To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Great Beyond
From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review
Dear Mr. Westlake:
I hope I am not interrupting any conversations/drinking sessions/amatory exploits you might currently be engaging in with O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, or Ambrose Bierce (parenthetically, did you find out what happened to him in Mexico? Given the circumstances of your passing, you had a perfect excuse to raise the subject). But I have a problem I hope you can help me with.
As you might have gathered, I publish something called ‘The Westlake Review’ (I had to call it something), under a pseudonym derived from a book of yours–the objective is to review everything you ever wrote. Yes, I know, but it passes the time. This is an internet thing, in case you were wondering. Our correspondence shall be shared with other people. Not a whole lot of other people at present (though it might please you to know you still have readers all over the planet), but I wanted to make that clear.
I am about to embark on a review of your novel Adios, Scheherazade, in which I also intend to discuss The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, written respectively by your longtime friends and colleagues, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block. Mr. Block I know is still among the living–Mr. Dresner seems to have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least the internet), but has no NY Times obit, so I guess he’s still with us as well. I could probably contact Mr. Block via email, but somehow one hates to take up people’s finite personal time. You, by contrast, have all of eternity on your hands, and it never hurts to ask, right?
Since the more elevated plane you now inhabit (I’m assuming you’re not in Purgatory, though us lapsed Catholic boys should probably never assume anything) may have blurred certain details of your mortal existence, let me refresh your memory. To put it bluntly, you wrote a quite a lot of books that could be described as pornography, though few people nowadays would consider them to be that.
The ‘sleaze’ genre, as it is now called in collector’s circles (yes, people collect them, and they’re usually a lot more expensive than your other books, sorry to tell you), was basically a bunch of aspiring writers–many of whom went on to greatness, you not least among them–who to pay their bills wrote a lot of quickie novels featuring a lot of sexy goings-on, that were nonetheless not explicit enough to warrant being confiscated by the law.
In Prohibition terms, they were ‘near-porn’, like the near-beer that often is sold where real booze is illegal. They could be displayed in public places of business–newstands, drugstores, and all the usual places cheap paperbacks were sold. They had racy covers, suggestive titles, and sold for maybe 35 cents or so.
They were probably not as obscene as Henry Miller or James Joyce; no more so than best-selling potboilers of the period–the sex acts were described euphemistically, and young people hoping to learn valuable techniques from them were invariably disappointed. But what made this a viable publishing niche was that the books were short, and there was sex all through them–you didn’t have to keep turning pages to find the good parts. Sex was basically the entire point of the endeavor, not merely a side-attraction.
While many if not most were badly written, because so many of the authors employed had genuine talent, and were basically using this as a venue to hone their craft while they sought more legitimate outlets, you could often find some decent quality prose in them. Certainly none of them were as bad as E.L. James. Oh wait, you don’t know who that is, do you? That does sound like heaven.
You got into this racket via the famed Scott Meredith literary agency, and it’s never been terribly clear how many of these things you wrote. You employed several pseudonyms, most notably Alan Marshall. But as opposed to your other non-porn pseudonyms, there’s always been some controversy as to which of the books published under these names were actually written by you. Some we’re sure about, others are more ambiguous. Apparently your first wife wrote some of them. That must have been an interesting conversation.
And as the years passed, you never seemed much inclined to help anyone figure out who wrote what. You seemed to mainly want to forget the whole tawdry episode ever happened. This gentleman here, who worked for Scott Meredith at the time, doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t proudly embrace your pseudo-pornographic past. He’s rather indignant about it, in fact. But once you’d reached the point where you could make a good living without the sleaze books, you stopped writing them, and were never terribly eager to discuss them–except, indirectly, in the book I’m reviewing here.
Probably the turning point was reached when you started publishing the Parker novels at Pocket Books–a few of those a year, combined with your book-a-year contract with Random House, combined with short stories, articles, and sales to Hollywood–by that point you had more than enough income to turn your back on the flesh pits forever. Parker got you out of it.
However, like many others in this field, you seem to have briefly farmed out your porn names–letting other people write the books in your place, then taking a commission. This didn’t last very long, and neither did the sleaze market itself, which dried up and disappeared as the 60’s ended. A transitional stopgap, that was no longer relevant in an era where those who wanted porn could find the real stuff with increasing ease. Also, I suspect the male libido prefers images to words.
