Monthly Archives: October 2015

Review: Brothers Keepers, Part 2

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Now, here was a question about Travel to be considered.  Our attention in the monstery had been devoted almost exclusively to the sacred uses of Travel, but might there not be distinctions as well between various forms of Mundane Travel?  If a person limits himself to Travel by car or no Travel at all, can there be any virtue in his staying home?  If enslavement to the automobile is a simple habit, a tick, isn’t the choice of life-style–living where it is necessary to drive to work, or to school, or to the supermarket–a part of that habit as well?  A person who chooses a place to live which makes it necessary for him constantly to Travel by automobile might be said to be undergoing Travel even when inside his own house.  His existence then is Transitory, consisting of Latent Travel (at home) and Kinetic Travel (on the road again).  If Travel is too profound to be undertaken lightly–as we firmly believe it is–such a person could be said to be a Travel Junkie, as unquestioningly tied to his habit as any drug addict, and surely feeling many of the same debilitating effects.

It feels strange to talk about our community in a religious sense.  We’re a religious brotherhood, but we don’t carry on about it.  Similarly, we all of us dwell in a world ruled by the law of gravity, and every day of our lives we make one or more decisions based on the law of gravity, but how often do we talk about or think about gravity?  It is simply a given, a basic postulate of our lives, and there’d be something foolish and self-conscious in an extended dissertation on the subject.

Newgate Callendar’s rather negative capsule review of Two Much for the New York Times, that I referenced in my review of that book, was published on May 18th, 1975.  The even briefer and more dismissive Times review of Brothers Keepers had no byline, and was published on October 5th of that same year, but it was mentioned even earlier in a list of recently published books that appeared in August 30th.  So really, Two Much and Brothers Keepers must have come out no more than a few months apart, possibly just a few weeks apart–from the same publisher–both credited to Westlake.  The only book he ever published at M. Evans under a pseudonym was Ex Officio, his first for them.

This kind of thing goes a long way towards explaining why Westlake once wrote to the then-imprisoned Al Nussbaum that since he started writing for M. Evans he was so happy “I skip and dance and go tra-la-la all day.”   He’s being funny about it, but I think he means it–he’s finally able to write basically whatever he wants, whenever he wants.   He doesn’t have to write a murder mystery into it.  He doesn’t have to write a bank robbery into it.  He doesn’t have to write a euphemistic sex scene into it (but he can if he wants to).

He doesn’t have to pretend he’s two different authors to get the books published around the same time.  His protagonist can be a bastard philanderer who writes smutty greeting cards for a living while dating twins, or a somewhat anal and naive monk who is forced to engage the outside world and falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the man who wants his monastery razed to the ground.

He gets an idea for some book nobody’s ever written before; he pitches it, they say “Sure,” he works on it, maybe an editor there gives him some helpful input, maybe not, he finishes the book, they print it and send it to the bookstores.  It probably wasn’t quite that simple, but it must have come close to that at times, and if that isn’t every aspiring author’s dream, I don’t know what is.  Well, leaving out the part about bestseller lists and mainstream critical acclaim, and famed literary prizes, and brilliant hit movies based on your books, but that’s all after the fact.   The important thing is to say what you had to say, the precise way you wanted to say it, and then have people read it.  It couldn’t last–not just the way he had it at M. Evans in the 70’s–but it must have been lovely while it lasted.

But he’s still got to think about what readers and critics expect from him, the creator of Parker and Dortmunder, which is probably why when he started writing this one, it was going to be about a monastery of reformed crooks, who pull a heist to keep the monastery going, and it would be called The Felonious Monks–a sly modern jazz reference that just barely made it into the finished work, but still beat a whole lot of people to the pun.

Now I’d love to read that book, and so would you, but Westlake started writing it, and found that he couldn’t do it.  He was liking these monks too much, respecting their values too deeply, to make them into thieves just for our entertainment.   He couldn’t make them heisters anymore than he could make Parker funny.  The characters spoke to him, and said “This is not who we are.”

He made just one of them a former thief–Brother Silas, who at one point relates that before coming to the Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, he briefly belonged to a monastic order devoted to St. Dismas (the penitent one of the two thieves reportedly crucified next to Jesus, who was given his name in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, yes I had to look that up).

And he says they were lousy monks–basically it was just a racket they came up with to avoid working when they got out of stir–and the monastery they built looked exactly like the prisons they’d spent much of their lives in–he only mentions this because Dimp (Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners), which is going to tear down the monastery and every building on their block to erect a huge ugly office tower, is proposing to relocate them there, now that the St. Dismas people have abandoned the facility.  And he never wants to see that place again.  He is a truly penitent thief.

But he still has the odd felonious urge now and again (all the Crispinite monks have past lives that impact their present-day behavior)–he suggests he could crack the safe at the Flattery home, and get a copy of their missing lease–but the plan is shot down by Brother Oliver.  They will not win with Satan’s methods.  They have to be true to themselves.  They are not felonious monks.  They are brothers devoted to praising God, and studying the effects of Travel upon the human soul.  Anyway, the lease probably would be in a safe deposit vault, not at the house.  Monks have to be pragmatic too, you know.

Westlake would make use of the Felonious Monk idea some time later, in one of my favorite Dortmunder novels, but even there he leaves the heisting to the secular professionals, while the religious personnel merely act as fingers on the job (in a good cause, naturally).  His attitude towards priests, on the whole, seems somewhat less friendly than his attitude towards monks and nuns (see Memory).  The authority thing again.  But also they’re just naturally more sympathetic, these humble foot soldiers of Christ.  Easier to root for.  And if there’s anything Westlake admired above all, it was loyalty to your fellows–and the desire to know yourself.  And who is more devoted to self-knowledge than a member of a cloistered religious order?  Oh well, back to the synopsis.

So Brother Oliver, the abbot, has finally decided that it’s time to tell all the brothers that they are in danger of losing their home.  Time is very short–it’s nearly Christmas, and Dimp can evict them on January 1st, if it wants–and given their stated intention to resist eviction to the bitter end, obviously Dimp is going to take a page from the Book of Moses (Robert Moses, that is) and have the bulldozers and wrecking balls there early in the New Year, before the monks can get any popular support on their side–a fait accompli.  Brother Clemence, the former hot shot Wall St. attorney, says they have to get their hands on a copy of the missing lease to know if they’ve got any chance of winning out.

And it’s the aged Brother Zebulon who comes up with the answer–there is a copy–Brother Urban, who was abbot many years before, had a hobby, like most of the Crispinites.   His was making illuminated manuscripts of almost any text he could lay his hands on.  And he made one of the lease.  And it’s up with most of the creative projects (some more successful than others) that the brothers have labored over across the generations, in the only place they have to store them all in.

The attic.  Because the roof slanted down on both sides, the only place where one could stand up straight was in the very middle, directly beneath the ridgepole.  And even then one could stand up straight only if one were less than five feet six inches tall.  And barefoot.

That taller central area had been left clear as a passageway, but the triangular spaces on both sides were filled with the most incredible array of artifacts.  Abbot Ardward’s matchstick mangers–and his three partly damaged matchstick cathedrals–made a sort of sprawling Lilliputian city all about, intermixed with ancient cracking leather suitcases, copses and groves of tarnished candelabra, tilting light-absorbing examples of Abbot Jacob’s art of the stained glass window, curling blow-up sheafs of Abbot Delfast’s photographic studies of the changing of the seasons in our courtyard, piles of clothing, cartons of shoes, small hills of broken coffeepots and cracked dinnerware, and who knows what else.  Over there leaned Abbot Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel based on the life of St. Jude the Obscure, now an apartment house for mice.  Old chairs, small tables, a log-slab bench and what I took to be a hitching post.  Kerosene lanterns hanging from nails in the old beams, bas-reliefs on religious subjects jammed in every which way, and a rolled-up carpet with no Cleopatra inside.  The wanderings of the Jews were recorded in mosaics of tiny tile glued to broad planks some of the glue had dried out and the tiles had fallen off, to be crunched distressingly underfoot. Old newspapers, old woodcuts of sailing vessels, old fedoras, old stereopticon sets, and old school ties.

You can really fill an attic in a hundred and ninety-eight years.

(Brother Oliver is a painter, and it’s tacitly understood that most of his work will end up there too, once he’s gone to meet his maker.  One wonders if in the 21st century, the Crispinites will take to storing their artistic efforts digitally in The Cloud, which seems rather appropriate, and a lot less dusty–but somehow I can’t see it.  Anyway, the mice are enjoying themselves.  No doubt reading missives at mouse mass in the matchstick cathedrals.  Well, the expression ‘poor as church mice’ had to come from somewhere, right?)

It requires a concerted group effort by the assembled monks, coughing and wheezing over the dust of centuries, but they locate the copy, and Brother Clemence painstakingly decodes the heavily stylized lettering–success!   The lease automatically renews itself!   They can’t be evicted without their consent.   Only trouble is, an illuminated manuscript copy is not binding in any court not situated somewhere in the Middle Ages.  And this brings them back to Brother Silas’ conjecture that maybe the lease was stolen, so that they could not assert their legal rights to the land the monastery is on.  And Benedict has a horrible thought–suppose it was one of the brothers who stole it?

Brothers Clemence and Dexter set about basically reverse-engineering the lease, relying on a legal precedent that through an array of secondary documents they do have relating to the lease, they can prove what it said, and stop the destruction.  And while that is going on, the monks have a visitor–Mr. Dwarfmann himself.   And this is what I meant when I said last time that Brother Oliver would meet a foeman worthy of his steel.  Dwarfmann has no intention of relenting on any point, but he is there because he was summoned.  He says his days are ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’–turns out he is very well-versed in scripture.  The battle is engaged.   This may be the best scene in the book.

There is a building on this site,” Brother Oliver said.

“Not for long.”

“Why not look at it?” Brother Oliver made hospitable gestures, urging our guest to come look the place over.  “Now that you’re here, why not see the place you intend to destroy?”

“Beauty is vain,” Dwarfmann said.  “Proverbs, thirty-one, thirty.”

Brother Oliver began to look somewhat put out.  He said “Wot ye not what the Scripture saith?  Romans, eleven.”

With that sudden thin smile again, Dwarfmann answered, “What saith the Scripture?  Galatians, four.”

“Pride goeth before destruction,” Brother Oliver told him, “and an haughty spirit before a fall.  Proverbs, sixteen.”

Dwarfmann shrugged, saying, “Let us do evil, that good may come.  Romans, three.”

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.  Isaiah, five.”

“Sin is not imputed where there is no law,” Dwarfmann insisted. “Romans, five.”

Brother Oliver shook his head.  “He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.”

“Money answereth all things,” Dwarfmann said, with a great deal of assurance.

“He heapeth up riches,” Brother Oliver said scornfully, “and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

“Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.” Dwarfmann permitted his own scornful expression to roam around our room, then finished, “But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”  Another quick look at his watch. “I think we’ve played enough,” he said, and turned toward the door.

Brother Oliver had two pink circles on his cheeks, and his pudgy hands were more or less closed into ineffective fists.  “The devil is come down unto you,” he announced, “having great wrath, because he knoweth he hath but a short time.”

Dwarfmann’s hand was on our doorknob.  He looked back at Brother Oliver, flashed that thin smile again as though to say he was glad we all understood one another now, and with another quick glance around the room said, “He shall return no more to this house, neither shall his place know him any more.  Job, chapter seven, verse ten.”  And he left.

And Brother Benedict finishes with a quote from The Merchant of Venice.  “The Devil can quote scripture for his purpose.” Which might seem oddly anti-semitic for Westlake (most of whose best friends were Jewish) but I don’t think so–the world is full of Shylocks, and most of them aren’t members of The Tribe.  By the way, you might recognize that verse Dwarfmann cited towards the end of the exchange–Matthew 25:29–the basis for Billie Holiday’s and the very Jewish Arthur Herzog Jr’s God Bless The Child.  I never knew which part of the bible they were citing before.  Clearly Westlake did.

Brothers Clemence and Dexter are making progress in their forensic reconstruction of the lease, when suddenly a man disguised as a monk sneaks in and destroys all their work, including the vital secondary documents that would have served as evidence of what the lease had said.  Benedict realizes what’s happening and calls on Brother Mallory, the ex-prizefighter to smite the intruder, but his long years of pacifism have dulled his reflexes, and he’s knocked to the ground.  Before the man gets away, Benedict recognizes him–Frank Flattery.  Eileen’s brother.  Dan’s son.

Now it’s all very clear, though impossible to prove, since Frank got away.  Dan Flattery, the building contractor, wants the money from the land sale to Dwarfmann, and will quite certainly get a hefty construction contract for the office project into the bargain.  They found out that the lease made this impossible, so they stole the lease.  But how did they know about the plan to reconstruct the lease from secondary documents?  Only one of the brothers could have told them.  The monastery lapses into despair.   Their fellowship has been betrayed from within.  Their trust in each other has been murdered.

But then Benedict turns detective–has a flash of insight, that he later explains by referring to The Sign of The Four.   Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It simply is not possible any of his brothers could be a traitor.  Nor is it possible the Flatterys could have known what Brothers Clemence and Dexter were up to without somebody at the monastery telling them.  So what is possible, however improbable?   That somebody told them without knowing it.

He goes into Brother Oliver’s office–he finds a bug.  That’s how they knew.  He runs outside the monastery, where a florist’s van has been parked with suspicious frequency in recent weeks.  Inside is Alfred Broyle, the young man he saw Eileen with at the Flattery home.  And again, the malefactor makes good his escape after knocking Benedict down.  Monks are not the best possible heroes in a two-fisted detective story.

But for all that, the cloud has been lifted–the brothers were true to each other, and that means there’s still hope.  Benedict asks Brother Oliver for permission to Travel–he’s found out Eileen (who said she knew how to stop her father from foreclosing on the Crispinites) is in Puerto Rico.  Brother Oliver has his reservations–he knows Benedict is in love with Eileen–her charms are considerable–the temptation to forsake the monastic life shall be great.  He could forbid Benedict to leave, and Benedict would obey–would even be relieved.

But there’s no other way, and in any event, Benedict has to to be free to choose his own path for those choices to mean anything.  If he wants to leave, he should. A monastery is not a prison.  Even if the rooms are technically referred to as cells.

Benedict’s journey is described in great detail–all the brothers assist him in preparing for it.  True to the Crispinite code of minimalist Travel, he uses a combination of mass transit and his feet, rather than take a cab to the airport, and two cops stop him as he’s walking the last stretch to JFK, because who the hell does a fool thing like that?  He’s philosophizing all the way, as you see up top–there are no inconsequential journeys to a Crispinite monk.

But his deepest insight comes on the plane, as he sits with a Puerto Rican family, the Razas (Spanish for ‘race’) going home for the Christmas holiday, very respectful and warm-hearted to a Catholic monk–and many other such families as well, all as happy and at ease with themselves as those Whos down in Whoville–and he has a revelation.   It’s not Travel that is the destroyer of identity–it’s lonely Travel.

In some bewildering fashion, this rigid plastic environment with its three-seat pews and its narrow aisle had been turned into a front stoop, a series of front stoops, and December had been turned into spring.  Enveloped in this atmosphere, full of chicken and beer and friendliness, soothed by the clamor all around me, I sat back at last in my little corner, my head resting on my pillow, and my thoughts turned again to Travel and its myriad manifestations.

It seemed to me the Razas were somehow the opposite of the automobile people, those who were in a state of Latent Travel even when at home and who finished their lives wandering from trailer court to trailer court, dragging a simulacrum of home behind them.  The Razas, on the other hand, had such a strong self-identification, such vital ties to one another and to their heritage, that without conscious effort they defeated Travel, they swept away its qualities of isolation and disruption and disconnection.  Where those others were Traveling when when at home, the Razas were at home even when Traveling.  Their self-created environment overpowered the external environment.  They had found an answer to the question of Travel that I didn’t think had ever been dreamed of by anyone in our community.  When I got back, I told myself drowsily, I would have a lot to tell the others about my adventures.  So thinking, I dropped gently away into sleep.

Apologies for me rewriting this (formerly parenthetical) passage, but I just found the quote I was looking for, in the obvious place–The Getaway Car–what follows below was written by Abby Westlake:

Westlake has four [children], by various spouses, and I have three.  Not satisfied with the status quo–his four scattered with their mothers from Binghamton, New York, to Los Angeles, California (I have branches in all principal cities,” he is wont to say) and mine living with me in New York City–he ups and gathers everybody, with all their typewriters, baseball cards, Legos, musical instruments, movie books, and stuffed animals, and brings us all to London for a year.  Then, not content with London, he rents buses and takes this traveling circus all over Great Britain, including Scotland in January (snow) and Cornwall and Wales in February (rain).  Still not content, he drives us through the Continent in April for a sort of Grand Tour: Holland, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg and France in three weeks.  Because, like Brother Benedict again, he is obsessed with Travel.

So Westlake practiced what Benedict preached–but I suspect the original inspiration was, in fact, seeing Puerto Rican families on the plane, when Westlake was going there on vacation.  And he shared this inspiration with us via one of his protagonists.  Viva La Raza.

When Benedict finds Eileen, he’s exhausted and in the early stages of the flu–he insisted on walking all the way to the vacation house along the coast she’s staying at with friends, and it was raining part of the way.  But he recovers quickly, and just as quickly, he and Eileen become lovers.  It’s a matter of mutual need, and not just physical need–she’s lost, entirely.  Not happy with the family and society she was born with, but unable to abandon them.  She leaves her Long Island Irish circle, then returns, over and over.  She doesn’t know her place in the world, and she allows herself to hope Benedict can be that place for her.

This part of the book features a fair bit of satire concerning what used to be called ‘Lace Curtain Irish’.  The Paddies that made it, formed their own aristocracy, with its own odd cultural byways, as they somehow continued to consider themselves Irish without knowing anything about Ireland, or Catholic without being terribly religious.  You know, like the Kennedys? They all have names like Flattery, Cadaver, Latteral, Foney, and McGadgett, and Westlake is playing fair–these are mainly real names you can find in the phone book (rare as some of them might be), and might theoretically belong to a person of Irish descent.

It’s a very cloistered world in its own right, with its own unwritten rules–don’t marry outside the group (frequently broken, of course), never speak well of an absent friend (ah, the Irish penchant for backbiting), and never allow a glass to stay empty for long.  Westlake would have known people like this at school, but they aren’t quite his people, you understand–he belonged to the Paddies who didn’t make it.  Not by conventional means, anyway.

Benedict knows time for the monastery is running out, but he can’t seem to find the right moment to talk to Eileen, ask for her help. When he finally does, at the Yokahú Tower in the El Yunque Park (also featured in The Dame), which reminds him of home, she’s torn–her conflicts in this matter are now twofold–to save the Crispinites, she has to betray her family (who need the money from the sale, since the construction business has been failing of late), and lose perhaps the only man who ever loved her for herself.

Eileen, contrary to our expectations up to now, has no family secrets to impart–she didn’t know her father had stolen the lease, bugged the monastery–she doesn’t even know whether to believe Benedict when he told her.  But when she talks to her father on the phone, trying to ascertain the truth, we learn what she meant when she said she could save the monastery if she so chose–she knows her power very well, and is merely hesitant to employ it.

Because, you see, Dan Flattery, in his own gruff Irish father’s way, is as besotted with his proud willful daughter as Benedict. He can’t bear to have her think ill of him.  He tells Benedict that if he leaves Eileen alone, tells her he was making it all up, the monastery will be preserved–he’ll send them the lease, void the option with Dimp.  He’s got other business interests.   The Flattery family won’t starve, though they’ll maybe have to adjust their lifestyle a bit (and that might not do them a bit of harm, you can hear Westlake thinking–extreme wealth being the ultimate corrupter of identity).

Benedict has already decided that he and Eileen don’t work–she’s coming to the same conclusion herself.  He books a ticket home.  But he can’t save the monastery with a lie.  So heading back home, he feels certain the way of life he chose over the love of his life is doomed.  When he was Traveling to JFK days before, he’d met a drunken man in a Santa suit on the train.  Benedict sees Santa Claus as a fat red-suited pagan god of greed, corrupting the birthday of Our Lord–but ‘Santa’, in a giving vein, said Benedict could have whatever he wanted for Christmas.  He said he wanted his monastery.  Santa said ‘You got it.’  Well, it was just a drunk in a costume, anyway.

But a small miracle occurs on the way home–he makes a convert.   A fellow named Irwin Schumacher, gloomily consuming tiny bottles of Jack Daniels on the plane, as he laments his fate–he’s a Travel agent.  His family owns the business.  He’s expected to work there.  To do his job, he has to Travel, constantly, so that he can give informed advice to his customers.  He hates Travel.   It’s just pure hell for him.

Upon hearing Benedict’s account of the Crispinites, their monastery and their mission of exposing the dark side of Travel, Irwin (self-evidently Jewish, but so was the Crispinite Founder, you’ll recall) experiences a religious vocation, and insists on going with Benedict–he wants to join up.

Now given that he’s stone drunk on Jack Daniels, one might expect that he’d have second thoughts at some point, but not a bit of it.  They get to the monastery on December 31st (the bulldozers will probably arrive in the next week or so), and Irwin knows this is where he was always meant to be.  He’s married, and has grown children, but he hardly ever sees his wife as matters stand, and knowingly or not, he’s following in a long monastic tradition here.  People used to join monasteries and nunneries precisely to get the hell away from it all.  And no doubt many still do.

But the fact remains, the monastery is going to be destroyed.  Benedict’s mission was a failure.  The lease is presumably ensconced in a safe deposit box at the Flattery’s bank.  When Brother Silas is asked if he wants to advocate robbing the bank, he looks at his fellow monks and says “Not with this string.”

But Benedict won’t give up.  “Once more,” he says (into the breach, he might as well have added).  He’s going back to the Flatterys to try and work things out with Dan Flattery.  And this time, all the brothers want to come with him.  But how can they Travel as a group on such short notice?  Well, they have just inducted a Travel agent as a novice.  Irwin, as if by magic, conjures up a cozy tour bus.  And says that from now on, he wishes to be known as Brother Gideon.  After all those bibles he used to read in hotel rooms.

So this time the Crispinite Order will Travel together–as a family–like the Razas.  All the way to the wilds of Sayville, Long Island.  Benedict to settle accounts with Dan Flattery, but Brother Mallory also would like a return bout with Frank Flattery (though he keeps insisting he just wants to talk to him).  I could mention whether that rematch happens or not, but I hate to spoil everything.  In fact, why don’t I end the formal synopsis right here.

Westlake himself hated to give everything away–his endings are so often abrupt, loose ends flying all over the place, unanswered questions haunting us.  Did Brother Oliver and Roger Dwarfmann have a final match of their own, with more biblical quotations whizzing back and forth?  Did Irwin–I mean Brother Gideon’s wife show up looking for him, or did she fail to even notice he was gone, as he predicted would be the case?  Did Eileen find a way out of her self-destructive lifestyle, a place she could belong?  There’s a nunnery in an upcoming Dortmunder book she might have found sanctuary in (and her father might have accepted that, unlike another rich dad we’ll be meeting in that book).  Did Benedict eventually publish a book detailing his inner revelations regarding Travel?

For all the devil talk, there really are no villains in this book–everybody is doing what makes sense to him or her–Dwarfmann was doing what Dwarfmenn always do, no quarter given or taken, which is why we as a society have to make sure they don’t destroy everything old in their rush to ring in the new.  Dan Flattery was just trying to hang onto a family business–he can’t for the life of him understand what the Crispinites are doing on Park Avenue.  But at the end of the day, he’s still a Catholic School boy–no doubt an altar boy in his day–and he’s known all along that what he’s doing is wrong, that he’s selling out his core identity to maintain a peripheral one.  I know it’s an old-fashioned thing to say these days, but for some people, religion really does serve a useful purpose, however imperfectly.  An imperfect compass is better than none at all.

And for Benedict?  After telling us readers earlier that he believes God exists, that He rules this world, he tells Brother Oliver that he’s not so certain after all.  “I don’t know if I believe in God or just in peace and quiet.  All I know for sure is, whatever I believe in, it isn’t out here.  The only place I’ve ever found it is in that monastery.”   If all God really proved to be was our sense of ourselves, as individuals and as a community of living beings, would that really be so bad?

What would be bad would be if we threw out all the beauty and wisdom of so many thousands of years of belief created by all of our ancestors, in some misguided attempt to be perfectly rational and empirical and fact-based–something human beings can never be.  And if we were, there’d be no Shakespeare plays, no Billie Holiday songs, no Donald E. Westlake novels.  The religious impulse and the artistic impulse come from the same place within us, and to destroy one is to destroy the other.

We have to find a way to balance things out inside ourselves, and you can’t create balance with rampant destruction.  There are things that can’t be measured in this world that is not simple enough for us to understand.  That’s why we need faith, religious and otherwise.  To bridge the gaps in our understanding, and create a foundation for that most precious of possessions, identity.  Because where we don’t know, we can only believe.  And we’ll never know everything.

And what I don’t know right now is how in God’s name I’m going to review the next book in the queue.  One of Westlake’s longest and most complicated novels, with perhaps the largest cast of characters.  An comic-epic ode to a city that is a world unto itself, full of life, machinations, profanity, and the odd few racial epithets.  Urm yes, about that.  I think maybe I’d better do a short introduction to this one next week.  Just to get us all on the same page.  And hopefully keep this blog from getting banned on any college campuses.

Now will somebody please post a goddam comment?  I can’t be the only living person who read this one.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Brothers Keepers

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Why was everybody Traveling so much?  Where was the need?  Was it even remotely possible that so very many people had just discovered they were in the wrong place?  What if everyone in the world were just to call up everyone else in the world some morning and say, “Look, instead of you coming here and me going there why don’t I stay here and you stay there,” wouldn’t that be saner?  Not to speak of quieter.

Like babes in a boiler factory, Brother Oliver and I huddled close to another as we set off, Traveling south along Park Avenue.  Scrupulously we obeyed the intersection signs that alternately said WALK and DON’T WALK, though no one else did.  Slowly we made progress.

Park Avenue stretched half a dozen blocks ahead of us, as far as Grand Central Station, with the hilt of the Pan Am Building sticking out of its back.  We would be taking a train eventually, but not from that terminal; the Long Island Railroad connects in Manhattan with Pennsylvania Station, quite some distance away.  Eighteen blocks south and four blocks west, slightly over a mile from the monastery, the farthest I had been in ten years.

We crossed 51st Street, jostled by hurrying louts, and I gestured to an impressive church structure on our left, saying, “Well, that’s reassuring, anyway.”

Brother Oliver gave me the tiniest of headshakes, then leaned his cowl close to mine so I could hear him over the surrounding din.  “That’s Saint Bartholomew,” he said.  “Not one of ours.”

“Oh?”  It looked like one of ours.

“Anglican,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said.  The sanctum simulacrum; that explained it.

There was a very large part of Donald Westlake that was, for want of a better word, curmudgeonly.  Resistant to change of any kind.  Desirous of quiet contemplation, eschewing noise and commotion and the common crowd.  And this is a very strange attitude for any New Yorker to have, but it may well be that the great majority of New Yorkers feel this way, at least some of the time.  Being surrounded by change, we want some things to stay the same.  “New York will be a great city when it’s finished” was an old joke when your great-grandparents were young, and of course it never will be.  That’s why we landmark buildings. To give us a tenuous sense of permanence in a state of constant flux.

One of the many little architectural dramas that unfolded in my city over the years involved the beautiful St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, mentioned in that quote up top.  St. Bart’s, as it is typically referred to, now nearing the 100th anniversary of its completion, was only about half a century old when it was given landmark status–a move its rector and parishioners vigorously objected to at the time, because they hoped to someday sell the air rights and part of their rather tiny plot of increasingly valuable real-estate to developers (leaving the church itself intact, but hopelessly overshadowed).   They had many socially admirable reasons for wanting this, I should hasten to add.  They tried to get around the landmark thing later on, and failed.  Take a look, and see if you think there was room for a huge skyscraper right next to that church, and what the overall environmental impact would have been.

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Episcopalians do tend towards this kind of thing here–the never-to-be-completed Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over near Columbia University, has a rather ugly pile of condos going up to its immediate left right now.  They had a fire a while back, which depleted their resources.   Land-rich, cash-poor.   I still like them, because they blessed my dog on the Feast of St. Francis.

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Westlake would have read about the early stages of the St. Bart’s controversy in the New York Times, that most stately of local edifices (we even call it the Grey Lady), which could probably do with some landmarking of its own (Westlake wouldn’t like that I turned landmark into a verb, but we’ll get to that).

And he would have felt a pang for poor St. Bart’s, whose own people wanted to sell their bailiwick for a mess of pottage, force this grand structure to rub elbows with some vulgar glass tower.  Yes, for good reasons.  It’s always for good reasons.  And look where it gets us.  Hemmed in on all sides.  Nowhere you can stop and take a breath.  Is there so much beauty and symmetry and space in the urban landscape that we can afford to lose any of it?   Chuck Jones’ favorite mutt had a point.  Self-serving though it might have been.

This book is about much more than architectural conservatism, though.  It’s about identity, naturally–the ‘Nephew’ this time has figured out who he is before we meet him, but then a crisis challenges him, forces him to reassess his choices, to reject or recommit to them.

And this is partly a religious crisis, because he’s a monk.   Brother Benedict, of the (wholly fictitious) Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, founded by a Half-Moorish/Half-Jewish converso named Israel Zapatero, who while fleeing Spain for the New World in the 18th century had a sincere conversion along the way, inspired by two martyred shoe-making brothers, Saints Crispin and Crispinian, whose Saint’s Day is October 25th.  Same day the Battle of Agincourt was fought, which is why Shakespeare’s Henry V made such a big deal about it.

Only wouldn’t you know, the Catholic Church took that Saint’s Day off the calendar after Vatican II, which would of course have only further endeared it to Westlake the Shakespeare buff and curmudgeon on general principle.  Yes, it’s a very involved backstory; with Catholicism I’m afraid there is no other kind.

How religious was Donald E. Westlake as an adult?  Not very, I think we’d have to agree.  Not in any conventional sense, for sure.  He was born and raised in a highly Catholic environment–Irish Catholic, to be specific (and yes, it makes a difference).   He went to a Catholic High School, the Vincentian Institute in Albany–his first published work was for their literary journal.  His confirmation name was Edmond (mine is Paul, not that you asked), which his mother insisted upon, so that her scheme of having his initials spell something not be thwarted.

He was too much of an independent thinker to ever feel comfortable within the confines of any organized faith.  And yet he seems to have left himself a lot of wriggle room with regards to the existence of some higher power.  He stated in no uncertain terms that the world is not simple enough to be understood, and that is a religious attitude.  Wherever we don’t know, we can only believe.   And we’ll never know everything.

It’s also debatable how Irish Westlake was–he talks about that in this book as well.  It’s part of his identity, and he cares about it, but somehow it’s hard to imagine him drinking green beer and singing Danny Boy on Paddy’s Day.  Of course, any Irish-American who does that has already become hopelessly alienated from his or her ethnic identity.   As indeed most of us are.  Part of the melting pot experience, but like so many others here, we resist assimilation, futile though it be.

One gets the impression that he sometimes felt like the cuckoo in the nest of his Irish family (361 in particular exudes this feeling). I would say, generally speaking, that Irish Americans are most Irish when they’re not trying to be Irish.  If that makes any sense at all. And if it doesn’t, that’s the Irish in me talking.

But please note–the protagonist in this book is not Irish at all.  He’s just hopelessly besotted with an Irish American girl.   As Westlake himself would have been, on more than one occasion.  They tend to have that effect on men of all ethnicities.

Westlake certainly would have noticed, in the mid to late 60’s, the attention generated by two very different books, seemingly written for very different audiences, by very different authors (in very different eras, but the author of the first had died suddenly in 1968, generating new interest).

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The exploration of inner space via deeply isolated, quiet, lonely contemplation–and the fight to avoid being overwhelmed and swept aside by change in the outside world, which invariably requires true and loyal friends to fight beside you.  They seem like incompatible narratives, but clearly Westlake didn’t think so.   His contribution would be to combine these two stories–one very real, the other a mere flight of fancy, and in so doing he created one of his finest novels, as well as possibly the hardest one to pigeonhole–though there is actually a murder mystery in it–the victim being trust within a sequestered community of spiritual seekers.   Who love each other more than they could ever possibly express.

And there is also a recurring theme of Travel–always capitalized in this book, as it shall be in this review, and I would hope we would all hold scruplously to this rule in the comments section–Israel Zapatero, when founding the Crispinite Order, made it their special mission to contemplate the effects of Traveling upon the soul–the good and the bad of it.  And Westlake, as we know, was constantly Traveling, for business and pleasure, and viewed it with a mixture of eagerness and disquiet–to be constantly on the move can be damaging to the identity.  How can one combat the spiritual consequences of Travel?  On the one hand, it broadens the mind, as my favorite Doctor used to say (before the Beeb ruined him–I’m something of a curmudgeon myself).   On the other, it can be a way of running from yourself.

So in this one book, Westlake tackles the changing urban landscape, religion, Irish America, the joys and trials of male bonding, and the deeper meaning of our shared modern obsession with Travel.  As well as his usual identity puzzles. Oh this will be a two-parter, bet on it.

As the book opens, Brother Benedict, our first person narrator, is making his confession to Father Banzolini, who comes by to unburden the monks of their sins twice weekly–and the worst sin he has to confess is that he stole an orange Flair pen from Brother Valerian, who did The Sunday Times crossword puzzle, which is supposed to be Brother Benedict’s purview.  Confession is one of those sacraments that plagues all Catholics, laity and clergy alike, because most of the time you have nothing terribly interesting or original to confess, and Father Banzolini is clearly bored to tears with these monks and their silly little sins.  By the time this book is over, he’ll learn that monks can have hidden depths.

Benedict informs us that his original name was Charles Rowbottom, and that he had only converted to Catholicism originally because he was engaged to a Catholic girl, who then left him for a Lebanese Muslim (he says Mohammadan, because he is given to a somewhat archaic mode of self-expression).   Having put so much work into becoming Catholic, it would be a sin to let it all go to waste, and he’d never much felt at home in the modern world, so he joined the Order.   He is currently thirty-four years of age–not quite a virgin, but not very experienced, either.  Of all the prior Nephews, he probably most resembles Fred Fitch, the hero of God Save The Mark.  But this time, it’s an entire monastery that’s being conned.

Benedict loves monastery life–Israel Zapatero built a delightfully eclectic and welcoming living space for his monks, on leased land, which has since had a huge bustling city grow up around it.  The monks rarely go anywhere (because this would be Travel), but Benedict takes a special pleasure in walking a short distance to a local newsstand, to pick up the Sunday Times for himself and the others to read.  Truth is, he experienced much less of the world before he joined the Order than most of his brother monks, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, all of which come into play in this story.

He settles down to read the Arts & Leisure section, and perusing the architecture column, he is stunned to learn that the monastery is going to be torn down to make room for an office building.  He assumes there must be some mistake, but he goes to see Brother Oliver, the abbott (Westlake making a slight gesture towards Oliver Abbott, the hero of Up Your Banners–he knew perfectly well these ‘Nephew’ books were of a piece, even if he didn’t refer to them as such).

Brother Oliver is likewise flabbergasted, and immediately convenes a meeting restricted to himself, Benedict, and three others whose skill-sets may prove helpful–Brother Clemence (a former Wall St. lawyer), Brother Dexter (scion of a prominent banking family) and Brother Hilarius, the monastery’s resident historian, whose name does not in any way reflect his personality.  Brother Oliver says he can’t find the lease for the land the monastery is on.  Because the lease goes back to the Revolutionary era, no copy was ever registered with the city.

He talked to Dan Flattery (Westlake has a lot of fun with Irish names in this one), the rich building contractor whose family has owned the land for some time now, and all he could learn was that the land has been optioned to something called Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners (otherwise known as Dimp).  It takes some explaining by Brothers Clemence and Dexter, but finally Brother Oliver is made to understand that the intent is to buy up the entire block the monastery is situated on–they need all the different plots in order to construct the proposed office building.

Brother Oliver is worth the price of admission all by himself–a mix of wordly and unworldly wisdom, mingled with quiet exasperation, and maybe the best father figure Westlake ever created for one of his protagonists.   If they had ever made this one into a film, I know just who should have played him (and he’s still alive, albeit eighty-five years of age at the present time).  I’m sure he must have played a monk at some point in his career, but I couldn’t find a photo of him in the appropriate garb, so–

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The great Philip Bosco.  I saw him in multiple Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.  Mainly Shaw plays.  His Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara put Robert Morley’s to shame.  But I digress.

Brother Oliver decides that the best approach would be to confront Dan Flattery directly, and so he will Travel to the Flattery home in Sayville Long Island–he needs a Traveling companion, and Benedict is elected.  He has very mixed emotions about this–Travel is exciting and frightening.   His ten years in the monastery, never going more than a block or so away, have allowed him to forget just how tumultous and confusing the outside world can be.

So they walk to Penn Station (the original beautiful version of which was demolished in 1963, to make room for one of the ugliest and most depressing train stations in the western world), and take the Long Island Railroad–and walk from the station.  It’s about two miles to the Flattery house, and there’s a cabbie offering to take them, but Crispinite Brothers never ride when they can walk, walking being the least disorienting form of Travel.  And along the way, a minor miracle happens–at least in the cynophobic world of Donald Westlake.

South of the business district we came on grander houses, set well back among lawns and old trees and curving driveways.  Occasional large loping dogs, dalmatians and Irish setters and suchlike, romped out to study us, and one German Shepherd trotted at our heels until Brother Oliver had to stop and tell him firmly that he should go home, that we were not prepared to accept responsibility for him.  He smiled at us, and went back.

If this were a Parker novel, the Shepherd would attack, and Parker would kill him.  If a Grofield, the dog would look yearningly at Grofield’s throat.  If a Dortmunder, the dog would be this comically intimidating presence, thwarting Dortmunder in some way.   And here he’s offering his companionship, his protection–which they can’t accept (though in light of later events, they probably should have).   Maybe he thought they were a different order of monk.  This is certainly a different order of book than what Westlake normally wrote.  He’s getting infected by his characters.  Perfect love casteth out all fear.

The visit to the Flatterys does not go well.   Dan Flattery, a large bluff man of a very pronounced Irish type (think Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man, only with a Long Island accent and fewer of the social graces), is clearly determined to go through with the sale.  But perhaps more disastrously, Benedict meets Dan’s daughter Eileen Flattery Bone; rebellious, unhappy, divorced, perhaps thirty, “with a black-haired delicate-boned slender beauty that would undoubtedly keep on improving until she was well into her forties.”  One of those.  Benedict’s a goner.

Eileen has a male companion, an undeserving, weak-chinned, mustached lout named Alfred Broyle (heh), and for somebody who has devoted himself to a celibate life (though he has taken no vow of chastity), Benedict seems awfully pleased when she quarrels with Alfred and he leaves abruptly.  Benedict and Eileen have a talk in the garden, and then Brother Oliver says it’s time to go home.  And though he’s been longing for the monastery ever since he left, he doesn’t entirely want to return.   He and Brother Oliver are both being corrupted by Travel.

The next day they walk to the Solinex Building in midtown, “one rectangle repeated seven million times.  In glass, in chrome, and in what might have been but probably was not stone.”  In front of it there’s a statue which “seemed to represent a one-winged aircraft with measles which had just missed its landing on an aircraft carrier and was diving nose-first into the ocean.”  This is the building where Dimp is headquartered.   Obviously.

Mr. Dwarfmann being unavailable, they are met by Elroy Snopes (a rather pointed reference to Faulkner’s fictional family of venal grasping social climbers in Yoknapatawpha County), who is all smiles and solicitousness and corporate Newspeak.  Benedict, something of a language maven, much like his creator, is in mental anguish listening to Mr. Snopes make free with the Bard’s mother tongue.

The man’s use of the English language, his apparent belief that any word could be turned into a verb by a simple effort of will, was starting to make me squint.  “Contact,” “schedule,” “garage,” and “complex” had all become verbs at his hands so far, and who knew what else he might say before we got safely out of his office and back to our monastery?

(Sorry to tell you, Benedict and Donald both, but except for maybe “complex,” the Snopes’ of the world won that war of words in the long run.  Back to the exchange.)

The other problem, aside from his form, was his content.  What in fact was he talking about?  Brother Oliver now asked this very question: “Exactly what are you talking about, Mr. Snopes?”

“Why, relocation, of course.”

Brother Oliver stiffened.  “Relocation?”

“Not that there’s any hurry,” Snopes said smoothly.  “The way it looks now, we won’t be at the demolish stage with your facility at least until next September and possibly not until the following spring.”

Demolish stage: so now he had begun to redress the imbalance in the language by taking a verb and turning it into. . . what?  An adjective, modifying “stage”?  Or its own noun?

But it was the gist that Brother Oliver concentrated on.  He said, “But we don’t want you to demolish us.  We don’t want to be relocated.”

The Snopes personality wound itself up another forty watts, to include sympathy and human understanding.  “Boy, I know just how you feel, Brother Oliver.”  Flash: “You, too, Brother Benedict.”  End of flash.  “You people have been living there for years, haven’t you?  You kind of get attached to a place.”

“Precisely,” Brother Oliver said.

“But we’ve got ourselves almost a year lead time,” Snopes told us,  and his flashing eyes told us how happy that made him.  “We’ll come up with just the right relocate long before we get deadlined.”

“Un,” I said.

Snopes raised a gleaming eyebrow at me.  “Brother Benedict?”

“It’s nothing,” I said.  “I was just getting gastricked there for a second.”

Dimp is already looking at an abandoned community college campus in New Paltz, “Brick buildings, in what you might call your Ivy League style, only more modern, if you know what I mean.”  “I’m afraid I do,” Brother Oliver responds dryly.

Before the brothers leave, they are treated to a sneak peek at a model of the structure that will replace their monastery.   “On a more or less square surface stood two featureless white slabs.  They looked like tombstones on a macrobiotic diet.”

Snopes says he understands they’re more comfortable with an older style of architecture.  “I’m comfortable with style,” Brother Oliver told him, “And I’m comfortable with architecture.”  He is more resolved than ever.   This will not stand.  Literally.   It will not.   As they leave, Brother Oliver asks if Mr. Dwarfmann, who is in Rome, is trying to buy up St. Peter’s or the Vatican.  No, and not the Coliseum either, laughs Snopes.  “Well, you wouldn’t,” Brother Oliver said.  “That’s already a ruin.”  Later, he shall meet a foeman worthy of his steel.

Brother Benedict’s sense of himself is reeling from these two journeys into hostile terrain, and we see him trying to come to terms with it–the pearl of insight forming within the aggravated oyster.

I sat for quite a while on my bed, once we returned from our journey to Dimp, watching the slowly changing trapezoid of afternoon sunlight on my floor and thinking about my recent experiences of Travel.  How complex the world is, once one leaves the familiar and known.  It contains–and has for years contained, without my knowing it–both Eileen Flattery Bone and Elroy Snopes.  If one were to Travel every day, would one go on meeting such richly intrusive personalities?  How could the ordinary brain survive such an onslaught?

I was meditating on the possibility that perhaps ordinary brains did not survive such onslaughts, and that the coming of the Age of Travel produced by the end of feudalism and the social changes of the industrial revolution had in fact created mass psychosis (a theory that would explain much of the world’s history over the last hundred years), when Brother Quillon, our resident homosexual, knocked on my open door and said, “Pardon my interrupting your meditation, Brother Benedict, but Brother Oliver would like to see you in his office.”

“Our resident homosexual.”  Westlake the language maven has still not come to terms with the repurposing of the word ‘gay’ (I’m sure he’d hate the word ‘repurposing’ just as much), and five years after A Jade In Aries, his views on gay men don’t seem to have evolved any further–the problem with token characters is that no one person can properly represent a group.   There are things to be said in favor of some changes in the world around us, and things to be said against curmudgeonliness.   Brother Quillon is a fine sympathetic person, a true brother, and much admired by the Order for his willingness to quell his inner longings in the midst of so much temptation, but he’s a somewhat condescending portrait, for all that.  The only false note struck in this book, much as Dostoevsky struck a false note in The Brothers Karamazov, when speaking of Jews and Poles.  We all have blind spots–that’s why we need each other.

Now might be a good time to run down the remaining roster of monks, who must now be made aware of the threat to their future as an order.   There’s Brother Flavian, the firebrand, the agitator.  Brother Eli, the woodcarver, who deserted while serving in Vietnam, wandered southeast Asia, and ended up with the Crispinites after hearing about them in a lamasery in Tibet–he told them he was a fugitive from the government but what do such wordly things matter to those who live the spiritual life?

There’s Brother Jerome, the handyman, who mainly expresses himself with furtive gestures and one word sentences (he provides valuable intelligence on what’s going on with the other buildings set for demolition, since he’s in touch with all the superintendants and janitors and what-all).  Brother Silas, a reformed thief, who believes their copy of the lease is missing because it was stolen.  Brother Peregrine, a former actor, who can be a bit of a drama queen, but a rock in a crisis.

There is also the aged Brother Zebulon, who remembers things everyone else has forgotten.  Brother Thaddeus, a former merchant seaman.  Brother Mallory, a professional pugilist before joining the Crispinites, who is using the Calefactory as a sort of make-shift gym where he conducts boxing lessons (where nobody actually hits anybody else).  The bearish Brother Leo, who for reasons known only to himself, is an aviation buff, who does plane-spotting from the courtyard. And Brother Valerian, whose orange Flair pen Benedict stole the other day in vengeance for the illicit filling out of the Sunday Times crossword, but what does that matter now?

What does matter?   Preserving their home, their way of life, their collective identity.   But how can they possibly do this?  The answer may lie with Eileen Flattery Bone, who accosts Benedict in her sports car, and says she needs to talk to him.   After getting permission from Brother Oliver, Benedict ends up in Central Park with her, bedazzled by her tantalizing proximity.  Driving around in circles, she asks him why she should give a damn what happens to this useless order of holy woolgatherers.

She is troubled, he can tell–her loyalty to her family is struggling with her sense of right and wrong.  She tells him, with no apparent jest intended, that she is the ‘sincerest of Flatterys,’ (yes, Westlake is having way too much fun with Irish names) but she can’t help him unless she’s sure it’s right.  She swears that if he can convince her his arguments are better than her father’s, she knows how to save the monastery.  Then they get mugged.

Two skinny young black men pull them out of the car (it’s the 70’s, Central Park is still a no-go zone in the evening), and the light being poor, and Eileen wearing pants, and Benedict wearing robes that could be considered a dress, the muggers get their genders confused, and in that confusion, Benedict, his protective instincts engaged, chases both of them off.  And then he embraces her.  And now things are really confused.  And maybe this is a good point to wrap up Part 1, while it’s still St. Crispin’s Day.

These few.  These happy few.   This band of brothers.  Would you believe Westlake let that pun remain implicit for the entire book?  He doesn’t even mention Henry V, though Shakespearean references abound.   October 25th has already come and gone when the story begins, but for these sixteen embattled monks, every day marks a new battle to remain themselves.   The odds are vastly worse than five to one against them.  Fearful odds indeed.

But they have God on their side, and by God, I mean Westlake, who loves them all (yes, Brother Quillon too), as fiercely and bigotedly as he did the intrepid people of Anguilla, when he wrote Under An English Heaven.  Only now he’s in the realm of fiction, where he is all-powerful.  He will offer them all possible aid, but it will be up to them–and Benedict in particular–to follow the slim leads he gives them, that lead to redemption and victory–as well as confusion and doubt.

And never mind that the real Henry V was actually fighting to take somebody else’s home away–that’s neither here nor there.  These sixteen men of peace must fight their holy war without the shedding of blood, but there may be just a dash of violence in there somewhere, because after all, this is a Donald Westlake novel.  So sometime before the end of this month I shall return to finish synopsizing the battle, and those that come not back to read it shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their fanhood cheap whiles any speaks, that read with us upon SAINT CRISPIN’S DAYYYYYY!!!!!

(I always wanted to do that–this Irishman maybe does it a little better).

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Two Much

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How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away!
But while you thus teaze me together;
To neither a word will I say;
But tol de rol, &c.

John Gay.

“Humor is like a fountain,” I said.

“That’s life.  Are you a native New Yorker?”

I frowned at her.  “What’s that got to do with comedy?”

“There are theories about the humorist as the outsider,” she said. “We can make it work both ways.  If you were born and raised in New York City, you must feel isolated from the rest of the country: ergo, comedy.  If you came from Kansas or somewhere, you feel isolated and rootless here in New York: ergo, comedy.  I just want to know whether you go under Column A or Column B.”

“I go with the West Lake Duck.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

Westlake ‘only’ published two novels in 1975: both for M. Evans & Co., both of them stand-alone works, both featuring a thirty-ish unmarried male protagonist who gets into trouble, both ranking among his most interesting works.  And I’d say only the latter of the two protagonists would qualify as a Westlake ‘Nephew’ (not that Westlake ever used this term, that I know of).   But the protagonist of the book we’re looking at now is, I would suggest, an anti-Nephew.

And he’s something else you wouldn’t call most of Westlake’s leading men–an unmitigated cad.  Had this book (which inspired two film adaptations) been written three or four decades earlier, and then made into a Hollywood film (notwithstanding the fact that the cad in this book is a Yank), there really would have been only one actor in all the world to play him.

For back in that era, who but He Who Was Addison DeWitt could have portrayed such a irredeemable rogue and made you like him?  (Errol Flynn may have been the superior cad in real life, but movie-goers only liked him as a hero).  The same way he could pull off a line in the film Death of a Scoundrel–when a married lady he propositions says she is already taken, he replies with the most impeccable aplomb, “I don’t want to take you.  Just to borrow you.”

Mr. Sanders’ scoundrel comes to a bad end in that film, as he did in many others, and he’s forced to recant his wicked ways, as he was in the very disappointing and heavily rewritten ending of the otherwise surprisingly faithful film version of The Moon And Sixpence.   Because, you see, the movie-going public is heavily composed of folks like Strickland’s thick-witted son in Maugham’s book, making fatuous comments like “The mills of the gods grind slow–” and thinking they’re quoting scripture when they do.  Rarely do we let Don Giovanni descend into hell without making him apologize first.   Makes us feel better about ourselves for admiring him.

Maybe it doesn’t take a Mozart (or a Da Ponte) to portray an unapologetic cad, but it’s a rare storyteller who can make one work as the hero of a popular work of fiction.  Charles Willeford was writing this kind of protagonist as far back as 1953 (High Priest of California), not that anything he wrote before the Hoke Moseley books was popular (and ‘cad’ might be too gentle a word for some of his protagonists).   Westlake may have been responding more to Willeford than to any other living storyteller when writing this one, though he’d toyed with this type of character before.

Many of Westlake’s best short stories depicted cads (also a novella we’ll be looking at soon), but making one the center of a full-length novel is more challenging.  Alan Grofield has his caddish moments, true, but he only dabbles at it.  When we first met him, he got involved with a girl while pulling a heist, let her talk him into taking her with him, was ready to stand up to Parker himself to defend her life, and ended up marrying her–a happy  and devoted marriage it seems to be, in spite of his wandering eye–and for all his incessant wisecracking, he’s deadly serious about his two professions.

Eugene Raxford, narrator and protagonist of The Spy In The Ointment is clearly another prototype for this book’s ‘hero’ in terms of his glib freewheeling anti-authoritarian style, but he’s sincerely devoted to the cause of ethical pacifism, and is madly in love with his beautiful klutzy heiress girlfriend, even if he won’t ever admit that to us.

Westlake protagonists, written under any name–with this one exception we’re looking at now–either have a conscience, or (in Parker’s case) a sort of instinctive code of conduct that serves in place of one.  This guy has neither. Rotten to the core, and he likes it that way.  If he ever feels a pang of remorse, he suppresses it rigorously.  As I shall have to do now myself, because cad that I am, I am going to give away some major plot twists of this book (while sparing many others, because I can’t possibly cover them all in one review), but I don’t see how I can talk about what this story means without talking about what happens in it. Seriously, I’m not going to give the whole book away, but if you haven’t read it, stop reading now.  This one’s available on Kindle.   It won’t take you long.

Another thing Westlake protagonists all have in common is that we never see them die.  Westlake came close to showing us one of them kick it in Killing Time, but it’s possible–barely–that Tim Smith was telling his story to the cops from a hospital bed.  All we know for sure is that a very pissed-off Italian guy pointed a gun at Tim while his girlfriend screamed in the distance.  How would you show a first person narrator’s death, anyway?  I mean, if you weren’t going the Jim Thompson ‘exit interview in hell’s waiting room’ route, or a spectral voice-over monologue, ala Wilder’s  Sunset Boulevard?   Westlake has decided to kill this narrator off before our very eyes.  Is this a spoiler?  Not exactly.

I know it must seem I’m avoiding the central point of this book–that it’s about a man pretending to be twins in order to fuck twins.  That’s certainly the main point of the two films made from it, and going by the online synopses, they both totally miss the point.   The twins are mere matching MacGuffins.  This is a book about identity, of course–Westlake wrote it.   And the twin motif serves that end most admirably.  But it’s not really the axis the plot spins upon.  What is?  Money.  I’ll try to keep the synopsis brief this time, if only because I haven’t done a one-part book review in what seems like ages.

What can we say about Art Dodge, aside from the fact that he owes his pun-laden name to Charles Dickens?   He’s thirty years old–the age Westlake believed that we become true adults, and must make choices about how to live the rest of our lives, or else have them made for us.  He’s a philanderer par excellence, exceptionally successful with women, through some combination of good looks, wit, and roguish self-confidence, but he also has bad eyesight and a receding hairline–as did Westlake himself.

He’s a former military brat, who lived all over the place, and has a sister he’s not very close to–Westlake was in the Air Force, and had a sister he rarely if ever referred to in public.  Art’s mother ran out on Art’s dad–and on Art–when Art was still a kid.  This doesn’t seem to refer to Westlake’s own mother, but the hero whose mom checked out on him in some way is a theme you can find in other of Westlake’s books, such as 361.

I don’t know what that’s about–I do know Westlake’s mother had to work long hours to help support the family.   That can feel like abandonment, even though it isn’t.  His children’s book Philip has no father, and an ever-present mother.  That is not an autobiographical work–that is an expression of a lifelong yearning for female attention that permeates most if not all Westlake’s work for adults, and it can also help explain how a fellow gets married three times in twenty-two years.

Art apparently used to work in advertising, but at some point he struck out on his own, and founded a tiny and perpetually indigent greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, aka Folksy Cards.  The cards are all ribaldly humorous, full of not terribly subtle sexual innuendo and the occasional ethnic slur.  Art writes them all himself, then cons artists into doing the visuals, then finds ways to avoid paying them, and then his distributor finds ways to avoid paying him, and this is the rugged capitalist spirit that made America great, folks.

He has a long-suffering secretary named Gloria, who is equal parts gal friday, best friend, mother confessor, and more of a sister to him than his actual sister. He does pay her–occasionally.  She puts up with the irregular paychecks because working for him is so much more interesting than her last gig at Met Life (my mother sold insurance for Met Life–small world).

His best male friend is an earnest and staggeringly innocent young attorney named Ralph, who vicariously enjoys hearing about Art’s many conquests, and never once suspects that the mother of his children is one of them.  Her name is Candy, and she’s not really that sweet, but neither is Art.  Anyway, as the story begins, Art is staying with Ralph and Candy and their kids in their tiny summer cottage on Fire Island.  Since Ralph has to go into Manhattan on work days, Art has ample opportunity to take Candy from–eh–too easy.    Anyway, he’s only borrowing her.   In Candy’s mind, she’d like to be on permanent loan.

Then at a party he meets Liz Kerner, a busty brunette in a blue bikini, who turns out to have a house in Point o’ Woods, a tiny exclusive enclave on the island.  It’s not her only place of residence–not by a long shot.  Liz is loaded, being the daughter of a self-made lumber magnate and a mother who came from old money (that had started to run out, hence the lumber magnate).

She’s also a twin.  Their parents perversely named them both Elizabeth, only the other twin spells it with an ‘s’.  Her sister’s everyday name is Betty.  If you want to know what this name game means, I refer you to a quote I put in my review of Adios Scheherazade (Part 2).  But in brief, Liz is a party girl, and Betty is more straight-laced and respectable–in her own fashion.

The sisters, now in their mid-twenties, were orphaned a few years before, when a piano fell on their parents’ limo.  Yes, I suppose we all would love to drop a piano on some rich people from time to time, but the nice thing about being a writer of fiction is you can actually do it and not get arrested.   We get a few more conservative justices on the Supreme Court, probably even that imaginary loophole will be closed.

So Art and Liz, much to Candy’s disgust, head off for bed, and that outcome was never in doubt, so Art doesn’t really know why he suddenly piped up and said he was a twin as well–with an identical brother named Bart.   But clearly somewhere in the back of his mind is the dream all men have dreamed ever since seeing an attractive pair of siblings (please note I left room for gay guys in there), and particularly twins–“Could I have both, please?”  And having tried to pull the sister-switch before, he knows it just does not work.  There’s only so much even the most intrepid of men can accomplish–but suppose he were not one man, but two?

As he meets the equally well-endowed Betty, and finds himself expanding upon the myth of Bart, Art realizes he’s just got to try it.  He normally wears contacts, but he’s got an old pair of glasses, and he does something with his hair, and without really trying he comes up with an alternate personality for himself–he basically just leaves out all the things that make him interesting, becomes a real straight-arrow gee-whiz kind of guy (a male Betty, in other words), and somehow this seems to give him depth in the very gullible Betty’s eyes (the more cynical Liz is not impressed, but she’s got Art).  Art, as Bart, gets very drunk the night he beds Betty, and when he wakes up, they’re engaged.

Art can’t believe it either.  He’s so overwhelmed by his success, he keeps ignoring the little warning bells going off in his head, telling him that you can take a con too far (Kenny Rogers hadn’t yet recorded that song about how you gotta know when to fold ’em, and anyway, when it comes to busty brunettes, it’s so much more fun to hold ’em).

Art started out looking for random sex with a sultry stranger who smells of salt and sand and sweat–but now he smells money, something he’s never had enough of, and it’s skewing his judgment.  How much can he wangle out of these two matching marks before it’s time to call the charade off?

As he puts it, “I’ve never been familiar enough with money to feel contempt for it,” but like his creator, he feels no end of contempt for those who are excessively familiar with it.  He meets Betty at a party the sisters are throwing to find a suitable buyer for their Point o’ Woods house, and he just can’t believe what a bunch of hopeless squares they are.   You know, the way most of us reacted to the Romneys once we’d had a good look at them?

What kind of party was this to be hosted by two girls in their mid-twenties?  There were perhaps forty people present, but only about a quarter of them were under thirty, and they were as stiff as their elders.  There was no dancing.  In fact, there was scarcely any commingling of the sexes at all; women stood with women to discuss department stores, Arthur Hailey novels, absent friends and other parties, while men grouped with men to talk transportation, taxes, politics, and horses–breeding, not racing.  I actually did hear one man say, as I was strolling past, “After all, racing does improve the breed.”

“Quite the contrary,” I said.  “In point of fact, all our effort is the other way, to make breeding improve the race.”

This being the most incisive remark any of them had ever heard in their lives, I was immediately absorbed into the group, where the man I’d contradicted thrust his hand out and said “Frazier.”

I gave him my honest grip, and said “Dodge.”

Another man said “Of the New Bedford Dodges?”

“Distantly,” I said.

So if the unscrupulous Mr. Dodge is the hero of this story, who could the villain possibly be?   Well, you can’t go wrong with a lawyer, can you?

Mr. Volpinex had apparently been my age when he’d died, several thousand years ago, and in the depths of the pyramids had been given this simulacrum of life.  The ancient chemists had died his flesh a dark unhealthy tan, and painted his teeth with that cheap gloss white enamel used in rent-controlled apartments.   His black suit was surely some sort of oil by-product, and so was his smile.

“I take it,” this thing said, extending its hand, “I am addressing Mr Arthur Dodge?”

“That’s right.”  His hand was as dry as driftwood.

“I am Ernest Volpinex,” he said, and gave himself away.  No real thirty-year-old would have reached into his vest pocket at that juncture and given me his card.  So my first guess was right; he was the undead.

Volpinex introduces himself as the attorney for the Kerner estate, though it comes out later he only works for Liz, not Betty–and he would like very much to marry either of them, Betty in particular, but he’d settle for Liz.  He’s as mercenary as Art, but so much less amiable, and he sees the more charming Art and his more virtuous twin as threats to his supposed hegemony over the Kerner sisters, which is indeed the case–though not in quite the way he thinks of course, because a man of his humorless temperament couldn’t imagine the twin con in a million years.

Volpinex–is this a little wink of the eye at Ben Jonson’s Volpone?  I rather think so, but I also think he’s another of Westlake’s beast-men, like Parker, only corrupted (like Quittner, or Leon Ten Eyck)–a fox in human form, but no Reynard the Trickster he (that would be more Art’s line).  He readily admits to having no functioning sense of humor, seeing it as a sign of unreliability.  Rather critically to our story, he is exactly the same age, height, and build as Art, though no one could ever mistake them for twins.  He’s a Starkian doppelganger,  invading the world of a Westlake protagonist, but in his mind, Art is the intruder.

In a later, very telling conversation he and Art have at his club, Art tells him humor is what separates us from the animals, to which Volpinex responds rather perceptively that parrots tell jokes and hyenas laugh.  Art asks him what does separate man from the other animals, then.  “Nothing,” he responds, and they proceed to have a very civilized lunch, full of oysters, fine wine, and veiled threats.

As Volpinex runs background checks on him and Bart, Art asks the thick-headedly loyal Ralph (still in the dark about Candy) to run a check in the other direction, and it comes out that Mr. Volpinex’s wife died under mysterious circumstances a few years previous.  We are left in little doubt that he has already murdered someone very close to him to clear a path between him and the Kerner fortune.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

To make things worse, Mr. Volpinex is a martial arts expert, as well as a squash player who takes the name of his game a mite too literally, as Art finds out after lunch at the club.  And perversely, his ever-escalating threats, mingled with the occasional bribe, just make Art more determined to follow through with his scheme, even though he’s just making it up as he goes along, and he hasn’t really figured out any kind of endgame yet.  This is very much out of Peter Rabe, by the way–the criminal protagonist keeps getting himself deeper and deeper into an impossible situation, partly because he’s determined to defeat a rival even worse than him who is after the same unreachable prize–he wins–and it doesn’t matter.  The game was not worth the candle.  But hey, a Pyrrhic victory is better than none.

Before he actually ties the knot with Betty, Art meets a rather different kind of girl than either of the Kerner sisters.  Linda Ann Margolies, a grad student at Columbia, finishing her master’s thesis on comedy.  She’s extremely familiar with Art’s work, both as an ad copywriter and a purveyor of snarky greeting cards, and she arranges to meet with him at his office, looking to do some research.  You know how I like to say that while Westlake’s protagonists don’t invariably make the right choices, he always gives them a chance to do so?  Linda’s the chance.

Ah, yes, there are moments when I understand cannibalism.  Food imagery kept filling my head as I looked at this lush morsel: home-baked pastry, crepes suzette, ripe peaches.  If she were any shorter, it would be too much, overblown, fit for a gourmand rather than a gourmet, but she was just tall enough to cool the effect slightly and thereby become perfect.  Sex without loss of status, how lovely.  “Come in, Miss Margolies,” I said, and ignored the jaundiced lip-curl of Gloria in the background.

You know how I know when Westlake is describing his feminine ideal?  When his description of her is simultaneously rapturously evocative and frustratingly vague.  Just as with Claire Carroll, we never learn the color of her eyes or hair or anything, we just know she’s very full-figured (in contradistinction to the model-slim Claire–like any true admirer of female beauty, Westlake knew that perfection comes in many sizes and shapes).  Margolies is typically a Jewish name, of course.  Which doesn’t tell us what she looks like, but we can make some educated guesses.  If they made yet another movie adaptation right now–

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(Hey, Linda’s got to work her way through Columbia somehow).

So we have a lively exchange of questions, answers, ideas, and one-liners, part of which you can see up top, climaxing with Art, feeling correctly that Linda has dared him to come around his desk and take her on the floor, does precisely that, to their very mutual pleasure.  You know, maybe Don Juan will always wind up in hell in the end, and Captain MacHeath is going to the gallows in all but the most contrived of finales, but somehow one can’t help feeling there are compensations…

Westlake had by this time fully mastered the art of having a narrator tell us more than he intends, or even realizes, and it’s obvious to us–but not to Art–that Linda is more than just another easy lay to him.  Mr. Westlake has dangled a potential soulmate in front of his anti-Nephew, someone who can not only accept him as he is, but prefer him that way.  Only she’s got no money.   She’s just another penniless adventurer, albeit of a more intellectual bent.  And he finds it oddly disconcerting that she knows him so well when they’ve only just met.   She was reading those cards very closely.  She knows what the clown is hiding behind his puns and pratfalls.  She was seeing what he wrote between the lines.  Somebody please love meThe real meWhoever that is.

And this is, sadly, the last we see of the luscious Linda in this novel, though she periodically reaches out to Art, by phone and by mail, sensing their connection, wanting to make something of it, and he thinks about it, even yearns for it, but there’s so much else going on right now, you see.  And this is Westlake testing Art, hitting him over the head really, yelling in his ear, “Hey–dummy!  That’s The Girl.”  But Art is just too much in love with his own cleverness to listen.  Until it’s much too late.   And much as I wish we men were not that stupid–well, as my female readers (I must have some) will know all too well, we’re just precisely that stupid at times–even when we don’t have rich sexy twins to distract us.

So it’s back to the fortune hunt, and what follows is not so much a tango as a lively gavotte, with Art changing partners (and identities) at a rate that both we and he have a hard time keeping pace with.  The only variation we don’t get is Liz sleeping with Bart, but she does propose marriage to Art, much to his horror–and temptation, because she’s offering (via a contract drawn up by Volpinex) an arrangement any penniless Lothario would cheerfully sell his soul for, if he had one.  No romantic strings attached, on either side–and two thousand a month for Art.   And hey–what is it about these Kerner sisters that makes them so eager to get hitched to twin brothers they barely know, who they’ve never even seen in the same place at the same time?

The answer keeps coming out the same way–money.  See, Liz had told Art half a truth–that if she didn’t get married soon, she’d take a huge tax hit (Pre-Reagan era, remember, the rich had to work harder to hold onto their money back then).

But in fact, she and Betty are suing each other for control of the Kerner fortune, along with a host of minor relations, and because of the terms of their father’s will, they both need a husband to win out, and their social circle simply doesn’t include anyone who is both presentable and available, the way Art and Bart so prodigiously are.   Okay, it probably doesn’t hurt that they’re both so good in the sack (though in a rather identity-rattling moment for Art, when Betty cheats on her non-existent husband with his increasingly confused ‘brother’ one night, she whispers in Art’s ear that he’s better).

Betty, more accomplished at fooling herself than Liz (because she’s so much more invested in the culture that goes with their class), believes she is genuinely in love with Bart, who was concocted mainly as a male version of herself.   Liz, by contrast, is genuinely like Art in many ways, and has been rebelling against her class with her hard-partying lifestyle and sarcastic asides, but it’s all an act, and she knows it.  She doesn’t own the  money, it owns her–at one point, she asks Art how he thinks she’d have reacted if he’d turned down her very unromantic proposal. “You would have loved me more, but you wouldn’t be marrying me,” Art suggests.  And she’s very unhappy to realize that’s exactly right.   He sees her looking at herself in the mirror later, frowning strangely.  Art’s is by no means the only identity crisis in this story.  But it’s the only one that gets definitively resolved.

So many twists and turns in this one, so many ruses, reversals, and revelations.  I could easily turn this review into a two or even three-parter recounting only half of them, but you all know what bedroom farce is, right?   That’s the fun part of the book, and there’s quite a lot of it (286 pages in the first edition hardcover) but it’s not all sex, lies, and gigolo japes.  It’s got a lot to say, and as Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan remark, there is much to be learned from a cynical devil–you definitely won’t find a sentimental one here.

The identity of an adventurer–or a comedian, same difference–isn’t terribly well-rooted to begin with.  Constantly putting on masks, rarely if ever letting them slip, Art is barely on speaking terms with himself, but he is capable of moments of real insight when prodded.  Like what he tells Linda, about a minute before he fucks her on the floor.   She’s just asked him why some people choose comedy as their defense against the many dangers of this world.

Taking a deep breath, I said “Because the comic is a killer himself, that’s why.   The comic is the last civilized man to feel the killer inside himself.  We’re omnivores, little girl, and that means we’ll eat anything that stands still, we’ll eat anything that doesn’t have flashing lights.  ‘Comedy instead of some other defense,’ you said, and that’s right.  Comedy is surprise.  I make you laugh, that means I surprise you, that means you’ll keep your distance, you won’t attack.  Laugh meters should record in megadeaths, because that’s what comedy is all about; I kill you for practice to keep you from killing me for real.”

And, self-evidently, to keep from having to kill anyone else for real, and here’s the thing about Art–he’s a complete and total bastard, not a redeeming trait in him, but he’s got not one ounce of malice in him–towards anyone.  He just wants to enjoy his brief time on earth as best he can, to have both a variety of pleasurable experiences and absolute liberty, and that’s hard, folks.  Very few ever manage that balancing act for long (some rich and famous people can fake it to beat the band, but it’s all done with mirrors) and he’s been teetering on the high wire for some time now.   He wants the money the Kerners proffer, because he thinks that will stabilize him.   Oh that it will, Art.

Volpinex had him pegged, at the club, when he offered Art 30 grand in venture capital in exchange for backing away from the Kerner sisters.  It seems an improbably on-target assessment from such a soulless drip, but we all have hidden depths, I suppose.

“You are not quite the standard fortune-hunter,” he said, “some money-mad chauffeur out to make a quick killing.  You are better than that, more educated, more intelligent, more talented.”

I put my fork down and stared at him.  “Now you’re trying to sell me an encyclopedia.”

He ignored that, saying, “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you enjoy the life you already have: the freedom, some sense of adventure and experiment, the opportunity to employ your talent.”

“And the bill collectors,” I said.  “They’re my favorites.”

He nodded, thoughtfully.  “The money Elizabeth offered you has gone to your head, and why not?  It’s a lot of money.  But it isn’t what you really want.”

Ah, but you see, Mr. Volpinex, for a man to know what he really wants, he has to know what he really is.  Maybe you know it reflexively, being more of a Starkian figure, however corrupted.   But Art Dodge is just a man, and he’s never taken the time to figure himself out, because the answers would have come with a few too many inconvenient questions, that might get in the way of his fun.  That might force him to grow up.

He just figures he can kill Bart off when the time is right, so Art can thrive–or the other way around–what’s the difference?   What’s in a name?  It’s just another Dodge.

When the whole twin act falls to bits, as Art always knew must happen eventually, he’s unprepared for it–he’s got no escape hatch ready.  He has to start killing people to keep his secret.  Or else honestly face up to the consequences of his myriad deceptions, something no cad ever willingly does–that’s what makes him a cad.   And if the comedian kills you symbolically, to keep from having to kill you for real, that means Art Dodge is comedian no more.   He’s the other kind of murderer, and his identity has been irreparably compromised.  Not least by the fact that he has become fabulously wealthy and powerful–and it turns out he’s very good at it.  Money has no loyalties, you know.  The Kerner money is Dodge money now.  And it couldn’t care less.

A strange way to punish a rogue.  A strange hell for Don Giovanni to descend into.   But that is precisely what we’re witnessing here.  Art Dodge is dead.  And damned.  And there’s not enough left of him to care.

It doesn’t happen all at once.  He resists.  He tells himself “I am becoming Volpinex” and the thought truly horrifies him (choose your enemy carefully…).  But the inexorable twin pulls of survival and money keep dragging him down, forcing him to become an alien creature, as spiritually mummified as his now-deceased rival.

As the story concludes, he’s in his old office, giving up Folksy Cards, giving Gloria two thousand bucks severance–clearly saddened at the end of their relationship, she asks won’t he need a secretary where he’s going?  He suggests she talk to the consortium of disgruntled artists he’s held at bay for years, who will take his place.   She can see something is terribly wrong, but she can’t understand it.  He tells us she squints at him, as though he’s surrounded by smoke.  We realize that there really was somebody who loved this clown for himself–and will mourn his passing.

And maybe one other.  Gloria hands Art a card from Linda Ann Margolies–whose master’s thesis he tried to read, found it rather frivolous, how could he have been attracted to someone so common, so immature?  Sitting at his desk for the very last time, he concludes what we now realize was an extended epitaph for his soul.

I very nearly tossed it out at once–something about my brief encounter with that girl bothered me, I couldn’t say what–but curiosity got the upper hand.  Opening it, I found a greeting card inside of the kind I used to publish, though not one from my company.  The front showed a man in the front half of a horse suit, with a theater’s stage in the background.  Inside, it said, “I just can’t go on without you.”

Was that supposed to be funny?  I threw it away.

Brrrrr!

In the massed ranks of the books Westlake published in his lifetime,  there is only one that can stand beside this in terms of a truly chilling anti-climax (still a ways off, and much more in the Starkian mode, with more than a touch of Coe).

For all his understandable cynicism about the human race, his black Irish melancholia, Westlake was a hopeful optimistic person by nature, and something in him hated to let his heroes die–even if they lost everything, they still had themselves (indeed, losing everything might prove the very best way to find yourself, as many a visionary has opined).  Perhaps this aversion to killing his protagonists stemmed from him wanting to be a just God to the people he breathed life into–perhaps because it was too much like suicide by typewriter.

But in this breezy bedroom farce of his, having so much in common in its style and plot material with the desultory sleaze novels he’d cranked out under false names earlier in his career,  he truly does rise above the material at last, even as he shows his hero sinking ever-deeper into moral quicksand.  There were a million ways he could have ended this one, and he chose the truest and most painful.   And it seems damned few people at the time appreciated that.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ whose New York Times review of Butcher’s Moon I referenced a few weeks back, just could not seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Mr. Westlake was never going to be content to be a mere composer of light entertainments for our momentary diversion.   The first edition of the next book we’ll be looking at bore a blurb from his review of this one, acclaiming Westlake “The Neil Simon of the Crime Novel,” but read in context, that’s not so much a compliment as a politely worded put-down.

Callendar always paid warm tribute to Westlake’s skill as a writer, while obtusely failing to understand his choices as a storyteller (it’s tragic but hardly surprising that he succeeded the far more qualified Anthony Boucher as the prime writer on the mystery genre for the Times).  As he saw it, this book “belabors a situation that is impossible to begin with, ends up with too pat a solution and turns farce into tragedy.  The author of the book is the deus ex machina and that is always a cop-out.”

Leaving aside the tiresomely obvious fact that the author of every book ever written is the deus ex machina, it is precisely the turning of farce into tragedy that elevates this book above most of the other stories Westlake wrote about confused harried bachelors with overly complex personal lives.  Newgate Callendar, in his everyday guise of Harold C. Schonberg, may have been a brilliant music critic–when it came to discussing mere technique–but why do I suspect that if he’d been critiquing Mozart while the latter was still alive, he’d have missed the point of every opera?  Just like most of Mozart’s contemporaries did.

Diabolus ex machina would be more to the point, since Westlake has tempted his hero with Mephistophelian ingenuity–while still clearly pointing him towards the path to redemption, which he fails to follow, or even recognize.  And this is entirely logical for the character we’ve been shown.  It’s no cop-out–it’s a fair cop, as the Brits say.  And yes, contrived as all hell, but that’s no less true of the Dortmunders, which Callendar heartily approved of–because he didn’t take them seriously.  More fool he.

All this modern-day Faust had to do was say to Linda “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (the precise meaning of her name in Spanish) and he would have been saved, even if he remained as lecherous, light-fingered, and leering as ever.  His damnation lay in his failure to know himself well enough to withstand temptation–not of the flesh, but of filthy lucre (Westlake whole-heartedly approved of temptations of the flesh; much as they may need to be resisted at times, to resist them at all times is to fail at life).

And yet, I fear it was Newgate Callendar’s take on this book that won out, at least in the short term.  People wanted the farce, bedrooms and all, sans the tragedy–the people making movies certainly did.  Film producers hear “Neil Simon” and think “Money”, so it got two film adaptations, as already noted–one French and one American.  The French one starred one of those comic actors nobody but the French care about, and had a happy ending. I suspect this is the better of the two, but it still sounds pretty bad.

The American one came ten years later, and starred Antonio Banderas (well, at least that makes Art’s romantic prowess more believable), and the sisters were played by Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah, which of course destroys the whole twin angle, and Art is an artist (the kind who paints), and I’ve never seen it, and I don’t care if I ever do.  I mean, if you have to stick a happy ending on it, why not Art and Linda going off into the sunset?  Because Linda is too small a part to tempt a big star, and of course one big star has to end up with another big star.  And virtue has to be rewarded–not self-understanding, which was the point of the book.  For some reason, self-understanding isn’t usually a big thing in Tinseltown.

“Thus do we artists adapt the facts of our own lives to the purposes of our art.”  So Art Dodge tells us, as he scrawls the text for yet another witty greeting card on the Fire Island Ferry.  Westlake knew the temptations of money very well–and I think he often lusted for big material success, the blockbuster best-seller he never got–and feared it at the same time.  Somebody as talented and prolific as him really should have been rich at some point, right?  Why didn’t he ever get there?  Maybe, on some level, because he didn’t want to.  Because without the need to get up every day and dodge bill collectors, dodge exes, dodge rivals, the supreme dodge that is art would fall away from  him, never to be regained.

It wouldn’t necessarily for everyone.  I’m sure Stephen King is a nice enough person in real life, and he’s written some very good books since he got rich.  If he’s written anything as good as Two Much, I’m not aware of it.  Well, that’s just my opinion.  And it’s a different thing to earn your money through creativity than through connivance.  Not all rich guys with political aspirations are stick-in-the-mud bores, as we’ve had occasion to learn recently–but self-understanding will never be theirs.  And their only real love affairs are with themselves.  But they provide ample material for the true clowns of the world.  So ridi, Pagliacci.  Ridi.

Our next book could not be more different from this one, and yet I’d argue it was intended as a companion piece to it–Westlake must have written one right after the other, maybe working on both at the same time.  It features a slightly older and ultimately much wiser protagonist, and a Nephew he is, to his very core–but he’s a Nephew with lots of brothers, and that makes all the difference.  And if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to try and get that review finished by October 25th.  I must say, I’ll be very impressed with any of my readers who understand why that particular date.  Oh, for a muse of fire….

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Two Much

Review: Hot Stuff

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The original story of Hot Stuff was about a sting operation in Washington, D.C., that had been written up in Time Magazine.  But the producers got hung up negotiating the rights with the cops, so we moved it to “Anytown, U.S.A.,” which never works.  I finished up the script, and four years went by.  All of a sudden the movie was being made, and when I got the proposed credits there were a total of six writers, including [Dom] DeLuise [who was starring as well as directing].  A maximum of two could get credit.  I would get a production bonus if I got a credit, so I applied, and wrote a four-page letter describing my contributions.  Dom DeLuise also applied, sending in a script where he underlined all the lines he claimed.  Some of them I’d written, and some of them were old before DeLuise’s grandfather was born, like “Do you know what burns my ass?”  “What?”  “A flame this high.”  I became one of the two credited writers.  DeLuise did not.  I got my bonus.  The movie has the same basic thread to it as my script…and there are some bits in it that are very very funny. But it’s a funnyman’s movie, not a writer’s movie.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

This will be a very short review for a movie I just finished watching for the first time.  Hot Stuff is now available on DVD (but is not available on Netflix at the moment).   It will undoubtedly turn up on cable at some point.  And if you never see it, don’t feel like you missed anything.   But as insubstantial 70’s cop comedies go, it’s not bad.  And here and there, you can see Westlake’s mark on it.   It’s not a complete waste of 91 minutes (less if you skip the credits).  I’ve enjoyed worse movies than this, and so have you.

From about the Mid-70’s to the Mid-80’s, films like this were all the rage.  Freebie and the Bean Mother, Juggs and Speed.  Used Cars.  Night Shift.   This is roughly in that zip code (and definitely a cut above Police Academy, which marked the start of an even worse era of low-budget comedy).

See if this sounds familiar–a very contrived set-up, involving an unconventional partnership of oddballs.  Lots of ethnic humor.  At least one sassy sexy broad who pretends not to like the male lead, even though she does.  Over the top physical comedy.   Racially mixed cast (but white people in the foreground, unless they have a really big star who isn’t white).  Funky background music. Disrespect for authority.  A big loud climax, followed by a happy ending, and a quick wrap-up.  Roll credits.

I don’t know how Westlake’s original treatment would have gone if they’d filmed his script as written, but he said they stuck to the main thread of his story–and he knew what general kind of movie he was writing.  I don’t think he was that disappointed, but this was the first original script of his that ever got filmed, and one can imagine him heaving the occasional exasperated sigh in the theater.  Hang in there, Mr. Westlake.  It gets better.  Eventually.

What he couldn’t know when he wrote it was who’d be in it–writers don’t drive the way movies are made–stars and directors do, and in this case the star was the director.  I have never been a huge Dom DeLuise fan, but he’s not too annoying here.  He knew he was making an ensemble piece, and he lets it be that.   There’s just a few moments where he overindulges his more irritating predilections– like this one routine where he has to smoke a joint undercover, and he gets all goofy.  And really, he has to do that kind of thing–his fans would expect it of him.  He’s from the Curly Howard school, for better or worse.

(And this would be one of the few bits of the movie that made it to YouTube).

The movie is not, in fact, set in Anytown USA–it’s set in Miami, not D.C., which means all the Florida-related humor isn’t from Westlake.   Can we tell what’s from his original script?

The main premise, for sure–cops posing as fences, in order to arrest purveyors of stolen goods.   Though as you can see up top, he was basically assigned that premise, which was based on a real-life sting operation (and as we know from Jimmy The Kid, there’s no such thing as plagiarism when you’re using real-life events).

Ernie (DeLuise) and Doug (Jerry Reed) play partners working in a task force tasked with catching people who make off with other people’s property, but the courts keeping throwing their cases out, and their funding is about to be cut–they’ll end up in narcotics, which is a much more dangerous area.

Doug has a brainstorm–take over a pawn shop whose owner they just arrested, and receive stolen goods directly, paying for them with what’s left of their budget–Louise (Suzanne Pleshette, professional and pulchritudinous as always), who just joined their unit because they need a love interest for Reed (c’mon, you know that’s the real reason), suggests they videotape each transaction through a one-way mirror.

I definitely see Westlake’s input in the way the technology is all glitchy and problematic at first.  Louise has to keep bugging her colleagues to make sure they stand on their marks, so the audio will be clear.   The perps aren’t looking at the camera enough, so they stick pictures from nudie magazines around the one-way glass.  They’re producing their own reality show, for an audience composed of a judge and grand jury.  Westlake was already well-experienced in writing funny scenes involving thieves and the people they sell to, particularly in the Dortmunder books.  There are a lot of good moments, and probably none as good as the scenes he wrote, but he’s in there.

This is a cop comedy, and Westlake has never really been known for police procedurals–but these are maverick cops, outsiders in their own system, and lots of cop movies are like this (and still are) so it’s not a huge problem.  Even so, there’s huge sympathy for the crooks, who actually end up saving the heroes from angry mobsters at the end (it would take too long to explain).   The last character we see onscreen is a thief making off with Ernie’s TV set.   Westlake is for the independents, whatever profession they might be in.  The gang actually catches a corrupt cop on camera, trolling for bribes, and are going to get him busted.   I have to think that’s from the original script.

There’s a dog in it.  A big hairy soulful mutt named Jaws (played by canine thespian Scratch).   I’m tempted to say the dog is an addition to the script, except for some telltale hints of Westlake’s lifelong cynophobia.  The pawn shop gets robbed, and since they can’t arrest robbers without blowing cover, Ernie decides they need a dog for protection.   Cut to an outfit that sells big scary Dobermans and German Shepherds, only the purebreds cost too much, so they end up with Jaws.  Who at no point in the narrative ever attacks anybody but the good guys, fond though he becomes of them.  I think they probably softened him up a bit for the movie, and he’s definitely one of the gang, but he’s a Westlake dog, bet on it.

Somehow or other, Westlake managed to stick little references to his own work in there.  Like the guy who comes into the pawnshop with a bunch of stoles–stolen stoles--I Gave At The Office.  The pun is implicit this time. There’s a roguish married couple of elderly British criminals with upper class affectations–much like the felonious ffork-Lintons from Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   They don’t really fit the setting, but of course Westlake didn’t know the setting when he wrote them in.

And there’s even a poster in a store window advertising something called ‘Kidd Stuff’–Kid Stuff was the name of the movie Jimmy Harrington wrote and directed after the Dortmunder gang kidnapped him, in Jimmy The Kid–and it’s clearly a sly reference to this script, which wouldn’t be made into a movie for a few more years.   Somehow a reference to that novel Westlake was writing around the same time ended up in the film, unless it’s a coincidence, which I doubt.

Weird that the movie is set in Florida, as Westlake could not possibly have known it would be–because there’s a gun-running subplot, rather reminiscent of the one in I Gave At The Office–these crooks want to sell the pawnshop a truckload of Korean-made submachine guns, and Ernie jokingly asks them if they realize they’re the third most powerful nation in the world.  He was recycling a lot of ideas and research from his less well-known books (that were never going to get a film adaptation of their own, so what the hell).  Probably a lot of other sly self-referential gags were cut to make room for various–how shall I put it?–Deluise-isms.

Ossie Davis plays the captain who is theoretically in charge of this chicken outfit (they literally get a bunch of stolen chickens one day), and I’m not sure the black police captain who has to keep these wild maverick cops in line was a well-established movie/TV cliche by then, but Ossie gets to have some fun himself at the end, and the character isn’t too marginalized.   Cuban actor Luis Avalos gets a lot more scenes, but a lot of them involve him getting chased by the dog.  And this is, according to Wikipedia, his most important film role ever.  Oh well, at least he had The Electric Company.

I doubt much of Westlake’s dialogue made it in.   I could go over the movie again, and try to fish out a few possible snatches of original Westlake snark, but frankly, nothing really jumped out at me.  If they hardly ever used the dialogue from his best novels when they made them into movies, why would they use it in a script that got rewritten by a bunch of kibbitzers over the course of several years?

Taken on its own slight merits, this is an okay example of a low budget 70’s comedy.   If they’d thought to bring Westlake in for rewrites, they might have really had something, because the cast chemistry is good, and DeLuise’s direction–not terrible.  Believe it or not.

No sex scene between Reed and Pleshette, which I guess means that somehow they thought they had a family comedy here, in spite of the drug references, and the nude pictures on the one way glass.  Or maybe Pleshette just didn’t feel like it, and they needed her name in the credits.   It really does not matter, either way.

If we ever get a sequel to The Getaway Car, is it too much to hope for that we could get at least a few selections from Westlake’s original script?  Got to be a copy somewhere.

Westlake’s attitude towards Hollywood was always a mix of affection and cynicism.  He understood most movies are entertainment made by committee, and that given the money spent on them, that is to some extent unavoidable.  He needed some of that money to stay afloat financially, and so he not only agreed to attach his name to this rather threadbare effort–he insisted on it.  Because to him this wasn’t really something that mattered.   You go to the movies, most of the time, to see stars go through their paces.  They used his work, and he got paid for it.  No harm, no foul.

I think he probably laughed here and there.

I didn’t, but I was watching it at work, because my DVD player is busted.   Anyway, the dog is cool, and Pleshette is hot.  You could do worse.  You have done worse.

But next time, we’ll be doing a lot better, because we’ll be looking at a novel that has been twice made into a film–and I suspect both films make this one look pretty good by comparison.  But the novel itself is an acidic gem.  Did you ever hear the one about the guy who pretended to be his own twin brother so he could take twin sisters to bed?   And having become two people, he ended up–well, that would be telling.  Trust me.  It’s very hot stuff indeed.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Even though it isn’t.  A book, I mean.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays, Hot Stuff

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2

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When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come.  He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.

Kelp went over and set up the sign.  It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint.  Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not  mentioned in Child Heist.  He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”

Dortmunder looked at it.  It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE.  He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”

“What’s the matter?”  Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried.  “Did I put it in the wrong place?”

“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”

“Sure,” Kelp said.

“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.”   Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”

Kelp said, “I got it.”

“Look at it.  Now look at the sign.”

Kelp looked at the book.  He looked at the sign.  He said, “Son of a gun.  Detour.  I thought sure you–”

“You can’t even read!”

Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me.  Do I have to spell it out?  The American covers mainly didn’t go there.  And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement.   Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask.  The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book.  Nefarious.  And delightful.

But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–

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Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong.  I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one.  And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him.  And Stan & Ollie with guns?  Pointed at a child’s back?  It’s very very wrong.  I’m surprised at you, Sweden.  You’re supposed to be setting an example here.

So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers.  His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953.  I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel.  As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well.  So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right?  Of course not.  Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book.  I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories.  Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.

Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out.   Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon.  Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist.  He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise.  Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock.  And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.

I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset.  That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment.  Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple.  Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.

The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire.  His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension.  It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course.  The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice.  Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.

Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say.  This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking.  The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat.  She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).

He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.

The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen.  So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.”  It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money.  Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads.  I wouldn’t know.

The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting.  But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).

White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards).  But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.

I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting.  The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes.  Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches.  That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.

Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis.  He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired.  Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.

If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel.  So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.

One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers.  Entirely different plans, entirely different crews.  And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with.   Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.

Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it.  They follow the car, scope out the route in advance.  The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?).  There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).

They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions.  They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call  the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone).   They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave.  They’re parked down below.  By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot.  We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.

That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get.  Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it.  Still better than The Snatchers, though.

And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid.  But not all for the same reasons.  Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen.  The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books.  Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly.  When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.

Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are.  They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque.  Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could.  Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late.   Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.

Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote  to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.

And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line.  So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich  kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes.  The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).

Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did.  But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all.   Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.

Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled.  But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner.  His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways.  For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them.  That’s a nice perk, you must admit.

They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan?  What was the point of taking the limo to start with?   (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)

It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read.  He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.

It’s really well-hidden.  The cops will never find it.  We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time.   They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property   You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?

Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic,  and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it.  Which seems a mite sadistic.  But I don’t think it’s meant that way.  He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right?  “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.”   Those were cool.   Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.

Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book.   He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever.  But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say.   He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed.  Accent on relatively.

He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that.  Is that really him?  The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.

He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car.  He’s more confused than worried.  This is all so unexpected.  Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it).   It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.

Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can.   They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash.  He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay?  No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up).   Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex.   Man doesn’t know himself at all.

The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.   Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway.  Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials.   He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.

That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set.  It’s easy.   Almost too easy.   But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.   Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.

So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room.  Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces.  Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains forever unsolved.

Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police.   It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway.   Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part.  I digress once more.

Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents.  This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought.   But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!

So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book.   But there’s a small problem.  The limo phone is busy.   For a long time.  Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls.  A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely.  By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap.  A scenic wonder, as is well known.  He’d never been there before.  Never had the time.  So it’s not a total waste.

There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it.  There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist“The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”   

Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King.  She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her.  But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone.   What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?

Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner.  She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench.  She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers.  She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event.  She stood looking at them.  She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand.  She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.

They became aware of her.  Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench.  They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face.  Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.

Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom.  Not even Murch.  And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.

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(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones).

So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.

But they have the loot!   It worked!   What can possibly go wrong now?   Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in at sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season.  I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say?  Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing.  This isn’t a Lionel White parody.  Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on.  Oh, that was mean).

Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go.  He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.

And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark.  He thinks about it.  He goes back inside to warn the gang.  Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, but there’s no time for that now.  They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).

Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises.  It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over?  It’s very well done!  “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said.  “I’d like to see something well done.”   He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.

Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles.  But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog.   They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.  They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St.  He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there.  He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.

Uh-oh.

Yeah, he took the ransom money.   Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag.  Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark?   And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece.  And that’s how the caper crumbles.

And next chapter jumps ahead about a year.   Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney.  He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it.   This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know.   He demands retribution.

But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand).  It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof.   Because you can’t copyright real-life events.   Remember?

See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.

But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no?  And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way.  And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!).  Another identity puzzle solved–kind of.  Some people are born to win.   And others–well…….

The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling.  And he feels really bad about it.   Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp.  Nobody’s perfect, after all.   Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together.   They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny.  Care to make a guess?

(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book.  I got the DVD, so I might as well.  My expectations are suitably low.   They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them.  Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)

We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right).  We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it.   We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened.   Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop.  And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.

Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle.   Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction.  And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.

And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories.   And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then.  Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?

And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid.  Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o.  And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.  

Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy.  Feel free to make your own in the comments section.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Jimmy The Kid

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Holding the mask out from his mouth with his free hand, Kelp said “Let’s not scare the kid.  Nobody’s gonna get hurt.”  It was a line word for word from Child Heist, which Kelp had been rehearsing for two weeks now.

According to the book, the chauffeur was supposed to ask Kelp what he wanted.  Instead of which, Van Gelden pointed at the pistol and said, “Scare the kid?”  Then he gestured a thumb over his shoulder and said, “Scare that kid?  Hah!”

This book enjoys a rather unique distinction among the Westlake canon.  In 1978, Westlake’s good friend Brian Garfield (who I talked about in two recent articles here)  published an anthology of pieces in which crime fiction writers described personal encounters with actual crimes.  Westlake’s contribution was an imaginary account of him at a fashionable cocktail party, where the only food available is fancy potato chips, regaling bewildered onlookers with the story of how he came to write Jimmy The Kid.  It’s funny, clever, and more than a touch convoluted, as the origins of popular fictions so often are.   I strongly suggest you obtain, have you not already, a copy of The Getaway Car, and read this fascinating piece.  Save me a lot of trouble, for one thing.

But perhaps you expect me to save you some trouble?  Okay, the upshot is that the story of this book was inspired by the story of an actual kidnapping which was inspired by yet another book.  Namely The Snatchers, aka Rapt, by Lionel White, a native New Yorker, who wrote a lot of taut suspenseful crime books, often published in paperback by outfits like Gold Medal, many of which became movies, and the movies were rarely very faithful to the books.  Sounds familiar, huh?

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(Westlake and several other sources refer to the book as The Snatch, but I can’t find any edition with that title.)

Like many another Lionel White outing, this one much later got turned into an exceptionally unfaithful film adaptation (with Marlon Brando, no less).   But it is probably better remembered today for the fact that a pair of rather impressionable French criminals decided to use the Serie Noire translation of it as the blueprint for (successfully) kidnapping a toddler who happened to be the grandson of the head of Peugeot.

You know, Peugeot?  Cars, bicycles, etc.  The cars were never that common here, but Lt. Columbo drove one on TV.  First car I can remember is my dad’s little dark blue Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I was about the same age as the kidnap victim at the time).  My mom later said it was his rebellion against adult responsibility, or suburban conformity, or something.   You know how mothers are.

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Not only was the boy not harmed (because the book specifically said not to do that), he actually seems to have had a rather interesting time–the elder Peugeots, having received some very threatening missives about what would happen to little Eric if they didn’t pay up, were not so amused.

And the kidnappers, not having had the foresight to get a book telling them how to behave after scoring big on a kidnap caper, threw their ill-gotten gains around like water, made snide allusions in bars as to their daring enterprise, and they both went to prison in short order.   Life may imitate art up to a point, but then comes Murphy’s Law.   Or, if you prefer, The Dortmunder Effect.

The idea of adapting a crime adapted from a novel was not originally Westlake’s (in fact, it wasn’t even originally the French kidnappers’ idea; see The League of Gentlemen).  He was approached by some film producers who wanted to do a story along similar lines.  Not the Peugeot kidnapping, but something like it.  Westlake gave it some thought, and wrote a treatment which tried to change the crime to counterfeiting, which didn’t work.  So he changed it back to kidnapping, which reportedly worked better, but the studio head, a grandfather himself, didn’t see the humor in the concept for some odd reason.

The movie was scrapped.  But as had happened twice already in the past, Westlake had retained the book rights, and eventually decided (with encouragement from his then-girlfriend, Abby Adams) to try and turn the story of a kidnapping adapted from a novel back into a novel. Art imitating Life imitating Art.

(Anyway, as is mentioned in this very book, you can’t copyright real-life events.  Anybody could do a story about the Peugeot kidnapping, or a story inspired by it.  Even though it was itself directly inspired by a book that is, far as I know, still under copyright.   Literary plagiarism laws only apply to fictional events and persons.  You can plagiarize any story you want to, as long as you’re living it, as opposed to writing it.  Westlake thought this was very funny).

He’d been down this same exact road already, with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   That comic kidnapping caper was a creative failure, in spite of some good writing, mainly because the characters had poorly defined voices, perhaps because they’d been written as film characters who had to be played by popular film stars, and something was lost in translation between mediums.  Here, he’d remake the story basically from scratch, and instead of using the characters from the two treatments he’d written for the movie that never got made, he’d use characters with very strong voices that he’d already featured in two previous novels–eighteen if you count Parker.

Yeah, this is the Dortmunder novel where Parker has a cameo as a fictional character in Dortmunder’s world, and Stark has a epistolary cameo as his pissed-off creator.   That, I think, is how most people tend to remember it today, and that’s why a good first edition can run you a bit more than other Dortmunders from this general time period.  Overlapping fanbases.  But if you’re a Stark reader who ran out of novels and is hoping to find a new Parker heist contained in the pages of this book, you’re in for a disappointment.  Because this isn’t really Parker, it’s only three chapters, and it’s not very good–the Parker chapters, I mean.

It only makes sense.  If Westlake had come up with a really great idea for a Parker novel, he’d use it to write another Parker novel.  Possible this is a rejected idea he pulled out of his Parker slushpile, but I don’t think so.  We know where he got the kidnapping angle from. And we know something else–Parker–the real Parker–would never get involved in a job like this.  Kidnapping isn’t his line.  And kidnapping a child?  Stark wouldn’t have it.  But Stark’s not pulling the strings here.  Stark’s taken a long coffee break (black, of course), leaving Westlake not really knowing how to write in that voice anymore.

I think there is some attempt to contrast the Westlake style with Stark’s here, but it’s not that effective, because as I explained a few weeks back, in the course of writing the hybridized Westlake/Stark epic that is Butcher’s Moon, he’d somehow slipped out of the groove, as far as Stark was concerned.  It would be quite a while before he got back in that groove, and he’s faking it to beat the band here.

And that’s perfectly fine, because this isn’t a Parker novel–it’s a Dortmunder, and one of the better ones, I think.  Not everyone agrees–it’s certainly not a classic of the series, since kidnapping isn’t Dortmunder’s line either, and for obvious reasons he’s not planning the job this time (much to his disgust)–but I was shaking with laughter at my local, as I finished it over tacos and beer.  And I picked up on some things I missed the first time through.  It’s a funny, insightful, and deceptively simple little book, with a lot of layers to it.  And a fine addition to a rather odd little sub-genre–the comic kidnapping story.

I mean, kidnapping shouldn’t be funny, should it?  It happens all the time in real life, and the kidnap victims and their families are rarely laughing about it.  And yet something about it excites us–even the word ‘kidnap’ itself, which originally meant exactly what it sounds like–child theft.  We all have some kidnappers in our family trees–just as so many of our great national epics are about armed robberies of some kind or another, as I explained in my review of The Score, you can just as easily go back through ancient mythology and find one long series of colorful (and often sexual) abductions.

Hell, that’s how Rome was reputedly founded, with those Sabine women, only they didn’t call that kidnapping at the time.  But why is that story so unexpectedly funny, and later the source of a Hollywood musical comedy with great choreography?  Because the women want to be abducted.  Because they end up having a good time, and wanting to stay with their abductors.  So that’s the secret to making it humorous, as opposed to suspenseful, or tragic.  Turn the tables.  Dramatic reversal.

The funniest kidnapping story of all time debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907, and Westlake knew damn well he was never topping that one.  The inner dust jacket for the first edition up top says otherwise, but it lies.  Westlake came up with a splendid variation on a theme, make no mistake–but some things in this world can’t be improved upon.

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How long since you last read it?   It had been quite a long while for me, and I savored every paragraph, every last impeccably chosen word.  As close to perfection as any mortal can get, but the message is very simple, isn’t it?  “Boys are a lot more trouble than you think.”

Reading it as a child, you think “This kid is great!”   Reading it as an adult, you realize your loyalties have somehow inexorably shifted, and you marvel at the stoic saintly patience of the kidnappers.  You look at some banal Hollywood re-rendering of it, like those Home Alone movies, and you yearn for something heavy to fall on Macauley Culkin and put an end to his tow-headed malevolence (mercifully, adolescence eventually achieved the same result without the need to resort to bloodshed).

But from either generational perspective, it’s funny, because much against their will, the abductors have become the abductees.  Because they could never really harm the kid, they are subject to being seriously harmed by him.  And he has no intention of ever letting them go.   They’re just too much fun.  I think The Joker said that to Batman once.

Westlake said in that piece he wrote for Garfield that he didn’t want to use a child the age of Eric Peugeot at the time he was grabbed because an infant kidnapping is ‘inimical to comedy’–the Coen brothers kind of proved him wrong with Raising Arizona, but of course that was abduction for love, not money.  And it had the aesthetic sensibility of a Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon.  But it’s still the same basic idea–you create comedy in a story about a kidnapping by creating sympathy for the kidnappers.  They did not know what they were getting into.

And in fact, Eric Peugeot said later he was fascinated by his kidnappers, entranced by them–he’d never been around two grown men so much before, let alone men of this class, and he watched them avidly.   He was certainly scared at points–not traumatized in the least.  But he was no real trouble to them, being past the terrible two’s, yet still too young to ask a lot of silly questions, or get up to any serious mischief (okay, I hear parents of three year olds objecting now, but he wouldn’t be trying to scalp them, would he?).

The only problem the kidnappers had was their own stupidity once the kidnapping was concluded.  The kid was just quietly curious about them.  Okay, that’s not funny, or at least not the right kind of funny.   Need an older victim.  Perhaps older than his years?   Can’t make him too much like O. Henry’s kid.

P.G. Wodehouse did several stories about child kidnappings, but those were early works, before he’d arrived at the brilliance of Jeeves, Mulliner, Uncle Fred, or Blandings.  His gift for comic language was developing rapidly, but his grasp of characterization and plotting was still in embryonic form.   So those books have dated rapidly, and the kidnappings are treated rather offhandedly, lost in the shuffle of too many implausible story threads, and too much forced banter (like Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, only worse).  Even Plum had to start somewhere.

If you’re going to tell a story like this, to make it funny you have to build on the logic of it, not just throw it in for a lark.  So O. Henry, that most consummate of craftsmen, would be Westlake’s model here, not Wodehouse.   Have to match the tool to the task.  And now my tool had best be the plot synopsis.

Having repeatedly failed as a heister, Dortmunder is trying life as a mere burglar, going down a fire escape (there’s going to be a lot of those fire escapes) to break into a furrier’s shop, and then he hears a voice calling him from above–is it the Lord?   No, it’s just Andy Kelp.  (Interesting though, that Dortmunder, as opposed to Parker, seems to have some sort of half-hearted religious notions in his head, no doubt put there by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, who raised him as an orphaned youth).

Turns out Dortmunder was on the wrong floor of the building (he’s never going to be much of a burglar–made for bigger things), and to have Kelp point out his mistake adds insult to injury.  Kelp opens the door of the shop for him, and he won’t even look at the furs on the racks–Kelp has ruined yet another job for him.  He’s just doing to get into his stolen VW Microbus and leave.  But their squabbling has roused the whole neighborhood, and they have to get out of there, and he accidentally bloodied Kelp’s nose in his wrath, so he lets Kelp ride with him.  And this is a mistake of course.  Because Kelp has an idea.   Kelp always has some damn fool idea.  But this one is weird, even for him.

With the hand that wasn’t holding his nose, Kelp reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a paperback book.  “It’s this,” he said.

Dortmunder was approaching an intersection with a green light.  He made his turn, drove a block, and stopped at a red light.  Then he looked at the book Kellp was waving.  He said, “What’s that?”

“It’s a book.”

“I know it’s a book.  What is it?”

“It’s for you to read,” Kelp said.  “Here, take it.”  He was still staring at the roof and holding his hose, and he was merely waving the book in Dortmunder’s direction.

So Dortmunder took the book.  The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark.  “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said.

Dortmunder takes the book, figuring what the hell.  Kelp’s next errand is to go find Stan Murch and give him a copy of the same book–he tells Murch (whose reading is mainly confined to newspapers and car magazines)  the guy in it will remind him of Dortmunder.  And Murch also takes the book, also figuring what the hell.  Kelp says to make sure Murch’s Mom reads it as well.  What the hell?

Then Kelp shows up at Dortmunder and May’s apartment, along with Murch, to make the pitch.  Kelp’s idea is simple–and not original to him, but how’s he to know about the French guys?  See, he got pulled in by some cops out in the sticks a few days, a bum rap, they didn’t have anything on him, which isn’t to say he was innocent, but cops should know better than to put a crimp in a man’s schedule over a bad arrest.  It’s unprofessional.

Anyway, the jail had a bunch of books donated by a local ladies club (heh) and a lot of them were these books about this armed robber named Parker, written by this Richard Stark person.  You may have heard of them.  Having nothing better to do, Kelp read the books, and was immediately captivated by the idea of a hardened criminal who pulls daring complex heists and never gets caught.

I already used the money quote from this chapter for my review of The Score (check it out, or just read the book), but basically Kelp is saying they should just do the plan from this book he particularly liked named Child Heist–which is about a kidnapping.  Just follow the same plan Parker and his associates employ, right down to the letter, and it’ll succeed, like it does in the book.  Why wouldn’t it?

He wants May and Murch’s Mom (she has a name, but it’s hardly ever used) to babysit the kid, which Murch’s Mom says is very sexist, while simultaneously conceding that Kelp and the other guys in the string would have no idea how to take care of a child.

May, who has no problem at all with crime as a modus vivendi, thinks it would be mean to frighten a little kid by taking him from his home and family.  Murch’s interest is predictably limited to the wide variety of motorized vehicles needed to pull this job.   Dortmunder says very little, brooding to himself, and then he suddenly says he never wants to see Kelp again.  He’s furious.  Because he’s the planner, and Kelp is bringing in this Stark guy, who probably never so much as knocked over a candy store in his life, as a ringer, to do his job!   He’s been outsourced!   And that’s not even a thing yet!

But as they all admitted earlier in the meeting, the problem here is that big cash scores are getting hard to find in this increasingly cash-free modern world (same problem Parker has been having in the dimension next-door).  Dortmunder has no better options at present, and he hates living off May and her meager supermarket salary (that she steals most of their food from her employer is neither here nor there).  He’s only really happy when he’s planning a big heist, and May knows that.  She likewise knows that because of his past offenses, if he gets caught stealing so much as a pack of Luckies for her he’s going back to prison for life, so he might as well pull something big.

May is also concerned that Kelp is so obsessed with pulling this job that he’ll do it without Dortmunder, and something will go horribly wrong, and the kid will get hurt, even though nobody wants that.  Somehow, hearing about this proposed federal crime has roused her maternal instincts.  So she fixes Dortmunder all his favorite dishes for dinner, and works on him, like only she can.  She explains to him that he’s still needed to make the plan in the book work in the real world.

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said.  “Don’t you see?  There’s  a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it.  You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her.  “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said.  “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands.  “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you.  The idea is–”

“I’m not shouting,” he said.  He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting.  Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,”  Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

(Godard liked it well enough.  You’re still mad at him, aren’t you, Mr. Westlake?  Him and that Boorman guy who said he liked to exploit writers, steal their ideas, and then discard them.   In public he said this, while adapting your book into a movie.  A movie you kind of liked, but a movie that bombed.  ‘The writer isn’t the writer.’   Sheesh.  These new filmmakers got no couth.   No wonder you’re so grumpy.  As to what Dortmunder has to do with the movies, probably better not to ask, but for those who must know, read my piece Dortmunder At The Movies. On this very blog. And don’t say you weren’t warned.  Back to the synopsis.)

So the gang all meet up at the O.J. Bar and Grill (this time the chatty barflies are two telephone repairmen about to get into a fight over the derivation of the word ‘spic’ to refer to Puerto Ricans), and Dortmunder grudgingly admits that the book could serve as a jumping off point, but it needs to be adapted.  See, talking like an aw-tour already!  And then we get a whole chapter of Child Heist, showing us Parker and some guy named Krauss scoping out potential kidnap victims.   Here’s how the Parker chapter begins:

When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars.  He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him.  There was no other furniture in the room, which had gray plaster walls from which patterned wallpaper had recently been stripped.  Curls of wallpaper lay against the molding in all the corners.  On the floor beside Krauss’ chair lay three apple cores.

And here’s how the Dortmunder chapter begins:

When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap.  “For Christ’s sake,” Dortmunder said.

And this is a recurring theme of the book–that in Parker’s world, every job goes smoothly, everyone’s a consummate pro, nothing ever goes wrong–and in Dortmunder’s world, it’s the exact opposite.  Westlake knew this was a rank oversimplfication–Parker, if anything, has worse luck than Dortmunder with his strings (only once would any of Dortmunder’s associates ever try to kill him), and he never once pulled a heist without something going seriously wrong, but here’s the thing–how can Westlake get that across to that very large section of the Dortmunder readership that has not read the Parker books?  Who may in fact assume they’re something Westlake dreamed up specifically for this story.

It ruins the sly meta-textual joke he’s making here if he brings in all those inconvenient nitpicky details.  So he doesn’t.  But for those of us who have read the Parkers, this can be irritating.   It’s still fun to read, mind you.  But we know it’s wrong.  It’s one of the less effectively executed gags, but still fascinating to read, for those who follow both series.   I don’t think it’s really meant as a commentary on the Stark books.  That’s not really what this book is about, contrasting Stark and Westlake, but it’s there, and it doesn’t quite come off, because Westlake can’t really write like Stark in this context.   Fortunately, he doesn’t have to.  There’s plenty else going on here.  Layer after layer, joke within joke.

So going by the book, they have to scope out limos from a handy lookout spot.  They need one with a built-in phone that routinely carries some rich kid to and from an appointment in Manhattan.   In Child Heist, ‘Parker’ and his buddies find a Lincoln that fits the bill nicely–Dortmunder & Co. find a Cadillac.  This leads to some confusion later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And the deceptively diminutive backseat occupant of said Cadillac is one Jimmy Harrington, twelve years of age, youngest son of a rich corporate lawyer, and boy genius.  So much so that he’s going to a psychiatrist in the city, to work out some of the personal issues that tend to arise when you’re smarter than all the kids in your class, and probably most of the adults you know as well.  Would it sound arrogant if I said I can relate?  Yeah, it probably would.  Never mind.  But something tells me Westlake related a whole lot.  In this specific regard, at least.  It’s not a rich kid’s fault that he’s rich.  It is, on the other hand, very much a psychiatrist’s fault that he is a psychiatrist.

Jimmy Harrington, lying on the black naugahyde couch in Dr. Schraubenzieher’s office, looking over at the pumpkin-colored drapes half-closed over the air-shaft window, said, “You know, for the past few weeks, every time I come into the city I keep having this feeling, somebody is watching me.”

“Mm hm?”

“A very specific kind of watching,” Jimmy said.  “I have this feeling, I’m somebody’s target. Like a sniper’s target.  Like the man in the tower in Austin, Texas.”

“Mm hm?”

“That’s obviously paranoid, of course,” Jimmy said.  “And yet it doesn’t truly have a paranoid feel about it.  I think I understand paranoid manifestations, and this seems somehow to be something else.  Do you have any ideas, Doctor?”

Though he responds with more than “Mm hm?” this time, the Doctor seems more concerned with scoring a rare intellectual point over his precocious patient than in getting to the bottom of Jimmy’s actually quite well-founded anxieties.  But you get the gist of the character here–Jimmy has a first-rate brain and tremendous intellectual curiosity, bolstered by extensive reading, and no doubt the best private schools and tutors money can buy.  He seems to have no friends his own age, and this doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the boy could use some seasoning.   Like a Captains Courageous kind of deal.   Only tougher on the captains than on the kid, as matters shall arrange themselves.

Jimmy seems to me like a much younger and far less irritable reworking of Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the main protagonist of  Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   But Westlake had a hard time identifying with the spoiled wealthy Kelly, even though Kelly’s physical appearance and interests seemed to be somewhat modeled after Westlake himself.  Jimmy, being younger–I’d assume some of Westlake’s own boys were around Jimmy’s age, or had been recently, or would be soon–comes off much better than Kelly.  Westlake often did wonder, I think, what life might have been like for him if he’d had all the advantages growing up.   Better in some ways, worse in others.   There’s always a trade-off.

Oh, and one more thing–Jimmy knows what he wants to do for a living.  At age twelve.  Okay, in this I can not even slightly relate.  But wait until you hear it–he wants to direct.  As in movies.   Wants to be an aw-tour.  And somewhere, the God of Dortmunder’s Universe chuckles wickedly, and the net begins to close.  And I say see you next week, kids.  I’ll be watching you–well, those of you that post comments, anyway.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark