“What on earth,” she said, “are you talking about?”
“Acting,” he said. “Do you realize that in my peak year so far I earned a miserable thirty-seven hundred dollars from acting?”
“What about this money here?” she demanded, pointing at the suitcase.
“Sixty-three thousand dollars. A bunch of us knocked over that gambling casino, and that’s my share.”
“Gambling casino,” she said contemptuously. “Off the coast of Texas. So how do you wind up here?”
“It’s a long story,” he said.
“By the time you’re done making it up,” she said, “I suppose it will be. The last story you were Casanova, this time you’re Robin Hood. Who are you going to be next time, Flash Gordon?”
Since 1962, under the name of Richard Stark, Donald Westlake had been writing a lot of short violent tersely-worded novels about an armed robber named Parker, which were published by Pocket Books, and which had twice so far featured Alan Grofield as one of Parker’s more trusted accomplices.
Parker’s first sidekick, if you want to use that term, had been Handy McKay, who many (myself included) consider the best of the bunch, but the trouble with Handy was that he didn’t have any kind of backstory, or really anything to distinguish him from Parker, other than the fact that he was a bit nicer and he never seemed to be dating anybody. Personally, I’d love to know what a Handy McKay novel would have looked like, but no question–to make that work, you’d have to substantially add to the character. As he exists, he would not make sense as a solo player, any more than Dr. John Watson would (and yes, I know, but pastiches don’t count).
And yet the question remains–does Grofield make sense as a solo player? After his introduction in The Score, where he met his future wife Mary Deegan, and then his return in The Handle, where Parker left him in a Mexican hotel to recuperate from his wounds, he got the chance to prove he could cut it on his own. But because of some transitions going on in Westlake/Stark’s professional life, his ride was bumpy from the start.
The original idea, we can be pretty sure, was that Grofield would be published under the same roof as Parker, which would have made cross-marketing a lot easier–that’s why the end of The Handle leads into the beginning of The Damsel. But around the time Westlake started developing Grofield as a solo act, Pocket decided to stop publishing original paperback crime novels–The Handle would be the last Parker novel to appear under their aegis. So Grofield was left in that Mexican hotel for quite some time, while Westlake scrambled to find a venue for his work as Richard Stark.
Gold Medal, long the reigning monarch of the now-dying original paperback crime novel market, agreed to take Parker, an established character, inspired in no small part by novels they’d published in their heyday of the 1950’s, who had enjoyed strong sales, and was about to appear (in very altered form and name) in a major motion picture starring Lee Marvin.
The relationship between Westlake and Gold Medal was brief, and according to Westlake, never terribly comfortable on either side, but it did lead to some of the best cover art Parker ever got, from the brilliant Robert McGinnis. Parker fit right in at Gold Medal, even if Westlake felt like the odd man out in an area of publishing whose days were clearly numbered. Gold Medal knew how to sell this kind of story. Gold Medal very nearly invented this kind of story, or at least popularized it.
But Gold Medal wasn’t that interested in Grofield, unproven as a protagonist–and the first novel was already written, making it hard to retool to Gold Medal’s tastes–so Westlake found Grofield a home of sorts at Macmillan’s Cock Robin Mystery division, which published The Damsel in 1967. The American paperback reprint rights went to New American Library’s Signet label, and that edition appeared in 1969–by which point in time, Parker was at Random House, and Grofield was looking for a new publisher again.
Yes, it’s very confusing, but if you want to read more about it, check out The Getaway Car, which happens to be available right now, in both electronic and paperback form. The single most invaluable resource any aspiring Westlake scholar ever laid his or her sweaty palms upon. Which I’ll be reviewing very shortly.
Now to the extent there was an existing market for Grofield, it existed because of Parker. And Parker was written by Richard Stark. So naturally the Grofield novels would be published under that pseudonym as well. But in rereading The Damsel, I was moved to ponder–is this a Richard Stark novel, simply because Stark’s name is on it? Remember, Westlake refused for many years to write any Stark novels at all because he felt he couldn’t get the voice right anymore. Did he think he got the voice right here, or did he simply decide he needed the extra revenue badly enough to compromise a little? After all, he’d created Grofield as Stark, so Stark surely deserved the credit for anything Westlake did with the character. I can actually imagine him rationalizing it that way, God help me.
To be sure, the book is written in the third person, like every other Stark novel ever published. All of Westlake’s novels published under his own name to this point, other than The Busy Body, had featured first-person narrators (which proved to be a less durable tradition). I personally don’t see much difference in the writing style of The Busy Body and The Damsel–appositely, I saw significant differences between The Busy Body and The Jugger, written around the same time. But of course, The Busy Body and The Damsel are both rather light-hearted humorous works of fiction–actually, I’d say the former was more humorous, and the latter more light-hearted. The Jugger is as funny as an obituary page, and as light-hearted as a funeral dirge, though a lot more entertaining than either.
This small exercise in literary forensics I’m engaged with here here is further complicated by the fact that, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think Grofield is a Westlake character who for whatever reason got born in a Richard Stark novel (and much later, somehow managed to transmigrate himself, in a sort of alternate dimensional form, into the Dortmunder books). Their propensity for armed robbery, aversion to personal compromise, devotion to professional standards, and attraction to the same types of women aside, Grofield and Parker don’t have much in common. Parker is the ultimate monoglot (I am not referring only to language here); Grofield the ultimate dilettante. As indeed any good actor has to be.
Grofield knows a little something about everything–fencing, guns, horseback riding, history, literature, movies, even politics–all geared to one end–for him to be able to credibly inhabit a wide variety of roles. One of which happens to be heavy heister–he does that for real, but it’s still a role, and the places he robs are merely stages–all the world’s a stage to Alan Grofield, all the men and women he meets are fellow players. He bears none of them ill will, but his attachment to most of them is purely transitory in nature–you have to be ready for casting changes. The closest thing he has to a permanent connection in his life is Mary–his partner in the theater, as well as in bed, which is what makes her different from the others–but there are a lot of others. Grofield is different from Parker in that as well–his sex drive does not shut down when he’s working–quite the contrary. He’s as much of a dilettante when it comes to women as he is with everything else.
Parker, as we’ve seen, imposes his persona on whatever situation he finds himself in–he may pretend to be something other than himself to evade detection, get the job done, but he’s not playing a role–he’s just blending in–and not very convincingly. Put him in a James Bond spy story or a whodunnit detective story, he will turn it into a hardboiled crime novel–the narrative will bend to his agenda. Put Grofield in those situations, he bends to the will of the narrative–reluctantly, but professionally. It’s his nature. He plays the role he’s cast in, at any given moment–because he has no choice. The role may not always be to his liking, but that is also part and parcel of his profession.
That, I think, is what happened with him and Mary Deegan–flirting with her at the telephone office in Copper Canyon, while his colleagues were robbing the entire town, he inadvertently fell out of the tense violent heist story he had signed up for, and into a sort of romantic comedy with a heist angle–because that’s what seemed to be called for at the time (and because his new leading lady was delightful). His identity is less settled than Parker’s–more fluid. This opens up certain opportunities to him, but it also makes him much easier to distract. He’s like water poured into a variety of containers–constantly changing form–and yet it’s always water. And he’s always Grofield. Whoever that is. Is any actor ever 100% sure? Any human?
By the way, here’s another contrast between him and Parker–the names. Parker has chosen one of the most common names in the English-speaking world to hide behind–right up there with Smith and Jones, but less obviously an alias–it’s not even definitively a first or last name. Grofield, by contrast, is very much a surname, and one of the rarest I’ve ever come across–try doing a google search for it. Try looking up Grofields in an online directory–you’ll find damned few. I got the impression there were more country inns going by that moniker than actual people.
I work for a library, have access to remarkable databases, and best as I can tell nobody by that name ever wrote a damned thing in all of history. Has anyone out there ever known a Grofield? The name clearly isn’t Westlake’s invention, but I wonder where he came across it? One tends to assume it must be the fictive Grofield’s actual name–it would be a truly rotten alias.
And he goes around blithely identifying himself to people by that exceedingly rare name, some of whom might later have cause to track him down with ill intent. True, he’s never been much for fixed abodes, and nobody had online search engines back then. Still and all, I can only think this tendency of his to use his real name when not actually committing a robbery is because it’s all he’s got to anchor a tenuous constantly shifting sense of self. And hey, it probably looks great on a theater marquee. Not like his name is Archie Leach or anything like that. I guess it’s also possible he borrowed the name from somewhere, because it would look good on a marquee–maybe he’s Jewish, like the actor in Pity Him Afterwards. He just picked an unusual but WASPy-sounding name out of a hat, for professional reasons. We’ll never know. But I think it’s his real name.
The reason I have Alan Alda’s picture up top is that from the very first time I started reading about Grofield, I cast Alda in my head to play him, and I’ve been hearing Alda’s voice in my head when I read Grofield’s dialogue ever since. (That particular film still is from John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman, which featured Alda in his first significant feature film role). I’m sure the shared first name had something to do with it, as did the physical description–tall, lean, dark-haired, intense–but mainly it was the sense of humor, the weakness for sarcastic asides, the knack for verbal ju jitsu, ala Groucho Marx, that anybody who watched MASH remembers very well. And of course the roving eye. Grofield may take some things seriously, but he’ll rarely admit to it. Language is a game to him, an art form, as well as a tool of his trade, and he uses it to both illumine and obfuscate–in a way Parker could never understand, and responds to mainly with “Shut up, Grofield.” But Grofield never shuts up for very long. The one role he could never play would be a mute.
Now there’s another contrast with Parker–I suspect many others who have read the books he’s in have managed to cast him as one actor or another in their imaginations. But Parker is notoriously hard to cast–reading his dialogue, we who are film buffs may sometimes hear Lee Marvin’s voice, or Robert Duvall’s, or some actor who never played him but should have (pretty sure nobody ever heard Jason Statham), but there’s something elusive about Parker–we all know, down inside, that nobody could ever capture him perfectly, that he will never be 100% right anywhere but in the pages of a Richard Stark novel.
Grofield, we can easily imagine as the hero of a movie or a TV show. And yet he never has been. Nobody’s even tried. Go figure. Grofield himself, we are told repeatedly, could easily make far more money than he ever will as a heister by just abandoning his professional principles, going to Hollywood, doing guest roles on TV, landing a series, maybe even making it as a film star. He’d be richer and he’d get laid easier and he’d live longer, and he absolutely will not go for it.
To him, real acting means live theater–and the odds of him ever becoming one of the tiny handful who can support themselves solely through that kind of acting are virtually nil. And he can’t compromise the way most semi-successful theatrical players do either–by waiting tables, moving furniture, teaching acting classes, or whatever. He’ll steal scenes or he’ll steal money. Nothing else. So he’s chosen a double life, which means a divided identity, which is dangerous for a Westlake protagonist–and makes him unique among Westlake’s series characters (there was one other, much later on, but he didn’t choose to be in that situation).
Grofield believes that his acting makes him a better heister, and his heisting makes him a better actor. He may be right, but it also makes him vulnerable, in a way Parker is not. Parker is all of a piece, 100% in the moment–Grofield, in his work life and his love life alike is more like Shakespeare’s description of men in general–“one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.” Because unlike Parker, a wolf in human form, Grofield is just a man–but a very specific type of man–an actor. And Shakespeare knew all about men and actors.
Grofield is admirable to Westlake because of his refusal to compromise–less so in his refusal to choose a life and stick to it. But this flaw also makes him interesting–gives him certain dramatic potentials Parker doesn’t have. In my opinion, that potential remained largely untapped in the Grofield novels. And yes, I’m actually going to review the book now.
The Damsel is a fun read. It’s got adventure, sex, politics, social commentary, some decent if unremarkable supporting characters, and a rather colorful sort of travelogue for a part of Mexico Westlake had clearly visited, and loved very much (we will remind ourselves now that he died in Mexico, and something tells me that if he’d known in advance that would happen he’d have been okay with it, and would have gone anyway–vaya con dios, amigo). I enjoyed reading and rereading it, and I say without malice that it’s the weakest novel Westlake had produced under his name or Stark’s up to this point.
I’m going to do something now I’ve never done before and will probably never do again–link to someone else’s synopsis of a book–save me a lot of time. So venture on over to what will always be the best Stark-related website anywhere on the internet–don’t forget to come back and finish reading this. Okay, you back? Let’s proceed. (Editing, much later–well, that synopsis is gone, along with the website. Maybe not one of my better ideas. Oh well.)
Now obviously a synopsis, no matter how detailed and well-written, never gives you the full flavor of a book. But just reading that over–does that sound like a Richard Stark to you? Me neither. It’s got a lot of the basic components, but they’re put together differently, and that’s because Grofield is not, as I think we’ve sufficiently established, at all the same kind of protagonist as Parker. So in this first outing, Westlake I think was trying to do the Stark voice, but had a hard time sustaining it. There’s a reason every Grofield contains at least a brief reference to Parker–just to remind us what this Stark guy is capable of when he’s in top form. Which he isn’t here. The opening, for example–
Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there. Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill. But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel. There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.
Okay, so no “When Grofield opened his right eye, he saw a girl climbing in the window.” That’s a Parker opening, and this isn’t Parker. Then we hear that the hotel room has a poor view of Mexico City–something Parker wouldn’t remotely care about–Stark might, but I doubt he’d have bothered to say so in this context–and I think the problem here is that Westlake has a hard time writing in the Stark voice if Parker isn’t part of the narrative. He needs Parker to keep him from straying into the patented Westlake-ian asides and commentaries, just like Grofield needs Parker to anchor him. Just a bit further down the page–
She said “Are you one of them? Her voice was scratchy with panic.
“That depends. Sometimes I’m one of them and other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort. I haven’t been one of them lately, because I haven’t been well.”
Grofield has a tendency towards the meta-textual–at times, he seems to be commenting on the narrative, as if he’s aware that’s what it is–he’s like a Pirandello character that wandered into a crime novel. Or if you prefer, Bugs Bunny winking at the audience, saying “Ain’t I a stinker?” (and I do actually prefer that). And this can be explained away easily enough as a sort of coping mechanism–he reduces every new and potentially dangerous situation into a scene from a play. But sometimes I think he really does know we’re watching him, and unlike Parker, he’s going to wink at us now and again. Because he’s such a ham.
As we’ve already been told, in spite of his personal aversion to working in Hollywood, he is, just like his creator, a longtime cinema addict, and he is constantly casting himself in movies–westerns, gangster films, spy films, romances, whatever. He hears movie scores in his head, that change in response to what’s happening. He is the protagonist of his own open-ended self-produced epic, and this is yet another coping mechanism. He knows he can die, but he doesn’t fully believe it most of the time–because he’s the hero!
So anyway, after a series of lies he and this very pretty charming and principled young girl named Ellen Marie Fitzgerald (Elly for short) tell each other, he finds out what’s really going on with her. Her father, a respected doctor from Philadelphia, has agreed to help murder the dictator of a small fictional Latin American country called Guerrero (which would become a standby for Westlake in future books–think of it as south-of-the-border Monequois). He’s doing it for noble but abstract motives–to help a powerful man, a friend of his, take control of that country and lift it out of poverty.
She knows this one act will destroy her father’s identity as a healer forever–hollow him out, make him a shell of himself. She says it’s because murder is wrong, but she lets Grofield kill a few thugs hired to stop them–she engages in a bit of violence herself. She’s doing this for her dad. That’s her real motive. But who is Grofield doing it for? Well, mainly himself, he says. He likes the girl, and easily talks her into bed once they’re hiding out at a warm springs resort in San Miguel de Allende, but it isn’t quite gallantry that is making him go to such extremes to help her. It isn’t entirely pragmatism either, but he does have an angle.
The pragmatic aspect is that he will need help to get papers that will allow him to leave Mexico with his loot, and helping her out will put him in contact with people who can make that happen. But he doesn’t know that’s an option until she tells him the whole story, which doesn’t happen right away (she doesn’t want anyone to find out her father is involved in this plot). So once he realizes the girl is trouble–he could just ditch her. He’s got lots of money. He could rent a car, go to that resort by himself, not worry about the hired thugs, and there are people he could eventually find who’d cook up a fake passport for him in exchange for cash. That’s what Parker would do.
But Parker has no interest in sex when he’s working. Grofield is not so fortunate. He’s also not so cold-hearted towards people in general. He has a tendency to get involved, against his own best judgment. In the first three novels, he’s trying to just be a bastard who doesn’t give a damn, like Parker, but the storyteller won’t let him–which is why I question whether the storyteller is Richard Stark.
Grofield can’t afford much of a conscience in his line of work–either one, really. But particularly the one he’s practicing right now. He will kill when he has to, and feel little or no guilt afterwards–probably writing them off as unfortunate extras–the coping mechanism again. But he’s interested in people–all people–in a way Parker is not. He studies them, their mannerisms, their motivations–he can empathize with them–he’s got to, in order to be a good actor. He can’t live with his emotions down below the surface all the time, like Parker. He also can’t afford to get too sentimental about most people, or he’ll end up dead or jailed. His goal is personal freedom, and creative fulfillment–and for that, you need people–but you also need to know where to draw the line between their interests and yours. Never an easy line to draw.
Somehow, just like Mary Deegan did back in Copper Canyon, this girl has managed to cast him as her leading man, hook him, albeit not so permanently. He’s ready to walk out on the gig if it gets too crazy, but he’s reluctant–he’s certainly not going to leave before the big love scene. He’s also not going to lie to her–he tells her he’s got a wife, repeatedly. This is a temporary thing that’s happening between them–no matter how much they like each other, they will eventually part. She decides she likes him enough to just go with it. This happens over and over with Grofield; none of these women ever seem to threaten his marriage, and the only thing that keeps it from being completely unbelievable is that–he’s an actor. And Mary knew right from the start that he was also a thief.
The thing is, Elly has her own agenda–she needs Grofield to save her dad. So she’s not so pure either, and nobody’s asking her to be. No point appealing to the innate nobility of a rogue, so she appeals to his sex drive, his self-interest, and his flair for the dramatic, in equal measure. She’s enjoying every minute of it, but it’s not true love on her side either. She’s idealistic, but she’s no fool. So what Westlake is doing here is trying to play the Stark game of motivations–why people do what they do–only in a very different context. And it seems more like the Westlake game to me.
Thing is, Stark usually has Parker to serve as a sort of point of reference–Parker not being truly human, he serves to show us what humans are really like, by comparison. Grofield is extremely human, but he lives by a code somewhat similar to Parker’s Darwinian drives. It’s harder to make it work and I don’t think he manages it this time. I’ll let you know if I think he managed it in any of the subsequent three books, once I get around to rereading and reviewing them.
What else is going on in the book? A whole section is devoted to the other players in the game–a rich ex-governor who wants to play God in Guerrero, Elly’s conflicted doctor dad, the son of Guerrero’s dictator, and the politician’s son, who works for that dictator. These people give us the identity puzzles Westlake loves to solve under any name. The dictator’s son, a rather admirable young man educated in America, decides he really wants to be the governor’s son. The governor wants him to be his catspaw, take over for his father, and all he wants is to be an American, and to follow in his benefactor’s footsteps. You realize he’ll actually be a better American than most native-born yanks, and he wants nothing more to do with Guerrero–he believes in our values more than most of us do–Westlake reminding us that immigration is itself a form of identity switch. You can’t go home again and you may not even want to. But much as his own father disgusts him, he’s still shocked when a man brutally tortured and disfigured by his father’s secret police tries to kill him.
The politician’s son (a rather soulless young man) chooses to be the dictator’s court follower–when Pozos is nearly killed, he reveals his true nature–he’s been worshiping at the altar of General Pozos–a truly disgusting corrupt venial soulless man he’s idealized into a great one. He despises the common folk his father wants to improve.
“You know what I say?” Harrison turned to starte at Grofield, his hands clutching the edge of the table. “I say, if a hundred men starve themselves ot death in darkness in order to produce one after-dinner cigar for General Pozos to enjoy on just one evening of his life, those hundred men have fulfilled their purpose! What else would they do with their lives, what more meaningful than devote themselves to the pleasure of one of the few men who are really and truly alive? The people of Guerrero should be proud to have General Pozos as their leader!”
“Grofield said, “I understand your own father is a different kind of leader, has maybe a different attitude towards people.”
“Oh, all that. I grew up with that, I know all about that. I think it’s all very praiseworthy, I’m sure my father did the people of Pennsylvania proud, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being an administrator. But General Pozos–He’s so far above that paperwork bureaucrat sort of thing, he’s so–He’s a lion in a jungle full of rabbits.”
I see this syndrome a lot in the present day, here in the States–certain news commentators, pundits, mainly of a conservative bent, who become enamored of foreign strongmen, wishing they could come over here and take charge of things. Grass is always greener. And toadies are always toadies.
The doctor is ready to betray his Hippocratic Oath and use his skills to quietly murder General Pozos because the governor has convinced him it’s the only way to help these poor people–but Elly is right–it’s eating away at his soul. He isn’t a killer. He would do it, but it would finish him as a man. Then, when he sees his daughter wounded in her effort to reach him, he realizes what killing really is–and the illusion of benevolence is shattered.
And the governor–well–we don’t really find out what his reaction is to having his plans spoiled. But we do see that he realizes how much he cares about young Juan Pozos–that he and the General have, in effect, changed sons. And when Juan is almost murdered, he does perhaps begin to see that this personal relationship may mean more to him than his grand ambitions. That Juan may be his true legacy–that Juan may become the man he dreamed of being, but never quite was, somehow.
Yeah, it’s a bit pat. Well written, mind you. Entertaining. And containing certain insights. But I can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm for it, because it doesn’t quite know what it is. The book itself is an identity puzzle–half Westlake, half Stark. Yes, Stark is an aspect of Westlake. He cares about identity too. But he writes about it in a different way than Westlake. And somehow, the two approaches don’t mingle well. The result is entertaining, but not entirely satisfying. For Grofield to work, he’s going to have to choose whose character he’s going to be–Westlake’s or Stark’s. He can’t be both. Not at the same time, anyway.
What’s the point being made in this book, which seemingly suggests those who dream of imposing their own solutions to mankind’s problems are fools, and they’d be better off cultivating their own gardens, as Candide would put it? That everybody should be like Grofield? God help the world if that ever happened. It’s the last thing Grofield would ever want–somebody’s got to do all the jobs he doesn’t want to do, try to hold things together, or there’ll be no audience for his plays. There’ll be no world for him to stage them in. But it doesn’t have to be him–he’s opted out of that life. He did a job he didn’t particularly want, to get what he needed–he played the hero, literally galloping in on a horse at the last moment to save the day. And he won the heart (and body) of the fair damsel–who knows perfectly well he’s going to ditch her now.
They work out the details of the story they’re telling (Grofield is an ‘adventurer’–no need to mention what kind of adventures he normally has), so that Grofield can get his papers, and take his money home to Mary, where they can use it to put on theatricals, and be free for a while longer. Elly, sort of informally engaged to the governor’s son for much of her life, was used to the idea of marrying him someday, but now, having seen his true colors, she opts to accompany Grofield part of the way home.
“All these years, Bob’s been the strong, silent type, that’s what most attracted me about him. Thank God he finally opened his mouth before I married him.”
“Speaking of married,” Grofield reminded her, “I still am.”
She shook her head. “Not till we cross the border,” she said.”
Elly seems remarkably unperturbed about this situation–to the point where you wonder if maybe the fantasy has gone past the point of reasonable suspension of disbelief. Maybe not–maybe she’s just found out she’s an adventurer herself–why shouldn’t women get to be rogues too? But this is another problem with the Grofields–yes, he’s charming, and interesting, and strangely honest about the things that matter, but seriously–women are not that understanding. Nobody is. You just have to go with it. Or else read something else.
So I’m not entirely happy with the book, or with this review, but I’m strangely happy to be writing about Grofield, because he’s a puzzle all unto himself. A puzzle I look forward to tackling several times more. And, I think, a puzzle that has a lot to tell us about Donald Westlake. Who briefly played at being an actor, before he found his true calling–and found ways of incorporating that shortlived dream into his real work.
But his best dreams were the ones that convinced us–and nobody ever convinced us quite like Parker. Who in the next book is going to prove that he’s Grofield’s polar opposite in yet another way–by embracing monogamy. Yes, it’s time we met Claire Carroll. A very rare coinage indeed–a solid Gold Medal. And a much better book than The Damsel. And one that at least some Parker fans have retrospectively wished was never written. But for me, the job is to figure out why it was written. Oh, and one more thing–what color is Claire Carroll’s hair? It’s a knottier question than you’d think.