And these days we have internet fanfiction–people writing stories and indeed entire novels, featuring famous fictional characters, often performing acts that would scandalize the relatively demure characters in your books, and the people writing these things aren’t even getting paid (except for E.L. James, but she had to change the names first). So to sum up, sleaze is eternal, but the sleaze paperback book market is dead (perhaps someday to be followed by paperback books themselves).
While it lasted, there was a lot of money in it, though, and some pretty classy writers taking their turns at the trough. You, Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (as he came to be called), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson–the list goes on and on and on. Charles Willeford seems to have written sleaze under his own name, which was typically atypical for him. It’s more a question of which prominent genre writers did not write sleaze. I don’t think Patricia Highsmith ever did, which is a mite ironic, no? It was a big big thing, and now it’s gone. And you didn’t miss it one tiny bit, did you, Mr. Westlake?
I think Hal Dresner agreed with you about that. He was one of your group, your poker-playing porn-writing practical joke playing gang of aspiring wordsmiths who bonded in the 50’s. And earlier than many of you, he seems to have decided he had to escape the sleaze market. He went into writing for film and television, and had a pretty decent career–few of us haven’t seen something of his, at some point. But I get the feeling from his one novel of any repute–the one I’m going to look at briefly now–that he once aspired to be a ‘serious writer’. Whatever that is.
The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (aka This is a Plain Brown Wrapper) is a very funny novel, written in epistolary form–the entire text is letters and memos going back and forth between a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Mason Clark Greer (aka Guy LaDouche), his publisher, his lawyer friend Michael Westlake (we’ll come back to him), Mason’s mother (Jewish, of course), various other male and female acquaintances, and (most importantly) Lt. Commander E.B. Dibbs, a demented former naval officer, who wants to sue and possibly horsewhip Mason for (as he thinks) defaming his daughter Barbara’s morals under a slightly altered name in a recent book, and also for referring to her parents in a less than respectful manner.
Although he had a character with a somewhat similar name in that book, and coincidentally described the real Miss Dibbs with a fair degree of accuracy in his book (including a birthmark in an embarrassing location), Mason has never met the daughter in question–though many other lascivious scoundrels have, judging by the way her father keeps coming up with new boyfriends of hers to accuse him of being. Dibbs finally settles on referring to Mason as Karl Vechtenmeisser, a former Nazi officer from Austria, who is related to the Habsburgs (or so Dibbs insists), and had a brief liaison with Barbara.
Mason, who is holed up in a cabin in Vermont, trying desperately to finish his next dirty book, assumes this is just a prank his friends are pulling on him, but as he starts to get letters from the law firm of Berry, Lock & Gru, it sinks in that he really is being sued for defaming people whose existence he was totally unaware of at the time. Mason tells Dibbs his real name, and (rather imprudently) gives him his selective service registration info, which only incites the Lt. Commander to try and have him investigated for impersonating an American citizen.
(As the story goes on, it is revealed that the United States Navy had its own problems with Lt. Commander Dibbs during WWII, and had to find ways to distract him from the war, so he wouldn’t lose it for them.)
The lawyers Dibbs has hired are quite willing to believe Mason is Vechtenmeisser, as long as they see a good cash settlement in the offing, and likewise keep referring to him by that name. Mason, suffering from cabin fever in a nasty Vermont winter, with no companionship other than a Weimaraner named Bastard, starts playing along with the gag, and referring to himself by that name as well. He starts vindictively sending heavy boxes full of rocks to the law firm–C.O.D. They inquire how he wants the rocks to be stored. His missives to his friends become increasingly odd and off-kilter (and funny, but his friends mainly don’t seem to get the joke, or to understand what’s going on).
And as all this is going on, we learn the true reason for Mason’s mental distress–he’s been trying to write a serious novel, and he keeps ripping the pages up and burning them, because they’re terrible. He’s worried that all he’ll ever be able to do in his life is write dirty books–which it turns out a lot of the people he meets in the course of this story have read. He’s a very successful near-porn writer. It’s just not what he wants to be. It isn’t who he is.
He complains that his imaginary sex life has put an end to his real one–his own romantic resume seems limited to a few brief flings. He’s been making it all up from Day One, but people keep asking him if this stuff in his books really happened–and they don’t want to hear it when he says it didn’t. His fiction, bad as it is, has eclipsed his actual life. Then a frustrated young FBI Agent shows up at the cabin to investigate Dibbs’ accusations, and it starts to get really weird.
Before long he’s sending farcical responses to a questionnaire sent him by a psychiatrist friend of Dibbs who specializes in delusions, and seems to be pretty deluded in his own right. And no matter how crazy any of his responses to various communiques are, people insist on taking them all seriously. And on believing he’s an Austrian Nazi jet setter who seduces gullible maidens in his spare time. His life has become one of these bad novels he’s been writing.
