Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mr. Grofield and the Artists

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I just wanted to do an overview of the cover art for the first three Grofield novels published by MacMillan (and others). Because they’re so good? I wish. Grofield had terrible luck with cover art. It seems like they just didn’t know how to visually depict novels about an actor who supports himself through armed robbery, but isn’t working as an actor or a robber in the first three books he’s the protagonist of. In all fairness, I’m not sure I’d know how to depict that either, even if I could draw worth a damn.

The first MacMillan cover, seen above, is a head-scratcher–yes, the book is set in Mexico, and they play guitars there (and everywhere else on earth). And there’s a woman in it, and she does wear a bikini. Grofield is always interested in sex, so pretty women are pretty nearly always on these covers, but as we’ll see, there’s rarely anything terribly specific about the art–you could stick it on a thousand other mystery/suspense books, and it would work just as well–or poorly.

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First American paperback reprint–not bad. This was the first Grofield I ever collected, because I liked the artwork. Grofield looks a bit more somber and square-jawed than I’d imagine him, and you kind of have the feeling that something tragic is going to occur–the redheaded girl dies maybe, and he’s haunted forever by his failure to save her.  Would you know from this cover that the book is a lighthearted romp, nobody important dies, and the girl is a blonde? Nope. Next slide, please.

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Now somebody obviously took some trouble to draw this, and I don’t like to complain, but why didn’t he/she take the trouble to read the book, or at least skim it?  It may not be the artist’s fault–Grofield may have sometimes gotten leftover artwork originally intended for other books.  As one would hope was the case below–

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Okay, seriously–Elly Fitzgerald is described as a blonde over and over in this book!  There are no other female characters of any consequence.   Why is her hair a jumble of black wires, and why does Grofield look like he’d rather be doing his taxes than making out with her?  Does anybody here know how to play this game?  Let’s try the European continent–they appreciate a nice blonde over there–

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I just do not get it.  And this is nice cover art (lovely graphics on the first one, from Portugal), and some of it really seems geared towards the book–the last cover, from Italy, in particular.  And yet over and over–brunettes.   And there are no brunettes in The Damsel.  A mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.  As will the mystery of how, if that’s Grofield on the cover of the Swedish edition (with a brunette, obviously) looking like a black-haired cross between Michael Madsen and Rutger Hauer, anybody would ever want to work with him.  I think Parker would find him too creepy.  On to The Dame.

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American and British first editions, and basically the British artist took his cues from the American cover, without slavishly imitating it.   It says a lot for the Grofield covers that these are two of the better ones, but they still don’t tell you a damn thing about the story or characters, and could easily be repurposed to many other unrelated books.

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The continental European publishers usually did the best job with the Grofield artwork, but of course the artists would often not read English, and might not have been given a translation to read either (this is assuming book cover artists working in the crime genre always carefully studied the books they were illustrating, and I make no such assumption).  So here we have really nice looking artwork, a pleasure to the eye, that seems to have been drawn for entirely different books. 

The German cover in particular is great, but I think the artist just knew that the book was set in Puerto Rico and had guns in it, so here’s a guy shot dead in the jungle–must be in there somewhere, yah? Explains the other one as well–there must be a sexy girl, and since the book is set in Puerto Rican, she’d be Latina, so of course brunette and curvy–now I think on it, this is probably what happened with The Damsel covers making Elly a brunette–the artist just knows where the action of the book takes place, and gears the artwork to that. And this is what comes of artists not reading the books.

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I really can’t decide which of these is worse.

Let’s try The Blackbird–this is the era of blaxploitation movies, so obviously we’re going to see a tough-looking black chick with a gun–

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And here’s the same odd parallel between the completely different illustrations on the American and British first editions–scary black woman holding automatic rifle.  Both have full afros, even though Vivian Kamdela is described as having very close-cut hair.  And as being extremely beautiful, and if you want to know how I’m seeing her at present–

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(Lupita Nyong’o looked absolutely sensational at the Oscars on Sunday.  Not that there’s ever going to be a movie version of The Blackbird, but it’s nice to have her to mentally replace those scowling afro’d women with, isn’t it?)

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Countryman Publishing reprinted all the Grofields, often in more than one edition, and I’m sure Westlake was happy to have the royalty money, but their covers were invariably the worst.  The one on the left is depressingly literal, isn’t it?  A highly schematic black woman, and there’s the silhouette of a bird (black of course), as done by a five year old who flunked art class.   And I really don’t know what the other one is supposed to be–some kind of ice gremlin?  If they couldn’t afford good artwork, why did they keep commissioning new covers for the same book?  I really wish this publisher had just decided to emulate Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint here–

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I know they’re just being cheap, but dammit, that WORKS.

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Okay, neither of these women look at all like the woman in the book, and do I care?  Not when they look this good, I don’t.  Of course, the German edition on the right is using a live model, and somehow one would like to know her name–was she in any movies I could rent?   I’m not going to mention all the various title translations, but this one I find rather amusing as a birder who has been to Germany–in Europe, blackbirds are grouped with the thrush family.   The German word for blackbird is Amsel.   But for whatever reason, they decided to give the German language edition the title Die Singdrossel, which means The Song Thrush–which is an entirely different species of thrush.  That is not black.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The edition on the left is Swedish–obviously.  Because of the nudity–and the (obviously male) artist’s touching assumption that all sexy women, regardless of skin color, have tan lines.  Not that I have any particular problem with tan lines.  Again, there is no attempt being made to illustrate anything specific from the plot–but wait–Italy has yet to be heard from!

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Does this look like a beautiful dark-skinned black woman with short nappy hair?   No.  Does her wearing some kind of poncho in the snow (I guess it could be a blanket) make any sense?  No.  Does this illustrate a scene from the book?  Kind of yeah–where Grofield and Vivian are being buzzed by the plane.   They’re in a snowmobile, and they aren’t using pistols, but I think this one merits an ‘E’ for effort.   If only because Vivian isn’t buck naked in northern Canada in the wintertime.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And the award for the most generic Grofield cover of all time (and quite possibly the most generic book cover of all time) goes to–

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It’s almost masterful in its way.   Try to imagine any novel, short story collection, play, sex manual, that this could not serve as the cover for.   Probably wouldn’t work for a cookbook, but you could just draw a chef’s hat onto one of them.

The most recent reprints were from University of Chicago, and they aren’t too bad.  Or too good.  Or too easily distinguished from each other if you happen to be colorblind and don’t have your reading glasses on.

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The Grofield covers are, with few exceptions, a vast assortment of sour lemons, but ironically enough, the very last book, which references sour lemons in the title, and was from a different publisher, didn’t do too badly in that department.   But I’ll save those for the review, still some time off.

Our next book has had an even greater variety of covers, and frankly most of them aren’t so hot either.   And it doesn’t matter a damn.  Because the rock is hot, and the people seeking it are so damn cool.  And funny as all hell.

(If you enjoyed looking at these highly inappropriate book covers, as I know I did, you can find all of them, and many more besides, at the Official Westlake Blog–this link will direct you to the Richard Stark wing of the cover gallery.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Blackbird

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He got out of the shower, toweled himself dry, and walked nude into the room, stopping short in the doorway.  Seated on the chair across the room was a coal black Negro girl in a green pants suit, looking like Robin Hood got up for a Commando raid.  She looked Grofield up and down and said, as though to herself, “They are smaller.”

“I don’t believe it,” Grofield said.

“Take my word for it,” she said.

“I don’t believe God could be so cruel,” Grofield said.  “All I want to do is sleep.  I don’t want anything complicated now.”

“Nothing complicated,” the girl said briskly.  Behind her camouflage, she was a stunning girl, with large flashing eyes and close-cropped hair in the natural style, very wooly.  She spoke with a vaguely British accent.  She said, “All you have to do is tell me who sent you here and why.  Then I’ll go away and you can sleep.”

“My doctor,” Grofield said.  “For the waters.”

“What?”

“My doctor sent me here.  For the waters.”

“What waters?”  She sounded more annoyed than confused.

“I was misinformed,” Grofield said.  “Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, Casablanca, 1942.  I hope you have an exit line, because you’re exiting.”  He walked toward the bed.

So here we are at the third Grofield novel, published by MacMillan in 1969, which begins with the same fouled-up armored car heist as a Parker novel named Slayground, published by Random House in 1971, even though the next Parker novel Deadly Edge (also dated 1971) clearly takes place before the events of the earlier Grofield novel. And just to make things even more convoluted, Slayground has two copyright dates–1969 and 1971. Confused yet? You will be.

You will read in many souces that The Blackbird has the same opening chapter as Slayground–not quite exactly the case. We see the same sequence of events that Slayground begins with, true enough, but in this book we see them from Grofield’s POV.

In the latter book, Stark sticks with Parker, showing us the action from his perspective–the paragraphs that don’t describe what one of them is doing or seeing are identical (which is evidently the reason for Slayground having two different copyright years). In Slayground, the chapter ends with Parker running into an amusement park with a satchel of money. In The Blackbird, Grofield (appropriately enough) blacks out, subsequent to the getaway car crashing.

Probably by the time Grofield woke up in a nearby hospital, Parker’s very bad day at the fair had already concluded and he was back at a house in Northern New Jersey we’ll be learning about in another book. So that’s where the experiment in parallel plotting ends, but I’m curious–has anybody else ever done this? Start two completely different books from two completely different publishers with two completely different protagonists with the same opening chapter, from two different vantage points?

And did Westlake write these books at around the same time, as Sarah Weinman says in her introduction to the Grofield novels for the University of Chicago reprints? She says it was about publishing schedules–that’s quite plausible, and she may have had inside information to that effect (not entirely clear). After Gold Medal decided to stop publishing the Parker novels as first edition paperbacks, it took a while for Westlake to work out a deal with Random House to publish them in hardcover. He might have had two or three written by that time. For a while there, Grofield was the only Stark character with a job.

