now was to have all the notoriety of a bank robber, a guerilla leader, or a Colombian Drug Lord,  without the need to maintain a hideout in the mountains (though Victor had one anyway).  It was like being in a gang, only with health benefits and a pension.  He had to hug himself sometimes, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. So far, he hadn’t woken up. So far, neither had anyone else.

But enough of selfish personal pleasures–there was work to be done.  Victor had been tasked with obtaining information about a business associate of the President, the President being Max Fairbanks, which to a less febrile intellect than Victor’s might have seemed in itself so astonishing a thing as to render him jaded, innured, cynical, incapable of being surprised by anything, whereas in fact he was surprised by everything.  And never unpleasantly.

Certain colleagues of Victor’s on the team had expressed faint qualms about his enthusiasm, infectious though it was, and inquiries had been made about his social media habits, only to learn he had none.  Friends, love life–ditto.  Not even porn.  He still collected old pulp magazines and Big Little Books.

Family might have been a red flag, but the one black sheep in Victor’s fold had evaded the law dogs too well, and seemed to be some kind of secret NYPD informant on the side, for a detective who had once investigated their primary target, so bringing all that up would be a delicate matter, stones best left unturned.

A file containing a deranged-sounding letter from a police captain (retired) named Deemer, regarding a stolen bank (that can’t be right) had been mislabeled, and would not see the light of day again for many years, or the bank ever.

Might as well try to find dirt on one of those monks over on Park.  Who Victor had joined for a spell, but he loved Travel, so it didn’t work out.  He still sent them a card every Christmas, receiving an oaken keg of frothy brown ale in return, which always went down well at the office New Year’s party.  It was concluded that if Victor was strange, the times were stranger, and the beer was fucking great, so let it go.

The information he was supposed to get would, Victor reasoned, never actually need to be presented as evidence in a court of law.  It was more like information you needed in order to know where to look for information you could present. For this job, you would require people who knew how to get into a place and back out again without being detected.  He reached for his trusty rolodex (try hacking that, why don’t you?) and leafed through to the K’s.  If you can’t trust family……

*************************

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar and Grill, Rollo the Bartender was writing the specials on the blackboard.  There was blackened this, smoked that, and pulled whatever.  The beer list was written in an obscure pidgin dialect, where every other word began with “Hop.” Hopalonius, Hopasaurus Rex, Hoparific, Hopfrog The Jester, Hop-ity Hipster, Hop Springs Eternal, The Hop Diamond, Hop Is the Thing With Feathers, Hoppy Ever After, Cross My Heart and Hop To Die, Hopalong Cask-o-Rye.  (At least some of those really exist, but who has time to check?)

The OJ regulars had refused to leave when the new crowd showed up, reasoning that if anybody ever had squatter’s rights, it was they. Rollo, always the peacemaker, had made room for extra barstools, so the learned colloquy might continue apace.

“I hear we get a tax cut,” one of the old regulars said.

“Yeah?  I hear the only ones getting a cut of anything are the fat cats,” retorted one of the new regulars, sporting a festive knit hat, though it was quite warm inside.

“That’s a sexist term,” complained a member of the ladies auxiliary, with a pleasingly plump posterior.

“Only sexy if it’s firm,” said a roguish regular, who got summarily slapped for his nit-witticism.

The first regular said “Way I figure it, the more they cut taxes, the faster they grow.  It’s like grass.  Or hair.”

Another regular, whose follicles had gone the way of all things said gloomily, “I wish it worked like that with hair.”

“Have you tried Rogaine?”

“I tried capital gains, but my accountant told me I had to get some capital first.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“They stole that from Nietzsche,” a spirited young regular with a hat and a soul patch insisted.  “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”

“So Nietzsche never had a colonoscopy, I’m guessing.”

“Wasn’t he the joker who said God was dead?”

“God’s just playing dead.”

“So am I.  Went out for Chinese eight years ago, never came back.”

“DAD!?”

“SON?!”

“Don’t tell mom!” they said at the same time, and after that there was a debate over who had to buy whom a rum and coke.

*************************

Dortmunder asked Rollo, “Anybody else here yet?”

“Just The Good Bourbon.”

“The who?”

“Beats me.  He showed up acting like he owned the place, though last I heard Otto’s still with us.  Silent partner, maybe.  Said you’d know him when you saw him.  He brought his own booze, real top-shelf merchandise, and something told me I better not say anything about us not being BYOB.  He’s in the back room.”