The defamation lawsuit actually ends up in front of a judge, with predictably chaotic results. I’d remind you how it’s all wrapped up, but I don’t want to spoil it for my readers–the novel is available in ebook form–maybe you could get it up there? I mean, you’re literally in The Cloud, right? Regardless, I think it would have made a good movie. Or perhaps a staged theatrical reading, ala Dear Liar. But maybe a bit dated now. Very much of its era. Still a lot of fun to read.
In the end, it’s Mason’s former frat buddy and present-day lawyer, Michael Westlake (I told you we’d come back to him) who tells Mason that he can’t worry so much about not having lived up to his dreams of greatness. Good or bad, Mason Clark Greer is a writer, and his letters prove that. Maybe he can’t write The Great American Novel, but what really matters is to do what you’re meant to do, and let other people worry if it’s any good or not. If he doesn’t want to do the porn anymore, he can do something else.
And Mason decides that’s what he’ll do. He informs his publisher that he won’t be finishing the book he was working on (and never got past the first chapter of), and starts thinking about maybe writing a play–it seems like dialogue is more his forte than descriptive prose. And yes, this does does seem a trifle autobiographical, but I would assume not very. You’d know better than me.
And as you already knew, this book is not about pornography, smut, or even sleaze. It refers to it, uses it as background color, but it’s really about how people are nuts, and how youthful aspirations don’t always work out as you hoped. Mason does talk about how flabby actual women he meets seem compared to the vixenish viragos he populates his fiction with (and he has no illusions about his own appearance), but you get the feeling he’d take flabby factuality over fulsome fiction any day. Still and all, this takes up a very small part of the book, which is mainly about his running duel with Dibbs, and his unfulfilled literary ambitions. And apparently FBI men say ‘fut’ instead of ‘fuck’, because of some directive from J. Edgar Hoover, but that would take too long to explain.
I don’t know how well this book sold (it got more than one edition), but I don’t need you to tell me that you and Mr. Dresner’s other writing buddies liked it a lot, enjoyed all the in-jokes tremendously, and were pleased to learn that their tiresome apprenticeship in the porn pits could actually serve as the raw material for a funny book.
Working for Nightstand Books or one of the other publishing houses that cranked this stuff out, they had to stick very closely to established formulas–but as the form died out, they had a chance to write something reminiscent of sleaze, that was no longer so–constrained. And another of your friends, Lawrence Block, who had rather enjoyed writing these books, bad though he knew they were, was moved over a decade after Dresner’s book, to write something directly inspired by it–and this book really is porn, I think. If it isn’t, I’m not sure what porn is, and Judge Stewart did say you know it when you see it.
It’s hard to know what to say about Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, except how did this guy not get arrested? I mean the protagonist, but also quite possibly the author. This is also available as an ebook now, and Block wrote an excellent afterward for that edition, explaining its origins.
By 1970, he was, as you know, a well-established writer of crime novels, like yourself, with most of his best work still ahead of him. But the fact is, he missed writing about sex. You and he had collaborated on several sleaze novels, most notably A Girl Called Honey, in which you took turns having protagonists modeled quite clearly after your own lustful selves seduce the titular seductress (an honest hard-working prostitute), and compete over her, and kill each other off, and drive her to madness and drug addiction in the process, and honestly you should both be ashamed of yourselves for what you did to that poor girl. I suspect you actually were a bit ashamed of it, Mr. Westlake.
Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades, and perhaps other kinds of escapades, I couldn’t say. He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.
But two things prevented that from coming to pass:
1)The publisher chose that moment in time to go under.
2)The book isn’t that good.
I mean, he wrote it in four days–he says so in the afterward. So I tend to take it with a grain of salt that he really believed he had a huge seller here, but as the publishing scene changed, it was hard to know, really. I mean, who would have believed E.L. James would become so wealthy from writing a bad Twilight fanfic? Okay, I know I’m losing you here, but trust me–nobody could have possibly predicted that. You writers just never do know what’s going to hit big, do you? We the reading public like to keep you guessing.
He didn’t write it to make money–that much is plain–it is, you might say, a labor of lust. Primarily lust for girls in their middle teens. And any heterosexual post-pubescent male who claims not to feel that lust is a goddam liar. But few men would cop to it as cheerfully as Mr. Block, and while I may disparage this book’s merits, I also read it with a great deal of prurient interest, which was of course the entire point of the endeavor. It’s not badly written–Block doesn’t do bad writing–it’s just too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. With a thinly-disguised rendition of the author himself at its center.