However, given that Slayground clearly takes place after the events of Deadly Edge (in the last chapter, Parker goes back to the house in New Jersey), I’m wondering if Westlake wrote The Blackbird before either of them, and decided to give Grofield a sales boost, by having Parker make what was then his only cameo appearance in another character’s book (up until a certain Joe Gores novel in ’72).

Did he get curious later as to what happened to Parker after Grofield blacked out, and decide to write that story? Or did he write The Blackbird and Slayground together, and then decide to fill in the gap of how Parker and Claire came to live in New Jersey with Deadly Edge, before publishing Slayground, and add in the reference to New Jersey in Slayground? See, I told you you’d be confused. Join the club. Anybody knows for sure, pipe up by all means.

So. Grofield wakes up in the hospital, with police guards, and he figures he’s screwed. He is, but not the way he thinks. There are Feds there who want to talk to him. Not FBI. Not CIA. Not Treasury. Some other branch in the great spreading tree that is U.S. Defense/Intelligence/Law Enforcement/Etc.

They do not seem to know Grofield already worked for the government (after a fashion) around a year back (see The Handle), along with Parker, and that it didn’t work out so well for the government (though Grofield was the one who got shot multiple times).

They seem to know everything about Grofield–like for example, that he’s on good terms with with both General Pozos of Guerrero and Unum Marba of Undurwa, who we met in the two previous books–so you’d think they’d know about the Cockaigne job as well, but you can rationalize it as typically poor communication between different agencies. It’s not really that implausible. That’s how 9/11 happened, right? Oh of course, that was a vast government conspiracy. No plane ever hit the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a patsy, or a plant. Because vast sprawling government bureaucracies are just that well-organized. I’m rolling my eyes now.

Grofield has a choice, and you will note it’s not entirely dissimilar to the choice made by J. Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment, published about three years earlier. Eugene’s choice is A)Go undercover with terrorists who think he’s one of them or B)Wait for the terrorists to figure out he’s not one of them and kill him.

Grofield’s choice is simpler–A)Go undercover at a gathering of third world leaders in Canada (including Pozos and Marba) who may find out he’s a U.S. agent and kill him or B)Go to jail, do not pass go, and collect Social Security much later, if ever. He’s not happy with this choice. Nobody would be happy with this choice. But these are his options.

He accepts the deal offered with the tacit understanding by all concerned that he’s going to try to run out on them the moment he gets the chance. He tries really hard–and Grofield has already demonstrated his talent at shaking a tail in The Handle. Makes a run at the airport. No dice–they bugged his clothes. He can’t shake them the way he did the agents in The Handle. He wonders out loud to an agent name of Murray if they’ve even implanted some kind of tracking device inside his body–this is a rather prescient little passage in its way–

“My God!” Grofield said. He felt physically weak. “What a thing even to think about!”

Murray looked thoughtful. “But you know,” he said slowly, “that isn’t such a bad idea. You take your known Commie, say, your incorrigible criminal, like you, for instance, you take whoever it might be you’re interested in, you put the little transmitter in them, then any time you wanted to know what they were up to you’d just triangulate on them, see where they were, go on over and check them out.”

“That’s the most evil thing I ever heard in my life,” Grofield said.

“Why?” Murray seemed honestly puzzled. “We wouldn’t use it on good people,” he said. “Just bad people.” He smiled broadly, delighted with himself. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put that in the suggestion box back in the office.”

Grofield looked at him. “I keep having the strong feeling,” he said, “that for the sake of generations unborn I ought to strangle you here and now.”

Murray chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Oh you,” he said. You’ve just got a vested interest, that’s all. Being a thief and everything.”

Relax, Grofield. It’s been over 40 years, and they still aren’t there yet. Just stay off the internet, and watch out for tiny helicopters–oh never mind, you’d be retired by then. Or dead.

They don’t need tracking devices–they know about his acting career. There’s no way he can elude them indefinitely. He gets them the intel they’re after–the purpose of the gathering of tinpot dictators in Quebec City–or the next time he sees his lovely wife Mary will be on visiting day.

And somehow, superhumanly faithful and patient though she is, it’s hard to imagine Mary waiting 25 years to life. I mean, fair is fair–the last time Grofield went away for a job, he bedded three fetching blondes over the course of maybe two months, and one of them showed up on Mary’s doorstep with his money from the job–wearing support stockings. Like that makes it any better. And he’s going to cheat on her yet again, but not with a blonde this time. He’s an equal opportunity philanderer.

In the scene I opened this review with, he meets Vivian Kamdela, who is from Undurwa, the same country as Onum Marba, and that’s no coincidence–she works for him, and has been assigned to find out why Grofield is there. Strong-willed, educated, and rather contemptuous of Grofield’s every-man-for-himself attitude. Throughout the book, they’re having a back and forth philosophical dialogue strongly resembling that between Oliver Abbott and Leona Roof in Up Your Banners, only these two are not falling in love at any point in time. Vivian is very patriotic and loyal to her country, and believes in being a good soldier. Grofield only believes in being Grofield.

There’s clearly an attraction (of course there is, it’s a Grofield novel), but her reaction to him is even more hostile than that of the female leads in the two previous books–in all three cases, he’s faced with a strong-willed female he’d happily bed given the opportunity, who wants to use him for some agenda that puts his life in danger–difference here is that Vivian’s agenda isn’t personal, but political.

They go for a romantic carriage ride through historic Quebec City, during which Grofield finally meets Mr. Marba again, who respects Grofield’s abilities–which he observed up-close in the previous book–but naturally distrusts him, since he can even use truth as a weapon. Grofield, acting very much against orders, tells Marba who he’s working for, and what he’s supposed to learn. He just wants to find some way out of this mess, and figures Marba might help him. The ride back with Vivian is much less friendly than the ride there.

She faced him again, still frozen-eyed. “If you must know,” she said, “on the way up I thought you were a patriot. I thought you were working for your country out of conviction. A patriot might be my enemy, if his country was my country’s enemy, but at least I would be able to respect him. But you aren’t a patriot, you were forced to be here and you don’t care at all that you are betraying your country. You don’t care for anything but yourself, you don’t understand the existence of anything larger than yourself. I despise you, Mr. Grofield, and I do not want to talk to you any more. And I don’t want you to talk to me.”

“Some day, Miss Kamdela,” Grofield said, “we’ll have a nice long talk about patriotism vs. the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to take care of my own skin whether you approve of me or not.”

It is often hard for me to understand how political conservatives have ever considered Donald Westlake (under any name) to be one of them (as many clearly do). Not that us liberals should ever have regarded him as a reliable ally, either. We’ve already seen him devastate the Anarchist/Libertarian argument in Anarchaos, and he made his feelings clear about aspiring left-wing revolutionaries in Up Your Banners, and quite a few other books. “A plague on all your houses” would probably sum his attitude up fairly well. So good luck trying to stick a label on him.

Grofield is briefly abducted and drugged by some faction, seemingly linked to an extremist French Canadian separatist movement, but their agenda is unclear–they want to know what he knows, and he doesn’t really know anything yet–he didn’t even know there was such a thing as French-Canadian separatist movements. I have to say, he’s much less knowledgeable about politics here than he was in The Damsel–one suspects Westlake decided it just wasn’t believable for somebody as indifferent to politics as Grofield to know much of anything about it. His bugged clothing saves him, bringing in his handlers to the rescue.

But then he gets grabbed again, this time by Marba’s group, who have decided to neutralize him–confiding in Marba was maybe not such a great idea. He’s taken on a plane ride into the frozen wastes of Northern Canada (sorry Canuck readers, but you know better than me what it’s like up there–I can barely make it through a New York City winter these days), given new unbugged clothes, and they finally set down at a remote lodge by a frozen lake, that is only accessible by air, or snowmobile.

Grofield is exactly where the people who recruited him wanted him to be, but not at all in the way they (or he) wanted–he’s got no way to report back, and to make sure he doesn’t learn anything useful to American intelligence, he’s locked in a bleak isolated room with nothing to do but wait for the gathering of third world governments to end.

Grofield can’t stand confinement any more than Parker could, but his reaction to it is different than Parker’s would be–he breaks down the door, and goes to complain about his treatment–taken to see Undurwa’s head of state (who has been told by the irritated Miss Kamdela that this Grofield is not to be trusted), he fails to understand the mentality of a dictator–so alien to a free spirit like himself–and totally blows the interview. He talks to the man as if they were equals. Oh dear.

The military dictator, Colonel Rahgos, says Grofield has unfortunately given him no choice but to order him killed. Nothing personal, of course (it’s a bit personal; military dictators dislike free spirits on general principle). Grofield in this instance does respond the way Parker would–by jumping through a nearby window, after grabbing the Colonel’s overcoat. Which isn’t going to be nearly enough. It’s winter. In Northern Canada. If he can’t find shelter, and better clothing, and fast, they won’t need to kill him.

What follows is Grofield adapting to the situation, as he always does, improvising his way into a nearby structure guarded by only two armed men–normally not such a problem for him, except he’s in the process of freezing to death. But through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck, he figures out a way to ride up on an electrically operated door, and conceal himself on the ceiling–then at an opportune moment, incapacitates the guards, obtaining boots, a heavy mackinaw, and an automatic rifle. There are supplies in the building, and snowmobiles. He appropriates both, and makes his escape.

Only not quite. He had to wait until dawn to see where he was going, and in the distance, he sees that something very bad is happening at the compound–it seems to be under attack. Not from his government, but (as it turns out) the people who had grabbed him earlier. Lots of shooting and burning going on. He sees no reason to involved himself in it–but then he meets Vivian–who assumes he’s behind it, naturally. But he convinces her otherwise, and the fact that he’s her only chance of surviving has a rather thawing effect on her frosty demeanor. They evade an airplane piloted by some of the attackers, and by this time she’s fully on Team Grofield.

