An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.
From Comedy’s Greatest Era, by James Agee
“Nice doggy,” Dortmunder said.
The German Shepherd wasn’t buying any. He stood in front of the stoop, head down, eyes up, jaws slightly open to show his pointy teeth, and said “Rrrrrr,” softly in his throat every time Dortmunder made a move to come down off the porch. The message was clear. The damn dog was going to hold him here until somebody in authority came home.
“Look, doggy,” Dortmunder said, trying to be reasonable, “all I did was ring the bell. I didn’t break in, I didn’t steal anything. I just rang the bell. But nobody’s home, so now I want to go to some other house and ring the bell.”
“Rrrrrr,” said the dog.
Dortmunder pointed to his attaché case. “I’m a salesman, doggy,” he said. I sell encyclopedias. Books. Big books. Doggy? Do you know from books?”
The dog didn’t say anything. He just kept watching.
“All right now, dog,” Dortmunder said, being very stern. “Enough is enough. I have places to go, I don’t have the time to fool around with you. I’ve got to make my rent money. Now, I’m leaving here and that’s all there is—” He took a firm step forward.
“Rrrrrrrr!” said the dog.
Dortmunder took a quick step back. God damn it, dog!” he cried. “This is ridiculous!”
The dog didn’t think so. He was one of those by-the-book dogs. Rules were rules, and Dortmunder didn’t rate any special favors.
From The Hot Rock, by Donald E. Westlake
In many ways, The Hot Rock reads like a Richard Stark novel. Which isn’t surprising, given that it started out as one. I’ve said several times already that the first two Grofield novels feel like Westlake ghost-wrote them for Stark–I would not go so far as to say Stark ghost-wrote this book for Westlake (nor do I really think Westlake was the literary equivalent of Sybil Dorsett, though he and his third wife both made jokes to that effect).
No, this is decidedly a Westlake, but one with a distinctly Stark-ian flavor and cadence–a hybrid approach that succeeds on many levels. The prose is simpler, the dialogue more terse, the narrator much less inclined to extemporize. Westlake hadn’t written much in the third person under his own name by this point. He’d only written one heist book under his own name before now, and he knew that book had not been one of his crowning glories. It’s not surprising he’d fall back on what he’d learned writing the Parker novels–for what is, in essence, an informal send-up of those books.
But not a true parody–not an attempt to mock the seriousness of Stark (the third Dortmunder came close to being a Stark parody, but we’ll worry about that when we get there). Rather an attempt to loosen up, have fun with the same subject matter–the playful passage I quote up above is not something Stark would have written under any circumstances. Stark wouldn’t see the humor in that situation with the dog at all. Westlake sees the humor in just about everything. This is the primary point of difference between them.
Stark would never put Parker in that situation–if Parker was confronted by a dog, the dog would end up dead (and Parker would not be peddling encyclopedias door to door). Dortmunder yearns futilely for a club to beat the dog senseless with, but we know he’s never going to do that. When it comes right down to it, Dortmunder’s never going to hurt anybody–over 14 novels, he periodically threatens physical violence, and never follows through–he’s in one fist-fight that I can recall–from a much later book–and loses it. Oh, and he hits Kelp now and again, but you can hardly blame him.
He’s not afraid to fight, if he’s got to–he certainly knows how–but violence isn’t really his thing–it’s there gathering dust at the bottom of his toolkit, often referred to, rarely employed. A wolf in human form like Parker may relish a bit of close combat on occasion. A coyote in human form like Dortmunder knows the better part of valor.
And this is something we love about Dortmunder. He’s every bit as no-nonsense as Parker, but he’s so much less dire. So much more like us, little as he’d like to hear it. He doesn’t see the humor in his situation at all; he resists being made the constant butt of cosmic jokes, but in the main he simply rails against his misfortunes, indignantly complains about them to whomever might listen (even a dog)–in a word we shall ever be indebted to the Yiddish language for, he kvetches. And that gives us license to laugh, not so much at him as at the absurdity of existence, and the perversity of fate. At ourselves, really.
Stark did put Grofield in a situation where he was confronted by a menacing German Shepherd (on a leash), who looked longingly at his throat–in The Dame. Grofield conversationally remarks “Hello, Fido”, similar to Dortmunder–if a bit more ironical.
But where Parker would have had to fight the dog, and Dortmunder simply stands there looking frustrated, Grofield avoids the conflict, walks right past it–the situation (which like the other two, stems from Westlake’s own obvious dread of canine-kind) goes unexploited, because the character is not sufficiently well-defined. Grofield is an intriguing protagonist, but not really a compelling one. He never quite did take on a life of his own. Westlake has to tell him what to do–but a great character–a Parker, a Tobin, a Dortmunder–tells his or her author what to do. Much simpler that way, no?