Laurence Clarke, failed poet and 32 year old editor of a children’s magazine called ‘Ronald Rabbit’s Magazine for Boys and Girls’, is laid off from his job–the reason being that there is no job. The magazine folded shortly after its previous editor was found to have committed (thankfully) unspecified improprieties with an 11 year old boy (who the man swore he thought was 14), and they hired Laurence (we’ll just call him Larry) as a replacement, before realizing the scandal couldn’t be hushed up. Because this is a very large publishing business, they forgot to fire him–forgot he was even there–and as a result, he never did any actual work for over a year–just came into the office every day and did nothing but read, collect his paycheck, wait for somebody to give him something to do.
Clay Finch (something of a clay pigeon in this book), the President of Whitestone Publications, only came to realize they were paying Larry for nothing when he noticed Larry had never used his expense account (that would be dishonest, Larry explains to him). So Larry is fired. Obviously. And his ex-wife is demanding her alimony. And in his letter to her, explaining why no alimony payments are forthcoming (this being yet another epistolary novel), he goes on to say that on returning home, he learned that his current wife had just left him for his best friend, and they’d absconded to Mexico, with every penny he had in the world. Seemingly oblivious to what a tired narrative cliche they were perpetuating.
Larry goes on to write another letter to his friend Steve (the one who went to Mexico with his wife), describing his current situation in depth–and he relates how he was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, stone drunk, and singing Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (the one that says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, remember?), when he hears two youthful female voices singing along with him–and the miracle happens.
See, the youthful female voices are coming from a station wagon full of teenaged girls–six, to be precise. Escapees from The Convent of the Holy Name, a Catholic Girl’s School in Darien, Connecticut. Which is quite clearly based on The Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated in Greenwich, Connecticut.
He calls them the Daughters of Lancaster (a sort of riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III). They dub him “Mad Poet”, and proceed to abduct him to Darien, necking with him in the back all the way there, hide him in a tiny apartment they rent on the sly, and in the ensuing weeks he ends up having highly inventive and unbridled sexual congress with all of them, there and in New York. Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have forgotten that.
His first conquest is ‘Merry Cat’ (real name Mary Catherine O’Shea, and I can’t help but think her nickname is a winking homage to We Have Always Lived in The Castle–would you know if Mr. Block is a Shirley Jackson fan, perchance?). Though really, she conquers him–the little black-haired colleen slips into bed with him the next morning, and this is what follows–
“Oh God,” she said. “Oh, you’re ready. Oh, how nice. Don’t wait, don’t even touch me, just get in me. I want you inside me, I can’t wait.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. She got off the minute I was inside her, coming in a sweet soft pink dissolve. She came twice more and then it was my turn, and then we clung to each other while I waited for the earth tremors to quit shaking hell out of the room.
This is one of the tamest erotic passages I could find to quote from in the book. He gets a lot more specific as things progress.
Five of these girls are sixteen. The youngest (‘Naughty Nasty Nancy’ Hall) is fifteen, and the wildest of the bunch (she likes being spanked during intercourse). It really doesn’t matter what the age of consent was then, you know–he’s in his 30’s. At no time in the 20th century was any of this ever not a felony in the United States.
But all through the book he is fucking them ragged, with their hearty and full voiced consent that would matter not a damn in any court in the land, and they are minors, and their parents are rich, and there are supposed to be nuns watching over them, and they are trading filthy letters back and forth, and nobody ever gets wise, and no policemen ever materialize, and he’s never the tiniest bit worried that they will. This book makes Lolita look like a documentary. And no Clare Quilty to spoil the fun, naturally. Guilt, as a concept, does not exist within the pages of this book.
(Maybe we better pause now to give some of my male readers a chance to download this book to their digital devices. All done, fellas?)
Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that Lawrence Block had two major inspirations for the story of this book–one was an acquaintance of his who actually did spend many months sitting around an office with nothing to do before they got around to firing him (with a nice severance package, though not as nice as the one fate gives Larry), and the other was a member of your little poker-playing group of writers, who related one night a story about he himself hitching an impromptu ride to Connecticut with a bunch of errant Catholic school girls, only that was presumably as far as it went. That wasn’t you, by any chance, was it? Oh like you’d admit it if it was. I withdraw the question.
And just to remind you, we are learning of these experiences through letters he is writing to his friend Steve, to his former and current estranged wives, and even his former employer–and he’s sneaking into his former place of business to Xerox them and send copies to seemingly everyone he knows, though Mr. Finch keeps remonstrating with him to stop doing that.
And at first, the assumption is that he’s making it all up, which would seem the most likely supposition, except we see that when he writes to the Daughters of Lancaster, at camp and such, they write back to him. They are real. There is no ambiguity about that. The book is fiction, but Larry Clarke is not an unreliable narrator–whatever he tells us happened, happened, as far as his reality is concerned. He is, if anything, excessively honest and forthcoming.
Then he manages to seduce Rozanne, the personal secretary of Mr. Finch, who has been typing Finch’s letters to Larry. She is Italian American (why should Irish girls have all the fun?), beautiful, with a truly magnificent bosom, and is of course a repressed 26 year old virgin who needs to be rescued from her fear of sex. Which Larry does by way of anal intercourse she had not previously given consent to–it’s not exactly rape, because they were doing stuff, and he just had this sudden impulse to go there, and Rozanne is incredibly happy about it afterwards, even though she was screaming bloody murder while it was going on. And I am not typing that passage out.
(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, I must again make an inquiry–Mr. Block mentions two specific literary influences on this book–the first being Hal Dresner’s novel I just talked about, but the other is a book I have not read–Wake Up, Stupid, by Mark Harris. Both are composed of letters written by various people, which add up to a story. I don’t doubt these are the primary influences, but I also feel like somewhere in Mr. Block’s apartment in New York where he wrote this there must have been a heavily thumbed-through copy of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. There’s a lovely repressed virginal spinster who needs sexual healing in that one too, you may recall.)
His relationship with Rozanne becomes serious, and they live together, but that does not in the least impair his relationship with the Daughters of Lancaster, because the women in his life are all (who would have guessed it?) bisexual to some extent, and they come over and have sex with him and Rozanne, and everybody is just having this wonderful Bonobo-esque polyamorous experience, with Larry at the center of the scrum, except isn’t Bonobo society matriarchal? Oh never mind.
Obviously Larry does not have sex with other guys the girls like (remember whose fantasy this is), and there are a few mildly slighting references to genuinely homosexual persons (it turns out Larry’s ex-wife–the one who stole his money and ran off with his friend–is a dyke–the exact word used), but I think you’d have a hard time making the case this book is homophobic. It’s just very very hetero-centric.
Having had this amazing reversal of fortune through meeting the Daughters of Lancaster on MacDougal St., due to the good graces of Joni Mitchell, Larry Clarke seems to go letter-mad the same way that Mason Clark Greer did–but his madness is not merely a satiric overrreaction to the (much more pleasant) situation he finds himself in, but increasingly a way to manipulate everyone around him. He eventually realizes that he can make anyone do anything he likes through the power of epistolary suggestion.
By the end of the story everything is going his way. The wife who left him for his best friend dumps the friend–who ends up marrying the first wife, who Larry cunningly sets him up with, so she’ll stop dunning him for alimony payments. And Mr. Finch agrees to buy a book he’s writing about his recent sexual exploits–he’ll change the names, though I don’t know why he even bothers.
So this is porn, and I have to say, pretty damn good as porn goes (emphasis intended). It achieves the desired result, which is sexual stimulation, mingled with laughter (though it’s not nearly as funny as Dresner’s book). The characters are not fully fleshed out (well, you know what I mean), but they are not mere stick figures either–he goes to some pains to give each Daughter of Lancaster her own personality and interests (and I’d assume he had some real-life models for them).
It’s quite clear that Larry Clarke cares about all the various women in his life, and feels no sexual jealousy when the girls relate their entanglements with boys their own age to him (but of course mere boys can never compete with a grown man who happens to strongly resemble the author). After all, the teenagers seduced him, and the secretary self-evidently wanted to be seduced by him–matters have been arranged so that he has absolutely nothing to be guilty about. Because sexual guilt has no place in true pornography. Neither does reality. And neither does emotional honesty. And that’s the trouble with porn, isn’t it?
And that’s why you wrote the book I’m going to review now, isn’t it? A far better book than either of the two I’ve been talking about. And a much harder book to read, and review. Only I’m actually going to review it next week. Because in an homage to that very book, I’m going to call this Chapter 1, and end it when the little counter-thingy at the bottom of my computer screen says I’ve got exactly 5,000 words.
So until next week, Mr. Westlake, I remain your humble servant,