I worked on my Fresca while I thought about things, and then said, “Leona, I’m just not the right kind of guy for all this. You say all those things, and you may be right, and I do understand and sympathize, but I’m just not the fighting kind. I’m the floating kind. I drift very slowly and easily through life. I prefer things to be funny.”
“Ghetto schools aren’t funny,” she said.
Up Your Banners is an odd book. The origin of this one is very strange.
Must have been sometime in 1968 that David Susskind (of all people) called his literary agent, Henry Morrison, who also happened to be Donald Westlake’s literary agent, and asked Morrison to set up a meet between the three of them. He had an idea to pitch. He wanted Westlake to write a novel about a racially troubled high school in New York.
Like most people, he knew Westlake primarily as someone who wrote comic treatments of dangerous situations, and that was the approach he wanted–somebody seeing the humorous side of the very dangerous situation involving inner city schools. Westlake had a hard time seeing how that was going to work. What’s so funny about poverty, racism, and a failed educational system?
As he described his reaction much later, it went like this–“I really don’t know the area, I’m not interested, I don’t know whose side to take, I don’t see who you make fun of, I don’t see who you don’t make fun of”–I didn’t see any way to do it at all.
But Susskind was persistent, and he promised to buy the film rights to the book if Westlake wrote it. Westlake thought about it a while, and finally he hit upon an approach he thought was viable–he’d write it as a ‘Nephew’ book–not that he called them that. He said it came to him when he found his hero–“the innocent, the Candide who could carry the story.” His reference to Voltaire’s famed satiric picaresque was very much to the point, as we shall see.
It’s basically the same set-up as his five earlier comic novels (this doesn’t include Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which wasn’t originally conceived as a book). A naive young man, who has been putting off maturity, gets enmeshed in something he doesn’t understand, becomes the center of a dangerous chaotic situation (only political, instead of criminal), and people make all kinds of false assumptions about him. And in figuring his way out of this mess, he finally grows up, and meets a great girl–only this time she’s black. Simple, right?
Susskind began sending him the serious books, fiction and non-fiction, that had already been written on this subject recently, including Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (the link is to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly). But the fact is, works of fiction about dysfunctional schools and noble overburdened teachers already amounted to a sort of genre of their own. You can see the covers for three of them up top, and odds are good you’ve heard of at least one or two. Westlake would certainly have been familiar with The Blackboard Jungle, since it was written by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain.
But none of these novels really confronted racism in any direct way–even To Sir, With Love, written by a black teacher working with white cockneys in London (played by Sidney Poitier in the movie), seemed to gloss over the race issue–just a matter of white people recognizing that some black people had exceptional abilities, and accepting them into white society–and what about all the black people who were just average, and stuck in the ghetto, with little chance of ever getting out?
Truth is, none of these then-popular novels have held up very well over time (Kozol’s nonfiction work remains a classic). They were a response to a growing awareness that something was brewing in the schools–the generation gap, racial conflicts, urban blight, the breakdown of the family, loss of respect for authority. Probably Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, written in comic epistolary style, with a protagonist who is brave and sympathetic, but not really in control of the situation she’s in, has stood the test of time best.
The heroine of that book is a young Jewish woman teaching in an impoverished inner city school. She loves her students, and many of them love her, but it’s still a crazy and sometimes scary situation–not so much because she’s in danger from her pupils as that she has a terrible time dealing with the bureaucracy, and the expectations society has of her.
But even that book doesn’t really deal with racial issues to any great extent, as I recall (been a long time). The proper liberal attitude back then was that you were supposed to ignore such things as best you could. And after all, it’s New York City, not Selma. No Jim Crow here. It’s a class problem, not a race problem. We’re above such things up north.
One would surmise that Susskind, who dealt with issues like integration and forced busing all the time on his talk show, noticed that all these earlier novels had been made into films–but all of them just kind of avoided the real questions, mainly because the real questions tended to rile people up. Kaufman had dealt humorously with the problems facing teachers in these schools, giving her a bit more leeway, but what about all the other players in the drama? There were certain built-in limits to her approach–still, a bit of humor can sometimes help put things in perspective. Everybody loves to laugh. But nobody likes being laughed at. Ay, there’s the rub.
