Monthly Archives: January 2016

Review: Kahawa, Part 2

“I’ll tell you who I am.” Lew was really very excited.  He said, “It came to me in a revelation, this afternoon.  That sign, this train, that cliff.  I’ve accepted my destiny, Frank.  I’m the hero!”

Frank stared at him. “You’re the what?”

“The hero.  That’s what I was born to be.  And that’s why I can go up on top of those cars and take a couple chances.”  The bastard had the effrontery to pat Frank on the cheek.  “The hero doesn’t get killed,” he explained.

“I am not a hero,” Isaac said, the tension fading from his face.   He sat back, realigned the folders, seemed to sigh through all his body.  “I am not the lone man with a rifle,” he said, looking down at his dark hands on the pale folders, “who slips across the border and hunts down the tyrant.  To avenge his–his family.”

“Isaac,” Balim said softly, leaning forward as though he might touch Isaac’s hand.

“I am a bureaucrat,” Isaac said, not looking up.  “I am a paper shuffler.”

“Isaac, you are a man.  Every man has his purpose.”

Now Isaac did look up.  The eyes in his dark face were always a bit red around the pupils, but now they were more so.  “Every sack of coffee that is stolen from Amin,” he said, “shortens his time.  The more coffee is stolen and smuggled out of the country, the sooner he’ll run out of money to keep his Nubians drunk and himself in new medals.  I hope the train carries every coffee bean from the new crop.”

“May God hear your words,” Balim said, gently smiling.

Africa specializes in comic horrors, or horrific comedy. Burlesque and tragedy go hand in claw, never more so than in the case of the comic-opera rulers of some recently independent African nations, who wave cartoon fists that draw real blood. Grotesques like Uganda’s Idi Amin, who kept the heads of murdered enemies in a freezer so he could go on yelling at them indefinitely about their disloyalty, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire (an empire about the size of a Manila envelope), who beat a group of children to death for voicing their dislike of the school uniforms he’d designed–these have been if not the representative then the most noticeable figures of the new Africa. For every statesman like Jomo Kenyatta or Julius Nyerere, forming a real nation from the steaming clay of hasty independence, there have been a dozen buffoons with fangs.

Donald E. Westlake, reviewing  The Laughing Cry, An African Cock and Bull Story, by Henri Lopès, New York Times, 5/3/87.

Kahawa had many good, sometimes outright glowing notices, from critics whose opinions would have mattered to Westlake, most notably John Leonard (see Part 1 of this review for the link).  But it seems like even those who said the book was a great read, in spite of its often grim subject material, still felt obliged to nitpick it to hell.

The book actually had two reviews in the Times, the first one in Leonard’s Books of the Times column in March of 1982, right after it came out–but strictly speaking, the official Times review appeared in May, written by Randy Hogan, a freelance writer and editor who, like Leonard, used the rather odd literary term ‘hugger-mugger’ to describe it, and spoke dismissively of Westlake’s past work, referring to him as “the author of such slight, amusing caper novels as ‘The Hot Rock,’ ‘The Spy in the Ointment’ and ‘Bank Shot.’ “

The very works that had made Westlake a bankable name in publishing had also made him a writer many were disinclined to take seriously, even when he was being deadly serious.  He was caught in a prison of his own devising, like many a writer before and since, and you might say Kahawa, a hybrid of the heist and ‘international intrigue’ genres, was his latest breakout.   The critics assigned to review him were not always appreciative of these escape attempts.  They tended to apply much stricter standards than they would to a Parker or Dortmunder novel.

Leonard merely disagreed with Westlake over the proper use of ‘disinterested’, but Hogan took issue with his math, scoffing that an offhand reference to a stolen truck (a theft that occurs before the events of this novel) as containing coffee worth 85,000 British pounds would mean that the truck would have to carry 42 tons.  Leaving aside the fact that there are trucks out there that can handle that much cargo, Mr. Hogan wasn’t paying attention–he assumed a pound of coffee would only be worth one pound sterling, but he’s writing in 1982.  The story is set in 1977.

It’s been explained in the book that in 1977, failures of the coffee crop in strategic places like Brazil have sent the price of coffee to historic highs.  A pound of coffee cost as much as $3.34 on the international market in 1977.  A British pound was worth about $1.75 that year.  So coffee seems to have cost over twice what Hogan estimated, and there’s plenty of trucks that can carry  20 tons of cargo.  Well, nobody cares much if you don’t research a freelance book review carefully (as opposed to a 475 page novel).  In all fairness, Hogan didn’t have the internet, or probably time to hit the library (as Westlake clearly had), but he had the bloody book right in front of him.

His review inspired yet another cheap shot, where an American scholar of Swahili who’d read Hogan’s review (and clearly not the book itself) felt compelled to write a letter to the Times to take issue with a passage quoted in it, which told readers that great African lingua franca had been written mainly in the European alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic) since the sixteenth century.  Which best as I can tell is factually true, and Westlake never said nobody was writing it in the Arabic alphabet.   He made his weariness with both Hogan and the Swahili prof. (and really, with anybody who nitpicks a book without carefully reading it first) clear in this letter to the editor.

Seems like most of the mail he received from his longtime readers was about how appalled they were by the explicit sex scenes in the book (which in their entirety wouldn’t fill one chapter in this 475 page epic).  The book is written as entertainment, no doubt, loads of violence to go with the sex, but it also had an underlying message to it, as I would say most of his novels do, albeit less cunningly camouflaged this time–people still managed to drive right past it.

What was it Upton Sinclair said, after The Jungle came out, and triggered not sympathy for the oppressed workers but revulsion over the unsanitary practices of the meat-packing industry?  “I aimed at the nation’s heart, and hit its stomach.”  Perusing shocked letters from longtime readers, Westlake must have felt like he’d hit its gonads instead.  This wasn’t what people expected from him.

But a more serious problem might have been that the book, in spite of having multiple white protagonists, strays off repeatedly into the minds of the black and Asian characters, who have their own stories and agendas.  Rather like The Black Ice Score, his first African-oriented adventure (though set in New York), probably the least loved of the Parker novels–though as I pointed out when reviewing it, it’s got all the elements of the best-loved books in that series.  Except that it spends a lot of time in the heads of non-white people, as does Kahawa.