Dortmunder didn’t know what to make of this, but then again, how often did he get a chance to drink good liquor?  He walked back, past the doors marked POINTERS and SETTERS, until he reached the door to the backroom.  He opened it.

God was sitting there at the table, pouring Himself a drink from what looked to be the most expensive bottle in all creation.

“Hello, John,” The Author Of All Things said, in a vaguely apologetic tone.  “Thought it was time we had a talk.”

“You son of a bitch,” Dortmunder said.

TO BE CONTINUED………

3 Comments

Filed under John Dortmunder, Uncategorized

Addendum: The Reading List

Charles_Willeford

Okay.  Here’s the deal.

I have had a project in my mind for some time now.  Supplemental, though not subsidiary, to the one I’ve just completed.

When I started reading and then reviewing Westlake, I got interested in writers Westlake referred to, directly or indirectly.  One of the books that came my way was the Library Of America anthology entitled American Noir of the 1950’s.  One novel apiece, by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.

The best anthology of its type ever compiled (I have a few quibbles about the way it’s organized, but I’m a born quibbler), and the most puzzling–some of these writers had just gotten started in the 50’s. Willeford wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen by then, nobody had heard of him.  But retrospectively, right on the money.   Five powerful voices, five unique individuals, five novels that had been published, more or less, as trashy entertainment–then turned out to be a whole lot more than met the eye.  Because their authors were precisely that.

One way or another, Westlake made his appreciation of them known–and in some cases, his debt to them.  As I’ve said, if you wrote anything in the mystery field, and you really could write, he noticed you.  He marked you down as the competition–but also as allies.  To the extent prose authors can be allies.  And I think they can.

Because, you see, in any publishing niche, there’s a push towards uniformity, towards dumbing it down, not confusing the readers with unneeded complexity and (in the case of these five) downright perversity.  Towards formula.  They all worked within formulas, within molds–and they all shattered the molds they worked within.  Too large to be contained by them.  And yet, somehow, needing them as a starting point.  An incubator.

Of the five, only two could be said to have started out as genre authors–Goodis and Highsmith (Goodis in the pulps, Highsmith in classy hardcover mysteries, though she would go slumming now and again).

Thompson and Himes began as ‘serious’ novelists–Willeford started out as a sort of beat poet, though no bohemian he.  They washed out in that tonier arena, deservedly or not–many called, few chosen.  And they needed to write.  They needed people to read what they’d written.  So they found a second home in mystery, in crime, in ‘noir’–and somehow they found in the conventions of that genre the distancing mechanism that had eluded them in their more mainstream efforts.  And thus they made high art out of low.

If the price of great art is suffering, they can all be said to have paid their dues with compound interest.  I hope to never say of any friend of mine that his or her life is a biographer’s wet dream, but that could be said for all of these people.

Thompson was a child of the dust bowl, marked by the poverty and ignorance of his youth that he’d painfully risen above, that never stopped trying to pull him back down again.  An alcoholic okie; mystery’s answer to Philip K. Dick, some have called him.  I just call him a mystery, period, full-stop.  One that may not have a solution.

Himes bore the wounds of racism–and prison–and most of all, of being smarter, more perceptive, than everyone around him.  Loving his people, seeing their beauty and their flaws, knowing that White America never would give them an honest break, even while he yearned for some kind of rapprochement between the races, living in self-imposed exile in Europe.  One would like to say he was over-pessimistic about his native land, but evidence of that is thin on the ground at present.

Highsmith was rejected by her mother in a way that left her with permanent emotional scars, and although her sexual orientation was towards other women, she always preferred being around men.  Which didn’t make her any less of a misanthrope, and at times, a bigot.  People found her difficult to like–presumably because she never much liked herself.  She was at least an honest hater, and there is value in that.

Goodis, son of Philadelphia, had a comfortable enough lower middle class Jewish upbringing, made a decent living as a writer, left a substantial fortune when he died, but was a mass of neuroses, hopelessly divided between the life he wanted and the life that was expected of him.  The lyrics for I Can’t Get Started might as well have been written by him instead of Ira Gershwin, and well he knew it.  The Poet of the Losers, he would be called, but what better subject exists for poetry?

Willeford spent his adolescence as a Depression-era hobo, then had a long career as an NCO in the small peacetime army of the 30’s, leading to highly distinguished service in WWII–that he only dealt with in his poetry, because what really happened in that war was too painful for him to approach by any other route.  (It seems safe to say that Charles Willeford was one of the few great mystery authors who was a killer in other than the fictional sense, and many times over at that).  More than any of the others, he surprises, because even when he’s writing pure formula fiction, he can’t help doing the precise opposite of what you’d expect.  He wanted success on his own terms, or not at all.  And only achieved that success when he had just a few years left to enjoy it.  And he tried his best to sabotage it.  A real Willeford twist, that was.

