Greater New York is in some ways like a house. Manhattan is the living room, with the TV and the stereo and the good furniture, where guests are entertained. Brooklyn and Queens are the bedrooms where the family sleeps, and the Bronx is the attic, full of inflammable crap that nobody has any use for. Staten Island is the backyard, and Long Island is the attached garage, so filled up with paint cans, workbenches, and a motorboat that you can’t get the car in it any more. Hudson County over in New Jersey is the basement, with the furnace and the freezer and the stacks of old newspapers, and the Jersey swamps are the toilet. Westchester is the den, with paneling and a fake kerosene lamp, and Connecticut is the guest room, with starched curtains and landscape prints. The kitchen is way up in Albany, which means the food is always cold by the time it gets to the table, and the formal dining room was torn down by William Zeckendorf and friends back in the early fifties.
Jerry Manelli had spent most of his life in just one corner of this house, and he was only now beginning to realize it. The last twenty-four hours had been frustrating, but they’d also been interesting, catching his attention as nothing had done for years. While he’d been moving in the small circle of the family and Inter-Air Forwarding and a succession of Myrnas, the world all around him had been full of strange neighborhoods and even stranger citizens, and if they weren’t people you’d want to be around every day of your life, so what? They were new experiences, and it had been a long time since Jerry had had any new experiences.
Dancing Aztecs is the only book Donald Westlake published in 1976, the bicentennial year of his nation’s founding. The last time this had happened was 1964, when his sole contribution to literature was Pity Him Afterwards, which he wrote in eleven days–that it was his only book to come out that year was probably more a matter of publishers’ schedules than him producing less work in that time period. In 1965, he published The Fugitive Pigeon, one of his biggest sellers ever, and established himself as a comic crime novelist, a niche he created almost from scratch, and then dominated for decades afterwards.
The Fugitive Pigeon is about a young New Yorker living way out in Canarsie, who is forced by circumstances to traverse a large part of the greater New York area (even Staten Island), to try and clear his name before the mob puts a hit on him. In the process, he learns a lot about his city and himself, finds true love, and accepts adulthood. It’s a short book, written in the first person, with a lot of fascinating detail built into it, and it’s still a lot of fun to read. But as I said in my review of it, it isn’t really laugh out loud funny. And its perspective is fairly limited, since it’s basically a romantic picaresque with a crime angle, and we see the story solely from the protagonist’s point of view. Also, basically everybody in the book is white. Even the gangsters seem pretty vanilla. And there’s a lot of pop cultural references.
Dancing Aztecs is written in the third person omniscient (and this narrator is as about as omniscient as they come). The first edition from M. Evans & Co. is 374 pages, which was not a record for Westlake–Ex Officio had been much longer. But unless you count Smoke as a comic novel (that one’s a bit harder to peg), it’s the longest humorous work he ever published, and in its original form was reportedly even longer, with a character we don’t see at all in the published work; an insane Federal agent who was fired twelve years ago, but thinks he’s just in really really deep cover.
It’s hard to sustain a comic plot over a long stretch. Westlake had a very large story to tell, with a lot of characters, a lot of side-plots, a lot of detail. He solved this problem by basically making the book into three books; The First Part of the Search, which is the length of one of his usual comic novels (he tells the reader to go to bed after finishing it), then the novella-length Second Part of the Search, and The Third Part of the Search is really a long short story, 73 pages in all. Each part, you see, gets more focused and intense, as the search begins to narrow, and the once widely-dispersed cast of characters start coming together for the big finish.
It’s not aiming to be a tightly plotted little mousetrap of a book, like the books we know him best for, Parker, Dortmunder, Tobin, the Nephews, etc. There is a mystery in it, but it’s even less the point of the proceedings than is usually the case with Westlake. The story is basically a chaotic treasure hunt, with one fairly obvious influence–
But I’d say this was in the mix as well, along with the type of comic theater that inspired it–
That being said, this is first and foremost a reworking of The Fugitive Pigeon, greatly expanding on the basic idea of that book, and employing the vastly superior comic techniques Westlake had mastered in the ensuing decade.
