Mr. Westlake and The Nephews

Among these novels, however, important distinctions must be made.  Some of them portray character as a process during which the picaresque hero’s personality emerges; others depict character as a function of the protagonist’s inherent nature.  Some create fictional worlds in which the picaresque hero can plausibly attain wealth and pyschological well-being; others situate “picaros” in worlds where they cannot possibly escape a “double-bind” situation in which they are compelled to choose between survival and integrity.
From The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction, by Richard Bjornson.

You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

From Under Ben Bulben, by William Butler Yeats. 

The first one shook his head after a minute and said, “He don’t know, he honest to Christ don’t know.”
“What a nephew,” said the second one.  “Nephew, you are the biggest nephew that ever lived.  You’re all the nephews in the world rolled into one, you know that?”
“What’s the joke?” I said.  “I give up, what’s the joke?”
“Joke,” said the second one.  He said it flat, like it was too incredible to believe.
From The Fugitive Pigeon, by Donald E. Westlake. 

No, this isn’t my review of The Fugitive Pigeon, originally entitled The Dead Nephew.   That’s up next, but this is what you might call a sidebar, to prepare the ground for discussing what amounts to a whole new sub-genre Donald Westlake came up with, that is more or less unique to his body of work–certainly not without influences, though they are challenging to pinpoint exactly–pretty sure Yeats isn’t one of them, though Westlake knew that poem I quoted from up above, you can bet.   Certainly not the Bjornson book.  I only read a little of that myself.   Most of its content is, for our purposes, academic.   But I thought that one passage summed up the novels I’m discussing here admirably, even though he wasn’t referring to them.

The ‘Nephew’ books, as they have come to be called in some quarters (notably here), feature a fairly befuddled but likable young man who has delayed maturity in some way, and is a bit of a slacker, a deadbeat, a bum, a loser–but, it must be said, a loser with potential.  He’s usually single at the time the story begins, but he may be in a relationship, or even married (or a monk).   His troubles will sometimes stem from a blood relation, such as an uncle, but not usually–it’s just a convenient catch-all, stemming from the first book in this vein.

As the story begins, the ‘Nephew’ gets caught up in some dangerous and generally illegal situation that turns his formerly settled pattern of living upside-down, and he’s forced by the exigencies of the moment to redefine himself, and his position in the world.  He may commit crimes, or even acts of violence in the course of the narrative.   He may even kill  (though this is rare), but he doesn’t murder anyone with malice aforethought, or for any purpose other than self-defense–he’s not a killer by nature.  The story is comic in nature, so the ending is happy–more or less.   In one particular instance, a lot less.   There are variations, but that’s the basic narrative formula.

And then there’s The Girl–and there must be a girl.   It’s a requirement of the form, and good for book sales, and have I mentioned Westlake really liked girls?  The Nephew typically meets a really interesting and appealing young woman in the course of his impromptu adventure–or more rarely, he’s met her already, but doesn’t know yet how much she means to him, and now’s when he finds out.   She appreciates him for the man he is in the process of becoming, may aid him significantly in his quest, or trigger it somehow, and he almost always ends up with her, unless there’s a very good reason not to.

She may be an active player in the story, or less commonly a prize waiting for him at the end of his journey, but she’s never merely a stock character–very much a person in her own right, with her own agendas, and each of the girls in the Nephew books (I guess we could call them Nieces?  Or would that be incest?) is quite distinct in character and appearance from all the others.   Because each of the Nephews is different, and therefore requires a different sort of girl.   As she requires a different sort of boy.  And it all works out in the end.   Usually.

There is always room for disagreement as to which of Westlake’s novels can be categorized as Nephew stories–it’s a category that was created after the fact, like Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays’–a way to slot something that doesn’t really have a slot–isn’t mystery, noir, hardboiled crime fiction, tragedy, comedy, history, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, etc.

The most common term I’ve seen applied to Westlake’s comic novels that aren’t ‘comic capers’ (funny heist stories, and we’re still quite a few books away from the first of those), is ‘picaresque’–a brief Google search will tell you how often that term has been employed in connection to these books, for want of anything better to call them.   The picaresque proper began with Lazarillo de Tormes, first published anonymously in 1554–that’s the title page of the first edition you see just below.   Many similar works followed it in Spain, and the term eventually came to comprise famous works in other languages, including English; books such as Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Huckleberry Finn, and at least half the work of Charles Dickens.


But as a brief perusal of the literature on the picaresque shows, once you start moving away from Spain in the 16 and 17th centuries, you can call just about any story about a young person’s journey of self-discovery picaresque and get away with it.   It’s a useful word, but not a very specific one, now that it’s been repurposed.    All the same, Westlake would have been familiar with it, and with many of the most famous books considered to fall under that heading, and I think he was aware of the fact he was being picaresque here–not terribly concerned about it, but aware of it.

He’s still usually writing something that falls within the general category of crime fiction, or some other popular genre, but he’s putting a picaresque spin on it.   Which is to say, he’s making it funny, but the type of humor employed can vary quite a lot–it may be very farcical and contrived, it may be heavily satiric, or it may be low-key and naturalistic.   Depends on where he wants to go with it.

Here are the ten Westlake novels I would consider to be Nephew stories:

The Fugitive Pigeon

The Busy Body

The Spy in the Ointment

God Save the Mark

Somebody Owes Me Money

Up Your Banners

I Gave At the Office

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Brothers Keepers

Money For Nothing

A pretty disparate group of books, eight of which rank among the best and most interesting pieces of work Westlake ever did–and if you want to get persnickety about it, it’s only the first five that are classic Nephew stories.   The second five are Westlake turning his own private sub-genre inside-out, and reversing most or all of the expectations he himself had created out of borrowed bits and pieces. But I contend they are Nephews, all the same.   And it’s my blog, so I can do that.

I could go on (and I do, endlessly, I know), but that’s nearly all that needs be said about these books here, since I’ll be reviewing all of them individually, as they come up in the queue.   I just wanted to get some of the preliminaries out of the way, and to further the notion that this is a sort of genre, more or less unique to Donald Westlake.

And yet, I must acknowledge, this form may not be wholly unique to Westlake–what would you call The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything, by John D. MacDonald?    Many fans of MacDonald’s detective fiction have called it a waste of reading time, and it is not all that well-regarded today, but it was extremely successful when it came out, is in print as we speak, and eventually became a terrible TV movie, with a terrible TV sequel.  Westlake would certainly have noted that it sold well, when it first appeared in 1962.   This may, in fact, be the inspiration for the Nephew stories.   Or else MacDonald was reacting to some earlier book.   And there’s always an earlier book.


Same basic structure as Westlake’s Nephew stories, with a Fantasy/SF spin, but somehow it’s just not the same.  MacDonald may be writing something vaguely picaresque in nature, certainly a comic spin on an established genre (science fiction), and yes his hero inherits a watch that stops time from his uncle, and there’s danger, and intrigue, and there’s a redefinition of the terms of his existence, and there’s a Girl (who jumps into bed with him the moment she shows up, which certainly never happens to Westlake’s nephews), so yeah, he’s a nephew–but he’s not a Westlake nephew.  Not even close.

And his Girl is a pure fantasy figure, not that there’s anything wrong with that (women fantasize as much and as vapidly about implausible boys in their stories), except you don’t believe in her, which ruins the fantasy.   Westlake was no feminist, at this or any other stage in his life, and he never did quite get the hang of doing female protagonists (though he’d done quite a few for his ‘erotic’ novels before now),  but comparing some of the early Nephew stories with his other work from this period, you can see the difference–he’s letting the female love interests be more than sexy–he’s letting them be smart, and tough, and capable, and cool.   They are individuals in their own right.  They’re seeking their path in life, as much as the male protagonists.  They are subjects of narrative interest as much as they are objects of desire.  They can be this way, because the Nephews themselves are mainly a bunch of timid hopeless schlemiels to start with, and they need more than a prize to inspire them–they need heroes.   Or heroines.

What Westlake does in these books is more than just encapsulate the common young man’s fantasy (that older men can still enjoy) that Everything Will Somehow Change, and the woman of his dreams will just appear, and he’ll get into all kinds of trouble without dying in the process, and find out who he really is, and finally become a man for real, instead of just playing at it.   Westlake is digging into the nature of this dream, and with each new book in the cycle, re-evaluating it.   He’s also having a lot of fun, and so are we.   But it’s not just a fantasy.   And it doesn’t stop time.   Because let’s face it, folks.  Nothing ever has, and nothing between now and the next Big Bang ever will.

In the Nephew stories, which I’m sorry to say I never read as a young man (And I’m even more sorry to say I’m not one anymore, though there are compensations.  I suppose.), he’s telling his readership, male and female alike, something very important–that there will be moments in life, hopefully not involving risk to life and limb, that you just have to grab onto, and see where they take you.   If you miss the brass ring, it may not come around again for a long time–if ever.   Life is a game played for keeps, and we’re all amateurs at it (except maybe Parker), so we just have to figure out the rules as we go along.   And even more importantly, figure out who we are.

And it all started with a guy named Charlie Poole.   Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before–two guys walk into a bar……


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

4 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The Nephews

  1. Interesting theory. There is something to it. It only seems like you think that Westlake cut all ties with his previous books and turned his direction to a different subgenre. I wouldn’t agree. When you start reviewing these books separately, I’ll show you that litle changed.

  2. I’ll look forward to that, but to be clear–I think all or nearly all Westlake’s books have the same basic theme of identity crisis–what’s changed here is how he approaches it. The next book I review is quite different in nature from every previous novel Westlake had previously published as himself or as Stark. It really couldn’t be much more different from Stark.

    There’s a sort of Nephew in the next Parker I review. I think he’d have much rather not been in a Richard Stark novel. Stark has little tolerance for Nephews or any other kind of amateur. His attitude towards them is best summarized as “Grow up fast, or I’ll kill you.”

    Was it entirely new? No, because he’d done some works in a vaguely similar vein when he was writing those paperback sex-capades, to feed himself and his family. I’ve read enough of those to recognize elements of Nephew-dom in some of them. But it’s not nearly as well developed as it is here.

    And as I’ll mention in the next review, he’d always had an element of humor in his writing, but he’d never brought it out to this extent before.

  3. I’m not really a comic book guy, or a comic book movie guy, but my daughter wanted to see Ant-Man, so I took her. And Paul Rudd played Ant-Man as a complete nephew.

    • I haven’t gone to see a superhero movie in a theater since the last Batman (and I regretted it afterwards, Ms. Hathaway’s fabulously felonious feline charms notwithstanding), but I might well go see Deadpool, just to see if Reynolds (who I normally loathe on general principle) plays him as an anti-Nephew. Since I never so much as looked at a Deadpool comic in my life, I don’t care if they get the character right or not. So I’m guessing they did, just to spite me.

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