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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21 Comments

Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

21 responses to “Review: Brothers Keepers, Part 2

  1. Anthony

    I would LOVE to comment. Thing is – while I read and enjoyed this book when it was written, that was several decades ago. When I reread it, there shalt be commentary.

      • Anthony

        I guess one comment before I reread this book, if I can find it. I suppose this book really focuses on it, but I see a pattern in many Westlake Books (not necessarily Stark) of a respect towards religion as practiced by those for whom it provides meaning. Yes, the religious authority figures are subject to the same satirical bludgeoning he gave all authority figures, and hypocrites are not safe from mockery, but he seemed to have a fair number of supporting characters who are of one religious bent or another who seem to get treated with an almost unWestlakian kindness. The Dortmunder nun, for example, who has found the peace that really does surpass understanding. Some priests and believers in Kahawa for whom their faith works to help them survive. There’re many examples.

        I’m Episcopalian, and a former rector once talked about the fallacy of using passages of scripture to prove points as if you were using a “biblical shotgun.” I’ll have to send him the Brother Oliver/Dwarfmann dialogue – he’ll get a kick out of it

        • The truth is, we can all be devils quoting scripture for our own purpose–quotes don’t prove anything, really, except that the person who originated the quote said that.

          Westlake seems to have appreciated religion as a potential source of insight and fellowship, but not as a source of authority over people who don’t share those precise beliefs. The fact is, he didn’t think any system of belief, theistic or otherwise, should be used to justify one person having power over another. Giving such a belief system that power is the best possible way to corrupt its identity. Constantine has much to answer for.

          But I can’t say I’d feel any less nervous in a system governed by self-styled atheistic materialists. The 20th century gives me no cause to find any comfort in that prospect. Belief is a private matter. We have to brand that into our collective consciousness, somehow. To make everyone’s faith sacred, as long as it doesn’t deny us the right to our own.

          • Anthony

            I agree with you and see various hopeful signs that this happens here and there and now and then. But, in truth, my gut response is “yeah, good luck with that.” Plus ca change plus ca meme chose.

            • You see what Westlake did with the Crispinites–he took the Catholic Church of his boyhood, the largest and most hierarchical religious organization in world history–and he boiled it down to sixteen guys. We see one priest, who is nothing more than an interested bystander to the whole story–at the end, Benedict is going to make his confession this whole narrative we’ve just heard. And this is precisely because this is the only way he can identify with them, make them his kind of protagonists. They’re organization men in one sense; but when you get right down to it, they’re still independents.

              Although their local parish is St. Patrick’s, they never even think about calling the Archbishop’s office (would have been Cardinal Cooke back then–somebody even the likes of Roger Dwarfmann might hesitate to tangle with, though I suppose they might have just worked out a deal that would not be to the Crispinites’ liking).

              They’ve just sort of slipped beneath the radar all these years, making up their own rules, essentially. They take in people who aren’t even nominally Catholic. They take in a draft dodger. They take in a Jewish Travel agent with a wife. Now I know there’s probably some really weird monastic orders out there–there’s also a lot more married priests than we realize, because of the ecumenical movement. But he’s really stretching things here–and yet, historically, this kind of thing did happen, and it’s not completely impossible that a self-supporting religious order that is basically grandfathered in, could just go on indefinitely (probably not on Park Avenue, though). He’s not stretching it so far as to make it completely unbelievable. Because the Catholic Church is really REALLY weird. “My father’s house has many rooms”–they got that right. 😉

  2. Daniel

    This is a most enjoyable novel, with Westlake’s powers of dialogue and description at their apex – the passages you quote above are perfect examples of both – but for some reason I’ve never counted it among my favourites, perhaps because the end has too melancholy an aftertaste. Yet it’s not as if the preceding story were all fun and games, either. Your review makes me want to read the book again and see if it works better for me now.

    • Yeah, the ending is strange, isn’t it? Because the book has had that sort of whimsical urban fairy-tale ring to it, right? Like The Pushcart War.

      But unlike The Pushcart War, there’s no wrap-up, no happily ever after, no ‘where are they now?’ The Pushcart War leads to radical triumphant social change–the defeat of the monstrous trucks, the implementation of major reforms.

      But in this book, really, nothing has changed–all that’s happened is that the status quo has been maintained. Benedict is still a monk. Eileen is still dating unworthy heels (and Benedict decides he’s going to let her–it’s her life, to save or ruin). Dimp is still out there tearing down beautiful buildings to put up ugly ones. Dan Flattery may lose his construction company, but in fact it has an offscreen cameo in our next book, so maybe even that didn’t happen.

      It’s a very happy ending for the newly-christened Brother Gideon, but what are his relations going to think about it? We’ll never know. The story that needed to be told has been told. The rest we can imagine for ourselves. And it must be said, a whole lot of Westlake’s novels, if not in fact most of them, have this unfinished aspect to them, an abrupt ending that leaves us gasping. Including the one many think might be his best, which is still some ways off yet.

      This is a conservative work for Westlake, by which I mean it’s all about conserving things. That’s what conservatism is supposed to mean (and so rarely does today). Conservatism in the Burkean sense. Edmund Burke (an Irishman, of course) responded to the French Revolution by saying that if you uproot every tradition, every social institution, in the name of change, the result is not Utopia but rather a bloody shambles. He had a point. Change must come, will come, no matter what, but if it comes too quickly, too haphazardly, the results can be disastrous. All Shiva, no Vishnu is a recipe for mass destruction. We can’t preserve every aspect of the past, but we have to preserve some of it–bring the best of it forward with us into the future. We just have a hard time agreeing on which parts.

      He feels about the monastery the same way he felt about Anguilla–these people have created something small and beautiful and unique, and it has a right to go on existing. Let them go their own way, change at their own pace, march to their own drummer, and maybe someday we’ll learn something of value from them. But even if that doesn’t happen, an island where actual Democracy exists, or a monastery where sixteen (now seventeen) men live as brothers in eclectic contemplation of the divine–these are things worth preserving for their own sake. But this is all that’s been accomplished. And once it is accomplished, the story is over. The rest would be in the Afterward. And Westlake mainly doesn’t do Afterwards. And if he does, they’re frustratingly incomplete as well.

  3. it was going to be about a monastery of reformed crooks, who pull a heist to keep the monastery going

    Sounds like Fitzwilly with monks instead of servants, which does not work out to a recommendation. (There’s also a very late Wodehouse book on the same theme called Do Butlers Burgle Banks.)

    • Saw a bit of Fitzwilly once, and changed the channel. Never read the Wodehouse book, but I suspect both would fall under the heading of that statement Westlake made that it’s difficult to be whimsical without being arch into the bargain.

      “It does not work out to a recommendation” reminds me of a passage from this book, in which one of the monks is asked if he recommends Abbot Wesley’s Fourteen Volume novel on the life of St. Jude the Obscure, to which he responds “Not wholeheartedly.”

      The problem is that monks planning and pulling a heist is inherently whimsical unless you make them really hard-boiled characters under those robes, which Westlake did not want to do here, so it would be too damn cute. So when he has Brother Silas bring up the Monks of St. Dismas, that’s his way of showing what the book would have been like–basically Help I Am Being Held Prisoner in a religious setting. But he’d just written that book. He wanted to write something else now.

      Westlake could never have written a Jeeves story as well as Wodehouse, or Wodehouse a Dortmunder story as well as Westlake. Different realms.

  4. And I think you’ve nailed this one. It’s the one nephew book that starts after the nephew already knows who he is, so The Girl, rather than being one of the keys to learning his true identity, is actually a distraction from it. Which makes the book, for all joys of language and characterization, unsatisfying: it’s about a character who’d found his niche and wants nothing more but to stay there.

    I suppose that’s true of The Spy in the Ointment too. Eugene Raxford already knew who he was and already had the lovely (if mentally negligible) Angela Ten Eyck by his side. At the end of the book, he takes everything new he’s learned about himself, his capacity for intrigue, betrayal, and violence, and puts it aside, because he prefers the man he had been at the start. But that book is full of flashy fun to hide its essential stasis.

    • I wouldn’t say it was unsatisfying, except in the sense that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is unsatisfying (both about barefoot boys, you might argue). I mean, that ending really doesn’t fix anything, does it? Huck and Jim went through that amazing voyage of self-discovery, and they’re just going to end up right where they started, except Jim is free (still a black man living in the antebellum south), and Huck has to choose between getting ‘sivilized’ or striking out for the territories again.

      Brothers Keepers is a more troubling book than most of the Nephews, in spite of its joys of language and characterization, because it’s asking questions nobody’s found the answers to yet–questions we may never fully answer. But they were questions worth asking, I think. And yeah, in that sense, very much like The Spy In The Ointment, but more so.

      • It belatedly occurs to me that the most unsatisfying ending of all is the end of Shakespeare’s Henry V, which is in turn the conclusion of the ‘Henriad’ a four play cycle starting with Richard II. You start with a weak indecisive king, who is overthrown by a stronger man, who is in turn haunted by what he did to his predecessor, only to have his son turn out to be the strongest king of all, who expands the realm, wins every glory–and then it all falls apart. The last line of the last play is a sigh of regret, an admission that all things fall apart, glory is fleeting. But what was Shakespeare supposed to do? That was the material he was working with.

        Westlake was working with rather different material, but still cut from the same basic cloth. Say this much–he didn’t kill off his merry thieves to make some hifalutin moral point.

  5. And a tangential association for your reading pleasure. When you quoted Abby Westlake about the status quo, I realized that since reading about Abbot Ardward’ crafts, I’d been subliminally humming Pictures of Matchstick Men.

    • One tangential association deserves another–when reading those two quotes about the joys of collective Travel, I was reminded of Romain Gary, writing in White Dog that his idea of a proper trip was to Travel alone, to someplace he didn’t know the language (and he knew a fair few), and just be a fly on the wall, living in an alien environment, not connected to anything or anybody, merely existing. It was the best way he knew to disconnect himself from the human race for a while–observing humanity from a safe distance. Mind you, Gary committed suicide at sixty-six.

  6. One of my favorite Westlake books (as is the next). My wife and I often quote the lines about Travel and “no change in Babylon.” Am I the first to point out that the name of the Travel agent, Schumacher, means “shoe maker,” just like Zapatero (and the occupation of the order’s name saints)?

    • Because I forgot to mention it, yes. And bless you for doing so, brother. But if I mentioned every last detail that caught my eye in a Westlake novel, the reviews would rival the books for length–though hardly for readability. And that’s not mentioning all the details I miss. But I did notice that one.

      You can imagine how intimidated I feel by the next book. I am going to have to change up my normal reviewing protocol.

      • Anthony

        You could write a two part review just on the opening pages to each section of the book.

        • Tell me about it. And the bizarre thing is, this book was barely reviewed at all when it came out. There was zero controversy about it, even though it was obviously quite popular, and had all those forbidden words in it, and it just seemed like people said “Fun read, nothing serious.” I’ve yet to find one reviewer who showed any evidence of understanding the point of the story.

          It is a fun read, but so’s Don Quixote (at least if you can read Spanish, or find a really good translation). Westlake is often at his most serious when he’s kidding around.

          If anybody’s wondering, I posted that preliminary article by mistake last night. Had trouble sleeping, was fooling around with the blog, and forgot to make it a draft. My American readers probably never noticed. But to fellow insomniacs and those in other time zones, apologies. I’ll get that essay up in the next few days.

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