Five edgy iconoclastic irritating underappreciated American geniuses–underappreciated to this day–and the thing about genius is, it’s always sui generis.  No two exactly alike, yet each will have points in common with the others.  To talk about who is the greatest genius is missing the point of genius.

(The other thing about literary geniuses is they don’t tend to play well with others.  Several of these five knew each other, at least in passing.  None were friends.)

Still, underappreciated though they be, rather less so than Westlake.  There are multiple scholarly biographies for Thompson, Himes, and Highsmith.  Goodis and Willeford have both had more idiosyncratic tomes devoted to them, and Westlake has yet to appear in any LOA collection.  They at least have attained the beginnings of critical respect.  I rather suspect part of the problem for Westlake, aside from the lack of a colorful biography (or, to date, any) is that he wrote too damn much.

To say Westlake was more prolific than any of them is understating the point–he was roughly as prolific as all of them combined.  That, in itself, proves nothing.  You judge writers by their best work.  The work in which they come closest to telling us who they really were.  And by that yardstick, I would say that if he ever had somehow spent an evening with the five of them, that would have been an assembly of equals.  An encounter that never happened, alas.

Or did it?

I could maybe arrange for that to happen here.

Thing is, who’s going to read it?  My reviews have been geared to people who read Westlake.  How many people out there have substantially read all these five?

And even though I have spent quality time with all of them, know the better part of their work (pretty much all of Willeford), does that qualify me to write about them?  I need more context.  Which means I’m going to have to read some of those biographies, and other things–flesh out my mental maps of each.  I figure I’ll be ready late next year.  Which is going to work out for me in terms of the pop cultural metaphor I’ve come up with to group these five together.

So in the meantime–if you’re interested–if you’ve got the time–here’s the beer.

David Goodis:

A lot of Goodis is e-vailable now, but not nearly enough.  Even reprints of some of his rarer novels can be pricey.  You can’t go wrong with the five-book Library of America collection, which covers the bases pretty well–one of his signature pieces, Down There, is in the 1950’s anthology I mentioned further back.  There’s an ebook for Cassidy’s Girl, one of his biggest sellers, and a pivot for him–the beginning of his mature style–also something of a confessional piece, with regards to his personal life.  For most of the rest, it’s up to you how many raggedy old paperbacks you want to spend too much money on.

His short stories are a very mixed bag, and I doubt anybody’s ever read them all. The collection Black Friday and Selected Stories is well worth obtaining. There’s a new e-collection, Caravan to Tarim, and I loved the title piece.  As for the rest, well if you dig WWII fables where the gutsy American fighter pilot says things like “Die, you Nazi rat!” you’re in for a treat.

Jim Thompson:

People can get into fights over which Thompsons are the best.  Or the worst.  I tend to prefer his western yarns to his eastern idylls, though Savage Night certainly is one of his classics.  His novels are never long, they’re always readable (if at times nigh-incoherent), and you’re pretty much on your own figuring out which to get.  Most are e-vailable (and not cheap, he’s got a serious following now, pity it didn’t come along sooner).

The Killer Inside Me, of course.  That’s the one the LOA put in that 50’s collection, and you’re never quite the same again after reading it.  Not for the squeamish.   The first real Thompson machine gun.

Other than the two I’ve mentioned, I’d focus in (a bit predictably, perhaps) on A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280.  But if you’d like to look past all the savage nights, sweeten the mix just a bit, glimpse the man behind the mayhem–can I strongly recommend South of Heaven?  Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, and he’s worth knowing.  Only a good man needs to know how much evil there is inside him.

Chester Himes:

One of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is reading his ‘serious’ novels, as well as his autobiographical work.  I look forward to both.  Now let’s get really serious.  If you love American crime fiction, and you haven’t read the Harlem Detective novels, you are missing out on the ride of your life, in a little beat-up black Plymouth sedan that moves faster than you’d imagine possible, takes corners like nobody’s business.

There is nothing in all of world fiction (please note the lack of qualifiers) that can surpass the investigations of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and the many-hued denizens of Himes’ Harlem Of The Mind that he conjured up in France.  Yeah, I said it.  So read it.

