“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)