SOMETIMES I THINK I’M good and sometimes I think I’m bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know which stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.”
“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. “With an umlaut,” I explained.
“Umlaut.” I poked two fingers in the air, as though blinding an invisible man. “Two dots over the U. It’s a German name.”
He frowned at my records, “Says here you were born in Rye, New York.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. Wry, New York.
You will remember my piece of some months back about the much-publicized escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility, more commonly known as Dannemora–a prison (and a town) that Westlake knew something about from his upstate days, and occasionally referenced in his books. They managed to tunnel their way through the prison infrastructure, crawling through a pipe, and coming up through a manhole cover on the suburban street that faced the prison wall. They actually did this twice, deciding not to escape the first time they came up–they went back to their cell to wait for a better moment.
It did not work out well for either of them, as was widely reported. Stories about escaped prisoners rarely have happy endings, at least not for the escaped prisoners.
But suppose, just suppose, they had been living out a different kind of escape fantasy. Suppose they had managed to somehow conceal their escape route indefinitely, arranged to have money from Matt’s successful sideline as an artist made available to them locally–they already had civilian clothes they were allowed to wear in the prison.
Suppose they had just now and again come out through that manhole, strolled around as free men, gone to local bars, had a few drinks, chatted up local girls, maybe gone home with a few of them (the question of ‘your place or mine?’ could be tabled indefinitely)–and then returned to their cells, nobody the wiser? Even if they’d been found out eventually, all that would happen would be the loss of privileges (they were already serving life sentences), and they sure wouldn’t have been shot to death by the cops, as Matt was. Security and freedom–the best of both worlds. And if they’d committed crimes out there and avoided being captured and/or identified–who’d have ever suspected them?
And think how differently we’d have reacted to that story, if it ever came out. Can you imagine such a thing? Donald Westlake could. With maybe a bit of help from some readers of his (or Richard Stark’s) who were themselves prisoners, and wrote him letters about prison life. Including one about a prison so networked with tunnels that a truck parked outside the prison wall ended up sinking into the ground as some of those tunnels collapsed under it.
This is the eighth ‘Nephew’ book Westlake published, and in many ways the happiest of the bunch. He breaks a lot of the rules of his own sub-genre in it, but we’ve seen him do that before–it often seems he created rules for the sole purpose of breaking them. He managed to find a surprisingly large number of variations on the original theme he established in The Fugitive Pigeon, almost ten years before this book came out, and this is one of the most charming and off-beat variations he ever came up with. And one of the funniest.
And truth be told, it’s still not as funny as the best Dortmunders. Westlake was coming to the end of his rope with these books, as he already had with Parker, Grofield, and Tobin. He had one more first-rate Nephew in him after this, at which point he let the form lapse for a very long time, only to kindasorta revive it at the tail-end of his career (it’s debatable, and we will debate it). But taken as a whole, they represent a very important component in his overall production. These peripatetic picaresques paved the way for his more mature comedic writing, and had things to say that he couldn’t have gotten across with Dortmunder. Anyway, we can talk more about that when we get to the next one, which was published the following year.
Westlake, as we all should know by now, is a devout anti-authoritarian. Authority figures make him itch. He can’t see an imperious face without wanting to lob a pie at it (or, in the Parker novels, a bullet). He’s aware of this prejudice, and tries to allow for it–we need some structure of authority in this world. We also need to keep putting it in its place. He felt this was a universal trait in humankind, with one significant caveat, which he mentioned in Dancing Aztecs.
Hispanics have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Come to that, the Irish and Italians and Jews also have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Thinking it over, everybody has a long tradition of defiance against authority. (Except the Germans, of course.)
Of course that’s a grossly unfair exaggeration made for satiric effect, but having been to Germany, I feel I can say with authority (which you should all rebel against!) that it’s not made up out of whole cloth. And yet, there are German rebels, always have been–Martin Luther comes to mind, Oskar Schindler more recently, but their patron saint would probably be Marlene Dietrich. A German rebel, by definition, has to be the most determined and resourceful of all, just to survive the consequences of rebellion in a heavily pro-authority environment. And for whimsical reasons of his own, Westlake chose to make the hero of this book the American son of German immigrant parents. Though to be sure, that’s partly just for the name.
Harry Künt is an American citizen because his parents fled Germany during the Nazi Era, being appalled by Hitler and the Nazis, and yet not wishing to stay and rebel against authority, particularly not an authority that has death camps and guillotines (you see what I mean about German rebels needing to be a cut above the rest). Harry’s parents are honest decent people, who raise their one son lovingly and well, but the one thing he most wants, they will not let him have–a name that does not incite general mockery and derision from his fellow Americans.
See, in German, the word ‘cunt’ is spelled ‘fotze’ (two syllables, accent on the first). If your name happens to sound like fotze, you are probably in for some ribbing in German-speaking lands, unless maybe they don’t go in for puns there. The fact that Hitler not keeping his birth name of Schickelgruber is considered such a vital element in his rise to power leads me to think that name-based mockery is not unknown in those parts. But the name Künt presents no difficulties in Teutonic territories. With or without an umlaut.
Harry’s parents (who, aside from one phone call from Harry to his mother, are not really characters in this book) just can’t understand why he’d want to change his proud old German name, and he doesn’t want to hurt them, so he’s had to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous classmates and army buddies, and even worse, with girls he’s sweet on, who keep breaking up with him because they don’t quite fancy the sound of ‘Mrs. Kunt,’ or the prospect of perpetually reminding people of the umlaut.
This had a bit of a warping effect, you might say, on Harry’s otherwise rather decent and likable personality. Unlike Fred Fitch, in God Save the Mark, always getting fooled by others, Harry has decided to be the one who makes others play the fool. Because God, as he sees it, played a practical joke on him, he’s spent most of his life compulsively pulling practical jokes on those around him, and has gone largely undetected while doing so, since nobody expects a guy whose name looks like cunt to act like such a dick. So he keeps getting away with it, until one of his more spectacular stunts rather spectacularly backfires.
One afternoon, Harry parked a car with a naked female mannequin suggestively posed on the hood of a Chevy Impala, on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The resulting multi-car pile-up led to a number of people being non-critically injured–including three children–but public indignation regarding this is not the only reason Harry ended up with a five-to-fifteen year prison sentence at Stonevelt, an upstate penitentiary near the Canadian border (pretty clearly modeled after Dannemora, an aerial view of which you can see up top).
See, among the victims of his gag were two U.S. congressmen. Each of whom was accompanied at the time by a young lady to whom he was not married. Hell hath no fury like a politician burned. Strings were pulled, and Künt was screwed.
But he’s decided to take his incarceration as a positive, not having any choice in the matter. With good behavior, he can get out in a few years, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to get his pranking disorder under control before then. And as he leaves Warden Gadmore’s office, he leaves a big wad of gum on the doorknob. This bodes not well.
A short while later (just to remind us not all pranks are harmless, and not only authority figures get pranked), he hides the lower plate of his elderly cellmate who he likes very much–and then realizes, with great remorse, that the man, having just been released for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, before the prison dentist could complete his upper plate, or Harry could tell him about the gag, now has no plates of any kind. Out in a cold world, with no family, no job, and no teeth. Harry really doesn’t know if he’s a good person or not, but he rather suspects not. He’d like to be, but he hasn’t figured out how. Join the club, man.
Warden Gadmore doesn’t quite know what to make of Harry, who isn’t really a criminal, but clearly is some kind of social misfit, so he assigns him to making license plates–and then calls him back to the office–seems that somebody snuck a message into one packet of plates–“Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.” Warden Gadmore warns Harry that this kind of thing had better stop. Harry tells him he had nothing to do with it, which he didn’t–of course he’s not believed. But it’s a first offense, so he’s simply reassigned. To the prison gymnasium.
And it is there that he inadvertently stumbles into the most frightening and exhilarating experience of his life–the prisoners who run the gym, notably one Phil Giffin, are not happy with his presence, and he finds out why when he sees a man in civilian clothes step out of a locker. The man points a gun at him, and he faints.
He’s locked up in an equipment room, until Phil can explain the situation. Years ago, a prisoner doing a ‘five and dime’ (five to ten years) had a wife, who had a cousin, who was the contractor building the gym, back when there was money for that kind of thing. The wife bought a house across from the prison. The cousin built a tunnel (with carpeting, lighting, and everything) from the gym to the house. Three of the lockers are actually doors to the tunnel, that can only be opened with a special key.
The guy had no intention of escaping–what’s the point? He’d just wait for some free time, go through the tunnel, have a nice lunch, watch some TV, take his wife to bed, go back to his cell. It’s a short commute. Plenty of working stiffs would envy such a life, not to mention such a wife.
Over time, the secret has been shared with a select few prisoners, each of whom has to buy his way into the club, then cash out when he gets released–there’s currently seven of them. The wiry hard-eyed Phil Giffin, informal leader of the outfit. The near-albino giant, Jerry Bogentrodder (somehow nobody ever makes jokes about his name). A monstrous menacing mass of muscle named Billy Glinn. The knobby-knuckled hard-boiled Joe Maslocki. Eddie Troyn (the guy who pointed the pistol at Harry), a former military man imprisoned on mysterious charges. Bob Dombey, with a name and personality borrowed from Dickens, whose wife currently owns the house the tunnel ends up in. And the counter-cultural Max Nolan, a bit of a playboy in his off-time, regarding whom Harry has this bit of trenchant social commentary to impart to us–
There’s a funny double progression going on in prison these days, as more and more radicals arrive, sentenced for drugs or politics. The rebels are radicalizing the criminals, which is why there’ve been so many prison riots and strikes recently, but at the same time the crooks are criminalizing the radicals. A college graduate who enters prison for smoking marijuana or bombing an army recruitment office comes out knowing how to jimmy apartment doors and crack safes. A few years from now the world in general may be in for an unpleasant surprise.
(Sidebar: This is a very white prison novel. I mean, there’s not even any Italians in it, though the guy the tunnel was originally built for was named Vasacapa. There are no African American or Hispanic characters at all, though there is a reference to the civil rights movement. One assumes there are persons of color in there somewhere, but no reference to them is made. In the 70’s, this monochromatic mixture is not the least bit realistic, if it ever was, and realism is not what Westlake is going for, obviously. It’s not like minority advocacy groups would thank him for depicting their people as inveterate prison rats, right? Race would be a distraction from the story he wants to tell. And if they made a movie of this today, they would clearly have to go the Orange Is The New Black route [Oz is way too dark], but I really doubt there’s ever going to be a movie. Though I would go see it.)
Anyway, this elite group within the prison can normally keep outsiders from getting assigned to the gym, but the warden’s unusual interest in Harry caught them off guard. Arranging for his accidental death would be a hassle (so much red tape, and please don’t ask where the red comes from), so they vote to invite him into their group, and enjoy the benefits of the tunnel. The ‘or else’ is left implicit.
They have no idea what Harry did to get locked up, but some prisoners who work in the office smuggled out his file for Phil to read, and here’s the thing–the authorities were a bit embarrassed to be giving such a stiff sentence to a practical joker to appease some humiliated congressmen, so they made it sound pretty dire, and weren’t all that specific in enumerating the charges. Endangering the public welfare, menace to society, like that. So the tunnel gang thinks Harry’s a desperate character, such as themselves. Worthy of membership. Harry knows otherwise, but if he tells them that, he’s 1)Not getting to go outside and 2)Probably dead. So he doesn’t tell them that. What they don’t know won’t hurt him.
However, he has not been able to restrain his pranking impulse, and even members of the tunnel gang are not immune from itching powder, shoelaces tied together, saran wrap stretched over toilets, etc. And Harry does all this being painfully aware that in prison, the known practical joker’s chances of survival are just slightly better than the known child molester’s. He really can’t stop himself. Because he’s still confused about who he is, and who he’d like to be, he can’t leave his old practical joker identity behind.
He does, however, get a new name, courtesy of Phil–see, he has to set up a bank account–with savings his his mother sends him after a confused phone call–to cover his membership fee for the tunnel group, and other miscellaneous expenses–and at the bank, Phil offhandedly identifies him to the teller as Harry Kent.
I almost corrected him. Then, in a blinding flash, what he had done blossomed in front of me. He had given me an alias! For the first time in my life, with utter justification, I could be somebody other than Harry Künt. With an umlaut.
She gave me a huge smile, saying “How are you?”
I gave her a huge smile right back. “I’m just fine,” I said. Oh let my prison term never end, I was thinking. What did I care what they called me inside those walls; in this wonderful world outside I was Harry Kent. What a beautiful name, what a noble name! It sounded like something out of Shakespeare. Harry of Kent awaits without, milord. Without what, varlet? Without his fucking umlaut, milord.
So it’s all good, right? He’s got the toughest gang in Stonevelt to protect him from groups like the shower-haunting ‘Joy Boys’ (there’s plenty of references to gay sex in this book; it’s not that 30’s-era Warner Brothers), a pass to go outside and live like a free man for a few hours whenever he wants, and a brand new name that he loves.
And there’s just one little catch, that they can’t tell him about until he’s already part of the group, and can’t safely back out–he has to participate in a bank robbery. In the town the prison is in, likewise named Stonevelt. A bank heist. In a Donald Westlake novel. What could possibly go wrong?
And it’s not just one bank–the gang plans to hit two the same night, then go back to their cells–the literally perfect crime. Directly across the street from each other, one a traditional stone-pillared temple to Mammon, the other a modern glass and steel affair. Their underground vaults are adjacently situated, separated by a single wall, which the tunnel gang plans to breach with–get this–a military laser. That they’re going to steal from the nearby army base.
(Yes of course there’s a nearby base, it’s a comic caper–there could be a submarine docking station if the story demanded it. And of course the army had easily portable user-friendly lasers stored at rural upstate New York bases, that could melt through steel bank vaults. In the early 70’s. Let us now concede that the science fiction geek in Donald E. Westlake never did quite completely die out.)
Now Harry has already proven himself to them by pulling a little ‘sting’ in town, as they all do from time to time, but what he did not tell them is that he got the money through his own specialty–practical jokery. He put up a sign on one of the banks saying that the slot through which local businessmen can deposit their daily proceeds after banking hours is out of order, and late-night depositors can use the provided bin, which normally is used for milk bottles, that he nabbed from a nearby house.
He gets one sucker, from a local bar, but that’s all he needs. It’s enough to pay his share of the electric bill for the tunnel lights and stuff, and establish his street cred with the boys, and in future he can just use his own personal savings and say that he stole them. But you can’t fake a bank robbery, and you can’t get out of it through the application of practical joke expertise. Can you?
Now I hadn’t planned to make this a two-parter, and it’s a bit short for a Part 1, but seems like a good spot for a break, and I haven’t posted anything in almost ten days. And there’s a lot of story packed into this not terribly long book, and I’ve done enough 6,000+ word articles already. So I’m going to post this, then tunnel my way out of the office, and be free from self-imposed deadlines for a little while, before returning to my cell to write Part 2.
By the way, do any of you happen to have Prince Albert in a can? Well for the love of God, don’t eat him, he died in 1861!
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)