She tells him what’s been going on–four African American soldiers managed to steal a really nasty biological weapon from a military storehouse. They’ve hidden it somewhere in the surrounding area, and are auctioning it off to the highest third world bidders. There’s enough of it to kill everybody on the planet forty times over (Uncle Sam being nothing if not thorough), so there’s plenty to go around–and as Vivian explains, even if they never wanted to use it, the threat of a neighbor having it would be enough to make them want to have some too, just as a counter-balance.

Now Grofield is not the altruistic sort. That’s been very well established. It takes a whole hell of a lot to motivate him to do anything at all for anyone other than himself. What he wants to do now is head south, find a phone, and call his handlers–let them handle it. If the sale was going ahead as planned, that’s exactly what he’d do.

But Vivian, being a practical levelheaded sort of girl under all her patriotic zeal, convinces him that this won’t work–clearly what’s happened is that some more dangerous entity than these little impoverished countries intends to get the whole stockpile, and then maybe drop it on major American cities, or blackmail the western governments–when you can kill everybody in the world forty times over, your options are fairly expansive.

Grofield’s options, by contrast, are very limited–if he chooses escape, then these people will get the gas canisters, and make off with them, long before the cavalry arrives. There’s nobody else to stop them. Grofield doesn’t want to be James Freakin’ Bond. But that’s the role he’s been forcibly cast in. And he’s really really pissed about that.

He’ll play the role, because he’s a professional and all, but he won’t enjoy it one bit, and he’s going to take some ethical shortcuts, because he just wants to get back alive, and play the role he’s more comfortable in–taking other people’s money. However, for his actor/heister lifestyle to continue, he does need civilization as we know it to go on functioning. Not much demand for an actor in a post-apocalyptic world, and since everybody would be stealing, his other profession would get much too crowded. So once more into the breach.

Vivian tells him only the four black American soldiers–Grofield’s countrymen–know the location of the gas cannisters. Grofield and Vivian fight their way through the chaotic scene at the compound, get to the soldiers, who are being held prisoner, preparatory to having the information tortured out of them–and what happens then–okay, major spoiler alert–

One of the four said to Grofield, “I don’t know where you came from, man, but you’re beautiful.” All four of them were grinning in relief.

Grofield said, “Did you tell anybody where the canisters are?”

“Are you crazy? That’s what kept us alive.”

“Nobody at all?” Grofield insisted.

“Not even the chaplain,” the spokesman said.

“That’s good,” Grofield said, and pointed the machine gun at them and pulled the trigger.

Here we see that Grofield maybe does pass muster as a Stark protagonist after all. He’s learned a few things from Parker. If it needs doing, do it. These men had betrayed their country (which to be sure, hasn’t exactly done right by them most of the time), and Grofield obviously doesn’t give a damn about that. But they put the lives of everyone on the planet at risk in the process. They were obviously going to kill Grofield as soon as they didn’t need him. And even if that wasn’t true, the only way to be sure the people attacking the compound don’t get the gas is to make sure nobody–absolutely nobody–knows where it is. They gots to go.

So why make the soldiers black? It just raises the question of race in a way seemingly unnecessary to the story being told–so clearly Westlake, who was working on a book about American racial turmoil around the same time, wanted to raise that issue–but not deal with it seriously, because it’s not a serious book.

Now, we don’t get to know these men–not even their names–so it’s not as shocking as it might be for Grofield to just whack them. We’ve seen him kill lots of white guys before now, and not waste a moment’s time worrying about it–but still–pretty damn cold. And dealt with by Stark in his usual terse offhanded anti-climactic approach to violence.

The point, I’d guess, is who would be most likely to have such a low opinion of society as to not give a damn what happens to it? Obviously the people society treats the worst. Not most of them–but it only takes a few. And, as Westlake said in Up Your Banners, nobody condescends up–if you keep treating people with kid gloves because you’re sorry for the way they’ve been treated, or guilty about it, you’re not really treating them as equals. Rather the opposite. People deserve to be judged by the content of their character–those who sell weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder can’t really be said to have any character at all.

He’s had mainly sympathetic black characters in his books up to now–Grofield himself makes a metatextual comment to Vivian about how black guys are never the villains in this kind of story (not really true–see Live and Let Die, clearly an influence on this book). Time for a little balance. Black men can be just as despicable as white men, if they set their minds to it.

While it’s a bit hard to buy that four black soldiers could steal such a deadly weapon without the government noticing, we Americans do tend to misplace our toys rather a lot, don’t we? So allowing for that level of bureaucratic incompetence, as Westlake invariably does, what’s the simplest answer to Grofield’s dilemma?

Vivian can’t believe he chose that answer, and once they’ve gotten clear of the bad guys (well, the worse guys), she really lights into him–accuses him of killing the men just because they’re black. But she’s forced to concede eventually that it was the only way–to stop the weapons from getting into the worst possible hands–and for the two of them to survive.

And having forgiven Grofield, seen that there is some merit to his worldview, even if she can’t entirely share it, and of course being impressed by his capabilities–well, this is the third Grofield novel to end with him bedding the hostile broad. I’m a guy, so I’m not complaining, but it is getting a mite repetitive. By the bye, he explains to her in mid-coitus that while white men seem to have smaller procreative members than black men on average, it’s actually only true when they’re in the flaccid state (hey, don’t ask me). She finds this very sexy, for some reason. It’s good to be the hero–as long as you survive.

Overall, I think this is the best of the three Grofields published by MacMillan–Westlake has gotten much closer to figuring out how to write like Stark without writing about Parker. I think actually that’s one of the reasons he put Grofield in that situation with the four soldiers–to prove that Grofield could be just as cold and capable. But somehow, he’s not nearly as convincing, or compelling. He’s still too much of a Mary Sue, if you know what I mean (if not, click the link).

I’d take any of the Parkers over this book. Of course, Parker wouldn’t have let himself get involved in this kind of story to begin with–as I said in an earlier review, Parker forces the narrative to bow to his agenda–Grofield, however grudgingly, will ultimately agree to be whatever the story calls on him to be–even a hero who saves the world from dastardly villains seeking doomsday devices. He’ll do it in his own unique style, with a lot fewer pretensions than Philip Marlowe or James Bond, but he’ll do it. An actor learns to make do with the roles he’s offered. The show must go on.

Grofield is an interesting experiment, and by no means a completely failed one. Stark will give him one last chance to be the protagonist, working on familiar Stark territory at long last, and we finally get to see Mary again (and she shows us why Grofield always goes back to her, however far he strays). The Blackbird won’t be the best Grofield novel for very long. But ultimately, Westlake had to acknowledge that enough was enough–he’d taken this character as far as he could go. There wasn’t enough there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

What distinguishes Grofield most from Parker is the sense of humor–there’s humor in the Parker novels, sure, but it’s very subdued, played so close to the vest as to be nearly indistinguishible–you don’t laugh reading them. Grofield is always joking, never taking anything seriously, least of all himself–it’s endearing in its way, but the thing is, he’s so determined to find the humor in every situation, so convinced of how funny he is, that you don’t really laugh reading about his adventures either. He’s trying too hard.

Suppose there was a Westlake protagonist who aspired to be like Parker–who wanted to be cold and capable and competent–and who really is, in so many ways–but life keeps conspiring to make him look ridiculous, and there’s nothing he can do about it? Comedy always works best when the protagonist doesn’t want to see the joke–nothing funnier than wounded dignity. Than things not working out as planned. Buster Keaton never laughed at anything, and that’s why everybody laughed at him. Parker doesn’t want to make us laugh–refuses to participate in comic ventures–Grofield, for all his wit, can’t make us do much more than chortle–the Westlake Nephews are diverting, amusing, but the bellylaughs somehow just aren’t there.

Donald E. Westlake, having had his biggest success with a comic crime novel, has been trying for half a decade now to be funny–really funny. But he hasn’t had the right foil. He’s going to find him now. And perhaps you see him in your mind’s eye, walking out of prison with a perpetual hangdog air, like a malnourished coyote, and now a car bears down upon him–and is that a girly scream emitting from his mouth? What the heck?

The Blackbird was the last Donald Westlake novel to bear a 1960’s publication date (and they can be somewhat misleading, but never mind that now). The 70’s are here, and they’re going to be something quite quite extraordinary in this particular writer’s career. Westlake the comedian has fully emerged from his chrysalis. And the crime novel will never be the same again.

(But first, I’m going to do one more thing about Grofield–patience, readers. Dortmunder is coming–save me a seat at the OC Bar & Grill–I’ll have a bourbon–something cheap–but oh so sustaining).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: The Dame

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It was rare for Grofield to be the innocent bystander, and he didn’t much like it.  When he was guilty, as he frequently was, he was exclusively guilty of well-planned and well-executed major robberies with a cast of perhaps five or six, where most of the details and most of the potential results were already counted on within the plan.  If the plan were to go sour–as sometimes even the best-laid plans did–it would nevertheless do so within a perimeter of the known.  Grofield would know how to act.   More important, he would know how to react.

But here he was in the middle of somebody else’s story.  To take a simile from his second profession, he had been miscast.  Not only that, he’d been thrust onstage without even knowing his lines.

Who was reading the Grofield novels, back when they were first coming out?   I’d love to know.  As you can see above, they were published in a variety of places, often in translation.  We can fairly assume many were fans of the Parker novels, who had met Grofield there and wanted to see what he got up to when Parker wasn’t around–but the Grofields are so different from the Parkers, in both style and content, it’s likely they developed their own readership–probably much smaller.   Or else Grofield would have likely shared a publisher with Parker, which he never did, at least not as a soloist.