It also has maybe a touch of Comfort Station in it, believe it or not, that tiniest of Westlake novels, a mere parody of Arthur Hailey (I have since reconciled myself to this fact), but in creating a mock-narrative of a handful of mismatching strangers brought together by circumstances in New York City (crossroads of well over seven million private lives in the mid-70’s, not counting commuters), Westlake may have felt like this was worth revisiting in earnest–still comedic, but granting the characters actual human dimensions, and the capacity to learn, to grow. This book would not be a parody of anything–why let the Arthur Haileys of the world be the only ones to paint grand tableaux?
I’m not just guessing here–Westlake dropped a substantial clue when he had one character walk right by the Bryant Park Comfort Station (closed to the public at that time, but no matter). He also used the same tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae device to open the book.
But he refers to quite a few other past comic novels of his as well. There’s a moment where that same character walks into the same midtown office building where Art Dodge’s greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, from Two Much, is located–the V.S. Goth cab company from Somebody Owes Me Money is there as well. There’s something called Nebula Musical Attractions, and I don’t know what book that’s from. But I assume like the others, it’s a book about New York. Building up to Westlake’s ultimate book about New York.
There are those who think this is the funniest book Westlake ever wrote. One interviewer called it his masterpiece. Liking it as much as I do, I can’t go that far. For my money, it’s still not as funny as the best of the Dortmunders, nor as original and insightful as some of his other works, comic and otherwise–it’s an inspired mess, when you get right down to it. But it’s a larger more vivid book than most writers could ever claim, and not just in terms of sheer length. It’s an epic picaresque. And its hero, you might say, is not a person, but a city.
Time to synopsize? That’s what I generally do at this point in the review. Well, how do I put this?
There is too much. Let me sum up.
The Dancing Aztec Priest is a solid gold statue with emerald eyes. It is from Descalzo, another of Westlake’s fictional Latin American countries, this one situated over the spine of the Andes (where there were no Aztecs, but somehow Dancing Incas doesn’t have quite the right ring to it). Some Descalzan ne’er do wells and some equally shady New Yorkers conspire to steal the statue from the state museum and replace it with a souvenir replica, sending the original to New York in a crate that is supposed to contain 16 souvenir replicas, but one will be the genuine item.
The crate will be intercepted at the airport by Jerry Manelli, a young hustler from Queens, who has created a fictitious company called Inter-Air Forwarding. He pretends to be legitimately picking up various items from JFK Airport, when in fact he’s stealing them, for himself and others. The airport is so huge and busy, nobody ever notices (this I believe). He doesn’t know what he’s picking up, and he doesn’t care.
But in this case, because of a regrettable oversight regarding the way the letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently in Spanish, he picks up the wrong crate, entirely full of replicas, while the crate with the original and 15 copies goes to a diverse group of people called The Open Sports Committee, as self-awarded prizes for having successfully bugged the city into opening the Stokely Carmichael Memorial Squash Court in a Harlem Park, regardless of the fact that Stokely Carmichael is not dead yet.
This group is straight and gay, black and white, rich and poor, united mainly (not entirely) by their desire to bring squash to Harlem (this multi-cultural devotion to squash I had a harder time believing in, but I’ve heard stranger stories, and so have you). And having accomplished their goal, they scatter to various parts of the city and points beyond with the statues, one of which is worth over a million dollars to a local museum that will ask no inconvenient questions.
Jerry, picking up on the fact that the people he delivered the crate to are really really unhappy about something, talks to some in-laws of his–Mel Bernstein, who is married to Jerry’s seductive sister Angela, and runs a hustle of his own that sounds a lot like the Scott Meredith Literary Agency on a small scale–and Frank and Floyd McCann, two Irish brothers who are hustlers in the sense of being union workers who don’t actually have to work that much.
They figure out that the real statue was in there. In discussing this at Mel’s house, they inadvertently alert Wally Hintzlebel, a pool salesman who was just having sex with Mel’s wife Angela (Jerry’s sister) and is hiding in the closet upstairs. Wally lives with his mother. He’s never lived anywhere but Long Island, never done anything but other men’s wives. He wants that money so he can broaden his horizons. The people who set up the original hustle also understandably want it to pay off for them. And once they are alerted to what’s going on, so do certain members of the Open Sports Committee, who demand their own cut. But nobody knows who has the real statue. And the game is afoot, Watson.
