Monthly Archives: August 2015

Mr. Westlake and The 70’s

August was kind of an odd month, here at The Westlake Review, wasn’t it?   We started off with Westlake’s one and only nonfiction book published in his lifetime, about a tiny Caribbean island most people have never heard of, and their struggle to remain independent by remaining a British colony.  Then a very short novel about a public restroom, that turned out to be one of the longest and weirdest reviews I’ve ever written (that I have to stick in the qualifier really says something about both TWR and myself, but I’m not sure I want to know what that is).  Then a novel set in late 19th century San Francisco, of all things, co-written with Brian Garfield, and then a novel written entirely by Garfield, that Westlake didn’t write a word of, though oblique references to him abound within.  Well, that’s August for you.

Enough for now of the bibliophilia obscura (name of actual blog), the odd ducks, the apocryphal anomalies of Mr. Westlake’s long varied career, and nice as it is to know Mr. Garfield name checks his influences, our primary purpose here remains to analyze the major works of Donald E. Westlake, and over the next few months, it’ll be one after another.

Let me run down the list of coming attractions this fall–and remember my penchant for multi-part reviews when I think a book is worthy of extra attention:

Butcher’s Moon

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Jimmy the Kid

Two Much

Brothers Keepers

Dancing Aztecs

These six novels were all published within the span of three years–1974 through 1976.  For almost any other writer who was not doing mere hackwork, that would be a staggering rate of production, particularly since the first and last of these books are quite long and complex, the latter especially.

But for Westlake, it actually constituted a major slowdown.  In the 60’s, he’d been known to publish that many novels in a single year.  In 1976, his only published novel was Dancing Aztecs.   The furor of the 60’s, the drive to establish himself, the need to express so many ideas, speak in so many different voices–calming down somewhat.  He’s pacing himself more.  He’s taking a bit more time with each book.  And it shows.

Although we’ve already looked at sixteen books that bear publication dates from the 70’s, many of these were written before that decade actually dawned–no publisher could keep pace with Westlake’s staggering prolificacy (is so a word) in the 60’s, so books produced around the same time got spaced out.

And as we all know, a decade doesn’t start in earnest for a few years after it formally begins–the early 70’s were just an extension of the late 60’s, with the same basic social and political concerns, the same basic style in fashion, music, art, and fiction.  I’d say the 70’s proper didn’t get going until just around the time Westlake would have written Butcher’s Moon.

What came before was, you might say, a transitional period.  He wrote his last books featuring Alan Grofield and Mitch Tobin, two series characters with much to recommend them, that somehow ran their course and ended.  He introduced John Dortmunder, whose course would run straight to the end of Westlake’s life.

He finished with Parker, and with Richard Stark, but in a way that seemed more like a beginning than an ending.   He lost track of the Stark voice, as well as the Coe voice, but I’d say he incorporated those voices more into work he wrote under his own name.   And Stark would be waiting for him well into the future, when Westlake needed him again.

As one decade ended and another began, he experimented with a variety of forms he had not previously been known for, and never would be, really–political thriller (Ex Officio), political satire (I Gave At The Office), narrative journalism (Under An English Heaven), literary parody (Comfort Station), and Gangway! is a comic western, whether the purists want to admit it or not.   And while all were worth reading (and were fun to review), none of them really belong on a list of his best books.   Whereas any list of his best books that doesn’t include at least five of the next six isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

He didn’t just go back to the same old mystery rut–his long innovative run at Random House ended with Butcher’s Moon, and his short frustrating stint at Simon & Schuster was over almost before it started, but at M. Evans & Co. he began to really dig into the guts of what made his style and preoccupations work for him.  He hit his stride in the 70’s, in a way he hadn’t before.  He understood himself better as a writer.  And there may have been one other factor in the mix.

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That’s the dedication to Butcher’s Moon, and I believe the first time he mentioned Abby Adams, his future and final spouse, in a book dedication.   Interesting how often third time’s the charm for some creative folks.  Not that I don’t think Nedra Henderson and Sandra Foley don’t deserve credit as well for the amazing work he’d already done, but what we see now is Westlake taking stock, slowing down, and producing fully mature work–over and over again–even if that means producing a lot less.   He’s come to a more stable period in both his personal and professional life.  From our perspective, what this means is some really good books–but it also means we’ll get through the 70’s a lot faster than the 60’s.

Westlake published not one novel in the last three years of that decade–after the fourth Dortmunder novel, Nobody’s Perfect, in 1977, his next book was 1980’s Castle in the Air (which I like very much, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s very good), followed by 1981’s Kahawa, which he and Abby did extensive time-consuming research on.   These would also be technically 70’s books.

For all intents and purposes, the 80’s belonged to Dortmunder, though there’s one or two other books from that decade I love, plus an attempt at a new series character (written under a new pseudonym), who I like well enough, but again, liking and admiring are two different things.

The next six books I both love and admire–they are Westlake at his iconoclastic genre-bending thought-provoking best.   They are classics, each and every one of them.  They are books to savor.  And savor them we shall.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Hopscotch

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“Our kind has been on this planet for perhaps two million years,” Yaskov said, “and during all but one percent of that period, we lived as hunters.  The hunting way of life is the only one natural to man.  The one most rewarding.  It was your way of life but your government took it away from you.  I offer to return it to you.”

“It’s self-destructive lunacy, is what it is.”

“Well my dear Miles, you can’t lead our kind of life and expect to live forever.  But at least we can be alive for a time.”

“It’s all computers now.   World War Three will be known as the Paperkrieg.  There’s no need for my kind of toy gladiator any more.  We’re as obsolete as fur-trapping explorers.”

“It’s hardly gone that far, old friend.  Otherwise, why should I be making you this offer?”

“Because you can’t face obsolescence–you won’t acknowledge it the way I’ve done.  You’re as redundant as I am–you just don’t know it yet.”  Kendig smiled meaninglessly.  “We’ve seven’d out.  All of us.”

“I don’t know the expression, but you make it sound clear enough.”

“It’s to do with a dice game.”

This is going to be one of my shorter reviews, and it could be argued that I’m violating the mission statement of this blog by posting it at all.  The book being reviewed here was not written by Donald E. Westlake, but rather by his longtime friend, Brian Garfield.   Nor can I pretend to any great familiarity with Garfield’s work.  What happened was, Garfield and Westlake co-wrote the last book I reviewed here, and I felt like I needed to read some Garfield as part of my background research, and this novel was easily available to me, and I kind of wanted to read it anyhow.

What I learned, upon reading it, is that 1)Garfield is a hell of a writer (I’m hardly the first to reach this conclusion) and 2)He was, at least in this instance, very powerfully influenced by Westlake, and specifically by what Westlake wrote as Richard Stark.   And he wasn’t shy about tacitly admitting that in the book itself.   I should perhaps mention that this is the book that won Garfield the Edgar Award for best mystery novel, even though it’s a spy thriller, but we discussed that little oddity of the Edgars when I was reviewing God Save The Mark.

I knew the story going in, or thought I did–I went to see Hopscotch (the movie) shortly after it premiered in 1980, liked it so much I went to see it twice.  It’s long been a favorite of mine.  It’s right at the tail-end of Walter Matthau’s career as a leading man (he was 60 when it came out); probably the last picture he made where he was the unquestioned star, the story entirely about his character, even though Glenda Jackson has a memorable supporting role, and there’s a great cast overall, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, etc.  Neat little flick, and you can watch it for free on Hulu, for the price of sitting through a few bad commercials.

And going in with such strongly positive memories of the film, I was amazed at how quickly the book supplanted it in my loyalties.  It’s not that the film’s script (co-written by Garfield) tells such a different story–most major elements of the plot are there, in altered form–but the approach to it is light-hearted, comic, almost innocent–a sort of espionage quadrille.  Which is what they figured they could sell to a mainstream movie audience looking for a nice Matthau comedy, with a bit of a romance hook between him and Jackson (since they’d just done a romantic comedy together a few years before).

The book is none of those things.  It truly is written in the spirit of Richard Stark (as reinterpreted by Brian Garfield) and to the extent there’s any humor in it, it’s very black indeed.  It’s not a quadrille, so much as a tango–a dance of life and death.  It’s romantic all right, but in the same spirit as the Parker novels.  Not at all what Hollywood means by romance.

The film’s score is full of Mozart, with a bit of Rossini mixed in (Matthau, a lifelong fan of Wolfgang Amadeus, can even whistle some of his compositions like a crazed canary), but a score for the novel would be rather more Wagnerian, I think–Götterdämmerung.  Or even better, some delta blues, or New Orleans jazz, the kind they play at funerals– a fair bit of  the story is set in the American South.  Or maybe music would just get in the way.   Because to the extent this novel’s protagonist resembles a Richard Stark protagonist, it sure as hell isn’t Alan Grofield.  He’s not hearing any movie score in his head.

He does go see a movie in the course of the story, though–The Outfit, with Robert Duvall.  He’s just killing some time in the theater, as we sometimes see Parker do on a job; not really interested in the film–he walks out after an hour, as the story is building to its climax, so nobody will notice him leaving–he’s got to use the bathroom to put on a disguise, That’s a very obvious tip of the hat to Stark.  As is his later briefly adopting the alias of Jules Parker.  That’s almost too obvious.

The protagonist’s name is Miles Kendig, and he used to work for the CIA.   He was good–quite possibly the best, though like any good intelligence man, he drew as little attention to himself as possible, which meant that relatively few people knew how good he really was.  Just a handful of fellow pros.   And even they may underestimate him at times.

On a mission to the Balkans, he was badly wounded, nearly killed.  Once he recovered, the higher-ups decided he was past his prime, over the hill (he’s 53 when we first meet him).  They wouldn’t put him in the field anymore–he could ride a desk for a while, if he wanted, or take retirement.  He took the desk–just long enough to expunge his personnel records–when he leaves, they don’t even have a photograph of him, and because of his low profile, only a few people at the Agency could pull him out of a line-up.  He’s a self-made tabula rasa.

As the book opens, he’s retired, playing high stakes poker in Paris, not caring if he wins or loses, and so of course he wins big, as he has before.  The glamorous sophisticated 40-ish European woman who was his primary opponent in the game (Jeanne Moreau, maybe?) picks him up afterwards, and he reluctantly allows himself to be seduced (he’s no fashion plate, he’s mainly not interested, and women are drawn to him like flies to honey–sound familiar?).

He’s also dabbled in fast cars, and other things people to do distract themselves from a purposeless existence.  He’s got money, adventure, sex, freedom, and his health.  And he’s terminally bored.  Without his work, something has died inside him.  He’s trying to find a reason go to on living, and failing, badly.

Then a former adversary of his, a Russian spymaster named Yaskov, makes the proposition referred to in the passage from the novel I kicked this review off with–come work for us–we see your value, even if those fools do not.  And he can’t do it.  Even though the illusions of conventional patriotism have largely been destroyed in him, he can’t go over to the other side.  It’s not who he is.  And since he wouldn’t believe in what he was doing, he’d just be working for the sake of working, going through the motions.  It wouldn’t fix what’s broken in him.

But as he mulls it over, an alternative presents itself.  He can’t ply his trade for his own country anymore, or for any other country, but he can still ply it for himself.  He can issue a challenge–the name of the game is Catch Me If You Can (or Hopscotch, if you prefer).  But first he needs the appropriate bait.  So he starts work on a book.  A book about what he knows.  And he starts sending out pages–to publishers, and to spy agencies.  The pages are full of some very direct and telling hints of what the book’s content will be.

He knows a lot.  More than anyone realized.  This is something the book explains much better than the film–a field agent typically only knows what’s relevant to his work–that way he can only tell so much if he’s captured and tortured.  In the movie, Kendig quit immediately after his boss told him to sit behind a desk (movie plot shorthand)–in the novel, he took that desk job long enough to read a whole lot of very interesting top secret files–and Miles Kendig never forgets anything he reads.

