“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–
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–
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–
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–
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?
22 responses to “Review: Kahawa, Part 2”
Interesting. I’ve never thought of Westlake as a modern day Dickens, that being more the territory of John Irving and Donna Tartt and the like. Primarily because Westlake wrote always with an eye on economy, spending words as if they were money, which has never been listed as a Dickens strength, or even characteristic, by anybody ever.
But I can see that maybe in this book, a Dickens influence can be argued. Certainly in the cast of characters.
Yes, I know that Frank primarily and other characters here and there are used as instruments to give history lessons and wry observations, and that some readers find this to be distracting and annoying. But I’m one of those readers who enjoys reading precisely because of such opportunities to discover, learn, and wallow in the magic of creative wordsmithing, so I loved it all and wish there could have been more.
If you think about it, how many other writers would have taken 800, 1000, 1200 pages with this? For Westlake to keep it to 475 pages goes back to the economy of writing thing. He could have added another hundred pages spending more time in the heads and lives of Misters Balim (young and old), Isaac, Charlie, even Lew. I for one would have loved it and he still would have been a vastly better writer than all the Micheners and Haileys on the best seller lists of the day.
I do have one minor gripe about the book. The ending “meet cute” scene between young Mr. Balim and Patricia is silly and out of keeping with the rest of the novel. Always bugs me. I dunno, maybe it was Mr. Westlake’s way of telling Mr. Stark that it was ultimately a Westlake novel, but, whatever, it’s a meet cute and doesn’t belong.
You’re right, of course. Even when Westlake went long (for him) he was still keeping it short. I only wish I could emulate him effectively in this regard.
Westlake must have learned a lot from Dickens, but most of all in the way he combined the comic and tragic elements of life. His deeply felt affection for people, and his outright despair over them. That would have struck a responsive chord in Westlake, as it has in–well, everyone, I would think.
I know what you mean about that scene near the end (seriously, I could have made this a five-parter and not gotten to everything), but I think the idea was that they’d go to London together, and maybe they’d have children, and those children with their combined Asian and African heritage could go back and help Grandpa Balim out at the store, and the goal of African pluralism would be advanced, and all would be well. And yeah, I doubt even Westlake really bought this, which is why he only lightly suggests it.
The whole Sir Denis/Patricia sidebar is a problem for the book. I can see how it advances certain agendas–we learn more about London’s relationship with Kampala (a tale of two cities, you might say), we learn about Patricia’s aristocratic origins, how her once proud tribe had its downfall under Amin, how she had to adapt to survive, but it all seems to be a track leading nowhere, like that abandoned spur ending at the railway turntable.
And for Lew to end up screwing her on a golf fairway–c’mon. That’s just Westlake accomplishing a long-cherished fantasy through a surrogate–a gorgeous blonde, an exquisite Indian girl, and a magnificent black woman. All in the same book. The hat trick. And Ellen forgives him far too easily. That’s really a BAD influence of Dickens on him. He’s trying too hard for the happy ending.
One influence he avoids, though–no ‘legless’ heroines. In the world of Westlake, all good girls love sex, and virgins can scarcely be said to exist–experience is something to be celebrated. Not one scintilla of Madonna/Whore complex there. Westlake was, in many ways, a 19th century liberal, but he was no Victorian.
John Irving seems much less Dickensian to me, but I have to say, I’ve never liked him much (I’ve only ever read Garp, and I will never read it again). The talent is there, but I don’t approve of the way he employs it. Donna Tartt I don’t know at all. So many writers, so little time.
You contend that the Sir Denis/Patricia sidebar is a problem because it leads nowhere. Which is true of all the other sidebars, for example, Lew and the coffee plantation daughter. I have no problem with this because life itself is full of sidebars that end up in dead ends. I look at it more as a character development thing, and admire Westlake for making such an unusual case of opposites attracting come across as believable (as opposed to, as I’ve said, the rom-com weakness in the last couple of pages of the novel).
But I think that there is in fact significance to this sidebar, in that it makes Sir Denis’ death much more significant to the story, both because of “hey, we were rooting for him,” and as demonstration of the far reaching evil power of Idi Amin. If he had died as scheduled on page whatever without this preamble, we would not have been as emotionally invested in him as a character. And given that a stuffy old English gent is about the hardest type of character to become emotionally invested in, well, kudos to DEW.