Before I go any further, perhaps I had best confess that I myself worked briefly in the New York City Public School system, after I graduated from college, back in the 1980’s. I aspired to be a public school teacher, sue me. I got a TPD (a provisional teacher’s license), and was immediately hired to work at a school in Far Rockaway, at the arse-end of the city (two hour commute by train–each way).
I had no training of any kind. I got almost no help from anyone–mainly just the odd pep talk from the principal, who mouthed platitudes about positive thinking and success, which didn’t seem to be doing anyone much good. I was filling in for a teacher who was sick. My first student stuck his head in the door, and a big grin slapped itself across his face. “SUBSTITUTE!!!!” he yelled down the hall, like he was ringing a dinner bell. I think you can guess how it went after that. I never had a chance.
I can still remember their faces. They’re more real to me than most of the people I’ve met in my life. I wanted to reach them, and I didn’t know how. And I could feel the frustration changing me, making me bitter, angry at them for not wanting to listen to me–resistance I could handle, but they just tuned me out entirely, acted as if I wasn’t there. I quickly had to give up on that school–the commute was killing me, and if I moved to that remote beachfront nabe, I was going to be stuck there, cut off from the rest of the city.
I spent a few more months taking substitute jobs at a variety of middle schools around town–middle school is the hardest–that’s when the hormones kick in–much harder than high school, by which time most of the real troublemakers have dropped out or gotten slotted into special classes. I worked mainly with black and Latino kids–one class was mainly white, and they were every bit as rowdy and unfocused.
And they were all so damn funny. And they were all so damn smart. And they all broke your heart. And much as I was frustrated at them, the people who really gave me hives were the administrators–who I’m sure had nemeses higher up the food chain to blame, and so on. There were really good teachers, here and there, doing their best, and the students listened to them. But most were just trying make it to retirement.
The only time I ever once felt like I was teaching was when I taught a special ed class–for developmentally disabled children. Just a few kids, so I could talk to them one on one. But that, of course, is even more painful in some ways. If there’s a tougher job than teaching this age group in a system like this, in a city like this, I don’t know about it. You get it from both sides, and there’s nobody to help you. Maybe it’s better now.
So that’s my story, but it isn’t Westlake’s–far as I know, he never worked as a teacher. He must have at least considered it–not an uncommon day job for a writer (the late Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, who I knew very slightly, made a career of it–and a book). Salvatore Lombino (aka Ed McBain) taught at a vocational school in The Bronx for a few weeks, and based The Blackboard Jungle on that. Not often a writer gets paid for doing research (if you can call a beginning teacher’s salary getting paid).
Based on what I’ve read, if Westlake ever seriously considered teaching, it was at the college level. It was a potential fallback position if his writing career foundered, as Peter Rabe’s did. But it was never really what he wanted to do. But, you can hear him asking himself, “Suppose I had been been programmed to think teaching was what I wanted to do, and then I found out it wasn’t?” Identity confusion–his wheelhouse. But this isn’t a fantasy like his comic crime novels–he’s going to need more of a build-up than usual.
The book begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, that is guaranteed to offend just about anyone. And makes it clear that Westlake is not going to shy away from the question of race–or racism. “A merry-hearted, grinning, dancing, singing, affectionate kind of creature, with a great deal of melody and amenability in his composition.” We’re told this is from a work entitled The Nigger Question. Which is true, but that’s the title Carlyle republished it under, basically just to shock people (not as much as it would today, of course). It was originally called Occasional Discourse on The Negro Question.
The choice of Carlyle is interesting because that quarrelsome Scot also had some fairly controversial opinions on The Irish Question–he considered the Catholic Irish peasantry (as opposed to the mainly Protestant gentry) to be basically white niggers, which is how many English people thought of them back then (yes, I know this is offensive, but we’re talking about real history here, so let’s not mince words, shall we?). We should now pause to consider that Donald E. Westlake, like most Irish Americans, was descended from those peasants–and quite aware of that fact.