Most of the book is these disparate groups racing around desperately, breaking plaster statues right and left, trying to find the gold one. Their problem is that because of the unusual diversity of the Open Sports Committee, the searchers are going to have to venture into places they are not familiar with, interact with types of people they have no real experience with. You’d think New Yorkers would be used to anything, but in reality, as our all-seeing narrator informs us–
Almost nobody lives in New York, and that’s especially true of those born there. They live in neighborhoods, the way small-town people live in small towns, and they very rarely leave their own districts. The average citizen of Ozone Park, say, in Queens, has probably never in his life been to the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and why should he? It’s just another neighborhood, exactly like his own, with churches and stores and movies and schools, and with nothing in particular to attract the interest of outsiders. And though most citizens of both Ozone Park and Midwood are likely to have been to Manhattan–because they work there, or they’ve had an occasional special night out–they don’t really think of Manhattan as being part of their hometown. “I’m going to the city,” say the people in the outer boroughs.
(I used to say that all the time when I lived in The Bronx, and this was after I’d lived in Manhattan first. Well, when Londoners say ‘The City’ they just mean an area of about a square mile where a bit over 7,000 people actually live–we’re not that bad, anyway).
How many people are there who really know New York? All five boroughs. Who have visited each and every neighborhood–not necessarily walked every block, but could find it if they wanted, without referring to a map or asking directions? I’m far from convinced any such person has ever existed, at least not in the past century (I’m sure there were lots of people who had a strong working knowledge of Old New Amsterdam). I think there’s probably not a person in this city, native-born citizen or immigrant, who could make that claim. But what a claim to be able to make. Even Eustace Tilly might be impressed by such a person.
There’s not a part of this city you can’t reach by train or by bus. I’ve been to many of them, probably more than the average New Yorker. And whenever I get to a new place, I end up thinking “I can’t believe this was always here, and I never knew about it.” And if I said that maybe ten thousand times, I’d be getting somewhere. But I seriously doubt I’ll live that long.
I really do not want to synopsize the plot of this book, because the fact is, it just doesn’t pay. It would take too long, because the story keeps going around and around in ever-tightening circles. The plot, the characters, the premise itself, are all MacGuffins. The real point of the enterprise is to give us a tour of Greater New York, and a highly philosophical overview of same. And to suggest that people are nutty when it comes to money and sex; hardly an original observation, but I’d call this a fairly original presentation.
Usually, when I review one of Westlake’s books, I do a thorough synopsis, because it’s just such a pleasure to walk through the story again, and doing so brings certain aspects of the book into greater focus. Here, it simply makes my head spin. The comings and goings, and goings right after comings (I’m talking about sex here), and enough already. What items of particular interest may be found within this maelstrom of human activity?
Item One: The Race Thing
I’d say nearly half the people in this book are not white. The major protagonists all are, but because the POV of the book is constantly shifting, we get a large number of chapters written from the perspective of African Americans and Latinos. The chapters dealing with black people are written more or less in the style of Chester Himes, with a wily funeral home director named F. Xavier White filling in for H. Exodus Clay–Westlake’s not even trying to hide the influence here (he thought Himes was just about the best thing that ever happened to the mystery genre after Hammett, and he was probably right about that).
However, some of the chapters in Harlem are written in broad ghetto dialect–something Himes’ omniscient narrator never stooped to in those Harlem Detective novels, which were dialect-heavy for sure, but never in the third-person, and never half as broad as here. Somehow, the all-seeing narrator in this book can turn into a black man when he’s looking down on Harlem. Who is the joke supposed to be on here? Is this even in remotely good taste? You tell me. This passage is about a jazz band on a truck in a funeral procession given in honor of a slain gangster from Down South (paid for by the dude who slew him).
Now this band playing, and what they playing, it funeral music. Jazz funeral music. Very low, but syncopated. Lots a looooonnng looowwww trombone notes, full a growl. Lots a piano left hand. The clarinet, it tootle and teetle, but it don’t make no fuss about it, and even when the trumpet, it stride, it stride soft. Same as the bass, it walk slow and stately, it go bum dum bum dum bum, like a fat man carrying a crown on a little red pillow.
(Later on, coming back from the cemetery, this band gone wail. Then you gone hear something. You gone hear that trombone waa-do-du-deedle-du-do, and that trumpet climb up la-bat-da-badda-bah, and that clarinet skeetlee-dee-titty-dee, and them drums fa-bot-ba-ba-boo-budeh-bah, and that bass go thun-thun-tha-thun-thun, and that piano triple-skipple-dipple-whipple-fipple-ripple-roo. You gone see that piano player smile under that bowler hat, and that trumpet man’s eyes, they gone pop right out he head, and that trombone man’s glasses, they gone steam up like in a Turkish bath. Because this is the idea, on the way the cemetery you got to think about him what dead, so you can play the long slow music with the heavy walking beat. But on the way back from the cemetery, it time to think about the living, it time to come up out your sadness, come up to happiness again. At least that’s what them handkerchief-heads from Down South, them Dundershaft relatives, that what they think.)
It was hard work just to type that out from the book, and I can only imagine how much long loving labor Westlake lavished on writing it up from scratch. I know he means no disrespect–quite the opposite, jazz freak that he is–and Faulkner gets away with worse in his novels–but he’s Faulkner, and Twain is Twain, and they grew up in the country this language comes from. I guess sometimes it’s just hard to know where the line is, so just pretend it isn’t there, that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we can like the way different people talk differently, and be grateful for it, and it’s not like anybody’s wearing blackface. But he’s still cutting it pretty close here in these chapters. And I don’t for one minute believe he didn’t know that, but since the critics never take him seriously anyhow, and there’s never going to be a movie version, what’s the harm?
F. Xavier White has a fat jealous wife named (I kid you not) Maleficent, and she’d blend into any Tyler Perry movie ever made like she was written for it. And she comes across as a total caricature–until she gets her own chapter, and she’s feeling so sad and lonely, and all of a sudden you feel this wave of sympathy and love for her, and because the two Irishmen (I’ll get to them) break into the funeral home to try and find the statue, and scare the living daylights out of her, she is dissuaded from committing suicide (thinking she’s had a vision), and decides to become a better person. So does the compassion make up for the caricature? The sympathy for the superstition? I dunno.
There’s a black ganglord named Mr. Jeremiah “Bad Death” Jonesburg, and one gets the feeling Westlake likes him much better than any of his white ganglords. And maybe takes him a bit less seriously than the ones in the Stark novels, but this is not a serious book, is it?
He’s the Man, the Main Man from 96th to 155th, east side and west. Them Italians downtown shake when they hear the name Bad Death, because he’s the one run them out, run them right out of Harlem and the whole patch. He’s the meanest the baddest, the biggest, the toughest, the coolest and the hottest son of a bitch ever to hit the street. Where he walks tombstones grow, and where he sits the sun never shines. His bed is made of politician’s bones, and for lunch he eats policemen’s orphaned children. He wears Datsuns when he roller-skates, and his toilet seat is lined with pussy fur. His hand can crumble bricks, and his piss cuts through solid steel. He stacks his women three at a time like cordwood, and makes love to them all at once. The Queen of England irons his shirts, and his Cadillac runs on Dago blood. When he’s angry bullets melt, and when he smiles trees die. He’s so mean he can’t look in a mirror, for fear he’ll annoy himself. When he speaks transistor radios give up the ghost, and when he farts entire neighborhoods turn into deserts. He is the Man, and nobody forgets it.
Rap music was already a thing when Westlake wrote this, but I doubt he’d listened to any at the time–he’s drawing on the older oral and literary traditions that spawned rap, and on Himes again (except Himes was never much impressed by ganglords, and most of the time neither was Westlake). Frankly, I doubt there’d be a New Orleans style jazz band in a funeral procession in Harlem in the mid-70’s, but that’s quibbling. Himes’ Harlem wasn’t exactly up-to-date either, seeing as he was writing it as an exile in France.
So Bad Death is the Man, and it’s impossible to scare him, but he’s tickled pink when Frank and Floyd show up at the Funeral Home, and Frank, in a burst of inspiration, cons him into thinking they’re government agents armed with guns cunningly disguised as pencil flashlights. Bad Death is so delighted that Washington is taking an interest in him that he lets them go. Now even the Feds know he’s the Man.
Not all the black characters are in Harlem. There’s a level-headed domestic named Mandy Addleford who works for an actress on Broadway, who Frank and Floyd have to kidnap to keep her from spilling the beans (Frank works on Broadway too, and she recognizes him), and she ends up becoming an integral part of Mel and Angela’s household–part of the family, even.
There’s a beautiful (we’re talking Beyonce-level) school teacher named Felicity Tower, still a virgin in her early 30’s, desperately wanting to stop being one, and not having the foggiest notion how. There’s a hulking ill-tempered football player named Wylie Cheshire, who Mel assumes is white, because he lives in a mainly white suburb, and it’s such a genteel-sounding name. There’s two good-natured street urchins named Buhbuh and Leroy, who don’t have much to do except sit and watch the craziness unfold around them. What links all these people together? They all got statues. And they’re all New Yorkers. And that, to this book, is a vastly more important detail than skin pigmentation, or speech patterns.
The most important black character is Oscar Russell Green, who led the Open Sports Committee to victory over The System, and then retires to his high-rise apartment in Harlem to get drunk, as he does on rare occasions, just to blow off steam. And then he realizes there’s these two Irishmen burglarizing his place. We’ll get back to that. Oscar seems to me to be a character who needed a bit more narrative time, and maybe he had it in the longer version of the novel. Westlake had an unfortunate tendency to create black characters with a lot of potential and then not do much of anything with them, and again I wonder if that one black character in Comfort Station who couldn’t quite find his way into the main narrative was aimed at Westlake’s deficiencies as a writer as much as Hailey’s. The best writers know their limitations better than anyone.
But the Latinos in the story have no statues (even the ones who originally stole the original statue). That part of the story relates mainly to Pedro, a peasant-type from Descalzo, who was forced to participate in the art-theft hustle, then forced to hijack a plane to New York (to avoid the consequences of the art-theft hustle, which would involve being hung by the tongue until dead), and then avoids the consequences of said hijacking by virtue of people just forgetting he’s there, and then he wanders around JFK until a sympathetic fellow Latin (probably Puerto Rican, we’re never told, and it doesn’t matter) who works there takes him home to meet the family, believing him to be a political refugee (which is sort of true). And Pedro thus becomes the newest of New Yorkers, without even trying, and things turn out rather well for him, and at the end he still has no idea what’s going on, but it sure beats hanging by your tongue in Descalzo.
Pedro is basically our back-door into what Westlake recognized as a growing network of Spanish-speaking New Yorkers who were forming their own society within the city (comprising about a third of the city by the time he wrote this), and he heartily approved. As we saw in Brothers Keepers, he had a very warm regard for Latinos in general, felt like they had as much of a right to be here as anyone, and that they would in the main be welcome if sometimes chaotic additions to the ever-expanding crazy quilt that is America, even as his own wild Irish ancestors had been. And it’s kind of sad that four decades later we’re still arguing that point, but not very surprising. Ethnic stereotypes are durable buggers. And this brings us to–
Item Two: The Stage Irishmen
Damn, it just occurred to me–Frank McCann, elder brother of Floyd, actually works as a stagehand–on Broadway. Another of Westlake’s patented implicit puns. Westlake knew very well what he was invoking with those two bumbling bellicose bigoted brothers, and he enjoys every minute of it–they’re a lot of fun. For him, and for us.
It’s not 100% clear whether Frank and Floyd are Irishmen in the sense of having been born in Ireland and immigrated as young men, or in the sense of just being of Irish stock and not having fully assimilated yet, but that’s neither here nor there. They are there to remind us that 1)Not all ethnic stereotypes relate to non-white people and 2)Not all ethnic stereotypes are entirely unfair, though the reality is always so much more complex than the stereotype, and all ethnicities have their little quirks (Westlake has fun with a rich inbred WASP here as well, but he’s a mite unsympathetic with that one, as you might expect).
Anyway, the McCanns are big florid-complexioned redheads (rather reminiscent of how Westlake described Ray Kelly’s father and brother in 361–hmm), and much as they’re supposed to be out there looking for the original statue separately, covering more ground, they’re both scared to death of the non-white neighborhoods they’ve been assigned, and being very close, just have a natural inclination to stick together, so they work as a team, going places they’d normally stay the hell away from, dealing with people they’d just as soon leave the hell alone.
“Harlem,” Floyd said, and either through fright or by contrast with his assignment his face had never looked whiter. “I’ve never been in Harlem in my life!”
“What about me?” his brother Frank demanded. “I get the South Bronx. That’s worse than Harlem.”
“I can’t do it,” Floyd said. “That’s all, I just can’t do it.”
“You think you’ve got troubles,” Mel said, “look at my list. I’m all over the place, I’ve got Long Island and Connecticut and New Jersey, it’ll take me a month.”
Then everybody talked at once, until Jerry shut them all up by banging the pot on the dining room table–“Dents!” yelled Angela, but whether about the pot or the table she didn’t say–and when the bong-bongs had startled everybody into silence Jerry said “We worked out those four bunches together. Nobody complained ahead of time, so nobody should complain now.”
“I can’t go to Harlem,” Floyd explained.
Jerry was unsympathetic. “You want to drop out? If you want, you go home now and you don’t get a split and no questions asked.”
Floyd stood there blinking, stuck between the rock and the hard place, and his older brother Frank clapped him on the back, saying “You can do it, Floyd. Any good Irishman is worth ten niggers.”
“There’s more than ten niggers in Harlem,” Floyd said.
The classic Stage Irishman is a mixture of braggadocio and cowardice, cunning and credulity–Amos & Andy would have worked just as well with Irishmen, back in the day. And just as with black stage stereotypes (and present-day entertainments as well, I already mentioned Tyler Perry, and he’s just part of a very long line), you had the objects of the mockery themselves contributing mightily to the mix (because poor people always love to laugh at themselves, as long as they get some say in how it’s done, and a chance to get a bit of their own back in return).
Any of you ever hear tell of a lad named Ned Harrigan? I will bet you a week’s salary Westlake had. In many ways, this novel reads like a late 20th century take on what Harrigan was doing on the New York stage in the late 19th century. And just like in those plays, the Irish have beefs with everybody–Frank and Floyd are still bitter about their assignment, and wondering if they got screwed over somehow when it came to dividing up the territories–
“But us micks got it again,” Floyd said. “Every damn time. I’ll tell you something, Frank. There’s times you can get ahead of a guinea, and there may even be times you can get ahead of a sheeny, but there isn’t an Irishman born that can get ahead of guineas and sheenies working together.”
“A million dollars is still a million dollars,” Frank said.
So that being unquestionably the case, they cover their territory, and in the process of doing so they–
- Burglarize a very large black man’s apartment in Harlem.
- Terrorize poor Felicity Tower, who thinks they’ve come to rape her (and is mainly relieved when they don’t, but still doesn’t know what to do about the virginity thing).
- Abduct an older and wiser black woman who recognizes Frank, taking her to the wilds of Queens, from whence she never returns (because she finds a better job there, as already mentioned).
And never once do they perceive any ironic reversal of dramatic expectations in any of that. Not even when Floyd, seeing Oscar Russell Green (who is drunk as a skunk by that time, but still a large black man in Harlem), shouts in mortal terror, “F-f-f-feet do your stuff!” But really it’s not a reversal–it’s just an intentional anachronism. They’re taking back the jobs their ancestors did, before those tasks got assigned to other groups. Everything old is new again.
And perhaps now is a good time for the intermission. This is a rather long book. I’ve got several more items to discuss. And speaking of old things that never really get old, here’s a song from the aforementioned Mr. Harrigan (and his song-writing partner, a Mr. Brahm (who was Jewish, of course, you think multi-culturalism was invented in the late 20th century?). Yeah, New York New York is a great old song, and Sinatra does it proud, but to me this is the official Gotham Anthem. And still, at heart, what this city I’m typing in is all about.
(And Mr. Moloney cleaned up a few of the more offensive racial epithets in the original lyrics, but the spirit of the piece remains the same, as does that of the city that inspired it).
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)