So when his bosses find out what he’s got in mind, various carefully worded threats are issued, which Kendig merely laughs at.  Because what he wants is for them to come after him, with the purpose of killing him.  And by evading them, through the methodical application of a lifetime of training, he can prove he’s the best there is at what he does, and slip the shackles of existential ennui.

Actually revealing the secrets to the world–many of which are explosive in nature, political assassinations and so forth–is not his primary goal.  He isn’t Edward Snowden.  He doesn’t think he can bring about a better freer more transparent world, nor does he have any interest in being lauded as a whistleblower, or put on any Nobel short lists.  He just wants to stop feeling dead inside.  He’s been the hunter for most of his life–now he’ll try being the hunted.

The CIA assigns Kendig’s best pupil, Joe Cutter, to track him down.  Joe picks Leonard Ross, a younger agent, to assist him, since Ross at least knows what Kendig looks like.   Cutter doesn’t like what Kendig is doing, but he understands it, better than anyone else (they’ll be forcing him out too, one of these days).  He isn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of killing his teacher, but he’ll do as he’s ordered.   And Kendig goes out of his way to provoke Cutter, wanting to make sure his protégé gives the job his all.

Now I’d normally launch into a detailed synopsis here, going over the plot with a fine-toothed comb, leaking spoilers all over the carpet, possibly stretching it out into a two-parter, but this is The Westlake Review, not The Garfield Gazette.  I greatly admire this book, but my point is how Garfield, who in a sense became Westlake’s protégé, absorbed the lessons he learned from Westlake’s novels, particularly the Parker novels, and applied them to his own quite distinct purposes.  Not that Stark is the only influence here–there’s a character named Joe Tobin–an FBI agent, called into the hunt when Kendig goes to ground in Georgia to write his book.  Kendig’s deep depression that he’s trying to shake off, along with his nagging conscience, do seem more reminiscent of Tucker Coe than of Richard Stark.

There’s also a CIA man named Glenn Follett, and that’s about as glaringly obvious a reference to Ken Follett as one could imagine–except that when this book came out, the internationally best-selling author of espionage thrillers hadn’t had a best seller yet–he’d published only two novels, both quite recently, and wasn’t very well known at all.   Clearly Garfield had him pegged as a comer, and felt like tipping his hat–and yet, we’re left in no doubt that Glenn Follett, though a capable man, is not in the same league as ‘Jules Parker’–there’s a lot of little inside references like this, and you’re not always quite sure what they mean, but they mean something, that’s for damn certain.   As with Westlake, the inside jokes are there for those able to appreciate them.

The book switches back and forth between chapters from Kendig’s perspective, watching him play his deadly game with deadly calm, moving around, creating false identities, laying false trails for the hunters, always a few steps ahead of the hounds–and chapters from the perspective of Cutter and Ross and the other people hunting Kendig.  Including Yaskov, because once the Soviets realize how much information Kendig has, they’re desperate to lay hands on him–and then, once they realize that he’s compromising them almost as much as the Americans, they just want him dead as much as the CIA does.

And this, of course, is very Starkian as well, but Stark didn’t invent the idea of switching perspectives in fiction (don’t ask me who did).  The book isn’t broken up into four parts–it’s not that direct an homage.  The idea is the same, though–to contrast Kendig’s mentality with that of his pursuers.  Only Cutter and Yaskov (and eventually Ross) come close to fully understanding him, but because they’re all organization men–cogs in a machine, whether they like it or not–they can’t ever fully understand a man who has decided to cut all ties, be totally free.  One does get the feeling they envy him, though.

Yaskov, the wily old Russian, who Cutter observes would have just as happily been a czarist spy if he’d been born a few generations sooner (what difference, really?), arranges a meet with Cutter and Ross, to swap intel on Kendig–and makes this rather trenchant remark to Cutter, that as you might imagine, perked my ears right up–

“Kendig and I are among the last of the old wolves,” Yaskov said, “but perhaps there’s still hope.  I’m told you conform to the breed more than most of our colleagues.”

Hmm.   I wonder sometimes about conversations Westlake had with his closest comrades about the nature of Parker, and what might have been said in these discussions.   Or left unsaid, while remaining implicit.

I’m barely giving the flavor of the book–most of the major plot points made it into the film, but in very altered form–the way they play out in the book is so different as to constitute an entirely different story, and there are some fascinating things that didn’t get into the film at all–like Kendig finding a double of himself, a down on his luck American, and paying him to impersonate Kendig, for a hefty fee–which the man does with considerable pleasure, and surprising skill.

The ploy doesn’t really fool Cutter, who knows Kendig too well, but resources are still expended to track the impostor down on an ocean liner.  I suspect the point of that episode isn’t to display Kendig’s resourcefulness, but to make a very Westlakeian comment about identity.  The double–a secret sharer, you might say–had lost himself in the wake of a bad marriage, and now, by pretending to be a fugitive secret agent, seems to have rediscovered his own agency in life.

Kendig doesn’t kill one person in this novel (he doesn’t even like to carry a gun), and goes out of his way to make sure no one is killed because of him.  That is not much like Parker, or even Grofield.  And this is Garfield’s variation on the theme–Kendig isn’t really a wolf in human form, you see.  He’s very much a man, who had to become like a wolf, to do his job.  We learn about his forlorn search for his long-lost father, who died poor and alone just before Kendig located him–the experience left lasting scars, that impacted all the choices he made afterwards, and he begins to understand that as the story builds to its conclusion.

Kendig has very understandable human goals and aspirations, and a very human form of melancholia, and yet at the end, he seems ready to really live again, maybe even love, without the stimulus of having trained killers on his trail night and day.  But for that to happen, he has to shake those killers once and for all, and maybe you should read the book.  Or you can watch the movie, which has its own unique pleasures to impart (and a character who isn’t in the book at all–a rather kick-ass London-based publisher named–I kid you not–Parker Westlake). But seriously–read the book first.   I wish I had.

Garfield has Cutter think to himself at one point that he’s glad he played poker with Kendig–it’s his opinion that there’s no better way to understand your rival.  Or your friend.  And in writing this book, Garfield proved he understood them both very well.  His old poker buddy, Donald E. Westlake–and his rival, Richard Stark.  (I don’t think Garfield ever really did much in the comic caper area after Gangway!, though he was perhaps taking a few pointers when co-writing the script for the film adaptation–and he and Westlake would later collaborate on a film, but that one is decidedly not a comedy).

Garfield’s interest in espionage and those who practice that dark art continues to this very day, not always in the form of fiction   He’s got a new book out about Richard Meinertzhagen, a legendary adventurer, who may have been an even more legendary con artist.  I hope to get around to it soon.

But now, I have to prepare myself for what may be the biggest challenge of my book-blogging career to date.   Miles Kendig, as I have already mentioned, is not so terribly hard to understand.  But Parker is, and our next book–the 16th Parker novel, and the last to appear in print for a very long time–is just one identity puzzle after another–frequently reviewed, but never in any great depth, that I can see.  I must warn you in advance, I have no idea how long this one is going to go–I very much doubt a two-parter will suffice, and I would not rule out a four-parter.  We’ll play the hand we’re dealt, and see how the cards stack up.

And now a little music to set the mood.  I was thinking about Bad Moon Rising, but that’s a bit too on the nose, don’t you think?

Any Rory Gallagher fans in the house?  He was always a million miles away from all the rest.

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Filed under Brian Garfield, Hopscotch, Parker Novels

Review: Gangway!

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Gabe had a window seat on the train, but there hadn’t been anything to see for three thousand miles.

There had been green days: grass flats, fourteen Indians riding around the train in warbonnets chasing five spavined buffalo.  There had been brown days: the occasional yokel on a horse and at intervals an excuse for a town–a few tottering shacks, buckboard wagons, tall idiots festooned with huge revolvers and silly hats.

He remembered the curl of Twill’s lip.  “West of the Hudson River, it’s all horse manure.”

A wise observation, that.  It smelled that way–even Chicago.  Especially Chicago, stinking to high heaven of beef carcasses.  It was only a thousand miles after Chicago that you started to remember the place with a certain wistful fondness.  It wasn’t a city, but at least by God it was trying.

Don Westlake had a blinding-fast mind. He always seemed to have on the tip of his tongue the sort of wonderful witty rejoinders that occur to most of us a day or two too late. In 1970 we got the idea that it would be amusing to try combining our strengths in a Western comedy novel. We wrote Gangway!, and it turned out to be quite funny, I think. Henry sold it and it did fairly well. But our ambitions to sell it as a basis for a movie didn’t work out. And we’d done it in a silly way—each of us would write a draft, then turn it over to the other, who’d rewrite the whole thing and give it back. It was about four times as much work as either of us would have put in individually on a book. So we didn’t try that again. But it was fun, and we got to know each other’s working styles.

Brian Garfield, speaking to Levi Stahl.

They really did meet at a poker game, in 1965.   That’s what Brian Garfield said in this interview, and I see no reason to doubt him.  I’ve already spoken about the enduring friendship between Westlake and Lawrence Block, but there was yet another great literary bromance in Westlake’s life that stretched across the decades, and that was with this guy, born about six years after Westlake, in 1939.  My significant other, seeing his name on a book I was reading, asked if he might have inspired Alan Grofield.  The similarity in the names is an interesting coincidence, as are the parallels in the relationships (Parker to Grofield, Westlake to Garfield)–even the age difference is similar–but since Grofield first appeared in 1964, probably not.   Too bad.

The game depicted in the above photo from the back cover of this book took place some years later, in 1972, when Garfield was hard at work on the book most people remember him for now, Death Wish.  Arguably more famous than anything Westlake ever wrote, but that’s at least partly because of the Charles Bronson movie (screenplay by Wendell Mayes, who wrote a whole lot of better movies, but a nice bonus to get such a solid pro adapting you).

Garfield was born in New York City, like Westlake himself, but grew up in Arizona, about as far from upstate New York in climate and culture as you can get in this country.   While Westlake got his start writing a mix of science fiction, mystery, and pseudo-porn, Garfield wrote mysteries and westerns–a lot more westerns than mysteries in the early days–over forty novels in that genre, many of the early ones under pseudonyms.

As a mature author, his wheelhouse would eventually turn out to be a mixture of crime and thriller/suspense, sometimes with a touch of espionage, but his roots were in the horse opera.  His first published novel was a western published under his own name, entitled Range Justice, and came out in 1960, same year as The Mercenaries, Westlake’s first novel under his own name, but that’s a mite deceptive–Westlake had a big jump on Garfield, professionally speaking.  Garfield would be catching up fast over the next decade or so.

Westlake was not a westerns guy.  Like any American kid born in the first seven decades of the 20th century, he knew the genre–you couldn’t avoid it, any more than you could baseball.  He wasn’t much interested in writing for it.   He wasn’t that much interested in the west most of the time, if you get right down to it.  He’d write stories set out west–Parker novels, for example, or novels about Hollywood–but in most cases, the setting was more or less incidental to the story, though always keenly observed.

Westlake was more about the city than the country, and if he wrote about the country, it was the way city people tend to do–somewhere you escape to, quiet and bucolic, a good place to relax (or hide out)–but still adjacent to the city, so you can get back to civilization quickly when you need it, and you will.

So according to Garfield, this book was written around 1970 (at least that’s when they had the idea), and their mutual agent, Henry Morrison (who also attended those poker games), got it published at M. Evans & Co., a few years later.  It was right around 1970 (with the pseudonymous political thriller Ex Officio) that M. Evans had started its ten-novel run with Westlake (and one two-novella collection we’ll be getting to soon enough).   All the subsequent books he produced for them were published under his own name, and no two are alike, or really much like anything he did before or since.   But this collaborative effort was unusual even by the standards of his work for M. Evans.

Is it a true western?  I’ve seen people suggest otherwise.  I think they’re right as far as they go–the western novel is a fairly rigid form, perhaps the most conservative of all genres, and I don’t just mean politically.  There are certain elements that have to be present, that the readership demands, and if they aren’t there, it isn’t a western–but the form is a lot less rigorously classicist in its other mediums, such as film and television, which is how most people have enjoyed it.

