“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) 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–
Carport. Hot Shaft. Waiting Room. Big 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–
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–
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 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.
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)
38 responses to “Review: Comfort Station”
Funny coincidence: I found a Hailey book for the first time in my life in my folks’ library as well. It was a rare translated book among hundreds of volumes of Russian literature. Should I have read it then – instead of, say, Gogol? I doubt it. So I never did.
Parody has always a pretext, an original text, but it is not always humorous. It’s mimicry, as you said, a game/play with the original, and sometimes it is a fight with the original. Dostoevsky started with a parody on Gogol. It was funny – but Dostoevsky reached it with his own ways.
This books is a funny project, not a novel per se, more like a toilet joke wrapped in book covers aimed at Hailey. The book itself is a work of art more than the text. It’s all “fake” from the front cover to the back cover (except for ads in the back and copyright features). Ebook has just the text, it’s no more an art project.
(I still giggle every time when I recall how the seller sold you your copy damn cheap thinking it was Tenth printing. If he only knew he was selling one of the Holy Grails of paperback collecting.)
My personal copy of the first and only print edition (which I may be buried with) is a bit shopworn, so it’s not like he could have sold it for hundreds, but yeah–I think he didn’t know what he had. Still and all, the asking price has gone down a bit since the ebook came out, and for that we can all be grateful. Now that I’ve got all the little extras from the paperback scanned and uploaded to TWR, people will be able to get the ebook for a few bucks and still enjoy the trappings of that ‘art project’ (I think that phrase would make Westlake chuckle, but he might well agree with you).
Still, if money is no object–
I didn’t know about Dostoevsky parodying Gogol–that’s a bit like the son sending up the father (and don’t all sons do that, sooner or later, one way or another?). This is quite a different thing–Westlake has no respect for Hailey at all. This is parody in its purest form, wielded as a weapon–but it’s also a compliment, as all parody is–“You’ve become so famous that everybody will know what I’m making fun of, and so rich that I don’t have to hold back.”
I have this sneaking suspicion Hailey read it–he would have seen it as a sign that he’d really made it, for one thing–and it wasn’t long after it appeared that he started writing somewhat more interesting black characters, like that female reporter in Overload, who got to play a bit more of an active role in the story. I don’t consider him a real writer, anymore than Westlake did–he was a hack, but a very capable one–he figured out what the public wanted, and gave it to them. All professional writers have to do that to some extent, but when it’s all you’re doing, you’re a hack.
And if you’re going to be a hack, why not be a rich one, living it large in the Bahamas with your second wife, formerly your secretary, who you left your first wife for? (Hey, is it just me, or is that almost a cliché?)
PS: Signet had done this kind of ‘art project’ before. You saw that cover for Bored of the Rings (1969)–that was their baby as well, and they did a lot of the same kind of metatextual joking around, with fake reviews on the inside, a list of non-existent sequels, and even a very racy little passage upfront, teasing the reader with the prospect of a Hobbit/Elf sex scene–that is not in the actual text of the book. So it’s not like nobody had ever seen anything like this before.
That book, I have little doubt, sold a lot more copies than Comfort Station, and there probably were multiple printings. There have been subsequent editions, as well. Having read both, let me venture my highly biased opinion that while Bored of the Rings may have more belly laughs (because the material being mined for laughs is so much richer), Comfort Station is a far more interesting and clever book, aiming its sights perhaps a bit too high for the target audience. The fact is, the Harvard Lampoon guys (who at that time were basically professional full time parodists) didn’t really try that hard to get Tolkien’s specific style right, and just went for surface detail, which worked fine for what they were doing. Westlake hit his much less distinguished and sincere target solidly dead center on every level.
(I know I’m letting the mask drop here, but having written a parody review of a parody, I feel I must draw the line at a parody comments section).
And of course, the real problem was that Tolkien by that time had a lot of very young readers, many in the counterculture, who would be interested in a parody. Hailey, maybe not so much.
Westlake outdid Hailey, having writter a much shorter novel which still catches the essence of Hailey, in style, plot and characters. We, Westlake fans, are enjoying this little book. I wonder if Hailey fans will. Comfort Station can be viewed as rude to the original and not nearly as entertaining.
At this point, I doubt there are many Hailey fans left–though to be fair, the ebook for Airport is quite handily outselling Comfort Station at the Kindle Store right now (you can get either for free with Kindle Unlimited). Not by anywhere near the same margin as it would have back in the day, but still a very large gap between them.
But at least two of Westlake’s other books (The Hunter, and The Hot Rock, predictably enough) are outselling Airport, and there’s a whole lot more of his books with physical editions in print now. There’s a whole lot more of his books, period.
Lasting literary fame, as Westlake well knew, is for marathoners. Not sprinters.
“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?”
According to Wikipedia, Two Much is five books away and you’ll dig into Dancing Aztecs seven books from now. I am currently rereading Dancing Aztecs as a palate cleanser between more weighty tomes. African American characters ARE given an entrance in these books, and it does make for some uncomfortable reading here in 2015. It’s pretty clear that Westlake was writing in the time he lived and that overall his intentions relative to these characters were as noble as they were to any other characters he created. Still…it’s not quite like Huckleberry Finn tossing the n-word around because that’s what they did in those days. Westlake is definitely wearing blackface, at least in D.A. Good luck negotiating that minefield.
I don’t remember a lot of black characters in Two Much, but it’s been a while–that’s certainly not a book dealing extensively with race.
Dancing Aztecs is going to be a project, I know. A two-parter, at the very least. And it was one of Westlake’s biggest hits, and I’m not aware of it getting slammed for racist content–I’ll have to do some research and see if there was any controversy about it. It probably wasn’t quite a best-seller, so maybe it didn’t rank the kind of ire that attended something like The Bonfire of the Vanities. But then again, it’s one hell of a different book, isn’t it? And in my humble opinion, a lot better than Wolfe’s book.
I mean, if there was ever an equal opportunity offender, it’s that one. Can you think of another novel where a black man living in Harlem gets burglarized by two Irishmen? And stage Irishmen at that.
Different times, but also a very different approach, and just like the old Our Gang comedies, everybody is a figure of fun, so everybody gets to have fun. Sometimes if you make people laugh hard enough, and make it an even-enough playing field, where everybody takes a pratfall, they forget to be offended. Sometimes.
Two Much doesn’t have much in the way of black characters – just something of an asshole of a protagonist who isn’t afraid to hurl insults. He’s perhaps oddly likeable, but he’s not loveable (a la Archie Bunker), so his racist and homophobic slurs are problematic in this post-Ferguson age.
Regarding Dancing Aztecs, I agree that since EVERY character is a stereotype (Jewish, Italian, black, gay, WASP), no one group can claim a corner on the offended market. Well, maybe hawks (the avian kind). Even so, parts of the story, at least dialogue, are squirm inducing. But we are getting ahead of ourselves (as I am wont to do). I’ll wait.
As far as a potential uproar when it was published, probably not. But you might take a gander at some of the low star ratings on B&N or Amazon and you’ll see that for some more recent readers its a problem.
Oh I remember Mr. Dodge very well–you might be a touch surprised at my take on him, and the narrative as a whole. I really love that book, but my god it’s one of the blackest comedies I know of, even if it doesn’t have much in the way of black people. The movie adaptations never came close to bringing that across.
That’s an interesting point about online ratings, but then again, you never know–these days, it might boost sales, though not necessarily to readers the late Mr. Westlake would appreciate. On the internet, at least, racism is not on the descendant–very much the contrary, and without the slightest touch of irony, not to mention self-awareness.
Thing is, I’d guess not only the present-day guardians of PC but racists as well would probably find the book at least as offensive, maybe more so. Just as they were offended by Mark Twain, who was pleased as punch to have aroused their ire.
Anyway, who says I have enough blog readers to even worry about a backlash? My comments section has been awfully polite thus far. If somebody wants to dance, I’d be only too pleased. 😉
So yeah, I’m typing the n-word out. In quotes. I shall not employ it myself. I have not earned the right.
IT’s a problem (with apostrophe).
If I could give you guys the power to edit your own comments, I would. I know exactly how that feels. But seriously, everybody screws up on its and it’s, even if they know the difference.
Westlake himself reportedly kept a note taped to his typewriter, with the words “Weird Villain” on it, because he kept misspelling those words. He should have written a book using that as a title. Just for the hell of it. 😉
Parody is not my favorite genre. I can admire the artistry of it, marvel at the gameplay, appreciate the humor, but I find it difficult to invest in it at book-length (even a decidedly short book). It’s like David Letterman’s stupid pet tricks — pre-judged for your convenience (“this is pretty stupid, huh?”), so you can be the guy who’s wise, one of the cool kids who understands how stupid it all is. Now imagine the stupid pet tricks segment stretched to movie length, and you’ll begin to understand how I feel about book-length parody. Is it funny? Of course. But the reader in me wants to invest in the story, and it’s impossible to do that when the author keeps hitting me over the head with how stupid the whole thing is supposed to be. Compare it to, say, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, both of which are very silly parodies but with stories that you can invest in and care about. Also, Westlake is such a dazzlingly more talented writer than Hailey that the whole project might seem like bullying if Hailey weren’t so dazzlingly more successful.
All of that said, there are comic riches to be found in Comfort Station, and much of it sparkles with wit and ingenuity. I just have to read it in small doses.
It’s really more of a novella than a novel–Westlake knew readers would have no patience for a full-length parody, any more than he did.
To me, it’s just this lovely little relic–really more a collection of inter-woven short stories, which is sort of what this form demands–how many variations have we seen over the years, on movies and on TV? Hailey didn’t invent this form, he just stuffed it with a lot of ersatz technocratic terminology, took it seriously.
If Westlake had written a really great story for it, characters who were not cliches (no ‘almost’ about it), that would have violated the conventions of the form he was sending up. But he can’t help but make the prose live and breathe in a way that Hailey never could. Even when he’s trying, Westlake can’t be guilty of bad writing.
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.
Does she, by any chance, love scientific men?
It’s been a long time, but let me run down two of his other conquests in the book:
A just-widowed and very beautiful woman who was the wife of a friend, and needs to get laid. Like I think it was right after the funeral.
The much younger and also beautiful wife of a friend who is still very much alive, but unable to father children. The power company executive is tapped to do the job, and I do mean tapped, but of course they do it the old-fashioned way, in the couple’s own house, with the husband’s full smiling assent. The protagonist is enough of a gentleman to ask if he can enjoy himself. Hmm, they did kind of do something similar The Big Chill, but Mary Kay Place’s character wasn’t married, and the characters in Hailey’s book aren’t children of the counterculture.
So you see, it’s not his fault women keep throwing themselves at him. Basically, the reporter just takes him to bed because he’s a man. He’s all man. If you read Comfort Station (and I see you have), you’ll know what I mean. 😉
The entertainment cliche that black women are sexy, dangerous, and in fact sexy because they’re dangerous, is not one Westlake uniformly avoided.
True. But he actually had a black woman as the main love interest (with a valid POV of her own) in a book written specifically about race relations, not exclusively of the erotic type. I don’t think Westlake himself ever created a truly great black character, but he created a whole lot of very interesting ones, who are not stereotypes, or a pretense at inclusiveness. You still know, going in, that the non-white character will never be the main protagonist. As I said, that particular jab may be aimed at himself as well.
Hailey was probably liberal enough. He was no Tom Clancy. Bad writing knows no politics.
My closest acquaintance with any work of Arthur Hailey was reading the Mad Magazine parody of Airplane (“Airplot!”), so any specific references went whizzing over my head, but I loved this thing. The writing was so very, very terrible that it approached genius from the far side. I would love to see someone of Westlake’s caliber do this to Dan Brown.
The Mad parody was of Airport, not Airplane. The movie Airplane actually lifted a few lines verbatim from Hailey’s novel — the PA’s discussion about abortion and Robert Stack’s line about cheats and liars.
Yes, of course, Thanks for the correction.
Many years later, Mad did a follow-up–The Corncorde: Airplot ’79. But of course they couldn’t do Airplane!, because a parody of a parody is stretching things a mite too thin.
To the best of my knowledge, Mad never did an Airplane! parody, but Cracked tried it — and managed to be a poor imitation of the original, which would prove your point.
Cracked often had to make do with the scraps that tell from the master’s table. Master Neuman, I mean. 😉
I figured you’d like it, Mike–of course what makes it enjoyable today is that even while channeling Hailey’s implacable prosaic dullness, Westlake was also writing in a tradition that I like to think of as American Nonsense (nothing to do with our politics)–quite distinct from the tradition exemplified by Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and there’s a goodly strain of it in W.S. Gilbert.
No, the American version is more adult, more streetwise, more idiomatic, and is often parodic in nature. And just as a special treat for you, I’m going to type out a really fine example of it from a book I’ve long possessed about the early years of The Brothers Marx. This is one of them introducing their long time friend and drinking companion, the famed newspaper columnist Heywood Broun, on the radio–Mr. Marx apparently composed the text himself, which was reproduced in a newspaper column (not written by Broun)–see if you can guess which brother it was. I thought about putting this in the review, but there was a very real danger of the review being longer than the book. I believe there are city ordinances against that kind of thing.
Broun is another one I’m unfamiliar with first-hand, though I caught the tail-end of his son’s career as a sports reporter. Broun pere was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and so is a minor character in Harpo’s autobiography. I expect you’re read that, but if not I highly recommend it. What you’ve quoted is indeed classic Groucho, who learned that style at the feet of masters like George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley, also Round Tablers.
And leave us not forget S.J. Perelman, perhaps the greatest humorist of that fabled era, at least on our side of the Atlantic.
I have not read Harpo’s memoirs. I imagine them as a succession of honks, interspersed with the clatter of silverware, and the occasional maidenly shriek of mingled horror and delight.
Perelman was of the next generation, still a young man when he wrote for the old pros on Monkey Business and Horsefeathers.
Next week I’ll be talking about Brian Garfield, six years younger than Westlake, and yet still a colleague and contemporary. In this context it’s not when you were born, so much as when you arrived on the scene. But point taken. I had a Perelman anthology once (not sure what happened to it), and I felt like mentioning him. 🙂
Perelman was indeed one of the great masters of the form. He’s responsible for this great bit of Marxian dialog:
“Professor, the Dean is furious. He’s waxing wroth!”
“Oh, is Roth out there too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.”
Woody Allen’s not bad either:
Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of a moose singing “Embraceable You” in spats.
The Woodman (currently trying to avoid a one-way trip to Cosby-ville, so his badness remains an open question) wrote maybe the best noir parody of all time, Mr Big. One can actually argue whether it’s a parody of noir with philosophic trappings, or vice versa. If one wants to appear like a total nerd. 😐
The entire story is available online (typed accurately, though formatted poorly) , but I think I’ll post this link instead–well done, North Carolina! Though you do miss a lot when you just film the dialogue–try a voiceover narration next time. Fits the form.
Book length parodies were in vogue back then (perhaps even in Vogue, the magazine)–you don’t see much of that now. Even the Harvard Lampoon boys mainly did short pieces, which I once read a collection of–no genre was left untouched. Like they did a send-up of the Hardy Boys adventures, and the gag was that the brothers have no knowledge of sex, even as an abstract concept. They keep busting into a room and finding naked sweaty people in bed, their chests heaving, and they assume they’ve been drugged or something.
Is Brown yet typing? Perhaps given the discovery of a new Seuss book, we could try a melding of the forms–“Where is Brown? WHERE IS BROWN? THERE is Brown! Mr. Brown is out of town.”
And he should stay out.
There was a parody of the opening chapter of The DaVinci Code if it was written by Richard Stark. Maybe 2 pages. Don’t know who wrote it, but I don’t think it was Westlake.
No, I would hardly think so. Thing is, it would probably take Parker holding a Colt Python on me to make me read anything by Mr. Brown. There are greater evils in the world of letters than Arthur Hailey, and he’s one of them.
It’s by Ethan Iverson, author of this fine Westlake page, and appears in this great Parker site.
Link didn’t come through for some reason–
Less of a humorous exercise than making a very solid point–Brown wastes a lot of words. Not all prose can or should be as spare as Stark’s, but a simple action scene shouldn’t be larded up with all that excess verbiage.
And yet look at the sales. I guess some people figure they’re paying by the word.
And then you wait a bit, and the books are littering up the fleat markets and garage sales. No staying power.
Harvard Lampoon did an interesting parody of the James Bond series, specifically the Signet pbs, titled Alligator by I*n Fl*m*ng a few years before Bored Of The Rings….1962, I think. They also created a James Bond short story for their Playboy parody of 1966 or so. I have no point except to agree with your post and do so with another example. Therefore said example has been posted to the comments section of your blog about the parody titled Comfort Station…….
Now I said we don’t have to do parody comments to a parody review of a parody novel……..;)
There was a book-length parody of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, probably longer than the original, about a Jewish chicken (named Jonathan Siegel, of course) who thinks there must be more to life than becoming soup.
Eh. It couldn’t hurt. 😐