I haven’t read the last one.  The one he didn’t publish.  I guess I’ll have to now.  I will never accept the ending I’ve read about.  I want to believe he didn’t either. But maybe it’ll look different when I get there.

Patricia Highsmith:

She’s not likable.  That doesn’t mean you can’t love her.  My significant other, a gentle soul, goes nuts over everything she writes.  I see the value in all of it, but at times it does seem a chore, slogging your way through her densely worded over-analytic prose, her needlessly repetitive plotting, to the nigh-inevitable downfall. And the evil mothers. Oy, so many evil mothers. Being a misogynistic lesbian must have been very painful. But of such dichotomies is great literature often born.

As a devotee of the Parker novels, I’m more into the Ripliad, her most optimistic work (probably not the best adjective), and the major point of connection between her and that side of Westlake that was Richard Stark.  That will be my primary focus.  I will, however, devote some time to some non-series novels and to her short stories, a form I suspect she was better at than any of the others on this list.

The thing about Highsmith is–she’s best in small doses, particularly at first.  Like a poison you build up a gradual resistance to.  Perhaps no other writer better exemplified what W.H. Auden wrote about in that section of A Shropshire Lad that begins “Terence this is stupid stuff.”  Though to be sure, she didn’t die that old.  Just a bit younger than Westlake.

As with Thompson, you might want something to leaven the dough.  In her case, that would be The Price of Salt–and perhaps also The Tremor of Forgery. There’s a dog in it.  She’s always a bit gentler with animals.  Which does, in fact, make me love her.

Charles Willeford:

It would take very little time, really, to read his entire body of work.  He didn’t produce that much.  It’s all extremely readable.  The trick is to obtain it.  The Hoke Moseley books are easy to get–maybe too easy.  I admire them, but don’t agree with Westlake that they constitute his best work (if that is in fact what Westlake thought they were).  They’re his most commercial work.  Once you have read them, you’ll recognize what a bizarre thing that is to say.

Cockfighter is e-vailable.  You have to read that, but it can make The Killer Inside Me seem humane.  He is not gentler with animals.  He’s not gentle with anybody.  His favorite among his books, and I’ll tell you why someday.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has no ebook, but isn’t hard to find.  Many think it’s his best–I would neither agree nor argue.  It’s the most perfectly balanced thing he wrote, which isn’t quite the same.   The ideal gift for the art-lover in your life. Tell him/her I recommended it.

His two volume memoirs are e-vailable, and unforgettable, and let’s just call them extra credit.  His metier was fiction.  It was good of him to leave some clues as to what inspired it.

If you can get his short western novel, The Difference (aka The Hombre From Sonora), then do.  The Black Mass of Brother Springer is essential Willeford, and that’s e-vailable (and I yearn to know what my friends who happen to be black would think about it, but I have so few friends of any color–don’t want to scare any of them away).

The Woman Chaser has maybe the worst title of any of his novels (a large statement), but it’s one of his best.  Pick-Up is in the LOA 50’s collection.  That is a problematic book to talk about.  On many levels.  But by all means, pick it up. An early gem, that shows the influence of Goodis, I think.  Willeford also noticed anybody who could write.  And often improved upon them.  Knowing, of course, that nobody would notice he’d done so.

His story collection The Machine In Ward Eleven is a collectible.  I collected it. You don’t have to.  I’m just now reading a collection of stories, articles and poems by him, entitled The Second Half of the Double Feature.  I would rank him higher than Westlake with regards to the short form–not by much.  He also needed more room to run.  But when he got a piece of that ball, he’d knock the stuffings out of it.  The more you read him, the better you know him, but that’s true of anybody worth reading.

With Willeford, all I can really say is, if you’re one of the people I’m hoping to reach with these articles I’m hoping to write, once you start reading him–you’ll keep going.  All the way to his meandering misbegotten monstrosity, The Shark-Infested Custard.  Which gets more socially relevant–and less socially acceptable–with every passing moment.

So maybe a year from now, we can talk.  Or, if you’ve read some of this already, we could talk here.  Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.  Anyway.  I’ve got a present for you guys.  I’m just starting to write it.  It won’t be ready for Christmas, but I’ll try to get it to you by New Year’s.  Many happy returns.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

And In Review……

Capture

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

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

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

Ursula K. Le Guin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin-é!

22 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Get Real, Part Last

summer

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

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

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

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

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

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

I love John Dortmunder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I got it.”

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

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

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

“You got it.”

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

“Okay.”

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

“Done.”

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

Yar!”

“Start listening!”

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

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

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

“Can’t you hear anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 Comments

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