I think this book, set in 1874, in boom town San Francisco, falls very neatly into the comedy western genre that had become overwhelmingly prevalent in Hollywood films during the late 60’s/early 70’s (presumably there were a lot of books as well, but I wouldn’t know), as the western movie genre began to die out, along with the TV western.  In fact, I would suspect Garfield and Westlake were thinking at least party about this 1969 release, and how they might improve upon it–

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(Fun film.  Very lightweight stuff, but still worth renting, or catching on late-night cable–Ossie Davis has a memorable role as a two-fisted wisecracking blacksmith, Clint Walker is sturdy enough, and Angie Dickinson is as you’d expect, only more so, because the S&P people were loosening up on sex a bit.  Burt Reynolds is Burt Reynolds, as always, and what’s wrong with that?).

And as Garfield tells us in the interview, they weren’t just writing a novel together for a few bucks–they were hoping to sell it to Hollywood–trying to latch onto a trend.  Seems like they were a bit too far behind the curve–Hollywood was rapidly losing interest in westerns, comedic or otherwise.  But if they had sold the novel to the movies, that’s what the movie would have been sold as, no question.   So yeah, it’s a western.  It’s just not a standard ‘oater’, with the sixgun shoot-outs, the cowpokes, the schoolmarms, and the wide open prairie.  It’s what you might call a sub-genre–‘the dude goes west’.  Been a lot of those.

And it’s a comic caper to boot.   Westlake was just then becoming the supreme master of those, with The Hot Rock.  But this, sadly, is a lot closer to his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   It’s actually not that bad.   Enjoyable light reading, if approached with limited expectations.  It’s a long way from the best work either man was capable of–when writing a novel, two heads are not necessarily better than one.

To be sure, there have been great writing duos in the mystery genre–“Ellery Queen” was actually the team of cousins Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee.  The mystery novels of “Wade Miller” and “Whit Masterson” were written by the team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller.  Two people who work together often in this way can achieve a sort of synergy, each doing what he or she is best at, and the results can be impressive.  But much more often, you get something written by committee.  Prose fiction is not a team sport.

Westlake and Lawrence Block had co-written a few sleaze books, mainly alternating chapters, each getting to use his own distinctive style, make up the plot as they went along, each reacting to the other’s choices–Westlake and Garfield both worked on all the chapters in this one, going for consistency in tone.  Which makes it damned hard to know who is responsible for what.

You can make educated guesses, but here’s the thing–each man was well-familar with the work of the other, and Garfield in particular was very influenced by Westlake, so even if you see something that strikes you as very much a Westlake plot twist, or a Westlake character, or a Westlake gag–could just be Garfield channeling Westlake. Less likely it would be the other way around, since Garfield’s style was still evolving at this point, but Westlake would have tried to make his stuff match-up with Garfield’s, and might have deferred to him more since Garfield knew this genre (and the geographic region it’s set in) so much better.

Westlake must have read some western novels, as well as gone to movies–in that faux interview of himself and his pseudonyms that I’ve referenced many times here, he makes a rather disparaging reference to Dirty Dingus Magee, and in the context of the discussion, it seems like he means the novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee, by David Markson, not the Frank Sinatra film based on it, even though he uses the movie title.  The two may have gotten mixed up in his mind.

He had a pronounced aversion to genre writing that got too self-consciously joky and gimmick-laden–as you can see from last week’s book, if he wrote a sustained parody, it was probably going to be of something he didn’t like.  So his intention here is not parodic, not even satiric–he’s going to try and craft an urban western farce, similar in tone and effect to his popular ‘Nephew’ books, with a protagonist who has much in common with Aloysius Engel of The Busy Body, and (less fortunately) Kelly Bram Nicholas IV of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   I don’t consider this a Nephew story, because certain key elements are missing, but you could argue this picks up where The Busy Body left off–a confirmed New Yorker forced to go west–only it’s the old west.

Westlake would have gone into this venture with mixed emotions–liking the idea of working with a friend whose abilities he respected; curious to see what he could do with a form he wasn’t experienced in; thinking maybe they’d score a nice payday in Tinseltown before the western movie’s last great decadent era came to a close.   It would be different, at least.

But at the same time he’d be thinking he was too far out of his element–collaborating on a novel, something he’d only done a few times before, never producing results that were much to his liking–said book being set not only in a place he didn’t know well, but in a different time–a period piece.   Westlake wrote in the moment–very rarely does he ever tell a story that isn’t set in the exact time it was composed in.  He seemed to need that sense of immediacy to spur him on to greatness.

And I often seem to need to devote even more set-up time to the books I’m not that wild about.   Weird, huh?  Let’s try a very brief synopsis here, before this thing gets out of control.

Gabe Beauchamps, a French-American tough from Manhattan’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen district (where I lived for a time, and it lived down to its rep), is sourly gazing at the California landscape from the train.  His former employer, a crooked political boss named Patrick Twill (Tweed was already taken) has kicked him out of New York for life, because of one minor screw-up (he muscled a pushcart vendor related to a local bigwig).  He’s been given a choice of San Francisco or death.  He’s reluctantly chosen the former.

(Sidebar: Why is Gabe French-American?  We’re told Twill, more of a political boss than a crimelord–the implication being that the difference was largely academic at the time–needed a Frenchman to keep the locals in line.  Either Westlake or Garfield had apparently read somewhere that Hell’s Kitchen used to be a French nabe.  Maybe it was once.  But it’s 1874, about two decades since the famine-stricken Irish came pouring off the ships into New York; there were certainly many powerful Irish street gangs in Hell’s Kitchen by then, so I don’t buy it.  I can’t find any reference to a strong French presence in Hell’s Kitchen at all–there’s a few good French restaurants there, but they don’t go back that far.

Westlake would have been in charge of the New York stuff, and he probably skimped a bit on the research, as he sometimes did–found some obscure reference to French people in Hell’s Kitchen that appealed to him, and ran with it.  Gabe doesn’t even seem to speak any French.  His temperament seems more Gaelic than Gallic to me–but he does like to cherchez la femme.   I suspect Westlake just wanted to remind us that New York’s ethnic make-up is always changing–he’d probably heard the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen bars, complaining about those damn Puerto Ricans.  And the beat goes on.)

Gabe has an endearing and rather Nephew-esque little quirk–he gets seasick–doesn’t have to be on the actual sea–being on any kind of a boat on any kind of water will turn the trick (this would be a good sight gag for a movie).  So he’s not happy when he finds out the railroad doesn’t go all the way to San Francisco yet, and he’s got to take a riverboat the rest of the way from Sacramento.   And he does have to, because Twill says he’s going to get whacked (or whatever term they used then) if he doesn’t turn up there on schedule.

So on the boat, Gabe meets the lovely Evangeline Kemp, 24 years of age to Gabe’s 28, blonde, petite, perky as all hell, and a talented pickpocket to boot.  That’s just one of her skills–she’s an extremely versatile petty thief in petticoats.  I think you can guess how they meet (you’ve seen this movie before).   Having gotten the preliminary jostling and jousting out of the way, they fall head over heels (well, Gabe is more like head over boat railing for a while there), and she being a native San Franciscan–the very first generation, in fact–and as bigotedly proud of her birthplace as Gabe is of Gotham (he’d never even left Manhattan before now, because water), there’s lots of bi-coastal bickering going on all through the book.

Gabe likes Vangie (as he insists on calling her) quite a lot, and intends to keep her–they bed down together in a purloined hotel room, shortly after getting off the boat (which would never happen to a true Westlake nephew).  But Vangie’s undeniable charms aside, Gabe sees San Francisco as  ‘a lumpy Newark.’   It is not, in fact, quite the urbane laid-back little burg it reputedly is today (I’ve never had the pleasure), but rather a rough-hewn rollicking good-time town, that’s already burned to the ground twice, and maintains a very efficient fire department that keeps nearly running the protagonists down on the street.

I’d say that’s the real pleasure of the book–the way we’re shown San Francisco in embryo, and the authors keep showing us hints of the city it is inexorably becoming–just as you might look at old photos of someone as a child, and see hints of the adult.  And of course some things about a city remain constant from the start–

They moved into a narrow street, getting jostled.  Something like grey smoke began to drift down off the rooftops, obscuring their view of things. “What’s going on?  Something on fire?”

“Shh!”  Vangie clapped a finger to Gabe’s mouth.  “Don’t say fire around here.  Ever.  Unless you mean it.”

“But that stuff–”

“That’s just the fog coming in.”

It was coming in mighty fast.  He could hardly see the end of the street, only a block away.  “This happen often?”

Defensively she said, “From time to time.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well,” she said reluctantly, “Maybe once or twice a day.”

“A day?”

“We don’t mind it.”

Every day?”

“You get used to it.”

“All year round?”

She said desperately, “We like the fog.”

“All right then, tell me this.  Does it ever get any warmer around here?”

“Once in a while.  From time to time.”

“You mean once or twice a day?”

“Well, maybe once or twice a year.”  She added quickly, “But it never gets much colder than this either.”

“I don’t see how it hardly could.”  He shook his head.  “And you call this a city.”

Just the same at least there was life teeming around them.  The narrow street was overflowing with toughs, brassy girls, and drunken sailors.  Among the buildings Gabe could see, two out of three were Melodeons and Saloons.  The rest were whorehouses, opium dens, Cheap John clothing stores, ship-chandlers, and the kind of boardinghouses where you kept your boots on when you went to bed to make sure nobody stole them.  It was a neighborhood not altogether unlike Hell’s Kitchen; even if it was a pretty limp imitation, it did show some promise.

One very big hint of San Francisco’s future comes when the newly minted couple meet an old friend of Gabe’s from the old neighborhood, one Francis Calhoun.  Who is gay.  And is not once referred to as such, partly because Westlake never uses that term to refer to same-sex oriented persons, for reasons nobody seems to have ever inquired of him (I think the language maven in him resented a very old multi-purpose word being made useless for any purpose save one).

But absolutely nobody, Francis included, would be using the word ‘gay’ that way in 1874–Westlake is perhaps taking a certain satisfaction in not needing any term at all for Francis, because it’s over fifteen years until the dawn of the ‘Gay 90’s’–to the extent the word has any sexual connotation at all at this time, it’s heterosexual–nobody will be using ‘gay’ to refer to men like Francis for at least another half century or so.  They had lots of very impolite terms for homosexuals back then, but not one of them gets employed here.  Okay, one sailor insinuates that Francis is ‘fruity’, but Francis retorts by bringing up certain well-known habits of sailors, and that shuts him up good.

Francis corresponds pretty neatly to the usual fictional (and sometimes actual) tropes regarding gay men, but can it be a true stereotype if it’s just in its formative period?  He’s got a knack for decorating, he works in the theater (if you call music halls theater), is rather good-tempered, a bid timid, loyal to a fault.  Gabe was one of the few neighborhood boys who didn’t treat him badly back in the day, so he sees Gabe as a friend–and understands him pretty well.  He’s clearly leading a fairly active social life, and let’s just say he’s not alone out there, but he is, in his own decidedly un-rugged way, a pioneer.

Vangie, unlike the oblivious Gabe (can’t even grasp the concept of not liking girls) sizes Francis up at a glance, and treats him a mite frostily at first, but then realizes a man who knows about fashion and can be your friend without wanting to fuck you isn’t such a bad thing after all–well, that meme had to start somewhere, didn’t it?

Also in the mix is Ittzy Herz, who is a either a good luck charm or a jinx, depending on your interpretation–bad things never happen to him, but they frequently happen to people who try to do him harm, or just happen to be standing in the wrong place when he passes–he’s not consciously making anything happen, it just does.  Like a guy fires a gun at him point blank, and the guy’s friend, who was standing over to one side, falls down wounded, and the shooter gets dragged off to jail for attempted murder.   Gabe quickly decides that Ittzy will be useful to his plan.