In Mr. Carlyle’s opinion, these merry-hearted grinning dancing peoples like the plantation-living blacks and the bogtrotting Irish were obviously not suited to living as full equals to decent folk, and what would be best for them would be to live in a kind of perpetual serfdom, as opposed to chattel slavery, which his country had recently abolished–which is what Carlyle was taking issue with.
See, the goal for Carlyle was not emancipation, but to reform existing systems of bondage, to make them a bit more humane. Perhaps with the passage of time, some among these lesser races could be elevated to the point where they could enter polite society as free men and women, but there was no need to rush things. It would be cruel to raise their expectations of life, and cast them willy nilly into a world they were not properly constituted to live in. You can read more about Carlyle’s racial ideas here. Interesting philosophy. Also disgusting. Also surprisingly durable in some circles, even if it has learned how to disguise itself better.
So having assured with his opening quote that the easily offended will venture no further, Westlake introduces us to his Candide, who is just heading out to his first day of work as a teacher in a public high school in the fictional Brooklyn slum neighborhood of South Romulus (Brooklyn has many nabes with far stranger-sounding names). He lives only eight blocks away, but as is common in New York City, his own adjoining neighborhood is mainly white and reasonably prosperous.
He crosses the dividing line of Romulus Boulevard, starts seeing dead cars on blocks and many other signs of urban blight, and soon enters Schuyler Colfax High School, where his father is principal, and his father’s father before him. And now he’s going to start teaching there himself, continuing the family tradition, as we later learn has been drilled into him since he was a little boy. He walks into his home room, and writes his name in big letters on the blackboard–Oliver Abbott. And his students (all black) collectively gasp.
And then this tall thin sly-faced grinning black man with a pointy Lucifer-style beard walks in and says class is dismissed until further notice–okay, I don’t care where you grew up, or how much money your dad made, when they tell you school’s out, you get the hell OUT before they change their minds. And that’s what Oliver’s students do, leaving him standing them dumbfounded. He has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Nobody told him he’s the cause celebre of a brewing race riot.
Oliver Abbott (who is the first-person narrator of the story, meaning this is not an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives, but rather an attempt to show one character come to terms with a variety of perspectives) was not always good with being a teacher. He rebelled. First by joining the Navy. Then by going to college way way upstate at good old Monequois, a Teacher’s College in this incarnation. Then he went bumming around the country in his white MG (the affordable hot car for young people at this time).
So he’s been incommunicado, and his father, Principal Jacob Abbott, has never been terribly communicado at any point in their relationship, and just decided not to tell him about the controversy, figuring it would go away by itself. But the fact is, the local black community made a deal with the city that when new teachers were needed at Schuyler, and a qualified black teacher was available for the position, that teacher would fill the position.
Oliver’s father unilaterally decided to fill this position with his son, who is equally well-educated, but less experienced–the black teacher is already working at a white school nearby, and has a wife and two children. By the way, we never once hear from this other teacher, and find out whether he even wants to change schools. That’s not the point. The point is that the community wants one thing, and Jacob Abbott wants something else. And Jacob Abbott is used to getting what he wants. And the community is sick and tired of never getting anything they want. And this is generally known as an impasse.
Oliver’s naivete, as one character is about to tell him, does stretch credulity at points–the brewing controversy has been widely reported in the news, but he wasn’t reading the papers (or the hate mail coming to the house he currently shares with his mom and dad). He wasn’t watching the news. He also doesn’t know the name of the union defending his right to teach–the Fraternal Union of Teachers, or FUT, which Oliver thinks is a silly-sounding name, but nobody asked him. Anyway, Candides are supposed to be naive. Goes with the territory.
Here in the real world, the NYC teacher’s union was and is the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT (you see what he did there?), and if you’re interested, here’s the story Westlake would have been reading about in the papers in 1968, which clearly inspired this story, in which that union played a pretty significant and rather controversial role.
South Romulus is Brownsville, only on a smaller scale. And what happened in Brownsville in 1968 was no tempest in a teapot–we’re still feeling the effects today, still seeing variations on the arguments people were having then. Many think that racial politics in New York, as we now know them, came into being during this conflict. When the dust had settled over Brownsville, Jews and blacks in particular were divided in a way they hadn’t been before, and some historians think white working class New Yorkers started seeing things more in terms of race than class than had previously been the case, because of that conflict.
That’s debatable–what isn’t debatable is that for the first time, Westlake was using a book to directly respond to recent events. Not the last time, though. This is Part One of the review, I think you’ve all figured out now. Like Anarchaos, this is too unusual and complex a novel to dissect without going into some detail over its background.
But having read it twice, and looked deeper than most readers probably ever have into the events that spawned it, I still find it a tough nut to crack. Westlake is telling a pretty simple story here–boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s the story, and actually, this is the first time he’s really done what you could call a classic love story, interracial or otherwise.
Yes, there’s nearly always a romance brewing in his comic novels, and it’s sometimes a crucial part of the story, but it’s not usually the main focus. The point of the previous Nephew books was always the hero figuring out who he is and how not to get killed/arrested/etc–and those two objectives are closely linked.
Here there’s relatively little chance of the hero getting killed (getting his ass kicked, definitely) and basically no chance of his being incarcerated (because, you know, white). So the link-up is between the identity crisis and the love story. Who you love is who you are. But can you know who you truly love before you know who you really are?
The very reluctant hero of The Spy in the Ointment (my favorite of Westlake’s comic novels at least until we get to Dortmunder), Eugene Raxford (Westlake loved to give his comic heroes wimpy-sounding names), is only a partial exception to this rule–at the crucial moment, he realizes his girlfriend Angela (who he’s been involved with for some time before the story begins) is more important to him than his pacifist principles–but he and Angela both recommit to those principles afterwards. The point being that love and ideology don’t always agree, and you have to find some way to make them balance out.
I mentioned in my review of that book that I’m convinced Westlake partly based that character on Bucklin Moon, the writer/editor who told Westlake he’d buy The Hunter for Pocket Books if Westlake would agree to write three Parker novels a year for Pocket. Westlake always spoke warmly of Mr. Moon, and certainly would have known about his past troubles–that he’d been an up and coming novelist who wrote very serious novels, mainly about black people–even though Moon was as white as they come–and then his career as a writer was essentially destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts, even though the most revolutionary idea he seemed to have was equality. I guess that’s still pretty revolutionary.
Moon wrote two novels about The Black Experience–The Darker Brother and Without Magnolias–as well as something called A Primer for White Folks, and he edited an anthology of writings by and about black people. He also helped discover Chester Himes, who started out writing very serious books about the black experience, before he realized he could get a lot more readers by doing funny thrilling crime novels about the black experience.
I’ve looked at some of Moon’s books, and they’re well written (his use of African American dialect is a bit dodgy), they were very well-reviewed at the time, and extremely well-intentioned, and let’s just say it’s not surprising they’re long out of print (as is this book we’re looking at now, by the way, though it did get a paperback reprint, not long after the hardcover came out, because there was supposed to be a movie, only Susskind seems to have gotten sidetracked, or else he read the book and decided people weren’t ready for a comedic race riot involving school-age children yet).
So Westlake’s takeaway from Moon’s experience is that it’s probably not a good idea for a white man to pretend he knows what it’s like to be a black man. There’s plenty of black writers to do that job by 1968. He’s going to stick to what he knows–what it’s like to be a young white New Yorker without much money who isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with his life, is drifting along a bit, but knows that he likes girls a heck of a lot.
Only, as Oliver tells us, because he was in the Navy, and then away at Monequois a few years, he kind of missed out on the best girls of his generation in his general locale–he’s in his late 20’s now, not necessarily looking to get married anytime soon, but he’d like to have a steady relationship. He’s had a few short flings with some extremely short girls his mother fixed him up with (mothers used to do that?), but he can’t find anybody he wants to get serious about.
And then he does. But she’s black. And beautiful. And a fellow teacher at Schuyler Colfax. And politically radical. And a judo expert. And wants to get him fired from his job. Obviously he falls head over heels in love with her (this was going to be a movie, remember?). And I think that’s enough set-up for now. Next week–the actual review. What’s that you say? Will I stick to talking about the book, and avoid out-of-left-field asides that don’t seem germane to anything? This must be your first time reading The Westlake Review. Later, bros.