Except Amin doesnt have Sir Denis killed. Unclear if he ever even finds out about it (one would assume there was a complaint from Her Majesty’s Government). He’s just killed because one of Amin’s men thinks Sir Denis stabbed him with a poisoned object, while he’s trying to defend Patricia from being arrested–something he should have realized was impossible–he should have used his influence to try and free her, but he’s forgotten who he is, and where he is, which is the point of that scene, but it’s a point too heavily labored over, as I see it. Too much build-up. Sir Denis isn’t a central enough character to rate that kind of attention.
I see the purpose of the subplot, but there’s too damn much of it. It’s a drag on the narrative. Half as much would have worked twice as well.
And would it sound shallow if I said I it bothered me that the longest most explicit sex scenes in the book all involved Sir Denis? Okay fine, I’m shallow. By contrast, Lew’s trysts with the luscious Amarda, and Ellen’s all-too-brief encounter with Frank are given very short shrift. In both cases, we’re told about their first bouts of intercourse after the fact. These are the two sexiest couples in the book, and we don’t even get to see them having sex–instead we get Sir Denis writhing endlessly underneath Patricia, then lying there in a post-coital stupor, while Amin rather improbably slips in and makes her fellate him, right there, in front of the symbolically cuckolded former colonial overlord. Westlake’s typical perversity regarding literary nookie. 😉
And for Lew to end up screwing her on a golf fairway–c’mon.
Absolutely. Their wanting badly to have sex with each other doesn’t break characterization for either of them, but it’s still a ridiculous thing to happen at that moment. It’s almost like a parody, though I’m not sure of what. (The Man from Uncle, maybe? In the Mad Magazine parody, Robert Vaughn explains that he gets to make out with a beautiful enemy spy in every episode because it’s in his contract.)
I’m mostly not a John Irving fan either, I liked Garp, but then read The Hotel New Hampshire, which is the exact same set of auctorial tics slightly rearranged, so I gave up on him. Years later, a friend of mine insisted that A Prayer for Owen Meany was a great book, and damned if he wasn’t right. More of the same tics, and I was pretty determined not to like it, but it completely won me over. (Explaining how would be a spoiler.)
Westlake was an admirer of the opposite sex in all its many-splendored glory; shouting not only “vive la difference!” but “vive la variété!” I would not say he had ‘jungle fever’, but he definitely did go out of his way to have various of his white male protagonists hook up with some fine sisters over the years. His awareness of this proclivity of his is made clear, and heavily satirized in Adios Scheherazade.
Now technically, you could argue he’d gotten that miscegenation agenda out of the way with Sir Denis, but he can’t fully identify with Sir Denis. He maybe identified a bit too much with Lew. Lew is his adolescent self, I would say. And yet we’re told Frank is the immature one, which I’m not sure I agree with (we keep hearing from Ellen and others how profound a person Lew is, but I don’t quite see it). Opposing models of masculinity. Lew is maybe a Westlake Nephew with more experience and Frank is an oddly Starkian figure, though hardly in Parker’s league. Westlake trying to work out some conflicts in his own nature, not quite getting there, but anyway, a good time is had by all.
Question–do you think the book would be better if Lew had died at the end?
That’s a hard one, because it depends so much on the details, but yes. We can accept Parker having plot armor, because without him there’s no series. (I wonder if , had Westlake decided to write a final Parker book, he would have killed him off. To make it really dark, in a way that Clare won’t ever find out about, so she’ll always wonder.) But Lew’s a one-shot character, who takes too many chances and gets in way over his head. Say, Lew dies saving Patricia, and Ellen knows that he took one too many chances because Patricia is smoking hot. That works.
I think Westlake toyed with the idea of killing Parker off, but needed him (and Dortmunder) to keep writing at the end. He knew his own time was running out, but he didn’t know how quickly, so he certainly laid the groundwork for Parker to meet his end, but I question whether it would ever have happened. Obviously Parker can’t retire, and he is getting older, and there are people who know too much about him at the end. “Every time but the last time.” But Westlake couldn’t know what the last time was. Honestly, I’m just as happy it ended the way it did. By not ending.