As opposed to the now much better known (though probably not better selling) novel about Amin’s Uganda, The Last King of Scotland, by Giles Foden, which spends the entire narrative in the head of a somewhat irritating young Scottish doctor, shows us Amin and Uganda entirely through his eyes.  I can’t fairly critique that book, or compare it to Kahawa, because I just skimmed through it.   Based on that quick scan-through, I think it’s got valid insights to convey, but I like it a lot less than Kahawa.  More than this I can not say, because Foden’s style doesn’t appeal to me, and I’ve got a reading list that would stretch to the moon and back. It’s more of a critic’s book, that scored some small but prestigious literary prizes.  Never was a best-seller in any edition, best as I can tell.

But look which book got the film adaptation, complete with bravura Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker–because, I would argue, it stays focused on that one equivocating white western POV–the tourist approach–fly on the wall–Dante in hell–or if you prefer, Waverly in Scotland (google it).  The approach has its virtues.  And its limitations.   Sometimes people feel uncomfortable getting too far away from their own narrow perspectives.  But isn’t that precisely where fiction is supposed to take us?

And what the rest of this review will be about is looking at the myriad of perspectives that make up this story, the people who make this book come alive, make it far more than just some tropical potboiler about treasure and trains.  Though I will say, in spite of the story Les Alexander brought Westlake about a supposedly real train robbery in Uganda, I strongly suspect this book could trace part of its complex lineage to Dark of the Sun. Probably more the movie than the 1965 novel they adapted it from.   Check it out sometime, but in the meantime, let’s get down to business.

Who are the characters who really matter in this book?  We’ve already met mercenary Lew Brady and bush pilot Ellen Gillespie, the main romantic coupling here (though they spend most of the book apart, having sex with other people), and I think I went into enough detail about them last time.  They’re our point of entry to this world, the by no means naive or ‘typical’ Americans, who come to Africa more or less on a whim, to put their skills to work, have an adventure, and of course it’s all so much more complicated and dangerous than they could ever have imagined.   Fascinating, this world they’ve entered, and yet impossible to ever fully take in, and the same could be said of their employer–

Mayar Balim

Please don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Balim,” Obuong said, “I am not myself anti-Asian.  Some of my best friends in Nairobi are Asian.”

Balim nodded, accepting these bona fides.

“But I don’t think it’s unfair to say, “Obuong went on, “that it is well known that patriotism is not an emotion known to Asians.  Their interests–perfectly legitimate interests–lie elsewhere.  Money, merchandising.   Art.  Learning.  At times, religion.  And they are very good family people.

“Patriotism,” Balim gently pointed out, “is the love of one’s country.  Unrequited love of one’s country is a passion difficult to maintain.”

Balim is in many ways the calm center of this story, the eye in the storm–the train heist is being organized by him and his employees, though he himself won’t participate directly, organizing from behind the scenes.  Exiled from Uganda after the rise of Amin, he has struggled to rebuild his family fortunes in Kenya, and thus agrees (with some reservations) to make a deal with the nefarious Baron Chase.   But money is not all he cares about.   His primary interest is people.   He would agree strongly with Alexander Pope (and Donald Westlake) that the proper study of mankind is man.

He quietly observes those around him, noting their strengths and weaknesses, deciding how each might serve him, but not in a cold dispassionate manner at all–he cares.   He wants them to be happy, to do well, to find their purpose.  He not only knows who he is, he knows his place in the scheme of things, and accepts it, but he has moments of doubt and great fear, as when his charming scapegrace of a son, who does not yet know his place, and doubts he can ever find one in Africa, insists on going along with the others on the coffee heist.  In his son’s absence, a fearful Balim tells himself he’ll accede to his son’s wish to go to London, if only he returns alive.

He doubts that his own place in Africa will endure–as the Jews were banished from post-reconquista Spain, the Asians are being expelled from post-colonial Africa, envied and distrusted by the black majority.  But as he waits to learn the fate of his criminal enterprise (and his only child), he is surprised to learn that he may have friends in high places, or at the very least, well-wishers.  Because the wiser heads among any post-colonial population must recognize that the key to long-term national success in our modern world is not purity, but diversity.   Every man has his purpose.

Balim said, “Mr Obuong, can it be that you are friendly in spirit toward me?”

Obuong’s smile almost became a laugh, but then was replaced by earnestness.  “Your former land,” he said, “is a very unhappy one.  If the same sort of thing were to happen here, I personally would live in fear all the minutes of my life.  I would be exposed because of my governmental position, and my success, and my education.  A contented middle-class Kenya is necessary to my peace of mind.”

Admiringly, Balim said, “Very few people, of any rank or color, have thought it through quite that clearly.”

“Whatever my personal opinions may be,” Oblong said, “and I will admit to you privately that I have my ambivalences, nevertheless I know that a Kenyan middle class must be heterogeneous.  We need the Asian shopkeepers; we need the white farmers; we even need the Arabs from the coast.”

Smiling, Balim said, “Even?”

So as Balim’s part of the story concludes, we may hope that his love for his country may not remain unrequited forever, and that he can contribute to the long-term prosperity and stability of Kenya, an enterprise that is, oddly enough, served rather well by the theft of coffee from Idi Amin.   Something about the balance of trade.   Men like Balim may dabble in crime, but somehow it always turns into something respectable along the way.   And none among his confederates is more worthy of respect than–

Isaac Otera:

At the very first bureaucratic foot-drag, Isaac forgot to be scared.  He almost forgot who he really was, and what this charade was all about, because what came flooding into the forefront of his mind was his normal technique for dealing with minor-league officiousness, clerical obstructionism, and the arrogance of petty authority.  When the motor-pool sergeant, a sloppy man in a sloppy uniform, said indignantly, “We can’t break into our schedule to service a truck for you now, you should have phoned yesterday,” Isaac’s immediate answer was to point to the phone on the sergeant’s desk and say, “Put me through to the commanding officer.”

Isaac Otera is Balim’s most valued employee, his secret weapon you might say; a master bureaucrat, who knows how to navigate the treacherous byways of African obstructionism.  He is also a devout Christian, who came to Kenya from Uganda, after his entire family was butchered by Amin’s soldiers, who were looking for him.   He can never fully forgive himself for this, nor can he forget that his fellow Ugandans of all faiths are still trapped in there with that grinning monster.

And so this most honest of men wishes with all his heart to be part of this great coffee heist, to ‘put one in Idi Amin’s eye’, because it’s the only real contribution he can make to shortening Amin’s reign–without the hard currency he gets from coffee sales, Amin would have already fallen from power.   He’ll be risking his life, as well as his immortal soul, and he’s hardly a man of action, but he’s ready to take the risk, play the part.  He doesn’t kid himself about who he is, but he gambles that he can be more.

In the above scene, he’s posing as a Ugandan officer, laying the groundwork to requisition Amin’s own military trucks to shuttle the coffee from the hijacked train to waiting rafts at the shore of Lake Victoria, utilizing official paperwork he himself has flawlessly forged.

He meets an old friend at the depot, who recognizes him, knows of his exile, and he somehow manages to bluff his way through, and the friend says nothing to anyone about it–perhaps out of loyalty, but the thing about a totalitarian country is, people tend to learn it’s a bad idea to attract too much attention to yourself–if Isaac’s friend reported him, who’s to say he wouldn’t end up in the cell next to him?

Isaac is thrilled to realize that he’s more of a man of action than he’d ever thought possible, and the heist could not possibly have succeeded without him, but he has his limits.   He’s carrying a revolver in the Sam Browne belt that came with his uniform.  The gun has no cartridges in it.  He’ll steal in a good cause, but he won’t kill.  The same can hardly be said of–

Baron Chase:

Chase cradled the phone and sat a moment longer in bed, brooding at the mirrored bathroom door, in which he could see reflected the room’s main window.  It wasn’t Sir Denis’s keenness, the likelihood of his discovering their plot, that was agitating Emil Grossbarger so much; no, not at all.  Chase saw through that.  The fact was, Emil Grossbarger liked Sir Denis Lambsmith, he considered himself Sir Denis Lambsmith’s friend, he was trying to protect his friend, ease his friend out of the area of danger.

Who would do that for me?

In Chase’s world the evidences of friendship were so few that he almost never had to remember the existence of such a thing.  To have it flaunted in his face here and now, under these circumstances, involving two such creatures as Grossbarger and Lambsmith, was galling, insupportable.  Who would concern himself for Baron Chase in that way?

They use me, that’s all. Even Amin doesn’t really like me.

If Amin is the over-looming evil presence in this story, rarely playing an active role, but always somehow felt in the distance, Baron Chase is the active villain, the conniver, the double-dealer, Saruman to Amin’s Sauron.  Amin is destined to live a regrettably long life, even after his impending downfall, dying in Saudi Arabia at 78 (Westlake only made it to 75).  There is no justice in this world, unless we make it ourselves, and that in a sense is the point of Baron Chase in this story.   Westlake can’t properly punish Amin, who falls outside the storyteller’s jurisdiction, but he can test his own creation, see if he merits survival–but what part of Westlake is administering this test?  And by what standards?

I’ve already mentioned that I think this is in certain key respects the second novel by Timothy J. Culver, but there’s also quite a lot of Richard Stark in it.   Which seems strange to say, when it’s so much about heroism of all kinds, people doing things that make no sense from a purely pragmatic POV.  Stark tends to look askance on heroism of any kind.   In his stories, heroes just get people killed.

But think about it–it’s a heist story, and it’s not a comedy.  Who else would take charge of those parts of the novel dealing with a beautifully planned brilliantly executed armed robbery?  Who but Stark?  And who else would have come up with a character like Baron Chase?  Or go out of his way to mention a military truck called the Leyland Terrier?

Not the first international man of mendacity going by that name that Stark had given us.   This Baron is Canadian, and Baron is his given name, not a title derived from an aristocratic background. But he is, self-evidently, a reworking of Baron from The Handle.   There’s even a brief acknowledgement of this in the book–Chase is thinking of finding himself a quiet sunny little island in the Caribbean after his scheme is completed (maybe Anguilla?), but he’s also interested in trying New Orleans sometime–a town the Baron from The Handle knew well.

He’s been a gun for hire for some time now, and the work pays well, but not well enough to retire comfortably on.  He can only rise so far in Amin’s Uganda, because Amin will never fully trust a white man (or any man, really, and only a fool would ever trust a  man like Chase).   So he comes up with this coffee caper, pitches it to Balim at one end, Grossbarger at the other, tying all the players together, but never for one moment intending to play it straight with any of them.   If this were the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, you know damned well which role he’d play.

He’s another of Westlake’s beast men–we’re told his smile is like that of a wolf, and roaming the streets of London, looking for a bit of rough trade (boys or girls, what’s the difference?), he may kill for no reason other than minor irritation.  But he’s no Parker.  He’s all too human under that lupine exterior.   He’s eaten up inside with malice, will take revenge at the least slight, and makes murder the answer to everything.  He’s not a wolf in the form of a man, but rather a man whose soul has been twisted into a grotesque parody of a wolf’s.

As seen above, he experiences a moment of pure rage and jealousy, when he realizes that even a rogue like Grossbarger, a former Nazi officer, might seek to shield a friend from danger–but never him.  Nobody in this world gives a damn about him, and it never occurs to him to ask why that might be.   Parker just wouldn’t give a damn, either way.  And yet, Parker would never try to cheat a partner out of his share, as Chase fully intends to do with Balim & Co.   Parker inspires loyalty without ever seeking it.  Those who most desire the solace and safety of friendship are often those least deserving of it.

Westlake must have often wondered how Parker would have fared in a totalitarian society, whether his formidable instincts for self-preservation would be adequate in a world where absolutely no one can be trusted, absolutely no one is safe.  Chase is no Parker, as I’ve said, but he is a chillingly efficient operator, all the same.   As the heist begins, but before Chase can make his exit, Amin, sensing he’s up to something, without knowing quite what, orders him detained for ‘The VIP Treatment’–meaning that he’ll be tortured to death, and if he chooses to talk, fine–if not, also fine.

Chase, always prepared for treachery (since treachery is all he knows), improvises his way through, killing his captors, making his way out of Uganda by fits and starts, experiencing one setback after another, but he proves again and again that it’s deadly to underestimate him.  He kills Amin’s men when they try to stop him, and he kills a good Samaritan who picks him up on the road just as coldly, so he can take the man’s vehicle.  He very nearly kills Balim’s son when he gets to the site of the train robbery, leaving him for dead by the tracks.  It’s all the same to him.  Life is a game for one, and you play to win.  He can’t see any other way.

But he’s not as young as he used to be, and he was never quite as smart as he wanted to think.  Each little misstep costs him a bit more, pushes him closer to his limits.   He’s taken one hell of a beating by the time he makes it to Kenya.  And as he lies there under a tree, catching his breath, congratulating himself on his cunning and enterprise, the fox triumphant at last–he lets his guard down, just once.  You don’t get to do that when Richard Stark has anything to do with the story.   And who sees to Baron’s just deserts?


There are spirits in the air, and in the ground, and inside trees, who make it their business to call human beings to their deaths.  This is why, when a male child is born in many African tribes, he is not initially given his true name, but is lent a temporary false appellation to confuse the spirits of death.  Should the child survive his first few years–and most do not, despite this subterfuge–he is given his permanent name.

But even this is not his real name.  That he selects for himself at puberty, and will probably never tell anyone.  Thus the African travels under an alias at all times, secure in the knowledge that nobody knows who he really is.

A passage very much in the Westlake tradition, but I strongly suspect he let his own obsession with identity skew his research into the tribes of this region.   I can find no evidence that Charlie’s tribe, the Kikuyu, had any such practice (though it may well have existed)–male children are typically named after older male relatives, to maintain family continuity.  He probably came across a mention of it somewhere, and was so charmed by the concept, he couldn’t resist using it here.  Neither could Toni Morrison, apparently.  Be surprising if Westlake hadn’t read Song of Solomon by that time.

(It should go without saying that none of the nitpicking western critics who reviewed this book when it came out ever thought to question this assertion about the Kikuyu, but I’ll say it anyway).

Nonetheless, reading over various sources, I definitely got the sense that he’d done considerable research into the Kikuyu, and liked them very much.  He expresses great admiration, in the novel and elsewhere, for Jomo Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu, and who, when he became President of Kenya, chose nation over tribe (notwithstanding, tribalism remains to this day a powerful force in Kenya and most of the rest of Africa).  Charlie is hardly a character your average Kikuyu would aspire to be; a lowly employee of an Asian merchant, but he casts quite a long shadow over this book.  He’s a trickster and a scoundrel, but  Westlake’s affection for that kind of character is well-established by this time.

Charlie holds his employer Mr. Balim in something approaching spiritual reverence–and having learned that Balim is on the verge of despair, believing Baron Chase to have killed his only son, he broods quietly, and then advances on the resting Baron, concealing a deadly toy–a knife with a long almost paper-thin flexible blade, that can kill quietly, leaving no easily discernible trace.  Chase, like most people who see Charlie, does not understand the depths of his character, and too late realizes that there are things you can’t buy or cheat your way out of.

(It’s also Charlie who realizes that a poor man they meet along the tracks in Uganda may be more than he seems, but his insights are always rendered less useful by his overweening self-interest–he’s not really a team-player.  He thinks the team is playing for him).

Balim has a way of inspiring great loyalty in those who work for him, but Charlie is an extreme case, viewing him with an almost religious reverence, perhaps the only Non-Kikuyu he could be said to love.  But he does not extend this feeling to Balim’s other employees, such as Lew and Frank.

Lew he seriously considers killing, because Lew makes an example of him during a self-defense class (Charlie is ad-libbing humorous asides when translating Lew’s instructions).   His pride is badly hurt.   But he wouldn’t come at Lew directly–he’d hire a good witch doctor to do the job.  His belief in witch doctors is perhaps no more superstitious than Lew’s bizarre conviction that since he’s the hero, he can’t be killed (this doesn’t even make sense in mythic terms).

His relationship with Frank is more familiar, but no more friendly.   Frank routinely has to threaten to break Charlie’s neck just to get him to stop playing pranks on him (like hiding his anti-malaria drugs).   Charlie, in return, has granted Frank (who, like all non-Kikuyus, he considers less than fully human) a special distinction.

Among the animals, the only one so far honored with a name by Charlie was Frank.  Charlie had named him Mguu, and it gave him secret pleasure every time he saw the man to know that he alone knew this was Mguu.  The name was from the Swahili–Mguu was not worth a name from Charlie’s native Kikuyu dialect–and it means “foot.”  It seemed to Charlie that foot expressed Mguu very well; his stamping around like an elephant, his roaring, his rushing into situations without thought or preparation.  Also, Charlie had seen in the cinema cartons about a blind white man named Mr. Magoo, and this seemed to add a proper dimension; Mguu, the blind foot.

And this might be a good point to consider the strengths, the weaknesses, the oddities (and indeed, the blindnesses)  of–

Frank Lanigan:

Slogging forward, workmanlike, Frank said, “How many times can you pop me with that little thing?  I’ll still take your fucking head off.”  Behind him, Lew had also started forward, moving to Frank’s right.  Isaac watched, open-mouthed.  He wanted to yell, to make them stop, but he couldn’t think what the words should be.  And Chase seemed just as astonished.  “Frank!” he shouted.  “Don’t make me do it!” But Frank just walked forward, at the end reaching out for Chase’s head.

Which was when Chase reversed the gun and tried to use the butt as a club.  But Frank held his forearm, twisted the gun out of his hand, and tossed it dismissively to Lew.  Then he started hitting.

It’s not really made clear what nationality Frank was, originally.  Some corner of the English-speaking world–America, Canada, Australia, perhaps the UK, or Ireland (the name is Irish).   Wherever he hails from, it stopped mattering to him a long time ago.  He’s just a white mercenary who lives and works in Africa (or anywhere else the money’s good), and has to keep reminding everyone around him that he’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of.  And he hasn’t much of a right side to get on, if you know what I mean.

He’s as ruthless as Chase, but he has what Chase lacks–loyalty.  He gives you his word, he keeps it.  Subterfuge is not in his skill set.  Everything’s on the surface.  He meets Lew and Ellen at the airport, and he starts right in making passes at her, which she’s originally unaffected by, but she warms to him over time (particularly as she becomes conscious of Lew’s infidelity).

He has one interest you might deem intellectual–he’s fascinated by history, just like his creator.  Having temporarily accepted Ellen’s lack of interest in his lewd propositions, he takes her on a trip to a remote village along the lake, where Balim is constructing a hotel, and tells her all about how this was going to be a major town, but due to a quirk of fate, was relegated to a minor smuggling enclave.  She still thinks he’s an immature lout (because he is), but is forced to acknowledge he has unsuspected depths.

Then the rainy season hits, Lew and Ellen’s romance temporarily founders, and he finds his opening at last.  So to speak.

She pressed her fingernail into his flesh between the third and fourth ribs, just under the nipple.  “If Lew ever hears about this,” she said, bearing down, meaning every word of it, “If Lew so much as ever suspects, I’ll put the knife in right there.  I will, Frank.

Frank chuckled, trying to pretend the fingernail didn’t hurt.  “Lew would do it first, honey,” he said.  “Don’t you worry, old Frank has no death wish.”

She relaxed the pressure but didn’t yet move her hand.  “Just so you understand.”

“I read you, loud and clear.”

She started then to climb off him, but he put his hands on her waist, pulling her down to sit on his stomach.  She could feel him rising again against her buttocks.  He said, “Don’t go, I like you there.”

So did she, goddammit.   She was angry, she was bad-tempered, she was rain-obsessed, she was driven mad by inactivity, but at the same time she did like those hammy hands on her waist, she liked the nudge of that hard cock against her cheek.

He was something different from Lew, he was blunter and more stupid and less sensitive, but there were moments when crudity had its own charm.  Almost against her will, she could feel herself softening to complement his hardness, she could feel the juices begin to flow.

Oh Mguu.  You’ve done it again.

And I like their relationship much more than the one she’s got with Lew.  Just as I like Lew’s with Amarda.   I found myself wishing, yet again, that Westlake hadn’t gone the obvious route, and reunited the two lovers at the end (after Lew has screwed still another beautiful woman, in about the most unlikely circumstances imaginable).

I think one of the strengths of this book is also one of its failings–it has too many fascinating protagonists, a wide variety of heroes (only one of whom thinks of himself as such), and it often loses its way navigating back and forth between them.  There’s a whole tragic subplot involving Sir Denis Lambsmith of the Coffee Board, and a lovely African courtesan in Amin’s employ, and I rather wish Westlake had taken the time devoted to that and given us more of the elder and younger Balims, of Charlie and Isaac, of Frank and Ellen.   It’s one of his longest novels, and it seems painfully short, given all the material it has to cover.

The heist itself is fascinating–Westlake had no idea how (or even if) the heist that he’d been told about, that sparked his interest in doing this book, had been executed.  He just checked out the terrain, did the reading, and figured out a rather brilliant plan, that could obviously go wrong in a million ways, and we see a fair few of them.  But the point, to Westlake, is to belatedly give Amin one in the eye.  One chapter concludes with a frustrated Amin, faced with the impossible, throwing an epic temper tantrum over his lost train of coffee.  Westlake only hoped it had happened in real life.

He spends a lot of time with Amin, reminding us that this seemingly affable fellow, who inspired so much interest at the time from the rest of the world, was a cool calculating killer, a man who survived one assassination attempt after another, as if he truly had a charmed life.  Champion athlete, brave soldier–somebody who had the potential for greatness, and who chose instead to be a monster, because he could not see past his own relentless appetites.  Buffoons with fangs, Westlake calls these men.  We’d best hope we here in America, protected by our laws and traditions, never get to see the fangs of our own buffoons.   You know exactly who I mean.

I feel dissatisfied with this review, and I had a feeling that I would going in.  It’s a gripping, complex, wide-ranging story, that is not as well-balanced as it might be–maybe it got away from Westlake a bit, as the review has gotten away from me.  But I’m closing in on six thousand words, and I better wrap it up.   We can cover all the stuff I missed in the comments section.   Well, maybe not all of it.  That would be very time-consuming.

Is this a serious work or a humorous one?   One must often ask this when reading Westlake, but the answer is rarely clear.  Kahawa has elements of both tragedy and comedy, farce and political commentary, deep compassion for the downtrodden of the earth mingled with cynicism about the wealthy and powerful, and more interesting poignant funny characters than you can shake a stick at.  And a bit unusually for him, heroism counterpointed with villainy, but the real hero isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect to fill that role at any given moment.

What other writer does this?   I can think of one that Westlake found numerous occasions to show his admiration for, and I believe his influence is particularly strong here, even though the setting is not one that author would ever have employed.  And the best thing ever written about that vastly more famous novelist just happens to describe Donald E. Westlake, and Kahawa, nearly as well, and that’s how I’ll conclude this–with the final paragraph of George Orwell’s finest literary essay.

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

And all these years later, they still are.

Anyone care for a song?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Kahawa, Uncategorized

Review: Kahawa

“You’re being hijacked,” the officer said.

The engineeer didn’t at all understand.  “What’s this?”

A voice behind him said, in English, “We’re taking over the train.”

The engineer and fireman were both fairly proficient in English, and they understood that sentence well enough.  They spun around and stared in absolute amazement at two white men who had climbed up into the cab on the other side–while the Army officer had distracted them–and who were now standing there with guns in their hands.

You–” The engineer couldn’t figure out how to put his astonishment and disbelief into words in any language.  “You– You can’t–This is a train!”

The bigger older one said, “We know it’s a fucking train, fella, and we’re taking it over.”

If there’s one Westlake heist book that more than any other sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, this would probably be it.  It’s set almost entirely in Africa.  It’s mainly about politics (of various kinds).  It’s full of very explicit sex scenes (a lot of the politics is sexual, you see).   It’s got a supervillain in it (who really existed), plus a subsidiary villain (who didn’t).  Westlake can’t kill the supervillain off, because he was still alive and free and quite wealthy at the time of writing, though no longer a threat to anyone.

And it’s got a hero–who actually calls himself that.  Without irony, if not without a sense of humor.  In fact, it’s got many heroes, and I’d argue the best and truest of them aren’t that guy–and most of them aren’t white men, either.   One is a woman, one is black, one is Afro-Indian.  And one is a mercenary, a sexist pig and a boor and opposed to the whole concept of heroes on general principle (he’s a white guy, and in my mind, played by Rod Taylor in his 40’s).  And maybe one more, who is a liar and a rascal, but he’s the one that gets to vanquish the subsidiary villain.

It has many serious flaws, sold like shit when it came out, and it’s not what Westlake was best at, or what he’ll be remembered for–but it got him some of his best reviews ever–including one from John Leonard, in the New York Times.   Who didn’t think it was a great novel either, but he sure loved reading it.

And since we’re finally into the 1980’s, I can just post a link to the full review, and you can read it.  Leonard has many perceptive and admiring things to say.  He totally got what this book is about, and I’m sure Westlake fully approved of Leonard nitpicking his use of the word ‘disinterested.’  People should care about the correct use of words.  Language mavens can agree to disagree, English usage being the darkest of dark arts.  But for the record, I’ve looked at the disputed passage (thank you Google Books), and looked up the two meanings of ‘disinterested’, and Leonard was wrong.  Other critics made some mistakes as well, but we’ll get to that.

In spite of its failings, and perhaps because of them, this is a book worth praising–and remembering.  It was a book worth writing as well, and it’s a book Westlake very much wanted to write, spent an unusual amount of time (for him) researching and finishing, alone and with his wife Abby.  It’s a book that got him to Africa for the first and I believe only time in his life, and that alone made it worthwhile.  And as is often the case with books of his that deal with social issues he’d normally stay away from, it’s a book that was pitched to him.   By a Hollywood producer, name of Les Alexander.

When I returned Les’s call, he was boyishly excited.  He had a true story, he said, that would make the basis for a great novel.  I told him, as I tell everyone in such circumstances, “I’ll listen, but I won’t give you an answer today.  I’ll call you tomorrow.  I don’t want to make a mistake and be locked into something I don’t really want to do, or locked out of something it turns out I did want to do.”

“Fair enough,” he said.  “A group of white mercenaries, in Uganda, while it was under Idi Amin, stole a railroad train a mile long, full of coffee, and made it disappear.”

“Forget the twenty-four hours,” I said.  “I’ll do it.”

Westlake mentions that Alexander was always pitching this or that project to him, and reading between the lines of his account, he always found some way to put him off (regrettably, he could no longer do so after his death, hence the disaster that was ‘Parker’), but he heard this story, which no source I can find confirms actually did happen in reality, and the game was afoot.  Because, of course, it was a way to link his long-held interest in Africa (and Africans) to his professional wheelhouse of the heist story.   He could try something new, while still sticking to the kind of story he knew how to tell better than anyone.  That was the theory.

He ended up selling it to Viking, his latest publisher, and that turned out to be about the least successful relationship he had with any publishing  house ever.  Only two books resulted from it (the other was a Dortmunder).   They did not know what to do with Kahawa, and didn’t do much of anything as a result.   His first editor was fired, and replaced, as he puts it, by an ‘oil painting of an editor’–one suspects this experience played a significant role in the genesis of a subsequent 80’s novel of his.

Originally, it was going to be more of a straight-up heist book, with Africa as the background, perhaps somewhat in the vein of a Dortmunder novel, but the deeper Westlake got into it, the more he realized just how horrible Uganda under Amin had been, and as he put it, “I can’t dance on all those graves.” (Screwing on them is another matter entirely.) There’s plenty of humor in it, but it’s a serious book under the jokes.

To be honest, I think it’s neither a Westlake comic caper, nor a Starkian exercise in noir romanticism.  It’s the second novel by Timothy J. Culver, author of the political thriller Ex Officio–supposedly shot dead by Richard Stark in a mock-interview Westlake wrote in the 70’s, but Westlake needed him for this one, resurrected him to ghost-write.

There were foreign editions, with some interesting covers (this time I could not fall back on the Official Westlake Blog for those, so I raided the French and German Amazon sites).  Because his title was a word in Swahili meaning coffee, none of the foreign publishers seem to have felt any need to change the title to something else, or to translate it to their own language.

(Jean-Patrick Manchette, a highly regarded author of French crime novels, seems to have translated a fair bit of Westlake.  He also did the translation for Ordo.  I wonder how many others?)

There was an American reprint edition in hardcover, from Mysterious Press, over a decade later. (Westlake says there were very slight changes made, and since I’ve only read the later edition I have no idea what they were.  It would be time-consuming to find out.  If anyone knows, please tell).  When Westlake ran into that oil painting of an editor he’d worked with at Viking and told him Kahawa was getting reprinted, he reports the man looked astounded, and said “Why?”  Tactful!

So that’s the history.   What’s the story?   After a prologue that shows  us a group of Ugandan coffee smugglers being butchered by Idi Amin’s soldiers in 1977 (an incident documented by the London Times), the book opens in Valdez Alaska, of all places, where a soldier of fortune name of Lew Brady is teaching a bunch of truckers how to defend themselves from strong arm men hired by a union (no need to mention which one) to make these guys join up.

We’ve come a long way from Killy, but then again, maybe not so far.  Westlake’s attitude is unchanged, really–no boss should be able to tell you not to join a union, no union should be able to force you to join (not without the workers voting on it first).   The goal is independence, either way.  The unions had to become like gangs to survive the wrath of rapacious capitalists, then in some cases ended up being run by actual gangsters.

Someday, these truckers might want a union; right now all they see is some powerful organization trying to take their hard-earned money in a boom economy where they can get all the work they want without a union.  And these days, this part of the book seems really dated.  Come back, all-powerful unions and your hulking thuggish lackeys!   We didn’t mean it!

We’ll never see how this minor subplot plays out, because Lew gets a better offer, from an old mercenary friend of his, Frank Lanigan, who is working for a merchant in Kenya, Mayar Balim.  We’ve already met Balim by the time Lew gets the call, in a little scene where he is approached by Baron Chase (his name, not his title), a Canadian mercenary, highly placed in Amin’s security forces.

Chase has a scheme (always).   Together, they will hijack a huge train of Ugandan coffee intended for Brazil, to cover a shortfall created by a frost there (frost seems pretty anachronistic itself lately).  Due to fluctuations in the commodities market, demand greatly outstripping supply (because caffeine is really really addictive), coffee prices are at an all-time high, and the cargo is worth many millions.  A consortium of buyers, headed by a German now living in Switzerland (a former Nazi officer, but not a bad guy otherwise) will take it, as long as the theft can’t be traced to them.

Balim is one of those Africans whose descent is from the Indian subcontinent (referred to as Asians here, though they are all from a very specific part of Asia), who have taken on an economic role in this part of Africa not at all dissimilar to that which the Jews historically occupied elsewhere–and with the same potential consequences, now that Africa’s original occupants are feeling more, shall we say, assertive, in the wake of decolonization.

He, like many other Afro-Asians (all of them, actually), was expelled from Uganda after Amin took power, forced to flee for his life, leaving all his assets behind, and he’s been laboriously rebuilding his fortunes in Kenya, from where he fully expects to be expelled someday as well.   He’s philosophical about it.   “God’s diarrhea falls with equal justice everywhere,” he remarks to Chase, after hearing about the Brazilian blight.

Anyway, he’s willing to give the coffee heist a try, but Frank tells him he’s going to need another good man on the payroll, because Chase is a backstabbing son of a bitch–Balim knows this already (there’s not much of anything he doesn’t know), and tells Frank to go ahead and hire one on.

Frank goes through his mental rolodex of guns for hire, and keeps finding out they’re dead, retired, working honest jobs, married even.  It’s disgusting.  So he finally gets to Lew, who he knows is top-drawer, but has this little character flaw, that he himself is personally unaware of, which is that he’s a genuinely good guy, who cares about doing the right thing, even though that’s never what he’s getting paid to do.   Well, nobody’s perfect.

Lew is delighted.   He hates his current gig.  It’s boring.   He loves Africa.  It’s The Place.   Frank can’t tell him over the phone what the job is, and he doesn’t ask.   It’s a job.  In Africa.   He wants in.  But he’s got a girl.  One hell of a woman, actually.  Ellen Gillespie, a professional pilot by trade, qualified to fly just about anywhere.   Lean, laconic, lovely, with short-cut blonde hair, and an independent streak a mile wide.

She’s not a feminist–she’s what feminism is aiming to make all women into, in some fabulous feminist future we somehow never get to, but maybe someday.  Actually, if all men could be like her that would be swell too, but come on.   Lew is not going to risk losing a girl like this over a job.  He’s not that dumb.  Yet.  So he says he and Ellen are a package deal, Frank reluctantly agrees (he just fires the drunkard of a bush pilot they already have), and Ellen figures if she can handle Alaska, she can handle Africa.   The question of whether anyone can really handle Africa remains an open question in this book.

They get to Kenya.  Frank immediately starts throwing passes at Ellen.  Lew pisses her off by being all protective of her, which she hates.   She’s not that crazy about Africa at first, but sees instantly the effect it has on him–he’s grinning, delighted, instantly at home, in a way he never was in Alaska.  “He loves this awful place, she thought, and her heart sank.”   I couldn’t say what Abby Westlake’s first reaction to Africa was, but I’d bet good money Lew’s reaction and Westlake’s were similar, even though Westlake had never been there before.   Some people just fall in love with a place at first sight.

But they are very much in love, and in lust, and having been introduced to the charming Mr. Balim and his son (both of whom Ellen takes an instant liking to), they are driven to a small house they’ll be staying in, and they proceed to fuck like bonobos on viagra.  I could say ‘make love’, but Westlake shocked quite a few of his longtime readers by being extremely explicit with his sex scenes in this book.   Far more so than he ever was in all the paperback ‘porn’ he wrote under false names to support his family years before.

Well, the book market has changed, along with sexual mores.  What used to get your books confiscated makes them more saleable now (Peter Benchley was basically forced to write an extra-marital affair, complete with steamy bed scene, into Jaws).  And something about Africa, and perhaps his traveling companion there, is making Westlake want to spell things out.  Maybe because there’s so much death in this book, real death, that he needs to remind us about life.

Through the contortions she held on to his cock.   She loved it, she filled her mouth with it and then her cunt with it.  They were so wet that, as they fucked, their stomachs made suction noises, poppings and fartings that eventually made Lew mutter, “Shit.  Enough of this.”   He grabbed her leg and turned her over without losing contact.  Knees and shoulders and cheek on the bed, holding her breasts with both hands, she opened her mouth and gasped into the pillow as he pounded her from behind.  Another orgasm.  “Who’s counting,” she mumbled into the pillow, and ground her ass backward into his belly.


“Shut up and fuck!”

“Oh you smart cunt,”  He slapped her ass, which did nothing for her but make her mad.

“Just fuck!” she yelled and reached back to slap his thigh just as hard.

And this does, in its own ribald way, tell us something about their relationship–that they have a deep connection, emotionally and physically, but don’t communicate very well, and this is mainly Lew’s fault, and he’s only marginally aware of the problem.

For a book about African politics and genocide, this is very much a story about relationships.  Not just the sexual kind, but there are multiple other erotic subplots.  And two other beautiful fascinating women, one Asian and one black, both of whom will be having sex with Lew before the story ends.   Gritty realism this ain’t.   Westlake was usually a lot more careful about overindulging male wish-fulfillment, but he’s in virgin territory here (so to speak), and the Culver in him is urging him on.   It’s one of the flaws I mentioned.  But the relationships are thoughtfully rendered, all of them.   It’s not a sex book, even though it’s full of sex.

Anyway, there’s a heist to be planned.   Uganda is right next to Kenya, across the inland sea that is Lake Victoria, and there is reputedly an abandoned railroad spur and turntable along the track the coffee train will be traveling on.  It could be used to conceal the train long enough to get the coffee down to waiting rafts, and back over to Kenya.  But somebody has to go scout it out.  Lew’s elected, because nobody knows he’s working for Balim.  Only some of his past employers in Africa (like the Libyans) have ties with Amin, and he ends up fingered as a CIA spy, taken into custody and tortured by Amin’s men.

While in their obscene pit of a jail, he meets large numbers of Ugandans for the first time, mainly Christians, a horribly persecuted majority in Uganda at that time, because Amin (a never terribly diligent Muslim) wanted military aid from Muammar Gaddafi.  Lew is moved by their courage and resolve to be true to their faith, even while he himself is being threatened with summary emasculation and death.  (Sadly, some Ugandan Christians today are moved to persecute Ugandans who are gay, egged on by American evangelicals, but since when have we humans ever learned the right lessons from persecution?  Do unto others as has been done unto you, saith the Lord.)

Back in Kenya, Balim tries to calm an increasingly angry and frantic Ellen, while reaching out to Baron Chase, who can arrange for Lew’s release.  But before Chase can do this quietly, Lew breaks out, kills a few guards, and very nearly kills Chase (and that might have been just as well).  He gets back to Ellen, and then the rain starts.  African rain.

Before there had been the occasional lone fat drop on the windshield, but all at once it seemed there was no windshield at all, just a massive waterfall, and they were behind it.

Or inside it.  With the abruptness of a bucket’s being upended, the world was suddenly nothing but falling water, splashing, ricocheting, thundering, drenching everything in sight.  “Good Lord,” Ellen cried, her voice lost in the barrage.  The long rains had arrived.

But Frank could be heard, storm or no storm.  “Shit!” he yelled, flinging the wheel back and forth, as though trying to shake the rain off the car.  “Goddam son of a bitch!”he shouted, as the Land-Rover slued and slid forward into the unknown; not a thing could be seen through that streaming windshield.  “You could have waited an hour, you filthy bastard!” he brayed at the sky, shaking his fist, and stuck his head out into the storm so he could see something of where they were going.  And, “You’re here!” he yelled at them a few seconds later, as the Land-Rover side-swiped a parked Datsun and came to a stop in front of the house.  Frank’s head, out in the rain for half a minute, looked like something found four hundred years later in a sunken Spanish galleon.

This will go on for months.  There’s nothing more to be done until the rain stops, except plan the heist, and go quietly mad from cabin fever.   But they do have to get to Nairobi to work out a deal with a family of Asian coffee growers Balim knows, who can hide the stolen coffee amid their own crop.   Like Balim, they are also much reduced in wealth, but in possession of an exquisitely beautiful daughter named Amarda, 20 years of age, who is angry and dismissive with Lew, seeing him as an agent of the corrupt Balim, proof of how far down her family has come in the world.

Lew, still madly in love with Ellen, who is waiting at the airport for him and Balim, finds himself falling for Amarda as well (what man can ever resist a beautiful woman who is rude to him?).   There’s more than a touch of Alan Grofield in Lew, one must note in passing.  But this isn’t a Stark novel, as I’ve already mentioned (Grofield might play the hero, but he’d never think of himself as one).  And Ellen Gillespie is no Mary Deegan, waiting patiently for her man to come home from his mercenary/amatory adventures.

Doomed to an arranged marriage with a suitor chosen from the very limited pool of men she can marry in her segregated society, Amarda actively seeks an affair with this exciting stranger, and Lew finds himself unable to resist.   And Ellen isn’t stupid.   She figures it out.  But since communication is still not their strong suit, neither of them brings it up.  The rain has put everything on hold, so she just pretends nothing is happening.  For now.

Much is happening elsewhere.   Baron Chase is wheeling and dealing, with the German buyer, with Amin, with an English agent of a trade bureau who is supposed to make sure the Ugandan sale of coffee to Brazil stays nice and legal. The book changes perspective from chapter to chapter, moving us effortlessly between Europe and Africa, reminding us that even at a time when Uganda was a pariah nation, cut off from the rest of the world, engaged in the process of murdering half a million of its own citizens, the west was still doing business there.   Blood money is money nonetheless.

And we are repeatedly made to understand that Frank’s instincts about Chase are correct–anyone who would dare to steal from Idi Amin Dada is not going to be above double-crossing his own partners.   We are introduced to him as “a man so steeped in his own villainy that the evidences of his own evil now only amused him.”  He’s the POV character in many chapters.  This book has heroes, but it has no central protagonist–unless it’s Amin, who we see rarely, but he’s always lurking in the background, looming over the scene like a grotesque jolly giant, only not green, obviously.

Westlake was fascinated by dictators–he’d already created a number of them for earlier books.   As someone who has a bad reaction to any form of authority, the idea of The Ultimate Authority–a man who is above even the law–is equally repugnant and intriguing to him.    The truly remarkable thing to me (and it must have seemed more than merely remarkable to Westlake) is that just before Amin seized power, before most people outside Uganda even knew his name, Westlake had anticipated him in uncanny detail, in that not entirely successful experiment in political satire that is I Gave At The Office.

Amin’s coup (backed by the British and the Israelis, who both came to regret it) was in January of 1971.   I Gave At The Office had its New York Times review in May of that year.  Self-evidently, he’d written the book months before the coup, and well before anybody got an accurate notion of who and what Amin really was.

And yet the dictator of the fictional Ilha Pombo island, Colonel Mungu, who got there by overthrowing the previous dictator, comes across as a picture perfect parody of Amin, and would have been seen as such by everyone, had the book come out a few years later.  Fat, jovial, unflappable, oddly charming, and an utter sociopath, whose methods of staying in power are basically identical to those of Amin (and to be sure, many other power-hungry megalomaniacs before and since–the personality pattern doesn’t have that many variations, when you get right down to it).   If I had written that book, and then someone virtually identical to its central antagonist seemingly appeared out of thin air, I’d be forced to at least entertain the fancy that I’d somehow conjured him into being, as much as any of the purely fictional people in the book.

Westlake, therefore, feels a weird connection to this very real monster, a sense that there is some inexplicable link between them, something that comes out when the narrator reminds us that not long after the events of this book, Amin was in turn overthrown by forces that came from the Tanzanian border region of West Lake.  No, I am not making that up, and neither was Westlake.  But he must have quietly marveled at the coincidence.  If that’s what it was.  Remember what he said once–a realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood–and it isn’t.  Not even close.  More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

And more plot elements in this book than I can possibly synopsize.  I knew this would be a two-parter going in, but I also knew I’d have to find some way to get around its length and complexity, which is going to mean taking a somewhat similar approach to some of my other reviews, like the one for Dancing Aztecs.

I could go on a few thousand more words before the break, but it’s late, I have laundry to do, and I think I’ll just let this serve as the preface, and Part 2 will be devoted to analyzing the characters–and real or imagined, there are great characters in this book, and they aren’t all lusty white mercenaries with wandering eyes.

In many ways, this is a novel that, like so many western tales of adventure in Africa, focuses a lot on the daring deeds and lusty affairs of white people.  That is, one could say, an inherent failing of the entertainment-oriented format Westlake is writing in, but he’s not content to leave it there–we start by identifying with the white heroes, sure–then he pulls us into the minds of the blacks, the Asians, and even the villains (of all colors), makes us see things from their point of view, and he reminds us how deeply everything and everyone in this world of ours is connected–a truth we need to become more deeply aware of, before it’s too late.

Some of these characters he shows us  are members of the Luo Tribe of Kenya–which produced one Barack Hussein Obama, who came to Hawaii as a student, and I think you know the rest.  And Westlake died on the very last day of 2008, about eight weeks after we’d elected a new President.   More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.  I said that already, didn’t I?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Kahawa, Uncategorized