And who ends up rescuing Dortmunder from the jaws of the slavering beast? His own fictional dimension’s equivalent of Grofield, Alan Greenwood, who will have taken the name Grofield by the end of the story. He just tells the dog to sit, and the dog obeys. Dortmunder would have never thought of that. Westlake once again referring to other books of his he has no reason to assume his readers are familiar with–simply to amuse himself. But you don’t need to have read The Dame to be amused. Like all good in-jokes, it’s thrown in for lagniappe.
The best jokes in this book are not private ones. Westlake has gotten the range now–he’s figured out how to be funny. He’s not just stringing isolated gags together anymore–like the great silent comedians William Agee wrote about in the famous essay I quoted from up top, he’s going to build a framework of laughs, a precarious geometric structure of hilarity, each new gag proceeding from the previous with inexorable logic, a sort of absurdist chain reaction, where he’ll enticingly dangle the bait in front of his characters, then jerk it out of their reach, over and over.
He wants to test their mettle–their professionalism, their camaraderie–but also their capacity to absorb punishment–to gaze sadly at us, like Oliver Hardy after an especially humiliating setback, and silently ask “Was this really called for?” Then try try again.
One problem I’m going to have with the Dortmunders is that I may not always want to discuss their plots as thoroughly as I do the Parker books. For one thing, to thoroughly explain a joke notoriously kills it. For another, they’re generally much longer and more involved than the Parkers. But it’s hardly a spoiler, 45 years after the book came out, to say, like the cover of that British reprint you see above, that it’s about a gang of thieves stealing the same thing over and over again.
Only that’s not quite accurate, is it? They steal it once, and lose it before they even get out of the building. Then they have to steal the guy who knows where it is. Then they go where he says it is and find somebody else stole it first. Then they have to steal that guy, and make him say where it is. Then they finally steal it for real, only in a way no real thief ever stole anything. Then they have to steal it again–so they can give it back to the people they originally stole it from. That’s the book. Contrived, yet simple–and so ingenious, no summary can ever do it justice. You have to experience it–and I can say now with authority that the story–and the laughs–hold up to repeated readings. Much better than Westlake’s earlier comic novels did.
The problem is never Dortmunder’s plans, all of which work to perfection. One could argue Dortmunder is actually a better planner of heists than Parker, at least in this book. But when things go wrong, he doesn’t seem to know how to adapt, improvise, tweak. He’s not so good under pressure as Parker–not a great troubleshooter, which is Parker’s other talent. When Dortmunder’s plans fall apart, he has to go back to the drawing board and start over again from scratch. He plans, God laughs. Oh God, how God laughs.
Dortmunder is not much of a self-starter–as a general rule, his big jobs are usually somebody else’s idea. Also true of Parker, to be sure. And frequently true of Donald Westlake, when you think about it. How many of his books were originally pitched to him by someone else? I’ll have to do a count sometime. It’s quite a few. Really, all the Parker novels but the first were technically Bucklin Moon’s idea. Creativity is not such a solo venture as people often imagine. We all bounce ideas off each other–hell, I’m only doing this blog because Nick Jones of Existential Ennui told me to, mainly so I’d stop clogging up his blog with my endless responses to him. Hi Nick! (waves).
Dortmunder’s #1 fan, partner-in-crime, agent, life coach, and general pain in the neck is Andy Kelp, and as I think I mentioned before, I am moved to wonder who Westlake modeled him after. He’s never very well described in this book, and his descriptions in the later entries are generally quite vague. And yet he feels very real and vivid–almost as if Westlake has a very specific person in mind, but doesn’t want anyone to know who it is. Well, possibly a composite. But I bet it was a fellow writer. Unless the character is simply a summation of mannerisms Westlake found in himself that irritated his core personality–come to think of it, he’s the only member of the string who drinks bourbon, other than Dortmunder.
One could say Kelp is to Dortmunder as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote, but I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around. Far from being dragged along on yet another absurd quest, Kelp is constantly exhorting his goodly knight to joust at yet another windmill, and Dortmunder keeps resisting–never successfully, but he keeps trying. Kelp is nothing if not persuasive, and he knows a secret–Dortmunder wants to be persuaded–he needs to practice his avocation. He can’t exist without work, and there’s only one kind of work he knows how to do. But left to his own devices, he mainly goes out on his own to rob small appliance or jewelry stores. Without Kelp, his heists would be rather desultory affairs.
In this book, having originally left prison vowing to the warden that he was a reformed man, knowing all the while he was going to go right back to his old ways, he gives up in mid-book–he’s had enough. He tells his breathlessly delighted parole officer that he’s not going to associate with his felonious former friends anymore–he doesn’t tell the poor naive fellow that his idea of reform is to run short cons on householders, selling them nonexistent encyclopedias. To him, that doesn’t even count as stealing. A master of the mental reservation, is Dortmunder–you can tell he was raised a good Catholic boy.
Kelp knows better–Dortmunder can’t give up stealing–he just has to keep pitching, and Dortmunder will come back to the fold. He really is Dortmunder’s alter-ego–the eternal cock-eyed optimist to Dortmunder’s confirmed pessimist. The tech-crazy early-adopter to Dortmunder’s old school conservative, who despises change of any kind. He’s a better thief than Dortmunder in most respects, nerveless as a sponge, slippery as an eel–but he lacks the one thing Dortmunder has–imagination.
Dortmunder can visualize a way to get at the goods, whatever the goods may be–Kelp lacks this talent. And he knows it, cheerfully cops to it, and thus must continue to attach himself to Dortmunder, like a remora to a shark, keeping him company on his endless swim. Whether the shark wants the remora’s company is entirely beside the point, of course. It’s you and me to the end, pal. Hey, any beer in the fridge? Ya gotta love the guy. But you can also understand why Dortmunder really doesn’t, most of the time.
In the same profession, living basically the same life, they perpetually misunderstand each other, which bothers Dortmunder quite a bit, and Kelp not at all–there in his dingy hotel room, Dortmunder tries to explain that he really is going straight, and his parole officer told him to stay away from criminal types, and this is the result–
“You don’t need me,” Dortmunder said. “Besides, I been warned away from bad companions, and that means you bunch.”
Kelp waved his hands in negation. “That horoscope stuff doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “I got hooked on that stuff once, my second wife was a nut for all that. The only fall I ever took, I did what the horoscope told me.”
Dortmunder frowned at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Horoscope,” Kelp explained. He moved his hands like a man shuffling jigsaw puzzle pieces. “Bad companions,” he said. “Tall dark trips. Afternoon is good for business marriages. All that stuff.”
Dortmunder squinted, trying to see Kelp clearly enough to understand him. Finally he said, in some doubt. “You mean horoscope?”
“Sure,” Kelp said. “Naturally.”
Dortmunder shook his head, still trying to understand. “You believe in horoscopes?”
“No,” said Kelp. “You do.”
Dortmunder thought about that for a few seconds, then nodded heavily and said to the room at large, “I hope you guys’ll be very happy here. I’ll let you know where to send my stuff.” He turned and headed for the door.
So what gets him back on the job? Well, this funniest of fictional thieves just can’t stand being laughed at. Now, I’ve taken such an ass-backwards approach to talking about this book (plus I know most of you reading this already know the plot by heart), I haven’t even explained that this job is basically work-for-hire (which is obviously one big reason why it keeps going sour, since this is a Donald Westlake book).
Major Iko of the small fictional African country of Talabwo (the Westlake Atlas continues to grow) wants Dortmunder to steal the famed Balabomo Emerald from its current owners, the equally fictitious country of Akinzi (Dortmunder thinks that’s the guy who wrote the sex book that he could never get out of the prison library). The Major promises to pay each member of the string thirty thousand dollars upon delivery of the emerald. Dortmunder insists he pay living and work-related expenses as well. He’s driving a shrewd bargain, but failing to grasp that Iko may not feel like he has to honor an agreement made with thieves.
The Major is quite a good character in his own right–increasingly befuddled by these strange men he’s hired, increasingly appalled by each new list they present to him, of needed items for the next heist–each successive job is a bit more complex, a bit more absurd–but he’s got to go along with it, because he’s hooked. He’s set out to get something very valuable for as little money as possible, but like so many people who hire outside contractors have learned, in for a penny, in for a pound. He’s like the villagers in the famous story of the Stone Soup, only the stone is an emerald, and he ends up in the soup himself.
When Westlake told a different version of this same story in The Black Ice Score, the Africans were treated very sympathetically, and the story ended up being about colonialism and African politics. This is a Dortmunder story, taking place in a much less grim reality, and the Major’s race and nationality are not really important. We’re all just God’s clowns, right? The Major’s ultimate fate is probably not going to be a happy one, but mortality is rarely witnessed in the pages of a Dortmunder book. The primary casualty is usually pride.
So anyway, back to my point–Dortmunder knows he’s being made fun of–he can’t always figure out by whom. The author of his misfortunes is safely out of his reach (lucky for the author). But give him a target for his righteous indignation, and that target is in trouble. First a shyster lawyer named Prosker makes the mistake of openly laughing at him–then the Major gives him the finger.
Dortmunder may be something of a coward at times–it’s a wise man’s failing–but when sufficiently humiliated, his fear is quickly drowned out by a burning need for retribution, and his full resourcefulness is brought into play. In his own way, he is as implacable a foe as Parker. It just takes a lot more effort to get him motivated. That’s one reason his books are usually longer.
The final chapter ends with another African dignitary (the only person in the book with any dignity left, if only because he was smart enough to come in at the very end) saying to Dortmunder “I must make a memo to myself never to try to cheat you.” And that’s always good advice, when you’re dealing with Dortmunder. He is a clown, yes–but he’s not your clown. God can make a fool of him–God’s name being Westlake–but no one else. He won’t have it. And the truth is, we don’t begrudge him a bit of his pride–because we’ve had to swallow ours so many times, and we know just how he feels.
We’ve all been made fools of by the higher-ups, the suits, the bosses, the money men. It’s happening right now, and it will go on happening. It’s like we’re the Beagle Boys, and they’re Scrooge McDuck, and they always get their money back–with interest. They steal from us, and we go back to jail, or back to work, same difference (hey, it’s my blog, and I’m entitled to the odd bit of ranting). And of course if I’m reading a Carl Barks classic, I’m Uncle Scrooge, swimming around in my personal money bin, so that’s all fine and dandy. But then I put down the comic book, and guess what–I’m Dortmunder. We all are. We always will be.
But does that mean we have to take things lying down? Not on your life. We’re not rich, we’re probably not even good-looking, but we can be smart. We can fight back. We can find weak spots in their armor–we can turn their arrogance against them–we can win temporary but oh-so-satisfying victories–and we can have fun along the way.
Much as he may enjoy teasing them, Westlake loves this motley gang of crooks. You know he does, because he goes out of his way to treat them along the way. Stan Murch gets to pilot a helicopter over New York City (without ever having flown one before!). Chefwick, the model train nut, gets to be the engineer inside a life-size model train (a replica of the famous Tom Thumb, no less). And where do they end up at the end of the tracks–in a looney bin–which one might argue is where they all belong, and so do the rest of us reading this joyous nonsense.
Yeah, they’re a team of losers–but they’re each and every one of them a character–an individual. Life can thwart them, mock them, but it can never break them down. In a world that seems determined to reduce and every one of us to a set of vital statistics–like the Major’s beloved dossiers–the Dortmunder gang keeps busting out. And they take us with them. And for that, we’ll never be able to thank them enough.
And there’s more gang members coming. This is just the start of a long bumpy ride. Not all the books will end this triumphantly. Dortmunder will endure many far worse humiliations–and this guy who seems to want more than anything to be left alone will end up at the center of a sort of bizarre ersatz family, that makes even the Addams’ look normal by comparison. And maybe he likes that more than he lets on, but he’ll never ever let on. You wouldn’t really want him to.
Having read all the books, I think this is the funniest of the bunch in some ways. Arguably, Westlake never again came up with quite as clever a comic extravaganza again, never did quite as good a job building the gag. That’s neither here nor there, because all things considered, there are better books coming–the cast of characters expands, and the quirks of each individual character are elaborated upon. The humor becomes more refined, better defined–and the truth is the books don’t even have to be that good for us to enjoy them–we’re just so glad to be back with these people again. We’ll take them on any terms offered.
Not all the Dortmunders are classics–but the best of them surely are, and I wouldn’t personally part with a single one. There are 14 of them, and a scattering of short stories, and I only wish there was some way Westlake could have cloned himself, and put one of the clones in charge of doing nothing but writing Dortmunder stories.
But there was only ever one Donald E. Westlake. And he had other things to write about. Different kinds of jokes to make. The kinds of jokes that might make you cry as much as laugh. Like suppose a guy wanted to be a writer, but the only writing he was allowed to do was smut. And each and every chapter had to be 5,000 words long. And he couldn’t even use his own name. And his life–his very soul–is getting swallowed up by the work he’s doing.
Dortmunder got off lucky by comparison–and he got a movie–actually a bunch of them–but only one worth reviewing. Which I’ll review next week. And then it’s off to the porn pits we go. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.