Oh did I forget to mention the plan? Gabe intends to rob the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, the existence of which he did not learn about until he got there.  It does not seem he has any experience at this kind of thing–he was basically a ward heeler for Boss Twill, an enforcer; tough and resourceful and more than willing to break a few laws, or a few heads, but not a guy who robs banks or payrolls, and as we’ve seen, his sex drive isn’t cyclical.  He’s no Parker.   He’s a bit more like Dortmunder (maybe the way Dortmunder was before he’d spent a few years in prison), but he’s an amateur at this, a beginner–with the corresponding beginner’s luck, that Vangie keeps warning him is going to run out.

And as a non-pro, he refuses to process that this job is too damn risky, the mint being less of a bank than an impregnable fortress, bristling with armed guards.  Never mind all that.  He needs the gold to go back to New York in style, replace Boss Twill, and rule over his rightful kingdom in splendor forevermore (with Vangie at his side, though she’s not too enthused about leaving San Fran).  He needs the gold, therefore there must be a way to get at it, and then get away clean.  He just needs to figure out what that is.   Call him a proto-heister.

Vangie is opposed to the whole insane venture–she just wants Gabe to settle down with her in ‘the Paris of the West’ as she calls it (Gabe retorts that New York is the New York of the world).  She keeps thinking he’ll realize it’s a dumb idea, so she waits around for light to dawn.  He’s not what you’d call handsome, she’s actually supporting him by plying her various larcenous trades, and he keeps telling her the city she adores is a fog-covered collection of shacks compared to his majestic Manhattan, the only place any civilized being would ever want to live.  And she just keeps trudging loyally at his side, only pausing occasionally for a bout of lovemaking.

They haven’t even known each other a week.  This is the part of the story that’s hardest to understand.  But then love always is.  I’ve seen more unlikely couples on the streets of New York.  Not a lot more unlikely, mind you.

Gabe decides they need a ship to transport the gold, once they’ve swiped it, and Francis directs them to a rather woebegone sea captain name of Flagway.  He has a sad story to tell of having been shanghaied many years before, taken from his father and their apothecary shop in Baltimore as a boy, and no matter how many times he tried to get a ship back home, it always ended up going somewhere else.  He finally ended up as captain of a ship that technically belongs to the Paraguayan navy (yes, Paraguay is a landlocked country–it would take too long to explain).  But with no crew, and no money, he’s just sitting on the dock of the bay.  Watchin’ the tide roll away.  Hey, catchy!

Captain Flagway is no thief, but Gabe explains to him that the money in the mint is the property of all U.S. citizens, and they’re merely distributing it.   The captain, who has witnessed many horrible acts during his time at sea, makes it clear to Gabe that he wants to play no part in any violence.

“No, no,” Gabe said.  “you wouldn’t have to.”

“Not hold a gun,” the captain went on, “or stab anybody.”

Francis and Vangie both looked a trifle green.  Gabe, patting the air in a calming manner said, “No no, not at all.  Definitely not.”

“I couldn’t strangle anybody with my bare hands,” the captain explained earnestly.  “Or cut them apart with an ax, or bury them in wet cement, or drown them in the sewer, or—-”

Francis and Vangie kept learning farther and farther away, out of the conversation.  Gabe too was looking green by now, and his voice was somewhat loud and shrill when he said, “Nothing like that.  I promise you, Captain.  You don’t have to go on; I understand the kind of thing you’re talking about.  It won’t be anything like that at all.”

“Well, that’s good, the captain said.

Ittzy said “We just want your boat.”

“That’s fine,” the captain said.  He felt great relief.  “Then I wouldn’t have to throttle anybody or—-“

Garfield may, for all I know, have written some heist stories before this.  Maybe some western bank hold-ups or like that.  Nothing like this, I bet.  Westlake was the specialist in this area, though at the time he and Garfield were writing this, he was still learning how to make a heist funny and believable at the same time.

And he hasn’t quite figured out how to do that yet, not reliably, anyhow.  Without going into detail, I can tell you that Gabe’s hastily worked-out, extremely contrived, and inexplicably successful (Vangie is dumbfounded) theft of all the gold from the San Francisco mint, which ends with them settling down in San Francisco and selling the gold back to the government, a few ingots at a time is–well–a mite hard to swallow.  You aren’t really supposed to believe it, just go with it.  It was going to be a Hollywood comedy western, remember.  Those are not, by their nature, supposed to be realistic.

But then I think about it, and I realize that of course Hollywood didn’t buy this book–they get away with it.  They rob the U.S. mint, and nobody gets killed, and they all get rich, and live happily ever after.  Now you remember that Burt Reynolds movie I mentioned?  You know what happens in that one?  They take gold that was already stolen from the Denver mint by somebody else and put it back.   I can almost imagine Westlake’s disgusted expression as he sat in the theater, but that’s how the movies tend to do it.  You steal from bad people, or you get caught, or you get killed, or you fail to get the money, or you put the money back.  Those are the options.  That’s what Vangie (a movie heroine if ever there was one) keeps trying to tell Gabe, but Gabe somehow knows he’s in a different kind of story, and soldiers on.

And that isn’t the point, of course.  There have been two themes in the book–one is luck–good and bad.  Bad luck brought Gabe to San Francisco, but because Gabe was smart enough to get Ittzy involved, Ittzy’s weird mojo can be used to explain their remarkable Rube Goldberg-esque good fortune.  It’s a pretty threadbare explanation, but it’s there.  In future, with Dortmunder, Westlake will learn to balance good and bad luck, give with one hand and take with the other, so the karmic balance is maintained, and the story can continue.

But see, there’s another theme, and it’s the old one–identity.  Gabe saw himself as a New Yorker, born and bred, immutable in his resolve to remain a Gothamite forever.  All through the book, his only thought was to get back east.  But at the end, having come back to terra firma in a ship laden with treasure, approaching San Francisco from the west instead of the east, his attitude has changed.  He sees the potential now.  This is where the action is, so this is where Gabe Beauchamps must be.  The dude from the east is a true westerner now, heart and soul.   If they actually had a baseball team there, he’d root for them (and when that team finally showed up, guess which city they hailed from?).  His loyalties have changed.

And that’s as should be–identity has to adapt to changing circumstances.  It’s no good to think of yourself as a New Yorker if you’re not in New York.  When you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in–particularly when it comes with a girl like Vangie into the bargain.   And this, of course, is the pioneer spirit, as well as the true immigrant experience.  This is the spirit that made America, and remade it, over and over again, and may it ever be so.  Home is where the heart is.

At the end, he’s looking across San Francisco Bay at Marin County, and saying he’s going to use his gold to buy land there.  They tell him he’s crazy, nobody wants that land, you can’t get to it.  He says they’ll build a bridge someday.  Vangie and Francis say it’s impossible.   They’re young–with a bit of luck, they’ll all be around another fifty-three years or so.

So that’s the book, and I like it well enough, but Garfield was right–it was too much work for the rather light-weight results they got.  I don’t know who deserves the credit for what works, or the blame for what doesn’t, but I do know both of them were capable of much better–doesn’t mean they wasted their time.  In fact, one of the scenes in this book reminds me a lot of a much better scene in Bank Shot–with much less happy results.

Garfield was right about something else he said in that interview– “It’s a mistake to write a book with one eye on the movies—you end up with a bad book that won’t get filmed.”  Or at least a book that could have been a whole lot better.   The two writers remained fast friends, but concentrated on writing their own books, some of which became good movies (Garfield was luckier in that regard), and next week I’m actually going to do a quickie review of one of Garfield’s novels (also published by M. Evans & Co), that was turned into a film I’ve long loved–published a few years after Gangway!, in 1975.

Next up in the Westlake queue is Butcher’s Moon, you see–that’s going to be a big one, and I need some time to prepare.  And having read this book of Garfield’s, just to familiarize myself with his style, I found to my surprise that I was reading the best Richard Stark novel I’d ever encountered that was not written by Richard Stark.   In fact, it might be better than at least a few of the books that were written by Stark (but not Butcher’s Moon).  Anyway, get out some chalk, draw some numbers on the pavement, and rehearse that old schoolyard chant–

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Schlemiel! Schlimazel!
Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

Get it?

One of Friday’s Forgotten Books.

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Filed under Brian Garfield, Donald Westlake novels, Gangway!

Review: Comfort Station

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“It is, in every way, a comfort station.  No, it’s sort of like the Oyster Bar — transplanted into a park.  It’s an inspiration for us.  It sets the gold standard for park comfort stations.”

Adrian Benepe, far-seeing New York City Parks Commissioner, quoted in A Resplendent Park Respite, Mosaic Tiles Included, The New York Times, April 4, 2006.

“Look, it’s a just a restroom.”

Daniel A. Biederman, myopic executive director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, quoted in same article.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, situated on the south side of West 42nd Street midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, stands on land once completely under water, back before the turn of the century when this was the Croton Reservoir.  But progress must come, even to reservoirs, and in the first decade of this, our fast-paced twentieth century, busy workmen from all over the civilized world and beyond gathered together, filled with high purpose, to empty the Croton Reservoir and erect on the site of its former standing the new central branch of the New York Public Library, and the leafy landscape called Bryant Park, and last but not least the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, a low granite structure of Greek Revival design, was designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hasting, who threw in plans for the library as well.  Approximately twenty feet square, the building is dominated by a large opaque oval window on its north face, facing West 42nd Street, and by a large rectangular door on the west face, surmounted by the stirring inscription MEN.  A stone filigree makes a tasty design about the upper walls, alternating ivy garlands with cow skulls, evocative of Death Valley: terribly meaningful in the architects’ overall planned impact of visual and tensile impact.

From Comfort Station, by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.

There are times when my deep admiration for Donald E. Westlake, fast-typing author of many a thrilling tale of adventure and intrigue, flags somewhat.  The scales of hero worship fall from my slightly blood-shot eyes, and I see the feet of clay that all we mortals possess, and encase in shoe leather to hide our shame and prevent blistering.

This was never more true when I read his shamelessly self-aggrandizing account of the creation of this magnificent literary edifice we are met here today to commemorate.  Note how he pretends to give someone else (namely his agent, the far-seeing Henry Morrison) the credit, while actually taking it for himself.  The shameless cad.

Henry Morrison was absolutely responsible on that one.  Because we were at dinner, and I said, “You know what would be funny?”  At that point I had never read Arthur Hailey at all.  I said, “You know what would be funny?  An Arthur Hailey book called Comfort Station, set at the men’s room in Bryant Park.  Crossroads of a million private lives.  Henry thought that was a terrific idea and went in the next day and drove his secretary crazy because he had her do a presentation letter on toilet paper.  Which he then sent in to Elaine Geiger Koster and Nina Finkelstein at Signet.  They took it into a sales meeting, and they all fell in love with the idea of a presentation letter written on toilet paper.  So about three weeks later, Henry called me and said, “I sold the book.”  I said, “You sold what book?”

Oh come now, Mr. Westlake.  Surely you can do better than that, if you wish to steal the credit for a great man’s brainchild, let alone such a man as the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Whose style clearly influenced you, since you kept repeating yourself all through that paragraph.  I suppose there might have been another influence in that regard–

The result was, I had to go read Arthur Hailey.  I read The Final Diagnosis–in paperback, that’s three hundred pages.  Hotel was four hundred pages, just almost perfectly, and Airport was five hundred pages.  He’s really a bad writer–really slipshod and slapdash–but it turned out I could read him as one twelve-hundred-page novel.  I’d read thirty pages of Final Diagnosis, forty pages of Hotel, and fifty pages of Airport, and go back.

Little is known about the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham (we don’t even know what the ‘J’ stands for, though I suspect the answer may yet be found in the New Testament).  My coveted first edition paperback (the hardcover has yet to materialize on ebay) does contain tantalizing references to earlier works of his–

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CarportHot ShaftWaiting RoomBig Liner.   No doubt epic tales of man’s ingenuity and ambition striving against the forces of chaos and disorder, not to mention churlish book reviewers who think they’re so damn smart.  Strangely, no trace of these books can I find in the libraries of the world, or on ebay (crossroads of a million private lives).  They don’t even appear in the electronic version of this book we are examining here today, but merely reading the descriptions, we can imagine the vast stirring tableaus they portrayed, apparently with Henry Kissinger (far-seeing escort to Playboy Bunnies, who dabbled in diplomacy at odd moments) perpetually lurking in the background.  Perhaps Henry would have copies?   No doubt inscribed.

