“You will never be punished by the law?”
“Never. I’m sure of it.”
“And you obviously haven’t lost your money or your social standing. Do you have ulcers, or anything like that?”
“No. I’m perfectly healthy. My doctor says I’ll live past ninety. Do you have a point to make?”
“Yes. To my brother, not to you. He needs an education. He believes in good guys and bad guys. That they’re born that way and stay that way. And that good guys always win, and bad guys always lose. ”
Closed-lips smile. “A great number of people believe that. It’s comforting to them.”
I said “Until the guns come out.”
361 is a book that poses many questions for the reader–first of which is the question “how do you pronounce the title?” Three hundred and sixty one? Three Six One? Or as I pronounce it, Three Sixty One? We’re told upfront that the title is derived from the fact that Roget’s Thesaurus lists words and phrases relating to violent destruction of life under that number, which it does. But there is no mention of this within the narrative itself, in which the number 361 does not appear, and thesauri are not referred to. The brief explanatory note that precedes Chapter One seems to satisfactorily explain the cryptic title of this novel, which certainly does contain a lot of violent death–though really, not so much by the standards of the crime fiction genre. The narrator/protagonist of 361 kills four people–three on purpose, one by accident–and is deeply affected by the experience. And there are a number of other violent deaths, but decidedly fewer than in Westlake’s previous novel Killing Time, the title for which is an obvious pun–is 361 a less obvious pun? Is the book really about killing? Let’s see.
The hero (and I think that’s the appropriate term here, though he might not agree) is Ray Kelly, 23 years old, raised in upstate New York, just out of the Air Force. This is even closer to the details of Donald Westlake’s early life than his two previous protagonists, likewise raised upstate–Clay in The Mercenaries served in the Army in peacetime, while Killing Time‘s Tim Smith was a marine in WWII. And unlike those characters, it’s made clear Ray Kelly comes from an Irish Catholic family (as did Westlake), though we later learn he may not actually be of Gaelic stock. He has, nonetheless, been raised in that culture, and is imbued with its values–such as bone-deep unquestioning family loyalty. He doesn’t look at all like his redheaded father Willard, or his big brother Bill, but they are quite literally his entire world. You get the feeling though, that he’s always felt a bit alienated. Like he knew he didn’t belong, but he couldn’t figure out why.
He’s a rather existentialist figure, somehow reminiscent of Meursault in The Stranger, though not so–French. He gets back to America after being stationed in Germany, looks at the world around him as he takes public transportation through New York City (where he’s never been before, since his dad never took him), and he feels distanced from it, experiencing the urban tableau like a movie he’s suddenly found himself playing a minor role in. Then it turns out he’s the star, and it’s a revenge flick.
He and his father have an emotional reunion in Manhattan (with a few quick strokes, Westlake shows you there’s real love there on both sides), and in spite of Willard’s increasing nervousness, spend a few days seeing the sights Ray never got to see as a kid. Then they drive out of the city via the recently constructed lower level of the George Washington Bridge, and make their way home to Binghamton, which Ray sees as a smaller more focused version of New York. Having been to Binghamton, let me just say he could not be more wrong, but it tells you something about the character. His perspective is all screwed up–and it’s going to get worse. Two guys pull alongside them on the highway, and shoot Willard Kelly dead at the steering wheel–he says the word “Cap” before he dies–in the ensuing crash, Ray suffers extensive injuries, and loses his right eye. He wakes up in the hospital, and his life as he knew it is over.
Once he’s out of the hospital, a mobbed-up guy who feels like he owes Willard Kelly a favor tells Ray to disappear before the same thing happens to him–which serves to inform Ray that the mob was behind the murder. Without a moment’s hesitation or thought, he recruits his brother Bill, who just lost his wife to a hit-and-run driver (presumably somehow connected, because it would be, right?), and they set out to find the evil-doers and administer justice. Bill thinks about it that way, anyhow. Ray’s thinking is less emotional, but at the same time much more intense. He knows he has to kill these people. He’s not so sure he knows why. But when Bill, realizing at last that their father was a mob lawyer in his past life, starts wondering if there’s any point to avenging him, Ray beats the crap out of his much larger sibling, and then asks him why they’re going to find these men and kill them. “Because he was our father,” Bill says. “That’s right.” Just those two words. Ray is getting more terse with every chapter. If it isn’t necessary, cut it out. That’s rapidly becoming his credo. He’ll be down to one word responses soon. He is looking for the shortest distance between two points here–he can show patience when it’s needed, but he has to force himself.
Oh, and he seems to have no interest whatsoever in sex, though he’s certainly aware of the various attractive women who come into view during his journey, none of whom has anything much to do with the story. Sex just isn’t relevant, so he gives it no mind. He’s no virgin–he tells us he broke his cherry in a German brothel, and the whore was so indifferent he got a bit rough with her just to get her attention. This is all sounding very familiar, isn’t it?
So they set up in Manhattan, start making inquiries, and basically sit around waiting for the guys that killed Willard Kelly to come after them. Which they do, but Ray is proving to be a remarkably canny tactician, and has developed an attitude so hard-boiled you could crack nuts with it–it seems like he was born for this life of violent retribution, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.
He starts researching his father’s past life and associates at the public library, via the NY Times index (ah yes, I remember it well), and the more he learns, the worse it looks. He meets one of the partners at his dad’s old law firm, that kept many a mobster out of jail back in the day, and this is his reaction–
“When I was a kid, I believed in a Business Pope. I thought there was a strict mercantile hierarchy, grocery stores and movie houses down at the bottom, factories and warehouses up in the middle, Wall Street up near the top. And a Business Pope running the whole thing. I visualized the Business Pope as a shriveled ancient white-haired Pluto in a black leather chair. Black-capped chauffeur to the left, white-hipped nurse to the right. Every line on his face would record a decade of evil and cruelty and decay. I knew just what he would look like.
That was Samuel Krishman. No chauffeur and no nurse. Black leather swivel chair. A mahogany desk of wood so warm it glowed. Maroon desk blotter. Two black telephones. Discreet papers, ashamed to be white.”
The aging law partners are too scared to tell them anything much (one of them is literally scared to death in a memorable scene involving Ray’s glass eye). Finally, they find out a mob boss Willard Kelly had a particularly close relationship with is going to be released from Dannemora, and they show up to meet him. And end up saving him from the same guys who killed their dad. And like the story wasn’t twisted enough already, we learn that this guy, name of Kapp (that’s right), is Ray’s biological father, Bill is only Ray’s half-brother, their mom was a gangster’s moll who killed herself, and then Bill turns up dead–an apparent suicide, but Ray knows better. And if you thought he was pissed off before…..
Kapp clues Ray in on what’s happening here, though Ray has some understandable doubts as to his honesty. There’s a syndicate war brewing, between the older rougher Prohibition-era guys who are getting out of jail or returning from exile, and the newer, slicker, more business-oriented guys, who wanted to kill Ray because he was Kapp’s son and presumed heir. Chief among these new-style mobsters is Ed Ganolese, who you’ll remember as the unfortunate Clay’s boss in The Mercenaries–making 361 an indirect sequel to that book (there’s also a link to Killing Time, via the ever-present “A Sound of Distant Drums”, which is now a movie). We don’t hear anything more about Clay (in this case, no news is probably not good news), and Ed gets no dialogue here, but he makes a brief cameo appearance in a riflescope, and let’s just say the mills of the Great God Westlake grind exceedingly fine.
Ray is different from Westlake’s two previous first-person narrators, in that he’s a lot less inclined to give impromptu lectures on how things work. That thing about the Business Pope is as expansive as he ever gets. Westlake has decided he wants this protagonist to play his cards a lot closer to the vest–behind the vest, even–so he appoints Kapp to deliver the obligatory sociology dissertations, crime fiction style (you’ll find at least one in every 87th Precinct novel ever written)–for example, why is organized crime all Italians and Irish and Jews and etc?
“Three generations,” he said. “The first generation, they don’t know what’s going on. They got funny accents, and there’s a lot of words they don’t know, and they’ve got different ways of doing things, different things they like to eat and wear, and all the rest of it. You see? They aren’t respectable. I’m not talking about honest and dishonest. I’m talking about respect. They’re not a part of the respectable world, see? Same with their kids, they’re half and half. They’ve got the whole upbringing in the house, with the old country stuff, and then grade school and high school and the sidewalk outside. See? Half and half. And then the third generation. Americanized. The third generation can be respectable. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
He’s getting at the way assimilation can twist identity–make honest citizens into crooks, then back into honest citizens again. He’s telling the truth, after a fashion, but a very narrow self-serving version of it, which Ray isn’t really that interested in–he’s just waiting for Kapp to tell him who ordered his whole family snuffed out. They are still his family, he still wants revenge for them, and he can’t really summon any familial feelings towards Kapp, but he’s wondering now–what is he revenging here? He realizes that all he’s doing is taking revenge for the destruction of the life he could have had–the person he could have been. But without that mission, he’s got no purpose–and without Kapp, he’s got no family. What is he doing here? What’s the point? Once he finishes his revenge, what’s left? Who is Ray Kelly then? Does he even exist?
Kapp makes a deal with Ray–he’ll finger the killers, but in return Ray has to help Kapp convince the other out-of-power mobsters to join him in taking back the New York territory from Ganolese & Co. He says they need to see he’s got an heir who’s tough and smart enough to succeed him–which Ray certainly is, but he’s got zero interest in joining the syndicate. He’ll fake it–until Kapp lets him know who to kill. When Kapp does, at an Adirondack retreat he’s rented for the big gangster meet-up (turns out they have their own forms of social media), Ray sneaks out and grabs a Greyhound Bus to Manhattan. And then the fireworks really get started.
(Editing, long long after I first posted this–you can tell I never knew much about mob history, to have not made the connection with this very real event that took place shortly before this book was written.)
But for all of his single minded focus on bloody retribution, Ray hasn’t really become a stone killer–he gets one of Ganolese’s associates, a black lawyer named Cheever (some interesting racial politics in the book, though it’s not the main focus) to take him to Ganolese’s hideout in the Ramapo Mountains, just north of the New Jersey border–Ray intends to kill Cheever once he doesn’t need him for a guide, since he believes Cheever might have orchestrated the hits on his family–but when the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger. He lets the terrified shyster run away through the woods, and he feels sad and disgusted with himself. He tells himself it’s because he’s not sure Cheever had anything to do with his father’s death–but that’s not the real reason, he knows. “I hadn’t killed him because I couldn’t kill him.” Ray can kill in self-defense, and he can kill in cold blood for revenge, but it’s like a switch that has to be flipped inside of him. Cheever doesn’t flip that switch. Others do. It’s that simple.
Clay knew how to turn off his feelings in order to become a weapon for Ed Ganolese to point at anyone who became a problem. Ray can’t do this, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a weapon too–he’s just a less reliable weapon–and more dangerous to whoever wields him. He might backfire at any moment. He’s a completely free agent, even when he’s pretending to be Kapp’s dutiful son. He’s not consciously doing anyone’s bidding–that’s part of the thrill of the character. All through the book, we see him talking to powerful people, dangerous people, like they’re nothing–which to him they are. It’s a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, sure–that’s the genre–but usually the genre gives us a reason to believe this or that character is leaner and meaner than the rest. So where is this talent for murder and mayhem in Ray Kelly coming from? Why is it credible? Why do we buy into it so readily? Well, I did. Can’t speak for you.
Clay and Tim Smith, we could see how they became the dangerous people they’re presented to us as being–they have the background for it. But somehow, they seem less dangerous than Ray, a wet behind the ears kid who served a few uneventful years in the Air Force (and can’t even fly a plane). Ray is a more effective protagonist than his two predecessors, but going by resumes, he should be the least successful of the three. You can say it’s because the trauma of the accident brought out something that had been sleeping in him–maybe some gangster gene he inherited from his biological father, which is certainly how Kapp sees it. But he’s a lot tougher than Kapp as well, which we’re left in no doubt of by the end. And we’re told he actually resembles his mother, whose ghost somehow haunts the narrative.
The reason why Ray Kelly is so believably tough–in spite of his inner doubts and hesitations–is because of the way Westlake writes him. He isn’t so eager to explain himself, justify himself, as Clay or Tim. And he never once lies to himself, or by extension, the reader. The scariest thing any of us can ever face is the truth, and Ray never flinches from that grim prospect. He wants to know. Everything. No matter how much it hurts. He wants to know who he is, what he is, even if the answer is “nothing”. He looks at us straight-on, with his one remaining eye, and he doesn’t look away.
By the end of the novel he’s paid a high price for his enlightenment–he’s lost his family, several times over, along with any purpose for his existence, and yet he clearly intends to go on existing, and to seek some kind of life worth leading. After going on an epic bender in the city, he tells Arnold Beeworthy (yeesh), a crusty old NY Times reporter we met earlier in the book the whole sad bloody story, recording it (strictly off the record) on a tape recorder at the man’s house. They go out for a bit, and when they come back, the reporter’s wife is listening to the tape, and weeping. See, there is some pity in this world. But not too much–the reporter tells her to make them some coffee.
When we first meet Ray Kelly, he’s a blank slate–he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, who he’s going to be, but he knows he’s got a family he loves who love him back. Then as the story goes by, all of that is stripped away from him, a piece at a time. At the end, he’s come a full 360 degrees, back to having nothing, no one. But now he knows the whole truth about himself. And that’s the 1. Do you see what I’m getting at?
And maybe you see something else, if you’ve read the next book in the queue. Maybe you see a figure looming in the distance, long swinging arms ending in outsized hands, striding defiantly into Manhattan over the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, conceivably around the same time Willard and Ray Kelly are driving out beneath. Maybe they pass each other like ships in the night. Maybe.