He began as Parker’s sidekick, at Pocket Books.  His first three solo outings were with MacMillan; his last at World Publishing.  He missed out on the Gold Medal era of Parker entirely, and ended his days at Random House, appearing in two of the Parkers published there.

But such is the elusive transitory nature of Grofield, his first two books were what you might call a two-part sequel to The Handle, a Parker novel published by Pocket.  Though sequel isn’t really the right word–sidetrack, really.   Detour.  Grofield tends to keep straying from the point.  Maybe that is the point.  He is, after all, a Westlake character who somehow got born into the world of Richard Stark.   And never quite seemed to belong there.   He finally jumped ship entirely, but we’ll talk about that later.

We’ve already looked at The Damsel, which I found on rereading to be an interesting but unsatisfactory experiment–Westlake trying to write as Richard Stark while spinning a farcical swashbuckling tale of foreign intrigue and romance–not really Stark’s bag, and it comes across as a failed attempt to blend two very different approaches to storytelling.   Not without its moments, but very weak tea compared to any of the Parker novels, or indeed most of Westlake’s work under his own name, or as Tucker Coe.

I’ve also mentioned Westlake’s criticism of the Daniel Port novels of Peter Rabe, one of his favorite writers.  Port was a series character, who like so many others (including Parker and Grofield) wasn’t originally intended to be one.   According to Rabe, he just came along at the right time, and having survived the first book (as most of Rabe’s heroes did not), he got to be in five more.

And each was a bit different from the one before it–how much of this was by conscious intent of the author, and how much was just him groping around for the right approach, I have no idea, but based on his own comments, probably more the latter.  Port started out in a story about organized crime and corrupt machine politics (Dig My Grave Deep), which ends with him fleeing that world, and going on the road.  Then he got involved in a heist story (The Out is Death), very fatalistic and dark, and not entirely consistent with the bio of the character we’d already been given.

In the third book (It’s My Funeral) he’s suddenly in Hollywood working as a P.I. (even though he isn’t one);  helping a movie starlet, dating a singer, and it’s all very lightweight and comedic–rather Shell Scott, and since everybody was reading those Richard Prather novels back then, that was very likely intentional–in his essay on Rabe, Westlake suggests it’s a pastiche of Leslie Charteris’ stories about The Saint, and that may well be true, but I just can’t see Simon Templar being quite this goofy.   Maybe the style is Charteris, but the substance, such as it is, seems more Prather-esque to me.

Bring Me Another Corpse is a mob thriller that links back to the first book, and is probably the weakest of the bunch.   The Cut of the Whip is a western noir, set in the Texas oil country (Jim Thompson territory), with a love interest who fairly begs to be played by Faith Domergue.  And Time Enough to Die, which Rabe and Westlake both thought was the best of the bunch, is a south of the border adventure story with a touch of espionage.   By the time it wraps up, Port seems to have at long last found love with a Mexican woman who is every bit his equal (that’s probably underrating her), and I’d say it’s just as well for Port that’s where it all ended.  Lord only knows where he’d have turned up next.  Shanghai?  Timbuktu?

Whether he’d originally intended this or not, Rabe used Port to explore different types of story within the overall genre he was working in.  But Port was never a terribly well-defined character, and he had enormous motivation problems–he just seems to be wandering for the sake of wandering, helping people for the sake of helping them.   It’s like The Fugitive, only he’s not running from anybody, except maybe himself.  And Rabe, for all his remarkable strengths as a writer, didn’t know the mystery genre in all its permutations the way Donald Westlake did.  Few ever have.

Still, Westlake could have looked at the books and seen the germ of an idea–a free-floating protagonist, jack-of-all trades, who flits from one setting to another, improvising his way through.  A chance to experiment with form, to take each sub-genre apart and find out what makes it tick.  By the time of his second appearance in The Handle, Grofield was already a far more interesting character than Port ever was.  Maybe what didn’t work with Port would suit Grofield, the actor (accustomed to quick changes), very well indeed.

And if not, what’s four books to a guy who ultimately wrote over a hundred?   When you’re Donald Westlake, you can afford to venture down the odd cul-de-sac, just to see where it ends.

The Dame picks up right where The Damsel left off (and echoes it in ways other than the choice of title).  Grofield, still in Mexico, has finished saying a long sexy goodbye to Elly Fitzgerald, his companion from the previous book, who is not only okay with him going back to his wife Mary (the Penelope in this hardboiled Odyssey), but actually offers to take Grofield’s share of the loot from the Cockaigne heist back to Mary for him–Grofield worries about what Mary will think about an attractive young blonde showing up bearing money from her long-absent husband, and Elly says she’ll wear support stockings, so Mary will feel sorry for her.  Just in case anybody thought this was going to be an exercise in literary realism.

The reason Grofield can’t bring the money back himself is that he’s gotten a message from General Pozos, the military dictator of Guerrero, one of Westlake’s many fictional countries.   Grofield had just helped Elly save the General’s life, and the General had reciprocated by helping him with traveling papers, so he can get back home, but now Pozos seems to think he’s got a job Grofield would be interested in.  Not for him, but for somebody else Grofield doesn’t even know.

Grofield doesn’t need the money–he’s got enough cash to fund his theater for a year or so, and it’s stupid for a heister to work more than he has to (which Parker said was a problem of Grofield’s).  But he’s curious.  The job is in Puerto Rico.  It’s not that far away.   Why not go check it out?  What could happen?   Thinks the guy who in just the last few weeks has been shot multiple times during a casino heist, then dragged into an assassination plot involving mobsters and a former governor.  Let’s just say that Daniel Port isn’t the only series character who has motivation problems sometimes.

Grofield goes, I guess you could say, because he’s an actor, and actors can’t afford to pass up jobs too often.  But really, he’s going because there’s no story if he doesn’t.   Honestly, part of me thinks I’d have rather seen what happened when Elly met Mary–do support stockings really elicit sympathy from jealous wives?   But we aren’t going to see Mary again until the very last book in this series (and she’s worth the wait).

So he ventures off to lovely Puerto Rico, a setting Westlake used quite often (Parker and Claire were vacationing in San Juan just recently), presumably because he spent a deal of time there, escaping the northern winter, like thousands of half-frozen NYC gringos are doing right now (would I were among them).

Like The Damsel before it (and our next book as well), this book reads like a sardonic travelogue, genuinely admiring the beauty of a foreign clime, while still far from blind to its drawbacks.   Mr. Westlake did love the tropics–though I must note, few of his best books take place in them.   Still, no writer can be blamed for combining business with pleasure–taking mental notes while he travels, storing up ideas and settings for future books.

Grofield rents a car, and follows his directions to an isolated house in the countryside, where a good-looking 40-ish woman named Belle Danamato turns out to be his prospective employer–and the job is no good.  She’s clearly in fear of somebody–the house and its grounds are filled with armed men, and one German Shepherd, who gazes longingly at Grofield’s throat.  It turns out Belle wants Grofield to guard her body when she goes out, and to do other things to her body when she’s at home.  It’s a nice enough body, but it’s not his kind of job, and her domineering attitude rubs him the wrong way.

He walks out on her, and then gets picked up by a different group of armed men (one of whom seems to be very gay, and he’s the most dangerous one), who want to know why he’s there.  He tells them.  They take his rental car (mainly just to be pissy about it), and he has to walk back to the house, and spend the night there.  Before he does so, he disarms Belle’s main security guy, and points his gun right at her, demanding an apology, which she gives him–grudgingly.  Actors.  So temperamental.

At dinner, he meets her house guests, who consist of Onum Marba, a quiet self-confident man from a small African country named Undurwa, as fictional as Guerrero, which will figure in the next book; Belle’s lawyer George Milford, his wife Eva, and the Chelm siblings–Roy and Patricia.   And these, in case you hadn’t figured it out, are the murder suspects, because this is a classic parlor mystery, ala Dame Agatha.

Belle is found murdered in her room later that night, and Grofield, having threatened her with a gun just a few hours before, is detained by her security staff.  Her husband, a gambling kingpin named B.G. Danamato, was the guy Belle was scared might have her killed, since she was leaving him, and a lot of his property is in her name, for tax purposes.  His men were the ones who took Grofield’s car, thus forcing him to stay the night there.  Grofield initially figures he’s being framed for Belle’s death, and will be handed over to the law.

But B.G., one of Westlake’s overly emotional mob bosses (I believe the fourth thus far, and the second obsessed with learning the truth about the murder of a woman he loved–remember Ernie Rembek from the first Mitch Tobin mystery?), never had any intention of killing her, and is grief stricken over her death.  He won’t rest easy until he’s found the killer and administered justice–personally.

And one guess who he thinks the culprit is.  Grofield, his usual persuasive self, is able to plant a few doubts in B.G’s mind–what was his motive?  B.G. had sized Grofield up as some kind of bohemian hophead, who killed his wife in a drug-induced frenzy, but Grofield lets him know appearances are always deceptive in his case.

Danamato said “You scored?  What kind of score.”

“Money,” Grofield said.  I take money for a living.”

“What are you, a burglar?”

Grofield shook his head.  “I’m in the heavy.”

Danamato studied him.  “You don’t look it.”

“Thank you.”

Being in the illegal gambling business himself, just like the less emotional Walter Karns, Danamato had heard about the Cockaigne heist a few weeks earlier, though he’s vague on the details.  The fact that Grofield has nearly killed one of his top men with a sudden blow to his nose is further evidence Grofield is who and what he says he is.  His Actor’s Equity card is a source of confusion to all of them, but he’s used to people not believing in the actor/heister thing.  Would you?