It is surprisingly hard to lay hands on a physical copy of even this, presumably the greatest and best-selling of the vibrant Mr. Cunningham’s novels, which we’re told ran to at least ten printings–

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Strangely, no dates appending to the later printings are given, so presumably they were all printed in 1973?  Massive demand.  So why were there no later print editions, perhaps some of them illustrated by Darwyn Cooke?  It would certainly be a fine joke on the far-seeing ebay seller I got this from if he lowered the price on what is often a cripplingly expensive item to obtain, thinking this was a tenth printing, when in fact it was just a metatextual joke being played by the author and publisher, and the book only had one modest print run.   Apologies, my whimsical muse does like to run free at times.   As did that of whoever wrote the author bio, unless of course Cunningham actually was the progeny of two characters from Terry and the Pirates, which would certainly be noteworthy.   Personally, I never thought Dragon Lady was the marrying kind, but no matter.

Aside from Westlake’s glowing blurb on the cover (clearly you did wish you’d written this book, Mr. Westlake, having stolen the credit for it years later, don’t think we’re forgetting that), there were other breathless critical notices reproduced on the inner flyleaf, perhaps slightly edited for space considerations–

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As for the rest,  you can read all that in the ebook version, from the far-seeing proprietors of Mysterious Press (crossroads of a million rejected manuscripts), available now at your better internets.  I just wanted to share with you, in all their slightly water-damaged glory, the pages that are not contained in that electronic edition, for reasons no doubt pertaining to tedious legal considerations, or maybe they just forgot.

So as I may have mentioned, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham is a mystery wrapped in an enigma tied up in a puzzle skewered by a conundrum soaking in a solution of insolubility.  What then, can we know about this Arthur Hailey person referred to above, who we vaguely gather had some tangential connection to this work?  Rumor has it he was a writer himself, though there has been some controversy on that score.

Hailey’s fiction was not of the sort that inspired doctoral theses: “If Armando had been troubled before, Kettering’s pronouncement had the effect of an incremental bolt of lightning” was a representative sample of its style.

But secure in the knowledge that his books would dominate the bestseller lists (Airport was lodged on them for more than a year), Hailey was sanguine about their reception by critics. “I have never had a good review from the New York Times,” he admitted in 1990. To be fair, others were equally unimpressed.

Reviewing The Evening News (1990) for The Daily Telegraph, Martha Gellhorn, under the headline “Wooden Prose” complained: “it tells us everything at least three times. Solid-wood dialogue is tailor-made for the mechanical characters who, in turn, tell each other what they are doing at least three times … This is not a book you cannot put down; it is a book you can hardly hold up. It will sell in millions and be translated into 34 languages. Possibly it is more readable in Icelandic or Urdu.”

When reading this, one should take into account that it comes from Hailey’s obituary in the The Daily Telegraph.  A high-spirited parting shot, one might say.  The English do so love to jest in the face of death, the alternative I suppose being to die in the face of jest, which is far less enjoyable, as the Irish have long known.

I remember well my first encounters with  Hailey’s inimitably imitable prose when I was a mere boy, covertly leafing through overdue library books on my parent’s nightstand (crossroads of a million frustratingly vague descriptions of coitus).  I recall rugged manly protagonists, of many sturdy upstanding professions; invariably right (also invariably white), invariably victorious, invariably getting laid with improbable regularity.  The one I remember most was called Overload, and never was a title more aptly chosen.

What the young mind (which may at times be found in a decrepit aging body) most appreciates about Hailey is that he explains everything (except the precise mechanics of coitus, dammit); not merely once, but over and over again, until even the dullest reader is tempted to exclaim “Okay already, I GET IT!”  But in this regard, I believe he is surpassed, if only slightly, by J. Morgan Cunningham (forgot to say vibrant, never mind now, have to type out a long quotation)–

Rain.

Rain poured down like water out of the cloud-covered sky, which was above the city.  Every intricate individual drop of the hydrous stuff, composed of two-parts hydrogen for every lonely solitary part oxygen, fell on the already-drenched city like a cloudburst.

It was a cloudburst.

The rain fell everywhere on the city, on rich and on poor, on young and on old, on happy and on unhappy–but not on people inside their houses.  If the roofs were okay.  The rain fell on a tramp steamer of Liberian registry, Serbo-Croat captain and Siamese crew being loaded with rocking chairs for Tierra del Fuego, girlie calendars on a consignment to Ulan Bator, and cartons of Smucker’s strawberry preserves bound for the Cape of Good Hope, at Pier 46, downtown.  The rain fell on the Daily News trucks, gaily green, toting their wares hither and yon throughout the great city, bringing the daily news to the citizens of Metropolis: New York.  And throwing the bundles in puddles outside the candy stores, they should be more careful.

This was the third day of rain, drenching the already-drenched city.  Odd items flowed in the gutters: Popsicle wrappers, good for stockings if you send them in with a quarter; tickets to hit shows; suicide notes; a bottle with a message inside, dated June 7, 1884; a one-inch-long spaceship from the planet Gu which had inadvertently crash-landed at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and West 49th Street and was now being inexorably swept toward its inexorable doom of both itself and its entire microscopic crew; and here and there the three-sixteenths-inch-long roach of a marijuana reefer, dropped by some doomed ten-year-old staggering through the rain in search of cheap kicks.  Oh, the stories those gutters could have told–fiction, perhaps, but a scant raindrop (or could it be a teardrop?) from reality–if only there had been someone, some artisan, some born storyteller, to crawl through them and pick up the nuggets within.

(You will scarcely believe it, but it is, at this very moment in time that I am typing this paragraph, raining heavily across New York City, crossroads of a million aesthetically convenient coincidences, such is the power of J. Morgan Cunningham’s epic prose-poetry: the already-drenched city getting more drenched by the moment, and a damn good thing I brought a rain jacket with me to work, but I got drenched regardless, such is the power of heavy rainfall.  The rain-soaked gutters were indeed overflowing with a multitude of sundry items, along with rainwater.  No sign of any tiny spaceships, but the search continues, the grieving widows of Gu deserving no less.  Picking up again a bit further in the chapter–)

And the rain fell on the buildings.  It fell on the new Madison Square Garden, the cupcake-shaped Hall of Culture where last night was seen Poundage, the new rock ‘n’ roll sensation, and where tonight world-famed Evangelist Billy Cracker would appear, before a somewhat older group. And it fell on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mecca of so many would-be suicides.  And it fell on the Bronx Botanical Garden, which was nice.  And it fell on Grand Army Plaza, with its green statues of the Civil War boys in blue.  And it fell on the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives.

And I already typed the next two paragraphs, up top.  Man, this review practically writes itself!   What were we talking about?  Oh yes, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham–given the near-total lack of information about him, I believe I will have to write some of this review as if Donald E. Westlake had something to do with this book.   It’s unfortunately unavoidable, but unavoidable nonetheless–unfortunately.  He may have played some peripheral subsidiary tangential minor supporting role in the writing of Comfort Station, and anyway this blog is supposed to be about him, so I do have to mention him here and there.  It would be disorienting if I did not.

So much as you, the far-seeing readership of The Westlake Review, and I, its far-seeing amanuensis, may see this book as an epic rumination on complex issues relating to the life’s blood of a great metropolis, and the functionings of a vital way-station within it, namely the Bryant Park Comfort Station (crossroads of a million private lives, lest we forget), we must pay at least some attention to Westlake’s opinion (to which he had a perfect right) that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels, so very popular in that time period (today, not so much). Hardly the first very popular author to be subjected to literary ridicule, and very far from the most revered.

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What is a parody, otherwise known as a spoof, a burlesque, a mimicry, a caricature, a send-up, a pastiche, a lampoon, etc?  What distinguishes it from a satire?  Well, all parodies are satires, but not all satires are necessarily parodies.  They may not be that specific–the satirist may be aiming his arrows of mockery at the foibles of human nature, politics, or religion, subjects that are notoriously difficult to copyright, though I believe Disney has tried, just for the hell of it.

Parody is extremely specific, by definition, and its humorous effect depends somewhat on the audience’s familiarity with whatever is being parodied.   Therefore, the most successful parodies will be of something everybody has read or seen, such as Star Wars movies and Star Trek shows.

But we all like Star Wars and Star Trek, don’t we? (cries of “NERRRRRDDDDS!” from the gallery shall be devoutly ignored).  Why would we want to see them be made into objects of ridicule, over and over again?   Is it true what some commentators have remarked, that parody is merely a means of expressing fond affection towards some form of cultural expression we mutually enjoy?   No, it is not.  Those commentators are wrong, and I will now tell you why that is, because that is a blogger’s primary function in life, one might almost say his (or her) Prime Directive, at least when The Force is with him (or her).

Yes, things people truly enjoy can be successfully parodied, but regardless, parody is not an expression of affection, but of contempt.  So it has ever been, since the days of Aristophanes (we can’t always know for sure what he was parodying because so much the Greeks used to enjoy in ancient times has been lost to posterity, along with their present-day economy, but rest assured he’s parodying something and it was hilarious back in the day).

When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, he was not aiming a backhanded compliment to the authors of the innumerable mawkish knightly romances that were plaguing his native Spain like a pestiferous pestilence; he was trying to put an end to them by dint of sheer mockery, and he largely succeeded.

When Alexander Pope began to draft The Dunciad, his intent was not to compliment the mercenary scribblers at whom he was directing his satiric barbs, but to tell them they should find other employment, perhaps in the area of public sanitation.  Scholars of that era in English letters lapse into suitably erudite guffaws whenever they read him, because they get the references.  The rest of us, posterity having long since forgotten everything Pope is making fun of, just nod sagely, and try not to look too perplexed.

This is a recurring challenge to the parodist’s grasp on immortality.   The parody can, in some instances, greatly outlive the material being parodied, without which the parody itself may become incomprehensible.  We today are still fairly familiar with the novels of  Arthur Hailey, even though most of us would sooner undergo eight hours of uninterrupted root canal than be forced to read them–but see, there were movies, and TV miniseries, and innumerable other terrible novels written by greedy wordsmiths influenced by those oh-so-lucrative novels, movies, and miniseries.  We know the overall format, even if we’ve never picked up a Hailey novel in our lives.

Clichés can be incredibly durable (that’s what makes them clichés)–so it is that Comfort Station, if seen as a parody (which I want to make it clear once more that I am not in any way suggesting it is), can still amuse present-day readers who are perhaps not vitally interested in the daily workings of a public restroom, though surely there could be no more diverting topic.

We all know what bad writing looks like, and it’s rather fascinating to see a very good writer pretend to be a really bad one.  Even the greatest writers know, far better than the rest of us, how fine the line is between clever–and stupid (to paraphrase one of my favorite film parodies).

So it is that even when we enjoy whatever it is that’s being parodied, the part of us that laughs at it is really laughing at ourselves, if you want to get down to brass tacks (so much easier to find as a popular expression than at the local office supply store).  At how easily we are taken in by bad writing, bad acting, bad directing.  We are laughing at how gullible we were to take this nonsense seriously for even one moment.  Then we go read and watch still more nonsense, and the circle of mirth continues.

That’s why really great writing is much more difficult to parody.  Because it’s harder to seize upon that aspect of it that is ridiculous.  Never impossible, of course.  Because of those feet of clay I mentioned several thousand words back.  Even Shakespeare had ’em.   Probably fleas as well.  That’s what those fancy lace collars the Elizabethans wore were designed to foil.   But I digress (don’t I always?).

So what’s the book about, anyway?  I should probably say something about that.  Basically it’s a day in the life of a great metropolis: New York, centered around (but not limited to) The Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, as I may have mentioned once or twice.    The dramatis personae are helpfully sketched out for us at the start of the book:

FRED DINGBAT–omnibus operative, proud of his position in interurban transit.  Too proud?

MO MOWGLI–custodian of the Comfort Station.  What was it about his past that haunted him?

ARGOGAST SMITH–plainclothes patrolman.  In responsibility he found anodyne–and the testing of his strength

HERBERT Q. LUMINOUS–bookkeeper on the run.  What happened to him was almost a cliche.

CAROLINA WEISS–onetime Russian countess now A & E mechanic.  In the arms of another man she sought forgetfulness.

GENERAL RAMON SAN MARTINEZ  TORTILLA–deposed dictator.  What was it he wanted to get off his chest?

FINGERS FOGELHEIMER–mobster.  Out of the thrilling days of yesteryear, he returns for vengeance.

LANCE CAVENDISH–Black.  With him and thirty-five cents you can take the subway.

(See now, I can almost detect a faint whiff of parodic intent here, but aren’t all names ridiculous if you look hard enough?)

The narrative’s purpose, seamlessly achieved (or so it seems), is to bring these eight people together in one place, the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, only that’s just eight people, and two of them never make it in there at all, but that’s nitpicking.  Okay, so six private lives intersect briefly, standing in for the other 999,994, like ships passing in the night.   We will not inquire what precisely they are passing there, because that would be indelicate;  quite possibly something that sounds like ‘ship’.

Fred Dingbat, intrepid city bus driver, picks up Mo Mowgli, dedicated custodian of the Comfort Station, on his way to work.  As Mo arrives at his post, we begin to meet the other characters, each of whom will inevitably be drawn to this way station on the road to their varied destinies.    Yes, just like the Arthur Hailey novels with titles based on public facilities of some sort or other, you picked up on that, very good!   Anyway, Mo is late for work.  Again.

It didn’t always matter if he was late.  Most of the time there was no one around at seven in the morning anyway, no one to care if the Comfort Station was open or closed.  But every once in a while Mo would alight late from the Crosstown bus and find some poor wayfarer hopping up and down on the sidewalk out front, his agony mirrored in his expression, which was agonized.  At those moments of emergency and crisis, Mo always acted with instinctive speed and precision, unlocking the door, switching on the lights, assuring himself there was sufficient paper in the stalls, and at the same time feeling deep inside the gnawing knowledge of his own failure, his own inattention.  He should have been here on time; it was his fault and no one else’s that the poor wayfarer had been reduced to hopping up and down on the sidewalk for ten  minutes or fifteen minutes or even twenty minutes.  At such times, Mo promised himself never to be late again, but his resolution never seemed to last very long: the next day, or the day after that, he would be late again.

I have visited the odd few New York City Parks comfort stations in my time, and I can assure you with great authority that dedicated public servants like Mo Mowgli still staff them, and yeah, they show up late some of the time.  Or in some cases, not at all.

These chapters, you should know, are all time-based–the next is entitled 8:00 A.M., and introduces us to Arbogast Smith, undercover policeman, assigned to the Comfort Station.   He spends most of the book staring moodily into space in front of a handy urinal, brooding on unknown sorrows.  I’m sure we have no idea what crimes he is there to prevent.  It’s 1973, and we don’t talk about that kind of thing openly yet.

(Sidebar: Is it, in fact, 1973 in this book?  That is the year of publication, but it should be noted that due to certain pressing social concerns that might afflict any great metropolis like New York [but New York in particular], the Bryant Park Comfort Station was shut down sometime in the Mid-1960’s, and not reopened until 1988.  The renovated structure on 42nd Street now services both men and women, in adjoining rooms, I hasten to add.   The structure on 40th Street that once served the ladies and their sensitivities [to repurpose Sondheim] is now a parks storage facility.   So at the time this book was written, nobody was going to the bathroom there, though certain unsavory elements were doubtless attending to nature’s call al fresco.  More on this when this review concludes, if it ever does.)

In the chapter chronologically designated 9:00 A.M., we meet Herbert Q. Luminous, embezzling bookkeeper, now fleeing the long arm of the law, due to all the embezzling, which he, a typically honest and upright functionary, performed out of love.  For a woman, I once more hasten to add.

She said her name was Floozey.  She was young and blonde and desirable, and he found himself buying her drinks, telling her his life story (it didn’t take long), and trying to impress her with his ability at shuffleboard bowling.  It was almost a cliché, but it seemed to him he knew from the instant he had seen her that they were going to be very important to each other.

After that first meeting, there had been others.  He went to her apartment in the city.  He went again.  He went some more.  He had gone again and again.

And she was expensive.  She liked the finer things in life: nightclubs, dancing, expensive restaurants.  And gifts: perfumes, clothing, false eyelashes.  Whatever she wanted, Herbert got it for her, because she was what he wanted. It was almost a cliché, really, his falling for her like that.  But he did.

She went through his savings fast, and when he had no more money he was afraid to tell her.  He knew it was almost a  cliché to think a thing like this, but in his heart of hearts he was afraid  that if she knew he had no more money she would leave him.  And he couldn’t stand that, to lose her.

And from here, we launch into a brief but informative aside on white collar crime, an issue of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, which the author has no doubt researched extensively, or maybe he just read about it in the papers, but either way it establishes the upstanding moral value of this work, and is not in any way a paper-thin excuse for its readers who feel embarrassed to be reading about sex, so they can tell themselves these are issues of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, that they, the morally upstanding citizens need to be informed of, and they can always just skip ahead to the sex if it gets too dull.  It’s almost a cliché to say that, but I felt it needed saying.

The general public, of course, is unaware of how common this sort of thing is in the world we live in.  It’s almost a cliché to say so, but white-collar crime like that perpetrated by Herbert Q. Luminous costs the taxpayers every bit as much as the much more publicized and dramatic sort of crime performed by the Mafia, or what is known as grimy-collar crime.  The white-collar criminal, more often than not, doesn’t even belong to the Mafia, as, for instance, Herbert Q. Luminous didn’t belong to the Mafia.

And there are other differences.

Good to know.

Later (4:00 P.M., to be specific), we meet Lance Cavendish, black, as you may recall from the character descriptions up above.  He appears in just one brief and somewhat puzzling chapter in this puzzlingly short book (there is a prefatory note from the publisher explaining the original manuscript ran to over three million words, but the edition posterity has willed us only runs 124 pages, with fewer than 200 words per page, often much fewer.  I’d say it’s about a 20,000 word novel, in its extant form.  That seems a rather drastic reduction.

The publisher explains there was a “slight trimming of the manuscript, removing only those passages that were unanimously agreed to be extraneous or redundant or in any other way unnecessary to the completed work.”   This is, we can all agree, most unfortunate, and a violation of artistic freedom, but then again we all have lives to lead, don’t we?  It must be said, the book flows very nicely in its existing form.

So as we meet Lance Cavendish (who is black, as mentioned, and has an afro in the shape of  a flamingo standing on one foot, and is dressed as one might expect Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson to be dressed in a film from this era that might well be playing on the same 42nd Street that is the primary setting of this book), we learn that he is a man of many accomplishments; architect, musician, social activist, entertainer, and no doubt many more occupations than could be detailed in a four page chapter.

He realizes that he is in need of personal relief, (as any African American male of the period would delicately phrase it), and seeing the Comfort Station before him, he strides purposefully in its direction, only to discover, to his dismay, that there is no entrance for him, upon which he shuffles away disconsolately.

Okay, what the hell is that about?   A reference to segregated restrooms?   That was in the south, and was an issue largely resolved by the time of this book’s publication, and indeed probably before the (happily temporary) closure of the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

On further contemplation, I am forced once again to resort to the unwelcome and thus far unproven thesis that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels.  And I do seem to recall those being rather–white.  Particularly the early ones.  Yes, African Americans were referred to in them, always in complimentary terms, avoiding racial epithets of any kind, and expressing a fond desire that people of all races creeds and colors live together in peace and equality, and high mutual regard.

And I do likewise recall (courtesy of my parents’ nightstand) that at the end of Overload (1979), the virile two-fisted power company executive is about to adjourn to a nearby hotel room with the sexy black female journalist who has spent much of the novel trying to nail him in a less pleasant sense of the term.  So that’s progress.   I guess.

But most of the time, the black characters would get shuffled offstage right after they got on, because the audience for these books was 99.9999999999% white; black people having better things to do with their time than read some muthafuckin honky Englishman’s jiveass 500 page book about white people who never get to the point about anything.   You feel me?

So this could be a roundabout manner of saying Hailey (Arthur, not Alex) would pay lip service to the idea of equal treatment, but marginalize actual black characters after giving them a big build-up, because he and most of his audience were more comfortable that way.  Hence there being no entrance to the Comfort Station for poor suffering Lance, who was merely introduced to add a splash of color to the proceedings.  It is conceivable that even Westlake himself, (were we to posit that he did write this book), would shamefacedly cop to having occasionally done the same thing in his own work.  Well, thankfully we don’t do that kind of thing in our popular entertainments anymore.   (Okay, that was irony, you caught me).

I am now over 5,000 words into a review of a ~20,000 word book.  Much as I may revere the legacy of the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, enough is enough already.   Let me conclude with a passage that I sense contains some coded message for the literary cognoscenti.

To set the scene, Fingers Fogelheimer, smalltime mobster, wrote a novel, pure fiction you understand, about a typical day in the life of your typical organized crime outfit in your typical great Metropolis that sounds a lot like New York, and his old cronies are a feeling a teensy bit sore about it.  To dispel this ill-feeling that has come between them, they’d like to ‘bump him off’, as I believe is the technical term, before he can get said book to the publisher that eagerly awaits it with ink-stained fingers, expecting it to be a mammoth best-seller, more on the basis of its tell-all nature than its actual quality as a book.

He is hiding out at the Comfort Station (along with three other fugitive characters, plus the distracted melancholy Arbogast Smith, plus Mo Mowgli, who is wondering why these people don’t finish their business and move on), when in come three intimidating gentlemen, who (our readerly expectations thwarted once more!) are not his erstwhile colleagues.  They are, in fact, his prospective colleagues, and none too pleased about it.

The stocky one is named ‘Norman’, carries a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special, and is requesting (without apparent irony) a copy of A Farewell To Arms.  Another, tall, elegant, and epicurean, answers to ‘Gore’, carries a pearl-handled pistol, and is asking for Swann’s Way.  The third member of the trio, bald, aristocratic, and known only as ‘V’, carries a Luger, and he wants a translation of Boris Gudonov, but it has to be a recent translation because you see the older ones are not good enough (::rimshot::).

It’s all playing out rather like the restaurant scene from The Killers, which I really don’t think I should have to post a link to, because we all read that in school, right?  Okay, I took some heat here a while back for assuming everybody read O. Henry in school, so fine, here it is, happy now?

These considerably better educated killers, having abandoned all pretense of thinking the Comfort Station is a lending branch of the library, swiftly locate poor Fingers quavering in his stall, and prepare to dispatch him with all due dispatch.  But why?

Within, Fingers Fogelheimer stood cowering against the back wall.  “Don’t!” he cried, clutching the attaché case containing his manuscript to his chest.  “I tried to explain it to the mob, I tried–”

“We are not from the mob, as you phrase it,” the bald-headed one said coldly.

Fingers Fogelheimer blinked.  “You’re not?”

“We are from Literature,” the elegant one said.

The three guns roared.

(*No doubt most of you deduced the identities of these three cold-blooded literary assassins right away, but for those who didn’t, you can find their identities at the bottom of the review, right under the segue.  Hey, this is just like Encyclopedia Brown!   The Case of the Hardboiled Hardcovers.)

The mystery surrounding the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham may never be solved, but this book remains, and is back in print, even if only in electronic form, for which we must thank The Mysterious Press, which you’d think would be better at solving mysteries, but perhaps they know the answers, and just don’t want to share.  The work of Arthur Hailey likewise endures, but in sadly reduced form, most of his formerly vast readership having abandoned him, and in many cases, this mortal coil as well.   He did not hold up to extended scrutiny, but I say without the slightest parodic intent that this book does, and remains a tremendously enjoyable read.

I would have gone to greater pains to compare the vibrant one’s prose with that of Hailey, and in fact there are three very weighty tomes of the latter on my work desk awaiting my critical gaze, and they shall await forever, because I decided life is short, and those books are really really long.

Something else remains, and I trust shall remain for all time, and that is the Bryant Park Comfort Station itself, risen from the ashes (among other substances) like a phoenix from the flame, as perhaps even the far-seeing Donald E. Westlake could not have anticipated when writing this, if he had in fact written it, which remains mere speculation at this juncture.

It was only a few years back that the very facility which was immortalized so vividly in this book was voted The World’s Best Restroom, an honor it well and truly merits (not that I’ve ever been inside that shithole).   The park it serves, once a monument to urban decay, has a 4.5 Star rating on Yelp (look it up)!  And what’s more, being the world-famous Shrine to Hygieia that it is, the Comfort Station now has a full-time attendant, and a security guard posted nearby.   So if you ever get there, please give Mo and Arbogast my fond felicitations.   Officium Eu!

Although we could not answer the question of whether Mr. Westlake collaborated on this book with the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, next week, we look at one of Mr. Westlake’s very rare accredited collaborations, with one of his favorite poker-playing buddies.   It’s a western.   This bodes not well, consarn it.  But it’s on the list, so what the hell.  Go West, young fans.

(*The three hit-men from Literature were Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Vladimir Nabokov.   Bugs Meany is so ashamed of you now.  Eh, google it.)

(Submitted to Patti Abbott’s blog, Friday’s Forgotten Books–which may be a misnomer in this case, since to forget something, you have to have known it existed in the first place)

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Filed under Comfort Station, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Under An English Heaven

under_an_english_heaven_1st_1The_Mouse_That_Roared_first_edition1200px-Flag_of_Anguilla.svg166453124-uprising-of-the-people-of-anguilla-island-in-gettyimagesanguilla

An té nach bhfuil láidir, ní foláir dó bheith glic.  

If you are not strong, you had best be cunning (Old Gaelic Proverb)

There are many different versions of this story, but the way I heard it, an English biologist (probably J.B.S. Haldane, but not definitely) was asked what his studies of the natural world indicated regarding its Creator.   He replied that God must have a an ‘inordinate fondness’ for beetles since He’d created hundreds of thousands of different species (not to mention the most famous rock band of all time).

If we were to pose the same question of Donald E. Westlake (whose existence is not currently disputed, that I know of), we might easily deduce that he had a weak spot for independents of all stripes–individuals who fly their own flag, determine their own destiny, go their own way.  Individuals and also nations–he liked small nations so much that he ended up inventing them by the bunch.  Klastrava, Descalzo, Undurwa, Talabwo, Guerrero, Ilha Pombo Island, Tsergovia–that’s by no means a complete list.  He might also sometimes stick in a real small country like Belize, but that entailed more research.

These nonexistent republics of his could be found in Central Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean–he was bemused and delighted at the sheer variety of small nations around the world, and as I pointed out a few weeks back, my blog stats would tend to indicate he still has ardent readers in many if not most of the small nations out there today.  Call it a mutual admiration society.

He even had one of his characters, the inimitable J.C. Taylor, invent her own country, the island nation of ‘Maylohda’, and con various official personages into believing it truly existed–she’d learned that once you’re a country, all sorts of revenue streams (and schemes) are opened up to you, if you can learn how to navigate the bureaucracy.  The trick, of course, is to be the maker of schemes, as opposed to the object of them.  The fleecer, not the fleeced.

Westlake’s admiration for the independents didn’t blind him to the fact that small nations may have many crosses to bear; greedy oppressive dictators, corrupt ineffectual administrations, limited natural resources, and they very often have sad histories of being dominated and exploited by their larger, richer, more aggressive neighbors, or by distant colonial powers.  It’s a fine thing for a nation to be small, because that means its identity can be more focused, its people more united against common perils, but it’s never an unmixed blessing.  Life is simpler in a small nation–until the bigger nations insist on complicating it.

I don’t know when he first became interested in Anguilla, one of the Leeward Islands, which are in turn part of the Lesser Antilles Chain, way out in the Caribbean Sea (and mercifully free of pirates who look like Johnny Depp).  Certainly no later than the time he was doing research for I Gave At The Office, though the Caribbean island that book is partly set in bears no resemblance to Anguilla in its government or the immiserated condition of its people (I have a strong suspicion as to which Caribbean locale he did base Ilha Pombo Island upon, but we’ll get to that soon enough).

He was writing in Caribbean settings much earlier than that–in Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, for example–that might have been the genesis of his interest, since that book owes its existence to Westlake being tasked with writing a screenplay about a movie star kidnapped in Jamaica, and he’d have needed to study up a bit on the Caribbean (and probably do some traveling there, hopefully at studio expense).

But the fact is, Mr. Westlake had long demonstrated an inordinate fondness for tropical climates, as might anyone who was raised in upstate New York (it’s really cold).  He liked spending time in the Caribbean islands, notably Puerto Rico (much larger than Anguilla, with a similarly nebulous status with regards to its ‘mother country’), and he liked writing about them.  But it must be said, his best books were rarely set in them.  You can take the boy out of New York….

This is a different kind of book for him.  It’s not fiction.  Everything in it happened more or less the way he describes it, even if others might interpret those events differently.  It’s a work of history–one of the very few ever written specifically about Anguilla.  A British journalist named Colin Rickards, an old Caribbean hand, was working on a book that covered much of the same ground as this one, and was generous enough to share his research with Westlake.  It does not seem the late Mr. Rickards’ Anguilla book ever got finished.   I can’t find it anywhere, and working in a library, I know how to look.

So Westlake basically had this very specialized area of history all to himself–this is presumably why he’s cited as a reference in an article from the Spring ’85 issue of a Canadian quarterly bearing the rather generic name of International Journal.   The article is bleakly entitled Militarization of the Caribbean: Concerns For National And Regional Security.  And informs us in a comforting footnote that Anguilla presents absolutely no such concerns, that its secession movement was ‘somewhat peculiar’, and cites Westlake’s book as a source.  Well, he was one of the world’s leading authorities on peculiarity, as is well known.

It is not a scholarly work–Westlake was not a scholar, a trained historian.  As many authors of fiction had done before him (such as the Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul, who Westlake quotes in this book), he was applying his talents as a storyteller to the field of nonfiction journalism.   He’d only done this at book length one time previously–writing a biography of Elizabeth Taylor under a pseudonym.  I may review that book sometime, but then again I may not.  I have read it.  It’s available for kindle as we speak (because Elizabeth Taylor).

This book we’re looking at today is not currently in print, nor is it available in electronic form (because no Elizabeth Taylor), but copies aren’t that hard to find.   I assume there’s still plenty in Anguilla itself.  They should probably set up some kind of depository, to make sure this vital record of their glorious victory over the British Empire is not lost to posterity.   Though one could argue this book had already been written back in the 1950’s, in novel form, only set in Europe and America, and there were longbows in it.  And in the movie, Peter Sellers.

The_Mouse_That_Roared_British_Poster

The popularity of the 1955 novel and its sequels (one of which was published not long before Westlake wrote this book), along with the 1959 film and its sequel, may be one of the reasons Simon & Schuster agreed–I’d guess with some misgivings–to let Mr. Westlake publish a work of foreign affairs journalism/history in place of the crime novel they were doubtless expecting from him.  No question, people were drawing analogies, spurious though they might be, between Anguilla and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (there were references in the papers at the time), because that’s what people do when faced with something they can’t understand–look about for a story they’ve already heard that somewhat resembles it.  The appropriate pigeonhole.

Westlake wasn’t out to make any such analogies–he was out to document what really happened, and he’d already had a good start, in a piece he wrote for the 5/23/71 edition of The New York Times Magazine–I believe the only article he ever got published there.  Entitled In Anguilla, It’s The Spirit of ’71, it’s basically an essay-length version of this book, which according to the little author squib at the bottom of its opening page was going to be called I Fear The Worst–a working title that somebody must have decided did not work.  The only other book of Mr. Westlake’s that is mentioned there is I Gave At The Office, which Simon & Schuster was just then trying to hawk in paperback form.   His far more substantial achievements in the mystery field were not considered relevant, I suppose.  Not in the Times magazine.

Now in The Mouse That Roared, you may recall, that grand little bit of Ruritania named Grand Fenwick was faced with an economic crisis, and determined to address it by invading the United States–in a Viking-style longboat, armed with swords and longbows and chain mail–in order to be conquered themselves, so they could then apply for aid money–this being how the United States tended to deal with defeated enemies.  But then there’s this business with a doomsday device, and the plan goes slightly awry.

The main point of Wibberley’s book was to extol the virtues of small nations, and to suggest that they should get more say in world affairs, which in this case was achieved by one of them getting an all-powerful nuclear device that would render the great powers more cooperative–with the Cold War in full swing, it seemed a whimsical alternative to the existing situation.  Perhaps not so amusing anymore, eh wot?

Anguilla’s situation was far more prosaic–having been colonized by the English centuries before (Westlake writes a brief engaging summary of its history up to that point), it was quite content to remain a crown colony forever.  A mere coral atoll,  three miles wide at its broadest point, and 16 miles long, it was simply too small and poor for the British government to ever pay it much mind–the Anguillans mainly ran their own affairs, employing a form of direct democracy (which you can do when you’re an island roughly the size and shape of Manhattan, with around six thousand people living on it), and the British simply provided a small amount of aid to bolster their meager economy, and handled their foreign policy, which was simple enough because they didn’t have any to speak of.

Here’s the thing about colonizers–they get very contrary.  If you want to leave, they insist you stay–particularly if you have resources they covet, or are strategically located.  But if you want to stay, and lack the aforementioned revenue sources, they may decide you’re not worth the bother, and try to fob you off on somebody else.  This is what happened with Anguilla, and with the deep cultural sensitivity for which it is world-renowned, the British bureaucracy wanted to make Anguilla part of an confederated grouping of former island colonies–which would be headed up by the island of St. Kitts–Anguilla’s most hated enemy.

About 70 miles away from Anguilla, St. Kitts was then led by one Colonel Robert Bradshaw–not quite exactly a dictator, but close enough until one came along.  He and many of his countrymen disliked Anguilla and Anguillans on general principle.  The two islands had incompatible cultures–St. Kitts had a plantation economy, and its people were mainly descended from former canecutters,  mingled in with a handful of the descendants of the people they were cutting cane for.  Anguilla was more racially mixed, and though slavery had existed there, it had been arranged differently, because of the different economy and society of Anguilla, which tended to encourage a more free-wheeling outlook on life.   They were, you might say, free in spirit before they were free in fact.

Westlake calls Anguilla a nation of petit bourgeois, and being no Marxist, he means that as a distinct compliment.  They were shipbuilders (far and away the best in the area), small land-owners, and confirmed egalitarians, with nothing much resembling a class or caste system.  They were all very much in the same tiny boat, and saw it that way.  You get the sense that in describing their society, he’s almost describing his own democratic ideal–neither socialist nor capitalist–perhaps a tinge of libertarianism but with an important codicil–they can be the way they are because they’re small.  And because Mother England is there in the distance, to keep them from getting swallowed up and dominated by the larger islands.  Their independence depends upon their not being independent.  As perverse as that may sound.

Westlake spends much of the book rather relishing the perversity of the story he’s telling.  It’s like one of his comic capers come to life, only without the heists (though at one point the Anguillans did have to break into Her Majesty’s safe containing a small amount of money–with deep remorse–they needed the cash).  He also spends quite a bit of time looking at an odd phenomenon that occurred once the Anguillans more or less accidentally declared their independence from both Great Britain and St. Kitts.   It seems that the notion of a tiny island practicing direct Democracy–and being fundamentally a creole nation, therefore presumed to be somewhat childlike and easily molded–led to a number of people out there with big ideas figuring this was their chance to make history on a small scale.

There was the kilt-wearing, cigar-smoking Jewish Chinaman from the United States who wanted land for some sort of ill-defined “thousand-year-old European religious sect,” which the Anguillans decided translated into “free-love farm plus abortion clinic.”  There was the young American hippie couple who appeared on the island one day with nothing but a tent and a shotgun and began cadging food from the natives.  There was the American in a business suit who seemed impervious to heat and who promised to solve all the island’s economic problems in two weeks if he were simply given a free hand and the title “Economic Minister.”

(Donald?  The other Donald, I mean.  That you?  Oh never mind.  Continuing–)

Another American offered twenty-five thousand dollars a month for an indefinite period if the Anguillans would mortgage the island to him for security.  Another businessman said he was buying a floating hotel from Montreal’s Expo 67 and wanted permission to moor the thing offshore.  An Englishman wanted to dump his freeloading brother on Anguilla, and a Canadian offered to build the islanders a radio station if they would give him a couple of beaches.   A man named Dino Cellini, said to be a representative of Meyer Lansky, who in turn was said to be the head of the Mafia in Florida, dropped by either to chat about gambling casinos, or just to get a tan.

(Both Colonel Bradshaw and the Her Majesty’s government would later use this one-time visit from Mr. Cellini as a pretext to say the Anguillans needed to be protected from being turned into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, not that this reference would resonate for another five years or so, and where is Alec Guinness when you need him?  Organized crime was already well-established on many other Caribbean islands under British authority, and there was just not enough infrastructure–or electricity–or water–or interest–to support a casino there.  Oh and did I mention Colonel Bradshaw was already funneling basically all the British aid money for Anguilla to his own treasury?  They didn’t need any more bloodsucking gangsters than they already had.   Just one more paragraph and we’ll move on.)

A doctor from America wanted land on which to build a clinic for the machine he’d invented that cures all diseases.  A group from America–they were coming over in flocks after a while–wanted the Anguillans to join them in a partnership to make gold from sea water.  Yet another American wrote a letter saying he represented Aristotle Onassis, who was prepared to offer a million dollars a year for the use of the island as a flag of convenience for his shipping, in the style of Panama and Liberia.

As the saying goes, you can’t make this shit up.  Of course you can, but then they call you a comic novelist, and never take you seriously, and give all the major literary prizes to more sober-minded scribes.  Unless your name is John Kennedy Toole, and you’ve been dead for twelve years.

But surpassing all these hooligans, halfwits, and hucksters in sheer unbridled wackiness was The San Francisco Group, which Westlake devotes a great deal of space to in the book–the author of God Save The Mark would feel himself on very familiar ground here.  See, he must have realized as he went on that as fascinating as the subject was, a lot of the actual story which he was bound as quite possibly the only book-length chronicler of this historical episode to fairly and fully document, was bound up in governmental memos, and reports, and long boring conferences where absolutely nothing got accomplished, and the real story was happening on Anguilla itself, which he only visited after most of the really interesting stuff had already happened.

So he did indulge himself with several chapters largely about The San Francisco Group, an amalgram of (shall-we-say) enthusiasts, inspired by the writings of a Austrian-born professor of economics named Leopold Kohr.  There was, at this time, a movement based on the principle that “Small is Beautiful”, the title of a book by E.F. Schumacher.  Kohr was part of this movement, feeling like the essence of a happy well-run society is smallness, and that the big nation-states should be broken down into tiny regional units, or would just spontaneously break down into them, it’s a bit unclear.  You know, like with Marxism.  Well really, as with any idea anybody ever had about how to reorganize society along some radical new concept.  Devil in the details, don’t you know.

Now Westlake ought to be sympathetic to this.  As I said, he likes Anguilla precisely because it’s small, its people independent-minded and egalitarian, and nobody there has much use for big guvmint, except that they need financial assistance and protection from a larger state in order to go on living in Anguilla, and to protect them from those nasty Kittitians (actual word used in book).

This book is dedicated upfront “To anybody anywhere who has ever believed anything that any government ever said about anything…”  That would certainly seem to agree with Kohr’s notion of small local government–except isn’t a small local government still a government?  And therefore not to be trusted, no matter how small it gets?  Just because you can drown it in a bathtub doesn’t mean it can’t drown you first.

And who is easier to get around?  The huge distant impersonal bureaucracy, or your nosy overbearing neighbor who got himself elected mayor or sheriff or head of the local homeowners group, and thinks you don’t cut your grass often enough, or supervise your children properly, or maybe has stated in public that he will not rest until he has turned your home into a desert?  Which not coincidentally, is precisely what Robert Bradshaw said (in public) that he would do to Anguilla (and then denied it).  He made many similarly ominous statements about Anguilla that he later denied making.  Colonel Bradshaw might have gone far in American politics, methinks.  Or at the very least, talk radio.

You can’t say the leader of another tiny island 70 miles away from Anguilla represented big government, any more than you can say Bull Connor, his firehoses, and his badly socialized police dogs were representing it in Memphis, back in the early 60’s–they were vigorously fighting the ‘oppression’ of big government telling them what they could do with (and to) their minorities, and made no bones that they were doing so.  That’s the paradox, that Westlake is keenly aware of–the most oppressive abusive authority people face is usually local, not federal.  Sometimes big government, for all its undoubted failings, is the only friend the little people of the world can count on.   A necessary evil is, by definition, more necessary than evil.

So anyway, the Anguillans desperately needed ready capital to last out their stand-off with the Brits and St. Kitts–the latter of which had cut off all medical supplies (or supplies of any kind), and Her Majesty’s government, not recognizing Anguilla as an independent state, would only provide aid through St. Kitts.  The San Francisco Group really didn’t have much in the way of money, but they intimated that they did, or at least would.   The practicality of this organization can be gauged from the fact that their name derives from Kohr’s original goal of making San Francisco an independent city-state.  That did not work out as planned, you may be surprised to learn.  So Dr. Kohr’s ideas would be applied to Anguilla instead.

Dr. Kohr’s theories boiled down to a suggestion that Anguilla, having removed itself from St. Kitts, should now remove itself from the twentieth century.  Dr. Kohr is a fervent admirer of th Pennsylvania Amish; what he had in mind for Anguilla combined an Amish forswearing of machinery with a sort of feudalism-sans-barons.  He had no desire to make a profit out of the Anguillans–no, he wanted them to make a prophet out of him–which made him different from ost of the other people the Peacekeeping Committee met around that time.  They listened carefully to his suggestions before declining them with thanks.  Untroubled, Dr. Kohr went away to regroup his arguments and returned about a week later to start all over again.

He met some idealistic young Americans who were impressed by his ideas (::sigh::, of course they were), and they formed the San Francisco Group, which proceeded to try and create a currency for Anguilla, a flag with naked mermaids on it (it has dolphins on it now, fitting enough given that swimming with our cetacean siblings is a major attraction for tourists there now),  and many other ideas that could never possibly work in reality.

It must be said though, they did eventually raise some cash, and (somewhat grudgingly) give it to Anguilla, which spent it on various dull practical things like food and medicine, and that’s at least something, right?   The relationship between Anguilla and the Group eventually broke down entirely, with each accusing the other of bad faith, though as Westlake tells it, the real problem was mutual incomprehension.

See, Westlake himself says that the Anguillans practice something very close to Athenian direct Democracy–that’s what Kohr aspired to, so what was the problem?   That he was trying to impose his ideas on them–to reshape their identity into something that fitted a philosophical template in his head.

Everybody wanted the Anguillans to be something they weren’t.  The Brits wanted them to be part of St. Kitts and Nevis–they were all island wogs a few bloody miles apart, what’s the difference?  St. Kitts wanted them to accept permanent subordinate status, and whatever crumbs they might allow to fall Anguilla’s way from Her Majesty’s table.  The San Francisco Group wanted them to be some model city-state, with Dr. Kohr as their philosopher king.   America just wanted to be sure they wouldn’t turn commie like the Cubans.

But they just wanted to be themselves.  That was the one thing they all agreed upon, and they would accept no less.   And Westlake loves their guts for that.   He’s not even pretending to be objective about it.   He’s on Anguilla’s side, and all the other sides can go fuck themselves.  Anguilla for the Anguillans.

It took a small-scale military invasion by the British military (who were welcomed with open arms, and ended up having a lovely time there–absolutely nobody was killed as a result of Anguilla’s brief rebellion, which is a miracle in itself), but Anguilla won its victory.   Public opinion in the UK shifted their way, and Her Majesty’s government was forced to back down, and accept a compromise.   Technically, Angulla would remain part of the Federation with St. Kitts and Nevis, but it would go back to being directly governed as a crown colony (so their small but vital funding would no longer pass through Colonel Bradshaw’s sticky fingers).

I think they don’t even bother to pretend Anguilla is part of the St. Kitts Federation anymore.  Anguilla is, to this very day, ‘an internally self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom.’   They say heartfelt prayers for the Queen’s good health, have the Union Jack on their flag, and do exactly what they bloody well want, 99% of the time.   Hey, if you Brits had offered us that deal back in 1776–well, never mind.

And of course they still have problems.   Like for example, global warming–their island might be under water someday–just like the island I’m typing this on.  There is apparently a problem with under-age sexual trafficking there, at least according to one source I found, but you know what I think Westlake would say to that?   He’d say they should see to it that the kids have something to sell besides their bodies.   God bless the child that’s got his own.

He spends a bit of time profiling Anguilla’s leaders during the crisis–and an admirable, if quirky bunch they were; Ronald Webster,  Peter Adams, Atlin Harrigan (the uncompromising publisher of Anguilla’s only newspaper, and how tickled Westlake must have been that he had an Irish name), and the just slightly Trump-ish (on an Anguillan scale) Jeremiah Gumbs, who being the richest Anguillan (actually living in New York., among the surprisingly large Anguillan immigrant community there), obviously comes off worst of the bunch, but he isn’t rich enough to fully trigger Westlake’s kneejerk hostility to the moneyed classes.  Still mainly sympathetic.

But the book isn’t about leaders, or followers–to him, the heroes of the piece are the Anguillans as a whole, who stuck to their guns (literally and figuratively, though they never did have many guns of the literal variety).  They may have chosen leaders, but they could never stomach a dictator.  They are the heroes of this book for the same reason anyone else in a Westlake book is a hero–for knowing who they are, and refusing to let anyone else define them.  Is Westlake, perhaps, also guilty of imposing his ideas and ideals on Anguilla?   Possibly.  How the hell would I know?  If I ever get there, I’ll try to find out.  I suspect this is one time when the shoe fit pretty well.

You can’t hold a work of history to an overly high standard when it’s basically the only work in its field.  That being said, there’s a reason this isn’t one of his best-remembered books.   Lots of good writing in it–here’s a deliciously catty little aside–

After a summer as jampacked with incident as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the fall and winter of 1967 passed with placid serenity on the island of Anguilla, as free from action as a Saul Bellow novel.

There are many other passages to savor, but the book as a whole is handicapped by its author’s lack of famliarity with this form of writing, and with the fact that he’s less interested in telling a good story than he is in telling the whole story, accurately and fairly.  Which is, after all, the most important thing for a book like this, not entertaining the masses.   Though Simon & Schuster might have disagreed.  Well, they and Westlake were on the verge of parting ways, anyhow.

This is a book to read if you 1)Are really interested in Caribbean politics and history, 2)Are interested in self-determination movements everywhere, or 3) Just have to read everything Donald E. Westlake ever wrote.   I fall into all three categories, and will thefore jealously guard my first edition to the last.  But perhaps, as my final years are upon me, and the New York City winters become too punishing for my aged bones, I shall take it with me to beautiful sunny Anguilla, and read it in the evening twilight, as the dolphins swim nearby.  And I hope to see a free and  happy people there.  Hopefully still above the waterline.  Stay afloat, guys.  Don’t let those Kittitians keep you down.

But for the present time, here I remain, in New York City.   Setting of our next book, which for a change of pace is authored not by Donald E. Westlake but by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Or so the cover of my first edition paperback says.  It bears a blurb from none other than Westlake himself–“I wish I had written this book!”    If you want to know why that is, this one you can get for Kindle, quite cheaply.   A surprisingly short read, for an airport novel.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit the restroom.  Who knows what adventures might await me there.

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