But here–this is a book that has as its focus a heist going on within a genocide. Westlake wants to show us what the Ugandans went through, he wants us to have that awareness, while we’re enjoying a great adventure story–I honestly do think he had A Tale of Two Cities in mind when writing it. But there’s no Sydney Carton. That’s the thing. It’s a far far better thing Lew does than he has ever done before, but there’s no rest at the end.
The hero does die, all the time. In fiction and in life. But Westlake hated killing his heroes. He wrote some of the darkest endings in fiction, but not that one. Closest he came was Killing Time, and he considered that book a failure. And it’s a damned good book, with a damned powerful ending. But he didn’t like it.
So he’s expressing a personal philosophy–‘the hero doesn’t die.’–meaning a Westlake hero doesn’t die–not if he makes the right choices. Lew has somehow divined the nature of the god of his universe. We get a hint of this when Bathar, Balim’s son, is facing the very real possibility of death, and we’re told he’s always had this image of God as this ‘potentially benign figure gazing placidly and with some amused interest over the rim of heaven and down upon poor little foolish Bathar.’ He calls out to that God, imploring him not to forget he’s there in Uganda. Just because he’s only a minor subplot protagonist shouldn’t mean he has to die. ‘God’ takes pity upon him, and pulls the strings of dramatic coincidence to bring his players together, and get them out alive. It’s an older more romantic style of fiction, in a very modern unromantic setting.
There are many many references to God (in various forms) in this book. Westlake was not, as I have mentioned, any kind of conventional Christian, but I think he thought a great deal about God, and about the godlike nature of a writer of fiction. And if you’re the god of your creation, shouldn’t you at least try to be a fair one? Westlake made Lew a hero, so is it fair to make him pay for that?
But nothing that happened in Uganda under Amin was fair. The book is full of death, but only two important characters actually die–Chase and Sir Denis, and of course Chase deserves it, and Sir Denis does not. So why does he die? Look at his last name. The sacrificial lamb. He’s a decent man, but he’s no hero–he made the mistake of acting as if he was. Westlake had to give Stark somebody.
A great writer has to be accepted and understood for his or her weaknesses, just as much as strengths. There are no perfect storytellers. Dickens had flaws, so did Tolstoy. And they didn’t like killing their more sympathetic protagonists much either. Only reason Anna Karenina dies at the end is that Tolstoy considers her a bad woman who made bad choices, even if he has warmed to her over the course of the story, and considers her death an indictment of social attitudes, as well as personal behavior.
Dickens often killed very good people the reader has come to love, but never his heroes–the people the hero is trying to save, weak people, people who have been somehow rejected by life, and (by implication) taken up into heaven by their creator, into a kinder world than the industrial revolution hell Dickens saw around him. One exception I know of–Sydney Carton dies in place of another version of Sydney Carton–a Christlike act. In dying, he knows he’ll live on forever in his double, and in the memories of others. Hemingway did something quite similar in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Westlake, by contrast, sometimes chooses as his ‘hero’ somebody who proves unworthy, goes the wrong way, and meets some kind of bad end, but never do we actually see him dead (not literally). Westlake does not want to go there. Because he’s put too much of himself into those characters. It would be symbolic suicide.
God, I do go on, don’t I?
I think the book would have been better if Lew had died saving Bathar, and yeah, Patricia could have also been a factor, triggering his demise, as she did Sir Denis’.
But Westlake could not have written that ending.
(Alternatively, I’d have liked seeing Lew choose Amarda, and Ellen choose Frank. I honestly did not like Lew and Ellen that much as a couple, and if Westlake did, why are they apart for most of the book? But this is a matter of mere personal preference.)
It’s an amazing piece of work, but I feel like it could have been so much better. But that’s writers for you. Their strengths are bound up in their weaknesses.
The protagonist of Memory doesn’t die. He’d just be better off if he did. (I know, Westlake considered that book such a failure that for most of his life he let it sit in the trunk rather than try to have it published.)
The person Paul Cole used to be is dead, and the person he became after that will die soon as well, but some part of him will go on, deciding to live no matter what, for as long as he can. I’m not sure Westlake considered that book a failure, so much as a betrayal of his protagonist. He hadn’t given him a fair chance. Nobody can win the game of life while forgetting all his past mistakes. So why do so many with functioning memories go on doing just that? I digress.
Westlake was generally an optimist, albeit one with his eyes wide open. Sometimes a fatalist as well, but never a defeatist. He and Dylan Thomas would have understood each other. Do not go gently into that good night.
Well, as far as the author as God goes, there are two “unimportant” characters who die also. These are the unnamed workers who fall to death, one an accident the other a suicide, in the ride-the-goods-wagon-as-long-as-possible-before-it-goes-over-the-cliff game. The first one’s look of horror as he plummets to his death becomes a temporary source of hilarity for the others, the second seems to happen without comment.
It’s a weird couple of chapters – no idea how Westlake thought of it. There’s some associated dialogue about heroism, or rather the foolishness of thinking in heroic terms, but that comes across as almost glib. Perhaps the most telling Westlakeism is the comment about it seeming more like cinema slapstick than the death of a human being. Maybe it was Westlake’s way of reminding the reader that this isn’t a heist like a “Dortmunder gang steals a bank” heist. Or even a Parker robs an entire town heist. He, Westlake, wanted the heist part of the story to be secondary to what he was trying to tell us about Uganda under Amin.
Thank you for bringing that up–I felt terrible about leaving out the whole business about the guys riding the freight cars towards the cliff. So many memorable moments in this book, but I felt like this was one of the best (and yet I left it out, along with “Ellen’s Road”, and Lew’s journey in a coffin full of stinky cheese).
I don’t think the point is that these deaths don’t matter. The point is that in this setting, and particularly in this time frame, life is really cheap. He can’t have nobody die. But it is an interesting choice, to have the only two deaths resulting directly from the heist be accidents. Maybe part of that derives from the way the heist ends up being heisted by the Kenyan government. Accidental deaths are easier to cover up in bureaucratic boilerplate. No bodies, and workers like this die in accidents all the time, in Africa and elsewhere (even here, a lot more often than we like to think).
Lew needs to be made aware that he isn’t 100% bulletproof, hero or no.
It’s more the kind of thing kids do, of course–just for fun. Daring death to take them (and sometimes it does). These poor African laborers aren’t kids, but they live with death on a much more familiar daily basis, and they like to have fun too. Interesting that it’s the suicide that sobers them up, not the accidental death.
Didn’t say Amin killed him or had him killed. Said his death exemplified Amin’s far reaching evil. As in Uganda was a place where a high placed international figure could be killed and left for the rats without much worry to the powers that be, irrespective of whether it was “sanctioned.”
Ah well, I liked the Denis-Patricia story and you found it distracting. Wouldn’t be a good book if people didn’t get different things out of it.
As far as the sex scene narrative, can’t say that I ever noticed who got the most paragraphs. Don’t know what that says about me……
How much of a sidebar was it? Be surprised if it took up much more than 10 pages, but I stand willing to be educated.
I was talking less about the number of paragraphs than the explicitness of the descriptions. Honestly, I think a lot of the complaints Westlake got were probably motivated less by the sex (which was less and less of a big deal by then) then by the fact that so much of the really racy stuff involved an elderly English civil servant and a libidinous Ugandan woman (and that’s a stupid thing to get offended by, but there you are).
And he’s “crying out, gasping, craving that warm wonderful grotto, cave painting with his semen on its yielding walls.” It’s a bit much. Whatever happened to “No sex please, we’re British?” I mean, really. 😐
As I said above, all the sex scenes combined don’t add up to a single chapter, but I was talking about the entire subplot. Sir Denis and Patricia, between them, got a whole lot of POV chapters, Sir Denis rather more of them. I preferred hers. I see the point of having London in the mix (and Geneva). But this is a book about Africa.
Yes, the cave painting thing is, um, ridiculous. Somebody, don’t know who off the top of my head, releases an annual list of the worst written sex scenes in books published in a given year. I wonder if they have a posthumous edition this can be entered into.
Eh, Harold Robbins would still beat him by a mile. Or an inch–in length and circumference. 😉
Sometimes a better answer comes to me, well after the fact. And here it is–yes, the writing of the sex scenes between Sir Denis and Patricia is a bit outre. But Westlake knows what he’s going to have Sir Denis do, when Amin’s soldiers come for Patricia. This is a man who has played it safe all his life, at his job, at his marriage, everything. He’s never even thought of being a hero. What could change him? Really really great sex. At a time in life when he’d given up on sex entirely.
Let’s say he just let them take her away, lodged a protest, which would quite certainly fail to achieve anything (Amin had an Archbishop killed and got away with it). What’s left for him? Go home, retire, live on his country estate, get drunk, get sick, get buried, be forgotten.
So Sir Denis is a problem for us, the readers, because we know what Patricia has meant to him, that she’s woken him up, brought him to life again, and if he just lets her be taken away to be tortured, raped, and murdered (and it’s made quite clear that he knows precisely what will happen to her), he will never again be able to tolerate the sight of himself in a mirror.
On the one hand, he tried to be something he wasn’t, and that got him killed. Irrational. On the other, he was her lover, and that is not a rational state of being, nor is it supposed to be. And say this–word will get home. People will talk. They won’t forget him in a hurry.
Maybe he made the right choice. Not necessarily for Patricia, but for himself. You go far enough outside the lines, there’s no point trying to come back in again.
“She had a dark and stormy $^#%.”
Temperament? No, too many letters. Hmmmm……
A lifelong Westlake fan, I’ve only recently discovered the Review. I eagerly look forward to reading all of the passages I’ve missed so far.
If Westlake had only written the Parker novels, he’d be remembered but not by me. Those stories were too dark and gritty, too grim. I’ve read two of them, skimmed another, and decided I was done with that series. Might try it again later…but, no, I probably won’t.
I loved the one-shots, like Kahawa and High Adventure and Dancing Aztecs, and the Dortmunder series. There were elements of comedy in everything DEW created but the stories I liked best had laugh-out-loud moments in them. Kahawa is one of those stories.
I’ve liked Kahawa since I first read it, then reread it, then reread it. Never thought it had too much sex, never worried that there were elements that didn’t come together. I took the ride, enjoyed it for what it was, and never questioned the choices that were made. I can see now that there were questions worthy of being asked but it didn’t even occur to me. It won’t occur to me when I read it the next time, either.
I love the title, Kahawa, too. What a terrible choice, commercially. Still. How fun.
I loved the book for what it was but I thought someone somewhere would have snapped up the movie rights. When the novel first came out, I saw a full-page ad somewhere — Variety? Hollywood Reporter? — pitching the project to studios and producers. A foggy memory suggests that Westlake might have even had a screenplay available…but I can’t say for sure.
Now that’s interesting–is that his agent, or did somebody buy the movie rights and try to sell them? it often seems like Westlake is writing with an eye towards Hollywood–he can’t afford not to–but it also seems like he’s putting things in his books that would never make it into a movie. Like, you know, a story crammed to the gills with non-white people. Because in case you hadn’t heard, #oscarsowhite. They did make an exception for Forrest Whitaker playing Amin, which I’m not sure isn’t the exception that proves the rule. They’d just have toned down the sex a little, and cut out most of the supporting characters (which to me are the primary glory of the book). Never gonna happen now, anyway.
And wouldn’t you know, it’s the Parker novels–that I don’t think he ever wrote with an eye towards Hollywood, or even an ear, nose or throat–that keep getting adapted, though never very faithfully. He sold lots of other books, but often no movie resulted. I think he always had mixed feelings about that. Curious to know what somebody else’s version of his story would look like–afraid they’d screw it up–afraid they wouldn’t screw it up. Because when you make a really good movie out of a book, it usually overshadows the book, subsumes it. We don’t talk much about Mario Puzo as a novelist anymore.
I love the one-shots too, but I guess my heart belongs to the series characters–that’s where I started–Parker, Grofield, Tobin, Dortmunder. To me it’s really all part of one great continuity–a writer sharing his evolving worldview with us, one story at a time.