The job done on Belle doesn’t look like the work of a pro, so maybe Grofield is innocent–B.G. agrees, grudgingly, to interrogate the other five people who could possibly have done Belle in, and Grofield is quite determined to hang the murder on one of them–he doesn’t care who.   As he says later, he doesn’t give a damn whodunit–he just wants to persuade B.G. it wasn’t him.  Truth be damned–he just wants to go on living.   But B.G. has taken a strong disliking to Grofield, and will need very strong evidence to let him go–more than just a reasonable doubt.

So one by one, the other guests are brought in to talk to these two very unlikely detectives, and it turns out they all had possible motives to kill her.  Well, that’s always the way in this kind of story, isn’t it?   Grofield, trying to trip up the killer, manages to antagonize each and every one of them, with the exception of Marba–the two immediately understand each other. Both affable rogues.

Marba’s potential motive is pretty weak, anyway–he was trying to persuade Belle to invest money in legalized gambling casinos in his country, and he might have killed her when he found out she wasn’t going to–but that’s not really a good enough reason, is it?  Westlake obviously only has him there to set up the next book, which he must have written around the same time.

Roy Chelm was engaged to Belle–B.G. is convinced she’d never have actually gone through with it–but they were not sleeping together, since Roy is a complete and total prig, and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.  His sister Patricia (she prefers Pat) seems equally prim and proper, but Grofield find her quite attractive all the same–doesn’t stop him from trying to get her to admit she killed Belle out of repressed sexual jealousy.

Grofield really is quite the bastard in this one, and almost everybody in the book says so repeatedly, and he cheerfully admits to it with his typical aplomb.  It’s never been more clear that he’s as cold-blooded as Parker when it comes to getting what he wants–but somehow it’s easier to dislike Grofield for it than it is Parker, because he’s so–human.

(Sidebar: In her excellent introduction to the Grofield novels for U. of Chicago’s reprint editions, Sarah Weinman makes note of what she considers the misogyny in this book–but I don’t agree.  It’s misanthropy.  Grofield is a chauvinist, certainly–in the same sense that James Bond is, and in much the same manner, though with a lot less chivalrous pretense–but he treats women no worse than men, and probably a bit better, at least if they’re attractive, which is of course a very good description of sexism. But not misogyny.  Grofield is not in any way inclined to see men as the superior sex. He knows too much about men to believe that.

Weinman finds Parker much easier to take, and I’ve noted in the past that Parker’s much more horrible behavior is somehow less offputting, because we identify so strongly with him–women as much as men–and are therefore inclined to excuse whatever he does, because it’s such a tempting fantasy, not giving a damn about anything.  Grofield is not so easy to project oneself into, since there’s all kinds of things he gives a damn about, so his merely caddish behavior comes across as worse than Parker striking his wife, then goading her to suicide, then mutilating her face, and feeling no guilt over it ever afterward.

One further thing I’d like to point out–Ms. Weinman is certainly free to see misogyny in the book, and in the case of Belle she may have a real point, but Pat Chelm’s last name–an apparent reference to a tradition in European Jewish storytelling, relating to a Polish town named Chelm, where the inhabitants are all fools–doesn’t really count as evidence of this.  The only character referred to as ‘Chelm’ in this book is Roy, and he well merits the description.  Westlake was often drawn to Jewish humor, so I have no trouble believing the reference is intentional–there’s a similar tradition in Irish humor, though in both traditions, it’s not always so easy to know who the joke is really on.  But I digress.)

George Milford doesn’t really have a motive–unless he was sleeping with Belle, and if he was, his wife would also have a motive, particularly since the only reason they’re here in the first place is that George ruined himself professionally by running away with a high school girl.  Grofield presses both of them pretty hard, but when all is said and done, he can’t persuade B.G., and B.G. needs to kill somebody.   Grofield has failed to present him with a good enough alternative.  Locked in a room he can’t get out of, Grofield is pretty damn sure he’s going to be the sacrificial lamb.

Then Pat shows up with an offer–she and her brother are both non-drivers–she thinks B.G. will kill Roy just for having been involved with Belle–so even though she believes Grofield is the murderer, she’ll let him go in exchange for Grofield driving them both out of there.   They make their break successfully, but then run out of gas, and end up stranded in the El Yunque rainforest preserve.  Roy gets grabbed while trying to flag down a car, so now it’s just Grofield and Pat.  They make their way back to San Juan.  Yes of course they have sex now, it’s a Grofield novel.

See, it turns out Pat isn’t the virgin spinster Grofield assumed she was–she had an affair with a married man five years before, got pregnant, got abandoned, got an abortion, and she’s been under Roy’s wing ever since, trying to live up to his ridiculous expectations of sexual virtue.  Grofield asks if it isn’t time she got over it, and apparently this is also misogyny–I think it’s just rude.  But honest.  I mean, isn’t it one of the major points of feminism that having an abortion isn’t the end of the world, and you do eventually get over it?

Grofield genuinely likes Pat, and is quite honest and direct about his intention to get her in bed–though not about being married himself, because that would ruin his chances with her (breaking with his past tendency to tell women he’s trying to seduce about Mary in advance of the seduction).

He would ditch her in a moment and make a run for it if he could, but she’s made it clear she’d rat him out if he tried–she needs him to rescue Roy.  He could always kill her–Parker would–but that’s just not him.  So if he’s going to risk his neck yet again, for a guy he’s truly come to loathe, he ought to at least get some illicit nookie into the bargain.  Fair is fair.  Richard Stark never lets his heroes look too bad, we should always remember.

Obviously it doesn’t hurt his case with her that he’s a charming good-looking actor.   And of course she needs some sexual healing, to coin a phrase.  There was a lot of this kind of writing going on back then, and there’s a lot of it going on now, and all we can say is that people seem to enjoy it.  And if you need any further evidence, check out the box office for that Fifty Shades movie this weekend.  Yes, I know, that’s different.   The writing is incalculably inferior, for one thing.   Donald Westlake, on the worst day of his life, puked better writing than E.L. James, and look who’s a multi-millionaire.  And you wonder why Grofield is such a cynic?  And I digress again, but this book really is not that easy to stay focused on.

So let me skip to the end, leaving out all the patented Grofieldian maneuvers, all very reminiscent of the last book, with its very similar title, and very similar love interest, and very similar stock villains.  Grofield tries to rescue Roy, but Roy (being such a Chelm) figures he’ll just give Grofield to B.G., thus winning his freedom–he doesn’t realize this will alienate his sister from him forever, even though Grofield specifically tells him that’s what will happen.  So Grofield is right back where he started–his neck squarely on the chopping block.

Grofield has figured out who the killer was by now, and has churlishly refused to tell us, but now he’s got no choice–it’s not a scientific deduction, but an emotional one.   Who would have been angry enough at Belle Danamato to kill her, and would have also lacked the self-control to refrain from doing so?   He’s figured it out, but he’s got no way of proving it to B.G., who assumes he’s just trying to save his neck, which in all fairness Grofield been admitting was his sole overriding concern from the get-go.

Grofield’s only hope is to explain what happened, and why, and hope the killer will confess to avoid having another death on his or her conscience.   And honestly, I’d tell you who it was, except I don’t care any more than Grofield does.  The killer does (not too improbably) ‘fess up, and Grofield is released.  He and Pat take a few days R&R at the beach, and then he heads back home to Mary at last.

And of course Pat, who is done with Roy for keeps, is now sexually free and not expecting any commitment from Grofield, who clearly isn’t husband material–she’ll just find somebody else to frolic in the sun with.   He doesn’t tell her about Mary, who has probably already received shipment of his share of the Cockaigne score from his girlfriend of the previous book.

He’s had affairs with three different beautiful young blondes since he last saw his wife a few weeks before, parted with all three women on the best of terms, and shortly he’ll waltz in the door, and take his equally lovely wife to bed, and never so much as hear the word ‘divorce’ mentioned.   Okay, I’m not saying Sarah Weinman doesn’t have any valid points to make, you understand.

But the thing about unapologetic cads is that they’re unapologetic cads.  You can accuse them of a whole lot of things, but not hypocrisy.   Let us not forget this is a series of books about an actor who finances his career through armed robbery.  If you wanted realism–or morality–or 21st century inter-gender relations, such as they are–boy, did you come to the wrong play.   The Rake’s Progress, only without the decline and fall part.

So Grofield’s three-book Odyssey that began with The Handle has concluded, and you’d think he’d stay home with his Penelope a while, but what happened was that Westlake immediately published another novel, where yet another heist goes wrong, and Grofield gets sucked into yet another misadventure that has nothing to do with either of his professions, and I think Westlake was writing these things awfully fast.

Which is not to say they have nothing to offer–they are interesting experiments in form, and tone, and even character, but they do seem a lot like Westlake trying variations on things he had already written or was in the process of writing.  The playful tone of the Grofields is a nice break from Stark’s–starkness–but again, I don’t really feel like Westlake has figured out how to write as Stark when not writing about Parker.  Like The Damsel, this feels like a Stark novel ghostwritten by Westlake.  But once you’ve run out of Parkers to read, it does have its pleasures.

One thing about Grofield, as opposed to Parker–somehow, you do believe he can die.  There’s always this sense that he’s walking on very thin ice, almost all the time.  He keeps glancing nervously at us–or perhaps his creator–wondering if this time the curtain is coming down on him for keeps.  He’s very ‘meta’ in this regard, in a way Parker never was.  As I’ve mentioned before, he does wink at the audience–but it’s not a self-satisfied wink.   He’s like Buster Keaton in that famous scene from Sherlock Jr.–he never knows which change of setting will be his last.  But he’ll keep rolling with it, and trust that it all works out somehow.  He is the hero, after all.   Bastard though he is.

And bastard that I am, I’m going to cut this short now, and get back to Grofield in the next book–which is, in its own very odd way, a recap of Up Your Banners–only with a lot more gunplay and international intrigue, and a whole lot less social relevance and emotional involvement.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Up Your Banners, Part 2

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There is a typical piece of dialogue between Herzen and Louis Blanc, the French socialist (whom he respected greatly), which Herzen quotes, and which shows the kind of levity with which Herzen sometimes expressed his deepest convictions. The conversation is described as taking place in London somewhere in the early 50’s. One day Louis Blanc observed to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society.

‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc]–but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’

‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

‘You are playing with words.’

‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.

From the essay Alexander Herzen, by Isaiah Berlin.

“That school is hell, don’t you understand that? The school and all those people and the television and all, that’s a bad dream, except it’s a kind of bad dream that can hurt people. But this is real, this rotten backyard and that swing. When I kissed you, that was real. The only time you’re real is when you’re doing your own thing, when you’re being absolutely yourself. Society is something somebody made up, it’s a fantasy, and when you start working as a social creature you make yourself part of the fantasy.”

She stared at me. “Do you really believe all that?”

“Definitely,” I said. “Just as I believe the entire universe began with the instant of my birth and the whole damn thing will snuff out at the instant of my death. I believe that people should work for the general good, I really do, but it should never be anything other than secondary. Once you start thinking that humanity is more important than you are, you’ve become the worst kind of traitor in the world, because you’ve betrayed yourself.”

From Up Your Banners, by Donald E. Westlake

This is a truly unique book in the Westlake canon (and I know I say that a lot, but it’s not my fault he wrote so many unique books).  It’s his only book that directly addresses racism, or poverty, or the educational system.  But more importantly, it’s his only book that is devoted almost entirely to a love affair between two people–indeed, one of very few books where his hero meets a girl, has (frequent) sex with her during the course of the plot, and clearly intends to marry her by the end, if she’ll have him.

Actually, this kind of story was featured pretty often in his early ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms to pay the bills, but that’s just him adhering to the conventions of that short-lived genre–a dollop of morality to excuse all the hijinks, so the book doesn’t get labeled as porn–have lots of sex with lots of people, then settle down with The One.

In his books written under his own name (and several others), the sex angle is almost invariably present, romantic subplots abound, but in this one the romance almost perversely insists on being the A-plot.  The story hinges on whether this boy makes it with this girl, making it by far Westlake’s most romantic book ever–and it’s an interracial romance.   At a time when they really weren’t common at all in any fictional medium.   Today, we’re pretty much over it.   But it was still fairly taboo back then.

Eugene O’Neill famously broke that taboo back in the 20’s, with All God’s Chillun Got Wings (people were getting the vapors that Paul Robeson actually touched a white woman’s hand onstage) but that story ended tragically.   The marriage is perfectly legal, no crosses are burned at their doorway, but society’s mores, ingrained at an early age, won’t let this mixed-race couple be happy, any more than society will let Romeo and Juliet be happy, or Othello and Desdemona.

Later on, Chester Himes wrote a novel about a similarly doomed interracial relationship, The End of a Primitive–rendered a bit ironic by the fact that Himes himself made a success of his second marriage to a white woman he met in Paris, a relationship that began in 1959 and lasted until his death in 1984.   But no doubt Himes felt the pull of society just as strongly.

And this book is basically Westlake telling society to go screw itself, and creating two characters with enough mutual attraction, self-understanding and strength of character to pull it off.   It’s nobody’s damn business who loves whom.  An opinion, by the way, that he shared with Malcolm X, at least towards the end of Malcolm’s life.  They would probably have had some heated debates on certain other subjects.

But let’s give Westlake some credit here–he’s not going to write a whole book just to defend interracial love–not in 1968, roughly a year after the Supreme Court had ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Nor is he really that interested in public education, though as a father with young children, he knows it’s important, and that parents should band together to insist their children be properly schooled, and parents from under-served communities most of all.

Very little of the book takes place inside a classroom–contrary to all the best-selling ‘heroic young teacher’ books I mentioned in Part 1, Westlake carefully writes the story in such a way as to make sure his heroic young teacher never works one full day in an actual school in his entire life.  He’s got a big point to make here, one that matters to him a great deal, but it’s neither racial, nor political, nor pedagogical–it’s philosophical.   Mr. Westlake was an individualist above all else, and the target he has in his sights here is collectivism.   Anyway, let’s get back to the book.

Oliver Abbott has shown up for work on the first day of school at Schuyler Colfax, in the fictive Brooklyn nabe of South Romulus, only to find that community activists have mobilized the locals to boycott the school–because he, Oliver Abbott, was hired in preference to a qualified black teacher currently working in a white school nearby.   It takes him a long time to figure this out, though–because everybody and his uncle assumes he already knew about it.

He did not.  His dad never told him.  A variety of journalists from publications ranging from the Times to the Village Voice, all of whom have names that sound to him like ‘Bibble’ (one of Westlake’s beloved running jokes), keep calling to get a comment from him, and hard as he tries, he can’t get any of them to let him know what the story is they’re asking him to comment on.   They already know who Oliver Abbott is (one seemingly far-right publication thinks he’s a hero of the white race), and he can’t seem to convince any of them that he’s been badly misunderstood.

The only one he can convince of this–with some difficulty–is the beautiful and self-assured Leona Roof, a black phys-ed instructor, who is involved in one of the activist groups pushing for local community control (her group is integrated–not looking to push out white teachers who actually want to teach).   Trapped in the school by a raging mob of protesters (waving banners, hence the title), he convinces her to drive him home, which she does so that the police won’t have to crack people’s heads to get him through.

She assumes he’s lying about his innocence at first, but he’s so obviously bewildered and clueless, she finally realizes he’s more worthy of her sympathy than her disdain–and anyway, he makes her laugh.   He also makes her very aware from the start that his interest in her is anything but platonic.   Oliver figures out early on that if he lets Leona friend-zone him, he’ll never get anywhere, so he keeps making passes, which she, being a judo expert, easily deflects–but she’s flattered, all the same.  He’s appealing to some part of her that’s tired of living for everybody but herself.   And she, by contrast, starts making him question his own life choices–or lack thereof.

He only meets two of his home room students (nobody else shows up on the second day of school)–one is Henrietta Clark, a young black woman with a fiercely determined expression, who firmly states that she’s only there because her mother told her she can’t afford the risk of being expelled after the protests die down.   She needs a diploma to go to nursing school, but she thinks that’s the only reason anybody would ever have to go to Schuyler Colfax.  “If it wasn’t for TV and movies and comic books, there wouldn’t be one person in this school knew anything at all.”   Kids never change–just the slang, and the available technology.

The other is James Meegan, a young man with a sort of bobbing walk that Oliver tells us he himself used to practice in front of the mirror when he was younger, because of course the coolest thing in the world to a white kid is black urban culture, and that hasn’t changed either, has it?  James has no family, and supports himself by running an illegal bookmaking operation inside the school–he’s there because he sees no future for himself without an education.  He seems barely literate, and Oliver writes him off as a moron.

Then as both students leave (because all he’s there to do is certify who showed up), he suddenly realizes–James is running a large bookmaking operation all by himself–all those names and figures–he’s got to be really smart!  He runs after him, but it’s too late.  He had a moment there, where he could have reached out, made a connection, and he blew it.

And this is one indication that Leona is right in what she tells Oliver–that he’s not a teacher–he’s been routed into the wrong profession. He lacks the temperament, the instinct for it. “Those who can’t do, teach” may be correct in the sense that a lot of rather unimpressive people end up in the teaching profession–but the fact is, being smart and capable, in and of itself, doesn’t make you a good teacher.  Oliver has taken the path of least resistance, laid down for him by his father (who for all his flaws is a good administrator, and probably a good teacher in his day).   But this isn’t who he is.

Oliver is what you might call a belatedly reliable narrator.  He keeps jumping to conclusions about the people he meets, black and white, just as they do about him, and he keeps realizing after the fact that he’s misjudged them, or at least that they’re more complex than he’d given them credit for being–he constantly gets it wrong, but he never stops trying to get it right–his good instincts are constantly thwarted by his social programming.  And this is basically the human experience, isn’t it?   We have prejudices for a reason–they save us a lot of hard work.   And that will probably never change.   But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting it.

The school is shut down entirely, until some kind of compromise can be hammered out between the various groups.  And over the next week or so, temporarily liberated from adult responsibility, Oliver and Leona start going to the beach together–she wears a yellow two piece bathing suit (her favorite color), and he loves seeing her in it–but when he ogles a blonde in a bikini, Leona is hurt and offended–only to have Oliver point out that she was looking at a young black man whose physique puts Oliver’s to shame.  The revelation of their mutual insecurity somehow brings them closer.

What’s going on between them started out as curiosity, but it’s evolving into something more–frankly, if they were both working at the school, the speed at which their relationship develops would be impossible (the entire story unfolds over maybe three weeks).   Westlake has deliberately put them into a sort of speed-dating mode–so they can learn more about each other in a week than many couples do in years.

Wanting Oliver to learn more about the young people he’d be teaching–and about himself–Leona manipulates  him into teaching some classes held at a local church, thrown together as an emergency measure by community groups and teachers, so Schuyler Colfax students who want to go on being educated don’t miss out too much during the strike.

He asks her what if they recognize him as the hated ‘Junior Abbott’–with much amusement, she tells him to wear sunglasses. He ends up organizing them to do a live reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus–because that’s one of the few things they have enough copies of to go around–the events of the play, and the enthused reaction of his students to it are, to say the least, unsettling for him–well, the Bard does speak to all generations. I feel this scene merits an extended quotation.

I lowered my eyes to the book. “Act one. Scene one,” I read aloud. “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

Silence. Nobody said a word. I didn’t dare look up. I jut sat there and stared at that one sentence while a fog of paranoia crept over me on little cat feet. Or were those little cat feet not the fog?

“Oh, yeah!” somebody cried. “It’s me, I forgot.” He cleared his throat and began to read, and once again I will not attempt to reconstruct the dialect, but will stick with Shakespeare’s spelling:

FIRST CITIZEN: Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.

ALL: Speak! Speak! Lay it on us, Daddy! Tell it, man! Give us the word, baby!

I raised my head and looked at them, and gradually they settled down once more. My First Citizen gave me a pained look, as though to say that he and I were the only mature adults in the room. I nodded at him, and he went on.

FIRST CITIZEN: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?

ALL: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!

ONE SMART ALECK: You bet your ass, baby!

It’s tough to glare through sunglasses–if the sun can’t, how can we expect people to? Nevertheless, I tried.

FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.

ALL: We know’t, we know’t.

SECOND CITIZEN: You mean Junior Abbott, don’t you, baby?

ALL: You know it, you know it!

I lowered my eyes to the book, I shielded my face with my hand.

FIRST CITIZEN (with gusto): Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?

ALL: No more talking on’t! Let it be done! Away, away!

Away, away. Would I ever get to say exeunt omnes?

But he sticks with the class over the coming week or so–who fail to recognize him, and of course these are the students who chose to go to school when they didn’t have to, so really unlikely they’d have done him any harm–sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But in spite of everything, he can’t help liking them.  And they’re fine with him–not knowing who he is.  But that can’t possibly last.

He comes home one day, and there’s a protest rally–banners and all–marching outside his house!  And they’re all holding glasses of cold lemonade–where’d those come from?  He goes inside, and finds his mother with the leader of the protest, Mrs. Letitia Quernik–squeezing lemons!   Well, you can’t expect people to march in the blazing September sun without refreshment, right?

The situation he’s in keeps getting more and more insane, but he has to keep updating his opinions on it every other minute.  Mrs. Quernik is maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer–neither is his mom–but they each have something to contribute to his understanding of what’s going on.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  And at the end of the day, people of similar temperaments understand each other, no matter how society tries to divide them.

Next, Leona drags him to a meeting at a small black church, where a variety of factions (including the small integrated activist group she’s a part of) are going to discuss strategy and objectives–and it quickly becomes clear the black community is far from monolithic on this issue–and very passionate about it.   And like people of all races who are passionate but not necessarily well-informed, they fall prey to a con man–one Prescott Wade Sinclair (“Pres” for short, and I can’t believe a jazz fan like Westlake gave him the same nickname as Lester Young), the tall thin sardonically grinning fellow with the Lucifer-beard, who told Oliver’s home room school was out.

Playing on racial divisions, mocking anyone of either race who wants real dialogue, he quickly fixes things so that his group–which just wants social chaos, so, you know, the revolution can come–is in control of the process.   Most of the people just want compromise, will settle for incremental change, but that always sounds so weak–whether you’re on the left or the right.   It’s much more fun to be extreme, and Pres is having the time of his life.   Leona is disgusted–but it’s starting to be noticed how close she and Oliver are becoming, and it’s compromising her position in the movement.

Things are now very serious between her and Oliver–who she starts calling “Matt”, because he’s always wished his name was Matthew–and one night they go out to the then-deserted beach, and make love.   Actual sex scenes are rare in Westlake’s books that aren’t about sex (he usually cuts over to the post-coital scene), and this one has a lyric quality you’d almost associate with Hemingway–

There was no stopping this time, and no hurry.  And no surprises.  Only the slow rhythm of the surf to guide us, and everything else already familiar and known, as though this was where we had been for a thousand years and we’d only forgotten for one brief hour.

While we were still joined she whispered in my ear, “It’s so hard to trust you.”

“I love you,” I whispered, having no idea whether it was true or not, whether she could trust me or not, whether I could trust her or not, whether I could trust myself or not.  “I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing else exists.”

She sighed, and her body relaxed into new softnesses, and I realized belatedly she’d been controlling herself against me, reining in, not wanting to let go and be vulnerable.  And now she had, and my immediate fear of the responsibility she was thrusting on me was smothered in the luxuriousness of her unfettered self, and for a while we couldn’t hear the surf at all, and when at last we could hear it again, it was a lullaby.

And then it all starts to unravel.  They both start getting threatening calls–from black men, there’s no Ku Klux Klan in Brooklyn, though an agitated Oliver snaps at one caller that he’ll sic the Klan on him–just looking for a way to hit back.

As the black community sees it, Oliver has trespassed where he is not welcome, and Leona is betraying her people. As Jacob Abbott’s son, him dating her is a bit too much like the young master having his sport. Never occurs to any of them them this affair might be serious–and honestly, neither of them is 100% sure it is, yet.

If he weren’t a symbol for every crappy thing that the establishment ever did to black people, and she weren’t a public spokesperson for the movement to give the community more control over how its children are educated, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  Leona’s female roommates all think Oliver is okay–but that’s because they’ve met him.  He’s going to learn now just how much it sucks when people prejudge you on the basis of things you can’t help.   When your skin tells them all they think they need to know about you.

Then Oliver’s parents start to talk to him, and that’s much much worse–his mother seems to have no racial prejudices to speak of–she wants everybody to get along–but she’s upset that her new friend Letitia is angry about Oliver and Leona being together.  She’s also worried her husband’s career will be ruined–a very real possibility.

His father, who in spite of their many differences, Oliver respects the hell out of–well, he’s a disappointment.   A lot of us have experienced that kind of disappointment, haven’t we?  Oliver finds out that even though his father genuinely wants to do right by the minority kids he’s responsible for, he believes he has to keep tight control over the school in order for it to receive major funding from a private foundation.

And he has very limited expectations of his pupils–Leona has it right again–the elder Abbott doesn’t believe black children are teachable.  They aren’t a fire to be lit or a slate to be written upon–they’re a problem to be controlled.  He makes a lot of very nasty sexual assumptions about Leona (never occurs to him his son might have been the pursuer), and you can imagine how well that goes over with Oliver.   But there’s worse coming.

Oliver’s car is stripped and burned by black kids–he and Leona get into a fight with another group–and then Oliver comes home one night and finds a group of white kids trying to burn a cross on the lawn of his family home.  The tension between the communities is getting out of control, and he and Leona have somehow ended up at the center of it.

Oliver shows up at Leona’s house and finds what I think in modern terms we’d call an ‘intervention’–a contingent of black people who know and work with Leona, bearing a ‘Dear Oliver’ note from her–she’s breaking it off.   She’s been made to understand that anger over their relationship is making negotiations impossible–so she’s choosing the common good over what she personally wants.   Oliver takes this the way any young man in love would take it.   He refuses to believe she wrote the letter–but he can see that she did sign it.

He hangs around the house for the better part of a day, hoping she’ll come back–then he walks home through the South Romulus slums, wishing to hell he’d come across some Nation of Islam organizer handing out “White Man is the Devil” pamphlets, so he could start a fight.  He just badly needs to strike out at somebody–but the enemy isn’t any one person, black or white.   The enemy is group-thought.  How do you fight that?   He tells his parents it’s over, sees their relief–and then proceeds to get drunk, and stay drunk for some days.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oliver is the hero of this book, but a decidedly flawed one–his quest is for self-actualization, not social justice–and Westlake wants us to know that the poison of racism is very much alive in him.  In his anger over being jilted, he calls Leona every name in the book inside his head–yes, including that one.  He feels betrayed, even though he knows on some level she wasn’t being given any choice.   He doesn’t want to hear any Humphrey Bogart speech from Casablanca.  The problems of two little people mean a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans to him–as they should to everyone.

How did E.M. Forster put it–“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”   But suppose your country is more than just some state structure–suppose it’s a group of people who have fought and bled and died for equal citizenship, over hundreds of years?   How then, Mr. Forster?

Oliver sobers up, and goes to a meeting in midtown Manhattan with his father (who has been atypically considerate and downright apologetic to his son, who he can see is in mortal pain).   The meeting is at one of those little surviving brownstone townhouses in an area full of big glass office towers, which invariably signify enormous wealth and power.  They’re meeting with the men who have promised a big financial grant to Schuyler Colfax, and who have been wondering if their money should be invested elsewhere.  Oliver is there with his father to reassure them that this unpleasantness is coming to an end.

Westlake’s deep-seated hostility and outright contempt for the very wealthy is on full display here.   Oliver sees his father walking a fine line between begging for money and maintaining his self-respect.  He’s little more than a trusted servant in this company–the actual servants are all black, of course.   Phantoms, flitting in and out with trays of refreshments.   They get no lines.  Nobody worries about what they might overhear.

What we overhear from this assemblage of social pillars (only one of whom, Mr. Butler, is from the south) is basically warmed-over Thomas Carlyle.  Westlake did not preface this novel with that lovely little bit of vintage racism from him just to offend people.   Again, I feel a lengthy quotation is called for.   This is an unusually clear political statement from a man who generally avoided them in his fiction.  And I suspect few of his more conservative readers (or, for that matter, the liberal ones) have ever seen it.

Mr. Duncan, the corporation lawyer, said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.  I judge every man on the basis of his ability as a man, and I always have, and I always will.  Many of these people have a great deal of natural ability, singers, for instance, athletes.  I want to make it absolutely clear that for my part I do not believe in denying any man the right to fulfill his own abilities to the best of his, uh. But if any of these people prefer to stay in their own areas, I believe they have the right to decide that for themselves.  I don’t want to push any man into any situation that he knows or believes himself not to be ready for.”

Mr. Whitney said, “It is a question of education, of course, education and diet.  Members of minority groups aren’t inherently unable to compete on an equal basis, but they do have two strikes against them. Fourth-rate education, for one thing, the very problem we’re here to try to do something about.  And diet.  I don’t know if you gentlemen are aware of the neurological studies that have been made on the effect of low-protein diet in the formative years, but a great deal of the answer to the problem of minorities lies right there.  And it is up to us, to the affluent, to make it possible for these people, or if not this generation then at least the next generation, to upgrade themselves to the point where they can participate, where they can be accepted on equal terms.  You might say it’s the affluent man’s burden, and I’m sure we all shoulder it gladly.”

General Winterhilff said, “Of course we do.  And our experience in the military is that these people can be trained, they can even be placed in positions of responsibility.  Give a man the proper incentive, don’t push him along too fast, and he won’t let you down.  And we didn’t do it by bringing them all along to the Officers’ Club, I assure you.  I shudder to think what that would have done for morale on both sides.”

“My point exactly,” Mr. Butler said softly.  “In any social situation where one side is uncomfortable and feels out of place, you can usually be sure the other side is just as troubled.”

“I’ve certainly seen that to be true,” Mr. Duncan said.  He wore an earnest face as though he’d just bought it at Lord & Taylor.  “Now, the golf club I belong to in Maryland integrated recently, and I want to make it perfectly clear I am absolutely in favor of integration in principle, but our colored member is not at all comfortable at that club, and everyone knows it.  I suppose he feels he has to prove a point, and I respect his position, but there are times when it seems to me he’s putting himself to a great deal of trouble for very little gain.”  He chuckled, not as though anything were funny but as though some counting machine in his head had told him it was time to chuckle now, and said “With the condition of the greens the last few years, I’ve been expecting members to be fighting their way out, not in.”

Mr. Butler said, “Fred, that’s exactly the point.  That man isn’t gaining anything, and deep down inside he knows it, but he feels he has to make a gesture.  Too many of these people have been convinced they’re somehow missing something by not being allowed on those shaggy greens of yours–” everybody smiled, in comradely fashion–“and the result is embarrassment and inconvenience for everyone.  But I believe it’s a phase, merely a phase, and it will pass away.  In fact, it’s already started to pass, these people are beginning to realize they’re much more comfortable with their own kind.  As in this current school controversy, for instance.”

Then a servant shows up with the coffee, and this spirited exchange of identical views subsides.  And I can’t help but think similar exchanges are going on in similar townhouses, even as I type this.  Maybe they’ve gotten a bit more well-encoded.  Of course, now they’re probably talking about that poor well-intentioned man in the White House.  And perhaps the sorry state of the gardens there.

So it all goes well enough, and the money for the school seems assured, and Oliver, who has been pretty quiet up to now, decides to tell a really disgusting racist joke.  Something about Rastus and the watermelon–he doesn’t want to go into details with us readers about it.  He says it’s some gremlin inside of him–some imp of the perverse that won’t leave him alone.  The money men all laugh politely, but uncomfortably–you don’t say those things out loud anymore, doesn’t this young fellow realize that?  His father asks him afterward why he told the joke–Oliver says “I thought it was funny.”

So with Oliver and Leona broken up, the factions work out a compromise (Oliver can go on teaching at Schuyler Colfax, though he has no intention of actually doing so, because he’s decided he’s not a teacher after all), and the community activists schedule a big meeting at a grand old movie palace in some part of Brooklyn white people just do not go–but Oliver manages to get himself there, because this Candide has decided it’s time to become David Copperfield (no, not the one in Vegas), and be the hero of his own story.  Though the only one he really wants to be a hero to is Leona.  Who he knows will be at the meeting.

He gets up on stage, and he tells the sea of astonished black faces that they were right to fight for their children, that nobody is going to fix the problems in their schools but them, but they’re going about it the wrong way–that the path to a better future doesn’t lie in answering hate with more hate.   Honestly, it’s a good speech, but it does feel a bit like he’s talking to the wrong people.  Not likely anybody there slashed his tires, or made obscene phone calls, or tried to beat him up.

But again, the only one he’s really talking to is Leona–she’s the only person, black or white, who is real to him in that moment, and he’s calling out to her, telling her that she has to be true to herself, and to what he and she have found together, and it’s all very Matthew Arnold.  And she answers him.   And if you want to know how, read the book.

This is the longest novel Westlake had published up to this point, and the most complicated.  It’s been a struggle to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.   The thing is, it’s an easy book to  misunderstand.   I wish I could have found some reviews of it written by black people–it seems to have mainly vanished into the racial foment of the late 60’s/early 70’s with nary a ripple.  I think most people didn’t know what to make of it.

It was more warmly received overseas, I think–there was a brief but  glowing notice in the Times Literary Supplement.   The reviewer (anonymous, as were all the TLS reviewers back then) said “You would hardly think it possible at this stage of the game that an American could write a funny and intelligent and fundamentally loving novel with black-white strife as its background.”  He (or she) seemed confused as to why this ‘novelist of romantico-sociological bent’ (whatever that means) was being put forth as a writer of thrillers.   TLS didn’t review much crime fiction back then, I guess.

It got a much longer and very negative review in the New York Times (not written by Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s champion there), which so badly misses the point, it’s almost laughable–the reviewer–whose name is not Bibble, but one feels somehow it ought to be–indignantly asks how Westlake could possibly not know about what happened in the Brownsville public schools just recently, somehow failing to grasp that the novel is a direct commentary on that battle that divided so many well-intentioned people from each other.   Westlake was saying everybody was to blame there, because they were too busy waving their goddam banners to listen to each other, give each other at least some benefit of the doubt.

And in the process of letting themselves be divided, by the likes of the cynical Preston Wade Sinclair (whose comeuppance is brief but satisfying), they were only making themselves perpetual victims to the people with real power–the Duncans, Whitneys, Winterhilffs, and Butlers.  As we all still are, to some extent.  To a very great extent, actually.

There’s genuine respect in the novel for those Westlake considers the true activists, black and white–the ones who are trying to build something, not just destroy–the ones who bridge the gaps, learn to understand each other, work together.   Leona is one of them, and even though she’s somewhat giving way to Oliver’s more individualistic philosophy, she doesn’t surrender her principles at the end, doesn’t abandon her people–she’s just going to take a break, come down off her pedestal.   She reclaims her sense of self, her right to choose who she loves, a choice without which freedom and equality are quite quite meaningless.

And Oliver, the most serious of the Westlake Nephews, conquers his fears of adulthood and commitment, even as he abandons the life plans his father had made for him.    Because you’re only real when you’re being absolutely yourself.  And being real is all there really is, isn’t it?   The Velveteen Rabbit would certainly say so.  Eh, google it.

Obviously the book in its entirety doesn’t begin to address the black experience, the undeniable facts that made black activism in America necessary then, as it is necessary today.   But there were an awful lot of other books coming out on this subject–Westlake hardly had to say it all himself.   He wasn’t equipped for that, and he knew it.  But you can’t tell me Westlake, a lifelong jazz buff (ie, a worshipper at the altar of African American genius), wasn’t reading the black authors of that general time period–Invisible Man is the supreme novel of identity–I don’t just mean black identity–Westlake must have devoured it hungrily, and understood its points perfectly.   And had a few points of his own to make.

Not long after Westlake finished this book, Chester Himes, a writer Westlake admired very much, started work on the abortive and posthumously published Plan B, the last of his Harlem Detective novels–in which (spoiler alert) he vividly imagines the race war everybody thought was coming back then, and in the process kills off his two greatest creations, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, those great intercessors between black and white America, in a sort of despairing gesture–what hope is there for America, for humanity?   We’ll never work this shit out. Just too far gone to care.

And his despair was understandable–we still feel it, sometimes.   But it was wrong.   He knew that it was.  That, I think, is why he never published the book in his lifetime.   And of course, he lived most of his life as a writer in a loving if troubled relationship with a white woman–in Europe.   Safely away from the fray.   Cultivating his own garden, like Candide.  And suffering from survivor’s guilt.

My favorite work about racial turmoil from this period was written by somebody who really didn’t have a tribe of his own–the novel Chien Blanc (White Dog), from Romain Gary.   In that deeply painful (and only partly factual) account of his and his wife Jean Seberg’s experiences with a German Shepherd conditioned to attack black people on sight, this supremely alienated French Jewish writer (who wasn’t really French, or Jewish, and often didn’t even seem to want to be human), saw us Yanks with objective clarity, like Tocqueville before him–he said the main thing about us is that we can’t ever leave things alone.

We have an image of how we’re supposed to be, an ideal we need to live up to, and no matter how racist we undoubtedly are at times, we simply can’t accept that’s how it will always be.  We keep fighting the conflict, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, trying to resolve it.   In a time where many thought America would tear itself apart, Gary said we’d find some way to fix it, seek some way out of a shared nightmare.   On November 4th 2008, we proved him right–not for the first time, or the last. E. Pluribus Unum. Damn straight.

But see, Gary also made it very clear that the toxins of race hatred linger in our collective bloodstreams, passed from one generation to the next.   George Orwell would agree, and might add that the only way to fight the smelly little bigotries vying for your souls is to recognize them for what they are.   To confess to their existence, and allow for them, because they only get more dangerous when you pretend they aren’t there–that it’s just those other people who have a problem.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a racist–early in the book, Oliver talks to a policeman guarding the school, who talks quite soberly about how black people have thicker skulls than white people–that’s why they’re a bit less smart, but can take a much harder crack on the head.   He says he’s got nothing against the colored.  And neither did the policemen who choked Eric Garner to death, and left him to die in a public sidewalk, for selling loose cigarettes.

And man, this was a long review–my longest yet–took me three weeks to finish, and I broke my self-imposed rule over never letting a single post go over 6,000 words (the long quotes really killed me here), and that’s not including Part 1.   But all in a worthy cause.

And now I really feel the need for something less worthy, more frivolous.   What would you say to two Grofield novels in a row?   Well as it happens, that’s what’s up next in the review queue.   Though I should mention there’s a lot of black people in the second book, one of whom Grofield ends up in bed with, but he ends up in bed with everybody, sooner or later.  So, having set the scene, exeunt omnes. 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance