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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3 Comments

Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

3 responses to “Review: Brothers Keepers

  1. rinaldo302

    Philip Bosco did indeed play a monk onscreen, in Heaven Help Us, set in a Catholic boys’ school in which he’s one of the teaching brothers. I was no more successful than you in finding any stills showing him in his habit, though.

    • Seen that movie at least half a dozen times. I’d quite forgotten he was in it. It’s a small role. But I must have remembered on some unconscious level. Mainly when I watch it, I’m just sighing over Mary Stuart Masterson. 😉

  2. rinaldo302

    And I’m sighing over the boys (who are in fact played by grown-up actors, so it’s OK). So it has something for everyone….

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