Mr. Westlake and the N-Word

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This will be a short piece, and it ought to be, because it’s about a word Donald Westlake used very sparingly in his long career. And, I would argue, never without good reason.  But some might disagree.

He first used it in Up Your Banners, which is the only book Westlake ever wrote that was specifically about racism.  And in fact, it appears quite infrequently there.   Here’s two instances I can find (no e-version of this book).

He can stand there and tell me how the students don’t have the mental capacity or the moral sense of white people, not because they’re niggers but because–”

“Oliver!  To hear a word like that from you, of all–”

“But because,” I shouted, drowning her out, “they have niggers for parents!  And he forgets who was principal at that rotten stinking school when the parents were students there, and it was my grandfather.  So these kids won’t get any decent education because people like my father give up on them ahead of time, so they’ll grow up and have kids of their own and those kids will come from homes with no books or records or polysyllabic words and then it’ll be my turn to say those kids are untrainable but it isn’t their fault it’s their parents.  It isn’t their parents, it’s my parents!”

Oliver never thought of himself as racist, as having any antipathy to black people at all, and so the word (along with a few others) is there as an acknowledgement, that he himself comes to terms with, that those feelings were there.  Whether he was using that word or not.  He’s got to understand this about himself to know who he is, and figure out what’s most important to him–which turns out to be the black woman he’s in love with.  Who fortunately loves him back (though if he’d ever said that word to her face, the story might have ended differently).

Then it makes a single appearance (along with ‘jigaboo’) in a chapter of Two Much, a book that is not about race at all.  The likable but unscrupulous narrator of that story is being led off by two toughs hired by a rival of his who wants him out of the picture–they’re escorting him to the airport, and not wanting anybody to get the better of him, he takes advantage of the fact that they’re in the garment district, and there’s a lot of non-white people there, as is invariably the case–including some very formidable looking black men.

So he tactically deploys those two supremely offensive epithets to enrage these men, telling them to get out of the way when white men are passing, and it’s been a very long time since you could get away with that kind of thing in New York, except maybe in Bensonhurst.  In the ensuing confusion, he makes good his escape, while the two presumed wiseguys (who never said anything insulting) are occupied with the men he insulted–guilt by association.   Fighting words come in handy when you want to start a fight.   This character is at no time portrayed to us as a model of good behavior, and he is ultimately punished for his sins, though let us say in a rather unconventional manner.

Later, the word makes an appearance in Kahawa, a book set in Africa, in the context of a white man being brutally interrogated by Ugandans under the command of Idi Amin, who think he’s working for the CIA (which he is not).  When he professes ignorance of what they are accusing him of, he’s asked if he thinks they are niggers–in other words, does he think they are fools.  That’s the only instance of the word Google Books turns up.  This is also not a book about race, per se, since the great majority of people in it are black (though most of the main protagonists are not).   It’s a heist story combined with an expose of the atrocities committed by Amin’s government against his own people.   We’ll be looking at it fairly soon.

It appears in Why Me?, a Dortmunder novel, and again, it’s a very unpleasant character using it, and he’s basically thinking it to himself, and we’re not supposed to approve of this person in any way.  And it’s probably in a few other books he wrote (not all of which can be searched via Google).  But the book we’re about to look at uses it differently, and more often than the others, and it’s not a book about race, or racism, but it’s a book in which race and racism are, shall we say, plot points, because it’s a book about New York City.  Which has been a racial pressure-cooker for several centuries now.  As well as a place where every imaginable race has blended with every other imaginable race.

And when you get right down to it, all races are imagined.  We’re just human beings–vain, confused, grasping, avaricious, mendacious, contentious, self-deceiving and yet oddly likable creatures, with all-too-rare redeeming moments of grace and humor and good fellowship.  That’s how Westlake saw it, anyway.  And that’s what Dancing Aztecs is all about.

The word ‘nigger’ appears in Dancing Aztecs at least seven times.  In two instances, it’s used by black people referring to other black people they consider backward in some way.  In four instances, it’s used by two Irish brothers to refer to black people in Harlem, who they are scared to death of encountering, and yet greed impels them to risk it (at no time do they ever say the word when a black person is present). And it’s used once by the closest thing this book has to a central protagonist and hero–a cocky streetwise young Italian American, thinking to himself that it’s strange the niggers aren’t throwing each other off rooftops in Harlem, knifing each other on the streets–the reality is not living up to the hype.

These three white characters are from Queens, they live in white working class ethnic enclaves, and they really don’t know much of anything about black people.  So the word is almost more of a tribal epithet than a racial one (and yet a racial epithet it remains, because what the hell else can it be?).  And the book is about people who live in one small part of a great city being forced by circumstances to come to grips with the totality of it, the immensity of it, the diversity of it.  And not all the epithets are relating to black people by a long shot–everybody gets a dose of verbal buckshot.

Why is the use of the n-word startling here?  Because we’re not used to seeing sympathetic white characters use it in a work that is comedic in nature.  The most famous book in all of American literature that does that has been a source of controversy since its publication.   That’s why I put an image of it up top.  But the word has been far from absent from literature in English as a whole.  Here’s a very incomplete list somebody compiled–dig the header.  “Politically Incorrect Books.”  Ever notice how people treat non-PC language as a bad thing when other people do it, and at the same time gutsy and irreverent when they do it?  Yeah, looking at you, Bill Maher.

Very unlikely that Dancing Aztecs will ever be required reading in American high schools, and in fact it aroused little if any controversy when it was published in 1976.  It just barely got reviewed in the New York Times–fellow writer John Crosby, who doesn’t seem to be the least bit familiar with Westlake’s prior work, sticks in his two paragraph review at the end of a much longer review of something called Final Score, by somebody named Emmett Grogan, a then-infamous member of the counter-culture, and according to Crosby a terrible novelist, and yet he gets eight paragraphs to Westlake’s two.  Go figure.

I’m a bit shamefaced about laughing at this old-fashioned hilarity but, there it is.  It’s funny Donald Westlake writes about women, blacks and homosexuals as if Women’s Lib, Gay Lib and Black Power had never been invented, or, at least, he had never heard of them.  Some of the black black-outs are pure Uncle Tom and I’m sure Mr. Westlake will get a few letters telling him so.

History does not record whether he ever did.  It does record that Westlake finally used the word ‘gay’ to refer to same-sex oriented men in this book, having given up the fight to keep that word in the public domain.  It records that the women in this book mainly know what they’re after, and aren’t shy about getting it.  It records that there’s a youthful interracial couple (white girl, black boy) riding around on motorcycles as they celebrate their love, and they are treated with great sympathy by the omniscient narrator.

There are also some black Harlemites who do come across as stereotypes–though no more so than the ones who appear in the work of Chester Himes, who Westlake admired as much as any living writer.  Obviously Himes does a vastly superior job writing about Harlem and its denizens, of transcending stereotypes.  And Westlake would have been telling himself that while he was writing those scenes, but he wrote them anyway. But if he’s going to write about the whole city, he’s got to write about Harlem.  And if he’s going to show the the white characters from Queens, warts and all, he’s got to try and be even-handed, and show everybody’s warts, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, straight and gay.

One thing I’ve long noted is that the popular stereotypes about Irish people and black people in fiction were remarkably similar–as well as the real-life behaviors that originally inspired those stereotypes–Westlake assuredly noticed as well (and in one of the funniest and most insightful passages in any of the Harlem Detective novels, Chester Himes indicated he’d noticed that too–we’ll talk about that sometime).

How well it all works is a matter of opinion, but what we can say, we who have been following Mr. Westlake’s literary career since 1960 here on this blog, is that Mr. Crosby is full of it.  Westlake knew very well what had been going on in the world around him, and had devoted some considerable attention to it in his work.   And the way people were treated because of their color, religion, gender, or sexual persuasion mattered a very great deal to him.  Because to him, the most sacred thing of all was the right of the individual to define him or herself.

But as he has a character say in Up Your Banners, “You can’t condescend up.”  If you’re holding your fire selectively, that presumes that you on some level consider yourself superior to the people you’re sparing from your rain of satiric arrows.  That you consider them too fragile to withstand a bit of good-natured mockery.  Or words that they hear every day of their lives.  Or a style of comedy they helped invent, and perpetuate to this day.

As the omniscient narrator, he’s looking down on everybody.  But not as some old white man in the sky.  More like a soaring hawk, looking down curiously, wondering what ails these strange creatures cavorting about below.  But unlike the hawk, he can get into their heads, figure out what makes them tick.  He’s not wholly impartial–some characters he likes much more than others.  Well, some people are just assholes, you know?   He tends to be hardest on the ones with money–or badges.   Nobody can accuse Mr. Westlake of not having his little prejudices.

If nobody had ever been treated like a nigger, nobody would give a damn about the word.   It says a lot for us that it’s still such a living part of the English language, and nothing good.  But a language, a literature, that hides from the truth, that sanitizes and censors itself, is of no use to those of us who want to fight for something better.   Good manners are fine and dandy, by all means let’s show each other respect, understand each others’ journeys better.  I’d sooner cut out my tongue than throw that word at another human being, knowing full well he’s got no equivalently insulting word to throw back at me, due to a shared history any decent person should be ashamed to remember.

But for God’s sake, people–can’t we love each other?  And love begins with intimacy–and laughter–and the ability to say what you think.  If we’re going to love each other, it has to be warts and all.  I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.  Maybe we can’t share a raft going down the Mississippi, but we can meet on the streets of many a fine city, and pass the time of day, and be glad of each other’s presence, because variety truly is the spice of life.   The more the merrier.  And no city in human history has ever embodied that principle quite like the setting of our next book.

And now we’ve come to the dance portion of our program.  Aztec priests in your places, please.  All together now…..

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4 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

4 responses to “Mr. Westlake and the N-Word

  1. Anthony

    We’ve discussed this in various comments before. The 1970s in particular were a period during which it became cool and hip to use the language of the street in movies, TV and books. This included slurs and insults. There was still some nervousness about it – Archie Bunker always had to be shown standing in the wrong – but it WAS the thing to do. Westlake wasn’t immune to this newfound artistic “freedom.” Overall, I think he handled it very well. As you point out, it tends to be his unsavory characters, frightened characters, or characters making a point who are the users of the words. Even so, the books of this part of Westlake’s career can be a little bit jolting – which is probably true of any other writer of that time.

    • Very true, Anthony–movies were using the word right and left. Honestly, sometimes it’s weirder when they don’t use it. Unforgiven, from a later and less frank era of filmmaking, has a scene where Morgan Freeman’s character is lynched by a bunch of white townspeople, and they never use the word even once. So the implication is that he’s just being killed for being an outlaw. Race had nothing to do with it. This can sometimes be the price of PC. No bigots in that town. Sometimes not using the word is more racist than using it.

      Bear in mind, though–the word was very common in books written long before the 70’s. And it was by no means uncommon in detective fiction. Even Dashiell Hammett used it in The Thin Man. Do you perchance happen to know the original title of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None? No, it wasn’t Ten Little Indians, but you’re getting warm…

      I think the one thing that often most unites white and black readers and viewers is the desire to forget about racism. To shove it under the carpet. Pretend it never happened. It never works, of course. We all know it happened, and it’s still happening, and it’s going to happen more as the percentage of non-white Americans keeps climbing–as the power struggle gets more equalized.

      Pretty sure the only one who ever got to use the n-word on All In the Family was George Jefferson. Archie had to make do with ‘coloreds’. Which isn’t so much offensive as archaic.

      I have, for the record, said the n-word in front of a black friend. We were having a political discussion while out with our dogs, and I was talking about certain elements in the nation we mutually disliked who never say the word out loud, but are always thinking it, and I said it in that context. She didn’t bat an eye. Nobody turned into a pillar of salt. Big deal.

      She died of cancer a few weeks ago, and I see her everywhere. One of the most important friendships of my life. I will never ever stop missing her. Can’t we love each other? You’re damn right we can.

  2. Anthony

    You are correct about Archie Bunker, although he also used words such as coon and spade, which probably fall under some sort of catch all n-word umbrella when used out of malice and/or ignorance. And yes, George Jefferson used it – there was kind of an unwritten law in those days that the word could be said on TV by black characters but not white ones. I don’t keep up with much current TV – maybe something like this still holds?

    There is a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) in which one character deliberately calls another one nigger. The first character was in a hurry and the parking lot attendant was taking up too much time just being courteous, so this was a quick way to stop conversation in order to get a move on. It is not hard to imagine Parker using the word in this fashion. Not out of malice – as a quick solution to a problem. Sort of the opposite side of the coin compared to his being polite and using first names with hostages to minimize escalation of stress. A tool of the trade.

    My father worked with NATO, and had many many friends from Europe. One German friend absolutely loved to watch Hogan’s Heroes reruns. Found them hilarious. In a similar vein, I’ve known quite a few black friends who loved All in the Family. Maybe the bottom line is that funny is funny to whomever decides so.

    • There’s nothing more impossible to predict than who will laugh at what. Often something you’d think people would find offensive, they absolutely adore. For example, Americans think Mexicans will be offended by Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. In fact, he’s a bit of a cultural icon there. Used to be a Mexican restaurant on my way to work named after him, that had a (pretty good) likeness of the Fastest Mouse in all Mexico over the entrance. I’m guessing they didn’t get permission from Warners. Now, the children or grandchildren of those immigrants who scampered over the border like Speedy–they might be offended.

      It’s when people of a given ethnicity start moving up socially that they get more sensitive. J.M. Synge was a social pariah after The Playboy of the Western World premiered in Dublin–I’m sure most of the middle class Catholics who went to see that had themselves spent their whole lives mocking the manners of the poor country peasants Synge had depicted so memorably. But now they felt like their dirty laundry had been aired before the world. Their respectability had been impugned. Sean O’Casey had the same troubles. Yeats, being upper class, was quite impossible to offend, because he’d been born at the top of the ladder. And now, of course, the descendants of those same self-righteous prigs fall over themselves to get tickets for those same exact plays when they’re performed at the Abbey or the Gate.

      You hear about how The Mikado is an example of ‘yellowface’? The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (one of the few surviving companies devoted entirely to the G&S oeuvre) had to cancel a production of Mikado, because a group of mainly young Asian Americans started protesting, and they could not risk losing their corporate donors (they can’t stay afloat with ticket sales alone). Shortly after Mikado was first performed in London, a visiting Japanese dignitary expressed disappointment that he couldn’t see it. It’s not a racist play. It’s not a play about race at all. Though it did originally feature the n-word–as a means of mocking white minstrel singers, who Gilbert held in rather low regard. Again, the people most offended are the ones who are well-assimilated, middle class, respectable. The people closest to the culture supposedly being mocked are much more likely to see the humor. Because they’ve actually experienced real racism, and they know it when they see it–or when they don’t.

      So now maybe we can’t see Mikado performed anymore, unless they give all the characters authentic Japanese names, cast Asian actors more often (leaving aside whether they have the vocal training, and anyway, if you’re casting Chinese or Korean actors to play Japanese characters, isn’t that just perpetuating the whole ‘those people all look alike’ thing?), and the costumes and make-ups that have been used to parody British upper class manners for over a century will have to go, and the whole bloody point of the enterprise is lost.

      Here’s a pretty state of things! Here’s a pretty how-de-do!

      And in the meantime, the people genuinely guilty of perpetrating the most horrible racist jokes, n-word and all, go right on doing it, because they only have to appeal to racists. And they get to prance around proudly, proclaiming how fearless and non-PC they are. While great art gets tossed in the trash, because it falls under the heading of low-hanging fruit, and the people doing the protests need some sacrificial victims.

      Men sir, are always wrong, and that’s the reason
      That righteous indignation’s never out of season
      All that I hear in their conversation
      Is flattering praise, or reckless condemnation.

      Is Moliere politically correct? Would he want to be? That old misanthrope. 😉

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