Monthly Archives: March 2016

Sidebar: Easter, 1916-2016


The man was all shot through that came today
Into the barrack square;
A soldier I – I am not proud to say
We killed him there;
They brought him from the prison hospital;
To see him in that chair
I thought his smile would far more quickly call
A man to prayer.
Maybe we cannot understand this thing
That makes these rebels die;
And yet all things love freedom – and the Spring
Clear in the sky;
I think I would not do this deed again
For all that I hold by;
Gaze down my rifle at his breast – but then
A soldier I.
They say that he was kindly – different too,
Apart from all the rest;
A lover of the poor; and all shot through,
His wounds ill drest,
He came before us, faced us like a man,
He knew a deeper pain
Than blows or bullets – ere the world began;
Died he in vain?
Ready – present; And he just smiling – God!
I felt my rifle shake
His wounds were opened out and round that chair
Was one red lake;
I swear his lips said ‘Fire!’ when all was still
Before my rifle spat
That cursed lead – and I was picked to kill
A man like that!

Connolly, by Liam MacGabhann

This isn’t a political blog.  It’s a book blog, relating to the world of Donald E. Westlake, who far as I know, never wrote about the 1916 Easter Rising, and may never even have visited Ireland, where most of his ancestors hailed from.  His knowledge of their history may have been sketchy, derived from things he heard from family members, things he heard in bars, things he read in passing.  He may have learned more as he got older.  I simply don’t know.

I do know he was interested in the Irish throughout his career, wrote about them constantly, imputed certain traits of loyalty, impulsiveness, courage, stubbornness, wit, cunning, compassion, bigotry, genius, and occasional thickheadedness to them.  He saw them–and himself–as a mix of good and bad traits, as is the case with any identifiable group of human beings.  But he did see them as an identifiable group of human beings, unlike any other, united by things that can’t be explained simply by having been born in a certain place, or having a certain racial heritage.  He wasn’t wrong.

Above you see James Connolly–born of Catholic Irish parents in the slums of Edinburgh, who first saw Ireland as a boy serving in the British army, then became a labor leader and socialist writer in Britain, America, and Ireland–and finally a nationalist rebel when he saw all other avenues of social change closed by WWI.  Countess Constance Markievicz (maiden name Gore-Booth), of Anglo-Irish descent, her beauty admired by W.B. Yeats when she was young, who rejected the colonial heritage of her ancestry, and the privileges of her class, and fought for the rights of all Irish people, of all classes–and for her rights as a woman to fight as hard as any man for what she believed in.  Patrick Pearse, Irish-born son of an English craftsman, who learned the then-dying Irish language, became a poet in it, a devout Catholic and nationalist, all the while trying desperately to suppress his not-terribly-latent gayness, which came out all the same in his poetry, much to the embarrassment of later generations of conservative Irishmen who turned him into a plaster saint.

Three more different people with more different backgrounds you could not possibly imagine.  All of them Irish to the core.  As were the others who fought and died beside them.

Two were shot for their role in the rebellion–Markievicz merely imprisoned for a spell, and left to grieve for her compatriots, perhaps the cruellest fate of all.  She also grieved for Francis Sheehy Skeffington, militant pacifist, socialist, and advocate for women’s suffrage, who played no part in the 1916 rebellion, but was still ordered shot by a demented Anglo-Irish officer, for reasons no sane person could ever explain.  ‘Skeffy’ probably shouldn’t have spoken up when he saw the officer (driven half-mad by the war in Europe) murdering innocent people in a shop, nor should he have expressed sympathy for the goals of the rebels while rejecting their methods–but of course, being who he was, Skeffy could not do otherwise.  The officer was put on trial for war crimes, given a light wrist-slap, and ended up leading a prosperous post-military life in Canada, with no apparent sense of remorse.  There really are times when you wish there was a hell.

So today is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which seems a strange thing to say, because it began on April 24th of that year.  Which was Easter Monday, but Easter is a moveable feast, you see.  And somehow their ‘blood sacrifice’ (Pearse’s term) got wrapped up in both Christian and Irish pagan symbolism, and ever since the rising has been commemorated on Easter Monday, whenever that happens to fall in the church calendar.  In Ireland, and ‘wherever green is worn’, as Yeats put it.  Those who gave their lives for an ideal they never lived to see become reality (and it remains to be seen if it ever will) were ‘changed, changed utterly–a terrible beauty is born.’

And ever since, the Irish intelligentsia (such as it is) has argued about whether they were right or wrong, whether it was better to just let the war in Europe burn itself out (over a million people, including many Irishmen, died in the Battle of the Somme alone–many more than have died for Irish independence in the last several centuries–that’s not making anything right, just putting things in proportion).

What followed the romantic gesture of the Rising was a tide of anger over the way the English, under great stress from the Great War, and never much inclined to respect the Irish at any time, had reacted to what amounted to a few hundred earnest patriots seizing a few buildings in Dublin (to be fair, the rebels had sought aid from Germany, and the Irish aren’t the only ones who can get over-emotional in wartime–it’s a human thing).

Few people in Dublin supported the rebellion when it was happening, many were angry at the rebels, but it was particularly revolting to them the way the leaders were executed–Connolly, badly wounded in the leg, perhaps dying, tied to a chair and shot, while showing no sign of fear–somehow invoking the image of Cúchulainn, Ireland’s mythic hero.  The Rising had not been militarily successful, but it was symbolically successful.

My grandparents came from farms outside small towns; Glenamaddy, Ballinasloe, Woodford, Abbeyfeale.   None of them played any role in the rebellion–or in the much more violent and bitter conflicts that followed it.  They had to leave–there was no place for them in Ireland, no work, no land, no future–that was one of the things the rebellion was about really, but you’d have to say things haven’t changed much since then.   Connolly said independence alone wouldn’t fix the problems, and he was dead right about that.

But in any event, my grandparents didn’t forget where they came from, the people they’d left behind, or the cause of Irish freedom, and when I see nativist scum here (some of them Irish), talking about how these new immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere aren’t ‘real’ Americans, that they still maintain ties to the old country, still take pride in their heritage, their language; still want to remember where they came from, still take an interest in the politics of their old homeland–it makes me want to spit.  Do we never learn?  Do we have to make the same mistakes, over and over again?  Don’t people understand how complex human loyalties can be?  How hard it can be to know who you are, when your identity is split so many different ways down the middle?   True for all of us, not just for immigrants, but immigrants (and often their children) have a particularly hard time of it.

‘Was it needless death after all?’, Yeats wondered, and many have wondered since.  I don’t think it’s a question that can ever be answered.   There’s no telling what would have happened if the Rising had somehow been suppressed, if these people had lived to fight another day, perhaps another way–we know they wouldn’t have abandoned their beliefs, their principles.  We know the anger would have simmered just as fiercely below the surface, as thousands of Irish soldiers came back from Europe, wounded and crippled, and just as badly off as they were before, and the obduracy of the Northern Unionists, who had also bled and died for Britain, would have probably blocked most attempts at serious reform.   I think those who say it could all have been resolved peaceably somehow–while the greatest mass butchery in human history to date was going on (so many new toys to play with)–are fooling themselves.  But we can’t know.

We can know that this was the first real blow struck against British colonialism around the world in the 20th century, and all over that world, people who had barely heard of Ireland, of all races and religions, all living under the Union Jack, were cheering the Irish on, feeling a comradeship with them, and perceiving that the British Lion was no longer as powerful as before–because a confident Britain would never have overreacted so badly, making martyrs and heroes of a handful of poets and activists, shelling one of its own capitals to put down a few hundred men and women occupying a few buildings.

WWI was, as Connolly had written, really a fight between Britain and the now more industrially powerful Germany over who would control vital overseas markets, and you might as well ask how the world might be different if Germany had won that war–its defeat, after all, led to the rise of the Nazis.  It’s not only or even primarily the patriotism of small nations that can have enduring bloody consequences.

When people say it was a mistake, they should have waited, they’re forgetting that people are not machines, that we are creatures of emotion, and that most of what’s best in us, as well as what’s worst, lies in those emotional responses, and the ways in which we channel them.  We are not rational beings most of the time, and the least rational of all are those who pretend not to be driven by emotion at all.  So the question to ask is–what emotions were the ’16 rebels fighting for?  And I’d argue the primary emotion they fought for was love.  Not hate.  Not bigotry.  Not ignorance, or intolerance.  Love.  They saw tens of thousands of Irishmen coming home from the war, in coffins or on crutches, for a cause that meant absolutely nothing to Ireland, and they couldn’t stand it any longer.

Connolly in particular, was in a state of utter despair, as the working classes of Europe shot each other to pieces.  Other socialists of the First International felt the same exact way, but most of them could find no practical outlet for their rage, and were simply swept along by events, having no allies outside their movement.  He, being Irish, had other alternatives.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, seen up top, is a testament to that love the rebels felt.  Pearse’s handiwork, with heavy input from Connolly and others, it proclaims that Ireland belongs to all the Irish, and that all people living in Ireland, native-born and immigrant, people of any religion or none, are the Irish.  All children of the nation, to be cherished equally.   Ireland’s increasingly multi-ethnic nature is putting that ideal to the test as I type this.  They aren’t the only ones having this problem.

To be sure, the poetic romanticism of the Rising gave way to grim reality; a brutally effective guerilla war of independence, followed by an even more horrific civil war between rival factions–that my paternal great uncle, who fought on the Pro-Treaty side, reportedly committed war crimes in.  Once the djinn was out of the bottle, there was no controlling it.  Those who wish to emulate these and other rebels need to understand that the aftershocks can stretch on for generations.   Not all rebellions are good, not all sacrifices are worthwhile.  Sometimes incremental reform, boring though it be, is preferable to revolution.  Sometimes it isn’t.   You decide for yourself, case by case.

But I still say that these Irish men and women, immigrants and natives, Protestants and Catholics, straights and gays, were fighting out of shared love and idealism, not hate.  It was simply that in the times they were living through, the only acceptable proof they could give of that love was to die for it–as even that ardent pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington died.  If we wish it to be otherwise, we should make a world where love of that nature can be proven through less sanguinary means.   Won’t make itself, will it now?

I’ve tortured myself over what song to end this with (and I’d better end it, getting maudlin already, it’s the Irish in me).  So many songs about the Rising, and so many fine recordings of each (and so many bad ones to boot).

James Connolly was my hero a long time before I read a word of Westlake.  For me, he embodies E.M.Forster’s ideal of The Natural Aristocracy as well as any man who ever lived (leaving aside the irony that Forster wrote that essay in rejection of patriotism, embracing a more personal ethic, but I think he’d have understood what I mean, and so would Connolly).

Connolly, to me, represents the human struggle to reconcile all the disparate loyalties that make up human identity–our attempt to make a coherent whole out of the many threads of individual identity.  He was an internationalist socialist all his life, a supporter of women’s rights, a fierce and canny fighter for working class empowerment, a passionate believer in the gospel ideal without really believing in the supernatural at all–and yet he was also a patriot–loving a country he hadn’t been born in all the more for having chosen to give it his loyalty; willing to die for it–not an abstract idea, but a living one, embodied by the poor people who made up the great majority of its citizens.

He could not honor one loyalty without violating another–trapped in a web of conflicting geasa (google it), like the Irish mythical hero whose death was so eerily mirrored by his own.  He could only hope he was doing the right thing, and that future generations of Irish men and Irish women could make sense of it, and make a country worthy of the sacrifice being offered up that day.  “We are going out to be slaughtered,” he told a friend, as the Citizen’s Army marched out of Liberty Hall that one last time.  And yet he went.

And this is the best song ever written about him.  And this is the greatest singer ever to record it.  The late Liam Weldon, of North Dublin.  And he never heard of you either.

Anyway, I’ll try to get back to the Nunsense later this week.  Happy Easter.  Erin go bragh.  Up the rebels.  All of them, everywhere–as long as they know what they’re rebelling against.

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Review: Good Behavior

It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is a great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies and have a vague idea, because we have heard it, and because our faith tells us so, that we possess souls. As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or who dwells within them, or how precious they are — those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty. All our interest is centred in the rough setting of the diamond and in the outer wall of the castle – that is to say in these bodies of ours.

From The Interior Castle, by Saint Teresa of Ávila

Dear Sister Mary Grace,

Wonderful News! God has seen fit to put us in the way of being helpful to a man who has just the skills needed to effect your rescue.  He is a burglar by profession, which means he has studied the art of going in or out of difficult or locked places. (He came to us through our roof!)

Before we cast the first stone, my dear, we should remember St. Dismas, crucified with Our Lord, a common criminal who repented at the very end.  “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise,” Our Lord promised him.  So it was St. Dismas, the thief, who was Our Lord’s chosen companion on his first momentous journey back to His Heavenly Father after his earthly travail, not one of the Apostles or Disciples, a fact we would do well to remember.

In any event, it is our hope, and our constant prayer to the Almighty, that this association with us and rescue of your own self may be the beginning of the path of reclamation for this latter-day Dismas, whose name is John.  Even now he is studying the best way to reach you and bring you out of your imprisonment. If you happen to have any advice or suggestions you might want us to pass along to John, concerning the physical details of your incarceration, I am sure he would be most pleased.

Praying for your early release, long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory and the conversion of Godless Russia, I remain, as ever,

Mother Mary Forcible

Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena

The sixth of the Dortmunder novels, this marks a real turning point in the series, and maybe the last of any significance.  Westlake had been assembling this world, piece by piece, book by book, character by character and it would never be 100% finished, but neither would it ever get much more developed after this one. The wildly inventive experimentation of the first three books, the fumbling around for a way to go on in the next two–over and done with.   And another thing is over and done with–Dortmunder’s four book losing streak.

The Hot Rock ended with him at least half-victorious–he’d finally stolen that emerald that didn’t want to be stolen, and he got revenge against the employer who had tried to cheat him, and he was supposed to get a sort of finder’s fee for returning it to its original owners.

But in the next four outings, he somehow always ended up with the short end of the stick–to the point where the introduction in the next book of his true love May, with her supermarket clerk gig and her light-fingered penchant for (literally) bringing home the bacon, was the only explanation of how he hadn’t ended up going on relief.  It sometimes seemed like Dortmunder wasn’t so much an armed robber as a smalltime burglar who occasionally planned a heist for some deep-pocketed client, and was lucky to just avoid going back to prison.

The heist would always come off (because we the readers want to see stuff get stolen), but he never profited from it, at least not directly.  The god of his universe kept him on a much shorter moral leash than Stark kept Parker on. And he didn’t appreciate that one bit, but he bore his humiliations with a stoic wounded dignity.  He really is a master thief, a brilliant planner, just like Andy Kelp keeps telling him, but because he does not, like Parker, live in an amoral universe (with an amoral audience), his destiny is always to end up holding an empty bag.  Or is it?  Can he find a loophole somewhere?    Get time off for good behavior?

The first of the two images up top, beneath the book covers, is St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Teresa de Jesus.  The granddaughter of a Jewish converso in Spain, she was raised in a wealthy family, dreamed of going on a crusade to the Holy Land, joined the Carmelites as a novice, and being a beautiful girl with a passionate nature, may not have been strictly faithful to her vows of chastity and poverty for a time, something church and state often winked at, since noblemen found certain convents a good place to find willing partners.

Depressed by what she saw as her failure, she then experienced a true vocation, and vowed to create a new reformed Carmelite order, devoted to both worldly service and otherworldly contemplation, a goal she attained (with a little help from her friends), and it still exists today.   She also began having intense haunting religious visions.  She also wrote some truly great books.   She also nearly got burned by the Inquisition once or twice.  She lived her life.

Then she died, and was interred in such a way that when her body was dug up some time later, it was found in a state of preservation that was deemed miraculous (it probably wasn’t), and she was eventually declared a saint–not for what she’d achieved in life, but for not decomposing normally after death.   If she’d married some grandee’s son, as might well have been her fate, she would have had children, died, and been forgotten.  Her strange genius for self-understanding–for plumbing the depths of the human spirit–would have been lost to the world.   In losing herself, she found herself.

The second image is of St. Dismas, the penitent thief, who belongs entirely to the realm of myth.  His feast day on the church calendar is March 25, which this year happens to be Good Friday.  A whole host of extremely dubious stories have been told about him since he first popped up (without a name) in the Gospel of Luke. In art, he is usually depicted crucified with his hands pointing downwards, his arms sometimes hung backwards over the crosspiece of the crucifix, or else tied to it by his elbows, like so–

                                                                                            “Come here often?”

                                                                                            “Nah.  Just hanging out.”

Not a fellow professional whose career path John Dortmunder would wish to emulate.   And yet–looking at the picture of him up top–there is something oddly familiar about the world-weary expression on the larcenous saint’s face, and that diffident gesture he makes with his left hand as he shoulders his cross, isn’t there?  You can almost hear him asking–“Why me?”   Why anyone, pal?

Donald E. Westlake was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, schooled a Catholic, and for all I know he died a Catholic, but if you’re going to get persnickety about it, he was a lapsed Catholic for most of his life (two divorces is precisely two more than a practicing Catholic is ever allotted).

It meant something to him, but precisely what is never easy to discern.  The Roman Catholic Hierarchy is one of the world’s oldest and most stratified authority structures, and you know how he felt about those.  He wrote most sympathetically of monks and nuns, I’d say, because they were at the very bottom of that structure–holding the rest of it up.  And because in at least some cases, their primary mission statement is self-knowledge.

I would think he saw Catholicism as part of his identity, but identity is a house with many rooms, and he spent most of his time elsewhere in the manse.  But now and again, he’d stray back in and revisit that room–or observe with great interest those who had chosen to live there exclusively.  What did they know that he didn’t?   What could be learned from them?  What stories did they have to tell?

And why is it that there’s always this strange affinity between saints and sinners? Jesus himself is said to have spent much of his time in the company of morally questionable persons. The scum of the earth is how most upstanding citizens saw them–to him they were just people, like everyone else. His followers have often (granted, not often enough) chosen to emulate this odd behavior.

Pope Francis (long life to him, seriously) visits prisons, washes the feet of inmates.   Maybe the point is that there’s really not such a huge difference.  The current pontiff says he might have been a criminal himself, had things gone differently–and has pointed out that many clergymen have themselves committed horrible crimes.  The line between saint and sinner is a fine one indeed.  By their works shall ye know them.   I think that’s enough sermonizing, don’t you?   Time for synopsizing.

Dortmunder is pulling yet another ill-fated burglary–this time on behalf of a food wholesaler named Chepkoff, who wants him to steal some high-end delectables from an importer in Tribeca.  Oh yeah, about that–

This building was on the corner of two streets in a southwestern area of Manhattan recently rechristened Tribeca, which means “The Triangle Below Canal Street,” and whenever any section of New York get a cute new name–SoHo for South of Houston Street, Clinton to replace the honorable old name Hell’s Kitchen, even NoHo for North of Houston Street–it means the real estate developers and gentrifiers and condominiumizers have become thick as locusts.  It means the old handbag factories and sheet metal shops and moving companies are being replaced by high-ticket housing.  And it also means there’s a long transition period of years or even decades when the plumbing supply places and the divorced advertising executives coexist, uneasy neighbors, neither entirely approving of the other.

And so it remains to this day, in neighborhoods most people never even knew existed until the real estate people started touting them as the next big thing. Gowanus, anyone?  Say this much though, they’re not doing the cute hybrid names so much anymore–“It’s a neighborhood built around a toxic canal, you wanna buy or rent?”   I think Westlake would approve.  Then again, I would have sworn he’d have disapproved of a word like ‘condominiumizer,’ so what do I know?

So Dortmunder is doing this job with a guy named O’Hara, and any hopes the latter had of joining the regular cast vanish when an alarm goes off, and the cops start closing in.  O’Hara gets nabbed below, the cops ascend, and Dortmunder is off and away over the rooftops, looking for a way out.  Any port in a storm, right? No atheists in foxholes.

So he winds up dropping in to visit a local convent (and I don’t have to say literally, do I?)  He is discovered clinging to the chapel rafters by its denizens, the Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena, which I presume to be as fictional as the Crispinite Monastic Order invented for Brothers Keepers, and perhaps even more eccentric–the sisters have taken a vow of silence, which they can only break on Thursdays, and it’s not Thursday.  So what follows is a lively game of charades, and everybody’s having fun, until Dortmunder asks them why they can’t just write notes, at which point they look a bit embarrassed.   Killjoy.

(Parenthetically–hence the parentheses–if you read that Wikipedia article I linked to, you’ll see that St. Filumena has turned out to be something of a fiction herself, or at least of rather questionable historical veracity, and her sainthood was more or less revoked, quietly, in 1961–and you can bet Westlake knew that. But he didn’t like it.  No takesie-backsies, Vatican!)

So he’s wondering why they haven’t called the cops.  Obviously it never occurs to him to take a hostage and bluff his way out.  Leaving aside his badly sprained ankle, Dortmunder is still somewhat intimidated by memories of having been raised as an orphan (abandoned at three minutes of age, which is more data than we had before) by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  His memories of them are not fond (they swung a mean ruler), but he was well-programmed to do whatever nuns tell him, at least when they’re looking right at him.  Force of habit, you might say.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

So then Sister Mary Serene, who first discovered him, has a duel of notes with Mother Mary Forcible, over how this fugitive felon might be the answer to their prayers (again it seems redundant to say literally); a solution to the problem of Sister Mary Grace (they can’t sing either, so no Rodgers & Hammerstein sextet, more’s the pity).  By the bye, there’s also a Sister Mary Chaste, a Sister Mary Lucid, a Sister Mary Amity, etc. and so forth.  They don’t make nun names like that no more. 

And the problem of Sister Mary Grace is this–she’s a prisoner.  In a tower.  How medieval.  (Seriously, it is.  We’ll get to that.)  Her birth name was Elaine Ritter. She had come to them as a novice, their first new recruit in ages, and her youth and spirit had won their hearts, you’ve seen the movies (so many movies).

But then her ogre of a super-rich father, a godless despot who controls the lives of all his children (and aspires to control much more) had her grabbed by his goons, and she’s being held on the top floor of his office tower, where a guy who deprograms cult members is working on her.  Hendrickson is his name.  He’s a minor character, and he walks out well before the story is over, but he’s there for a reason–to inform us that Elaine Ritter didn’t become Sister Mary Grace on a whim.  Some people might join a cult or religious order to give up their identity, and those are the people Hendrickson can reach.   She’s not one of those people.

The fact is, Elaine Ritter was not at all the sort of person he usually contended with.  His clients were almost always vague and confused, with very poor self-image and only a scattering of half-remembered education.  Generally, they had left their homes and gone off with Swami This or Guru That mostly because they were looking for a parent other than the parents they’d left, feeling some need for a parent who was more strict, or less demanding, or more attentive, or less cloying.  Different, that was the point.  Different parents, a different tribe, the growth of a different self who would be so much more satisfactory than the miserable original.  Religion and philosophy had little to do with those kids’ actions and decisions, and Hendrickson’s task, really, was not much more than to wake them up to the world around them and hold a mirror to their potential for selfhood.  Easy.

Elaine Ritter was something else.  No self-image problems for her, and religion and philosophy had everything to do with her decision to renounce the world and join that convent down in Tribeca.  On the religious side, she firmly believed in God and the Catholic Church.  Philosophically, she just as firmly renounced the world that men like her father had made.  Vocation was a fabulous beast as far as Hendrickson was concerned, but if the beast ever did live, it was in this girl.  She knew her own mind, and she would take no shit from Walter Hendrickson.

Too bad.  Shit was all he had for her.

(And as Hendrickson takes his leave, later in the story, having conceded failure, he warns her that her father is conceding nothing–he’s hired a different type of deprogrammer.  One who made his living in the Eastern Bloc nations, whose methods are somewhat more–intrusive. He’s broken Cardinals.  He’ll break her. Unless someone breaks her out.)

Frank Ritter is very influential, has more lawyers than Disney, and can block any legal action the Sisterhood may take indefinitely.  They know there isn’t much time for them to act, if they want their Sister back in one piece, mentally speaking.  Possibly not just mentally speaking.

They can communicate with her through Enriqueta Tomayo, the Guatemalan housekeeper (Westlake still remembering downtrodden Guatemala from his last book), who loves the little sister, is furious about the way she’s being treated, and will happily smuggle letters on her behalf.  But the security on that floor is tighter than hell (which is about how Sister Mary Grace sees it).   Which is why they need a professional.  Like Dortmunder.

So he says he’ll help them, and he goes home to May, and tells her what happened, and he has no intention of risking his neck for some nun he’s never met.  Dortmunder’s not a bad guy, but he’s never cherished any heroic fantasies. It’s not who he is.  This is high-risk, low-reward. He has enough troubles with jobs that are low-risk high-reward.

Kelp comes over, Dortmunder tells him about it, and Kelp laughs.  What suckers, these nuns, letting him go with nothing more than a pledge they can’t enforce, because they don’t even know his name.  Then Kelp looks at May, whose face is very stern and set.   “Now you see the problem,” Dortmunder says.

Here and there in the Parker novels, Claire Carroll would try to serve as Parker’s conscience, steer him to use his powers for good, and Parker would humor her, and do just as he pleased with his powers.   That’s how it works in the Stark Realms.  In the Duchy of Dortmunder, women have a lot more power (in part because more women are following Dortmunder than Parker.  At least that’s what the publishers think).

Dortmunder may not want to be a hero, but he’s got to at least put in a good faith effort here, or May will walk out on him–the sisters kept him from going back to prison for the rest of his life, he made a promise to them, he has to keep it.   His relationship with May is the only thing in Dortmunder’s life that doesn’t seem like an endless practical joke being played on him.  And he can’t live without her tuna casserole.  So he and Kelp start scoping out the job.  What the hell.  How bad can it be?

Bad.  The most advanced locks and alarm systems money can buy.  Hosts of armed security men.  They can’t even find the private elevator that goes up to that floor.   Now on the good side, there’s a lot of rich targets they could hit in that building–dealers in jewelry, antiques, and (to Kelp’s delight) a magic shop. If they could figure out a way to get into those places, and get the swag out undetected, they could maybe get some of their colleagues interested.  This is definitely not a two-man job.

But Dortmunder just doesn’t have enough information about the security, and May’s research at the library makes this Ritter sound pretty intimidating–the guy effectively owns whole countries in Latin America (Dortmunder doesn’t understand how that’s possible, and May has to explain about national debts and stuff).  He’s nobody you want to piss off.  And as matters stand, if Dortmunder gets picked up for so much as jaywalking, he’s going away for life as a repeat offender.

May doesn’t like it, but she’s ready to concede that it’s not looking like a good idea to pull this nun-heist, promise or no promise.  She doesn’t want to visit John in the joint for the rest of eternity.  She’s grown accustomed his face (such as it is).

But see, while Dortmunder may be more hen-pecked than Parker, he shares one very key aspect with him–once he actually starts working on a job, he has a hard time letting go of it.  A dog with a bone.  He’s proud of his larcenous skill set.  “I don’t like to believe there’s a place I can’t get in and back out again,” he tells her.  And something in you sings a little bit when he says it. He’s our guy.

But he’s May’s guy too, and she reluctantly says she’ll go with him to the convent, and explain his dereliction of duty to the Silent Sisters (on Thursday, so they won’t have to do the charades thing).  May wasn’t raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, so she’s not so intimidated by nuns.

Now as Dortmunder and May enter the convent to break the sad news–you see that letter Mother Mary Forcible sent Sister Mary Grace up top–where she mentioned that maybe there was some information about the place of her confinement that she could share with the latterday Dismas?  Sister Mary Grace is no wilting violet–she’s a rose with many thorns.   She figured out the internal security code that gets her past some of the doors in her fairly capacious cell.

She still can’t escape, but she can go places she’s not supposed to go, and she got her hands on something she’s not supposed to have–the security manuals for the entire building.  Specs and schematics for all the alarm systems.   A list of all the tenants–including the businesses Dortmunder & Kelp have it in their minds to rob, and how much security each has opted to pay for.  Everything he could possibly have asked for and more.  The Idiot’s Guide to Heisting The Avalon State Bank Tower.  Is what gets dropped right in his lap, before he can say a word about quitting.

And his eyes shining, the path before him now clear, his vocation fully engaged, Dortmunder says to Mother Mary Forcible, “Let us prey.”  He’s not passing her a note, so she doesn’t have to know how he’s mentally spelling it.

So that’s how Part One ends.  Entitled Genesis.  Part Two is Numbers.  Yes, it’s a theme.

And this is a very short Part 1 (for me), but it seems like a good spot for a break (Part 2 will be arranged somewhat differently), and I wanted to get this kicked off before The Feast of St. Dismas concludes.  I did not plan to reach this book around the time of that feast day, let alone Good Friday, in case you were wondering.   Call it divine intervention.   And now comes the divine intermission.

Happy Easter, all.  Praying for the early completion of Part 2, long life to the Pope (if Benedict hadn’t resigned, I’d be more lukewarm about that), forgiveness of the Souls who go see that Batman v. Superman movie (my idea of purgatory), and the conversion of godless Ray Garraty, I remain, as ever.

Fred Fitch

Brotherhood of the Mock-clever Review Segue.


Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Good Behavior, novel, Uncategorized

Review: High Adventure, Part 2


Tommy Watson and Luz Coco were the only South Abilenians fluent in English and, so far as Kirby could tell, the only sophisticates in the crowd, whose conversation and manner betrayed a wider knowledge of civilization.  With their half-mocking existential hip form of the traditional Indian fatalism, they looked like a couple of Marx brothers wandering through a Robert Flaherty documentary.  They were so total a contrast, in fact, that Kirby would have loved to know their story, but they insisted he tell them first how it happened that he had bought the farm.

“It looked great when I saw it,” Kirby said.  “St. Michael was just representing the real owner, some big aristocrat up in Mexico.  The aristocrat couldn’t take back a mortgage on account of taxes, so the price was right because I could pay all cash.”

“Fat man?” Tommy asked.  “Happy with himself?”

“That’s Innocent St. Michael,” Kirby agreed.

“It was his land,” Tommy said.  “He’s been looking for a first-class fish for years.”

“I appreciate that information, Tommy,” Kirby said.

“So you’re a rich man, right?” said Luz.  “You can afford a mistake.”

“Rich men,” Kirby told him, “don’t risk their ass and twenty years in jail flying pot to the states.  That’s how I got the money.  Oh Jesus,” he said, remembering.

Tommy swigged home-brew and puffed pot and said, “Something else, huh?”

Kirby swigged and puffed and swigged and puffed and said, “I just gave the rest of my money to a guy in Texas for some cows.”

Luz laughed.  Tommy tried to look sympathetic, but he was grinning.  Kirby swigged and puffed, and then he too laughed.  “I guess I’m not as smart as I think I am.”

“Nobody is,” Tommy said.  “But what the hell, we can still enjoy ourselves.”

So, having abruptly decided to make this review a two-parter, breaking it off at what seemed to me an appropriate juncture, I was then informed by one of my comments section kibitzers that I had failed to explain or justify my contention that this book is, in some ways, a reworking of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which I consider the very worst novel Donald Westlake ever published under his own name (unless there’s a worse one he never published, and seeing as the two ‘lost’ novels published after his death were both really good, I doubt that).  And of course it was too late to fix my error by then, but I appreciate that information, Mike.

Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is about Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, a tall lean sullen disgruntled young adult from a rich dysfunctional family that more or less disowned him, who then blackmailed his rich dad for the money to buy a yacht, which he named the Nothing Ventured IV.  (What happened to the first three? Oh right, because the yacht is an extension of Kelly’s personality, and he’s a IV. Missed that last time.)

He has a scheme to make his own fortune (or at least the operating capital to make his own fortune), by kidnapping a movie star.  He recruits two sardonic offbeat chums of his (one of whom is a hip young black guy, and the other does impressions) as henchmen, and makes his pitch for the caper, and they hesitantly agree.  Partly for the money, but mainly because it sounds kind of fun, albeit risky.

So they grab the movie star, but it doesn’t go as planned, and they end up also grabbing Jigger Jackson (I still don’t know where the hell Westlake got that name from), a spicy young redhead who wants to be a film star herself, but not so much because she really wants to do the work involved in being an actress (it’s not clear if she’s even studied acting), but rather because she, like Kelly, aspires to become independent, to not have to bother with people she doesn’t like, and for that you need money (while we the readers are shown that becoming really famous is not necessarily the best way to avoid dealing with people you don’t like).

It’s hate at first sight between the two of them, which of course really means they’re meant for each other, because that’s the kind of story this is, heavily derived from the work of P.G. Wodehouse, but lacking the master’s fine control (in a short time, Westlake himself would be the master).

Jigger wanted to somehow become the titular Sassi’s protege, and is convinced that she has to save her from these dastardly kidnappers, but in fact Sassi is delighted to take a break from her movie star life, and just get to be a person for a while.  Jigger sees herself as the spunky heroine in some sort of Nancy Drew-ish adventure–she projects her youthful empowerment fantasies onto the world around her, and for her to be the heroine, somebody has to be the bad guy, namely Kelly.

But as the story winds on (drags on, really), she realizes she’s in love with Kelly, that they are in fact soulmates, that she’s badly misunderstood the situation, and that movie stardom was never what she really wanted, and she and Kelly sail off into the sunset on the Nothing Ventured IV, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms.

That’s all the synopsis I can bear to type.  Notwithstanding some very clever writing, it’s a terrible book.  But you can see the potential for something better, if not necessarily something brilliant.   And so could Westlake.   And this book is it.  Not brilliant–but a whole lot better.  And much more rooted in reality, while still very much a fantasy.

Westlake seems to have spent some time in Jamaica before writing Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and he tries to incorporate his impressions of that island nation and its people into the book, as he also did with Mexico (The Damsel), Puerto Rico (The Dame), and the Lesser Antilles (I Gave At the Office, but also the nonfiction Under An English Heaven).  The book after this one has a final chapter set in Aruba.  Under any name, he likes to write about tropical settings and the people who live there, and he likes to visit them first.   If you were raised in upstate New York (as Kirby Galway, the male lead in this book was, after being orphaned at a young age), you’d want to get someplace warm too.

But he must have known his descriptions of these places and their inhabitants were superficial–perhaps necessarily so, but he wasn’t satisfied with them.  He’d gone to a lot more trouble getting Kenya and Uganda right for Kahawa (even though he couldn’t safely visit Uganda when he was in Kenya), and as we’ve seen, he’d made such an extensive tour of Belize in 1984 that he and his wife wrote a long authoritative travel piece for the New York Times about it.

So he’s had a great deal more experience of life, of love, of the world, and of writing comic novels with a serious core to them, by the time he gets around to this one.  And Belize is a very small country–and very safe to venture around in then.  These days, travel advisories tell you to avoid certain areas in Belize City because of drug-related crime, but it’s still a very friendly open welcoming place, at least according to The Peregrine Dame.  (And I believe everything sexy brunettes in bikinis tell me.  It’s a rule.)

High Adventure is dedicated to Westlake’s wife Abby, who explored this brave new world with him, but also to five prominent citizens of Belize they had clearly spoken with; Emory and Elisa King, Stewart and Lita Krohn, and Compton Fairweather, who sounds like he could be a character in this very novel, but definitely not Innocent St. Michael.

An abridged passage from Emory King’s book, Hey Dad, This is Belize! serves as a sort of preface to the novel–the strange but true story of what happened to a traveling circus there, which demonstrates both the generous hospitable spirit of Belizean people, and the unpredictable and often chancy nature of daily life there.  It contains a warning for those who go there with ambitious plans: “Bigger circus than this come to Belize and broke up.”   In retrospect, seeing as this book is long out of print, perhaps a warning for ambitious novelists as well; but what the hell, he still enjoyed himself.

Westlake did his homework and then some.  And if my prefatory remarks frequently run on too long, it’s only because I try to follow his example.  The synopsis resumes.

So having come across Kirby Galway’s fake Mayan temple, exactly where she thought there would be a real one, and seeing Duluth-based museum curator Whitman Lemuel there, and remembering that she’d seen these two men talking at a party in New York, idealistic young archaeologist Valerie Greene correctly assumes Lemuel is engaged in the illicit purchase of Mayan artifacts, but also incorrectly assumes that Kirby is selling him real ones.  DESPOLIATION!!!

Lemuel, to whom the six foot Valerie now greatly resembles the protagonist of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (he feels almost Lilliputian in her presence), flees in terror, fearing both professional disgrace and criminal prosecution.  Fledgling con man Kirby, who was just reeling in his fish only to see him scared away by this pestilence of a woman, starts swearing profusely, and waving his machete around with wild abandon.

Valerie departs in some haste, intending to inform the proper authorities of this outrage, but her driver, supposedly working for Innocent St. Michael (who in this specific instance actually is innocent), but covertly working for Innocent’s treacherous assistant Vernon, who is in the employ of the Guatemalan military for some sinister agenda not yet revealed (even to Vernon), spirits her away to an isolated cabin, where the terrified Vernon reluctantly orders her death to avoid exposure.

As the days pass, and Valerie fails to resurface, Innocent St. Michael presumes her dead, and not knowing of Vernon’s treachery, believes Kirby somehow bribed the driver to kill her–and having somehow fallen in love with a girl he just took to bed for a lark (because that’s what you do with girls when you’re Innocent St. Michael), he swears he will find some way to make that murdering bastard pay for his crime.

Meanwhile Kirby and his Mayan partners in crime dismantle their fake temple, leaving no evidence of their confidence scheme, and are blissfully unaware of Valerie’s disappearance, or the various intrigues going on around them, being so very caught up in their own.  I think that catches us up.  We’re about 174 pages in as Part 1 (The Famous Plane) concludes, and Westlake calls for an intermission, before resuming with Part 2 (Tings Bruk Down).  Phew.

So before I resume, you see that scary-looking fellow up top?  That’s an artist’s impression of the evil Mayan bat god, Zotzilaha, only reimagined as Batman.  Or it’s Batman reimagined as Zotzilaha.  Either way.  While rereading the book, in which ‘Zotz’ plays a rather key role, it occurred to me that Westlake sometimes references The Dark Knight, having once nearly ended up writing for one of his venues  (I don’t know which one, maybe Detective Comics?), so he probably made that connection, and I googled, and he’s not the only one.  So that’s worth knowing.  I guess.  Got your popcorn?   Okay, I’ll start the projector rolling again. Somebody dim the lights.

So as Part 2 begins, Kirby is back from a smuggling run to the states in his Cessna aircraft, Cynthia.  What happened with Valerie and Lemuel was unfortunate, but nobody can prove anything, maybe the fake artifact business can be revived later, there’s still pot to be smuggled, he’s got his Mayan chums to hang with (including a girl named Rosita he’s taking horrible advantage of, sick wife in America, yeah right), things will work themselves out.  Kirby tends not to make long-term plans.

And as he returns to the remote village of South Abilene, where Tommy and Luz live, and where the faked artifacts are made  (Kirby lives closer to town with a somewhat more civilized Mayan couple), he starts hearing weird stories about how Sheena Queen of the Jungle has come to live there. You know, this girl. Only not blonde.  Probably a printer’s error.


Well of course it’s Valerie.  She heard Vernon order her killed, and strapping lass she is, was able to break through the wall of her prison, and run out into the jungle, where she spent several harrowing days, finding out that living on roots and berries is something best left to comic book heroines.

And then she found the village, where she was given shelter and succor and a cool nickname, and I totally believe all of this.  It happened to a birder friend of mine, years ago.  Only he came across a documentary film crew in Columbia, several hours after escaping from a guerilla camp, after they captured him and his companions, thinking they were CIA, and you think I’m making all this up, don’t you?  Well hah!

(Everybody else was eventually released as well, but it took a while.  Thankfully it worked out more like a Westlake than a Stark, but there were some Starkian elements in the plot at various points, based on what I heard).

Valerie has come to love these people as much as Kirby does, albeit not in quite the same way–to him, they’re just his buds, as much on the bend as him.  To her, they’re a dream made real.  She thought she was an archaeologist, out to preserve the ancient past from greedy collectors, but she’s really more of an anthropologist, out to understand and learn from people who are still here, and to protect them from people far more evil than greedy collectors.

And she still thinks Kirby is one of those people they need protection from, but Westlake still isn’t ready for them to talk, so Kirby just figures his friends have been smoking too much gage again, and she figures Kirby will try to have her killed again.  Kirby does see a tall white woman running for cover, while flying overhead in Cynthia, but he just sort of shrugs it off.

Skipping ahead a bit, that happy go lucky trickster, Innocent St. Michael, still distracted with grief and rage nigh-Shakespearean in proportion, finally gets a gun and tries to shoot Kirby dead with it.  He has no idea how to use a gun, so he misses, repeatedly (this would never happen in a Richard Stark novel).  Kirby’s friend Manny holds a shotgun on him, while Kirby and he finally talk with something resembling honesty.

Kirby finally realizes ‘Sheena’ is Valerie, and needing to convince Innocent she’s alive, they all go to South Abilene, where Valerie, believing she’s been betrayed by everyone, runs into the jungle.  As she flees, she grabs a handful of tortillas Rosita baked for her (she’s been giving relationship advice to Rosita, and this may be the most absurd thing that happens in the whole book).   Rosita wanted to share the joys of cannibis with her new friend Sheena, but Valerie didn’t want to get high   She also didn’t want to offend anyone, so she said she couldn’t smoke anything.  Rosita, generous soul, made up some edibles for her.  The tortillas are heavily laced with you-know-what.  Valerie does not know this.  So we’re back to the adventures of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but they are sure as hell high adventures now.

And after a period of increasingly psychedelic wanderings through the rainforest (where some deity is clearly looking out for her, because there are no fewer than eight dangerously venomous species of snake there, including the Fer-de-Lance), she runs across a patrol of Gurkha soldiers (I know, this is three happenstantial jungle meetings in one book if you count Valerie barging in on Kirby and Lemuel, but remember what happened to my friend?).

Ah, the mighty Gurkhas, still protecting Belize on behalf of the British Empire (what’s left of it)–she’s saved!  Again!  Only for some reason these Gurkhas speak Kekchi, one of the Mayan languages–which she understands, but instinctively does not let them know she understands, because shouldn’t they be speaking Nepalese, or whatever?  (It’s Nepali, but I had to look it up.  I don’t know everything.)

So assuming she’s just some dumb white woman they’ll rape and murder once they get around to it, and obviously does not understand their language, they let the evil plan slip (hey, these guys don’t have the internet, they haven’t read that Evil Overlord List of things not to do when you have an evil plan).  Long story short, they aren’t Gurkhas.  They’re Mayans as much as Valerie’s friends are, but they are also brutalized ruthless Guatemalan soldiers disguised as Gurkhas, which is why Vernon was paid to get photos of Gurkhas in uniform.

Their mission is to wait until Vernon, under orders from his paymaster, brings a group of western journalists into a small village made up entirely of Guatemalan refugees, Indians who fled the horrible oppression of that country’s military dictatorship into Belize, where they have been welcomed and sheltered.  The Faux Gurkhas will slaughter the entire village before the horrified eyes of the reporters (who have cameras), and this scandal will  be a huge propaganda victory, discouraging more people from leaving Guatemala for Belize, and maybe forcing Britain to withdraw its small military force, which will allow Guatemala to move in and reclaim what it considers its lost province.

(Kind of curious to know if this book got any bad reviews in Guatemalan newspapers, but hey, the New York Times didn’t review it at all.)

So Valerie runs back into the jungle.  It’s getting to be a habit with her.  She’s coming down off her high, and she knows she has to find some way to save these people–who she hasn’t met, remember, it’s a different village.  Like that makes any difference. Sheena Queen of the Jungle protects all innocents in her primeval realm from nefarious evildoers.  It’s like her thing.

So meanwhile, back at the village (the one that isn’t going to get slaughtered), Kirby and Innocent have started ironing out their misunderstandings, hampered somewhat by the fact that Kirby can’t easily confess to a government official that he was committing fraud.  But Innocent, still doubting Valerie is alive, accepts Kirby did not kill her, and is thus forced to blame himself, which is what he was trying to avoid by blaming Kirby, of course.  She reached something in him he didn’t know was there, with her honesty and goodness–she was the magical lozenge that changed his personality, but he knows it won’t last.

Innocent said, “Kirby, did you ever visit someplace that was really nice, a place that made you happy, so you started to think maybe you’d just like to stay there forever?”


“But then after a while you realize it isn’t your place, you don’t fit in except as a visitor, you don’t belong there and you never will.  So you go home, where you do belong, and where you’re happy most of the time because it’s the right place where you ought to be.

“Okay, Innocent.”

“From time to time,” Innocent said, “you remember that other place, and how nice it was to visit, but you don’t make the mistake of thinking you can go back and live there.  So that’s what’s happening now, Kirby.  I’m visiting some other me, a real nice me that I never knew before,”  That lazy smile softened Innocent’s features once more.  “But don’t worry about it,” he said.  “I’ll go home to the real me when the time comes.”

“In that case,” Kirby said, now completely sincere, “I’m glad I was here to meet the other fella.”

(Westlake was typing this at home, of course.  Wistfully, I’d think.  Getting ready to go back to the heists and murder mysteries.)

So Valerie,  having finally figured out who the real bad guys are, enlists Kirby’s aid, and the aid of the South Abilenians, and Cynthia’s aid for that matter. There’s no time to bring in the real Gurkhas–Vernon is driving the journalists to the other village right now, not knowing why he’s been ordered to do this, but he knows it’s something bad, and he is filled with a sense of some horrible destiny overtaking him at last.  They have to somehow stop the slaughter, and Kirby has an idea.

The South Abilenians have, with great reluctance, made up a bunch of little Zotzilaha statues for him to sell in America–now they make little parachutes for them.  Kirby and Valerie fly over the doomed village in Cynthia, buzz it a few times, then bombard the false Gurkhas with a host of tiny caped crusaders, and this is just going to make them laugh, right?   Well turns out there is at least one place on earth where the image of an anthropomorphized bat does strike fear in the hearts of criminals.   Who are, as you may have heard, a cowardly and superstitious lot.

The false Gurhkas had been brought up in Christian homes.  They had been taught to know and to love God and the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.  They had been taught to despise Satan and all his works.  They had risen above such education, and had struck out to live their own lives by their own rules.

No one had ever told them they had to believe in the Mayan gods and the Mayan devils.  Those beings were there in the stories, that’s all, there in the drawings, and the cloth designs and the carvings, there in the rites and ceremonies that a minority of their older relatives sometimes engaged in. Nobody had ever told them they had to believe in Zotzilaha Chimalman, and yet none of them had ever in his heart doubted that the cave of bats existed, the forked road to eternity existed, the evil hater of mankind was there in the darkness just waiting the opportunity to drag them down to eternal death.

He flies, Zotzilaha, he comes out of the sky like a bat.  He is full of tricks and malevolence.  If he catches you when your heart is black, you’re doomed.

They run screaming into the jungle, dropping their rifles.  Their leader tries to stop them.  He is shot dead by his own men.  Two of the villagers had already been killed, the rest survive.  One annoyingly witty Australian journalist is non-fatally wounded (he’s clearly a prototype for some fellows we’ll be meeting in a later book, but there’ll be time for that later).  Vernon is shot several times, and to his deep despair, he survives–he’s not getting off that easily.  It’s over. Good has triumphed.  In the form of evil.  Irony!

So what’s left is mainly just tidying up a bunch of dangling plot threads, which Westlake does fairly well.  Kirby gets his money back from Innocent, but Innocent, back to his old trickster self, has one more joke to play.  Kirby and Valerie have sex, and it’s an anticlimax, but no doubt a very pleasant one.  Rosita is just plain out of luck, but she was sleeping with a married man whose wife was dying (or so he told her), so what do you expect?

Alan and Gerry remain a happy gay couple, still not entirely understanding what the hell happened, but it was an adventure, wasn’t it?  And they got high, didn’t they?  Their journalist friend, who was there in the village when the false Gurkhas came, has a hell of a great story to write when he gets back.  And I’ve shamefully neglected their subplot, because that’s what it was.  If there was ever a movie, most of it would probably end up on the cutting room floor.  And don’t you think maybe Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively for Kirby and Valerie?

Though Innocent wouldn’t spill the beans on Kirby for anything, admiring a good scam as much as anyone, there’s no way the fake temple or the pot smuggling can be kept quiet in the furor that’s going to stem from the narrowly avoided massacre.  Kirby’s a hero of Belize, but he’s also going to be a wanted criminal there for a while (Belizean law tends to have a short memory for such things; he’ll be back someday).

One assumes life returned to normal for the residents of South Abilene, which isn’t saying much.  Manny and Estelle Cruz, who he’s been living with, are saddened to see him go, but they get to keep all the modern improvements he bought for them, such as they are.

So he and Valerie just get into Cynthia, and fly away to a secluded tiny island off the coast of Central America, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms, and it looks like they’re settling into a long-term thing as we leave them, each somehow correcting for the flaws in the other, and it’s a bit contrived, sure, but no more than Shakespeare’s romances, and a lot less than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?  I have left out a whole lot of ancillary characters, by the way, but you could just read the book.

Oh, and Kirby frames Whitford Lemuel, the curator from Duluth, for pot smuggling.  He does this, believe it or not, in a spot called Trump Glade, in Florida.  I’m 100% sure that’s just a freaky coincidence, and I’ve lost count of how many of those I’ve come across in Westlake’s fiction.

If Vernon’s crime was betraying his country, Lemuel’s was betraying his calling, as a preserver of man’s ancient past.  He wasn’t saving those artifacts for science, or cultural preservation–he was doing it for his own self-aggrandizement.  I’ll say it again; the only true crime in a Donald Westlake story is betraying yourself. The only salvation lies in in better understanding yourself, and what you’re here to accomplish.

And as our story ends, I can see Zotzilaha himself, the evil bat god of the Maya, grinning down with malevolent humor on the infernal chaos he has spawned for dark unknowable purposes of his own.  Let those mortals who have proven their worth be happy a short time, but he shall someday have his–eh?   It’s his other line ringing.  Aw geez, not the Catholics again!  Don’t those people ever let up?   Ah well, better change.  They scare easy.

And suddenly he’s a skinny white man in his fifties, balding, glasses, sitting in a small office, maybe in an apartment somewhere.  Now what’s the problem?   Imprisoned nun, evil father, office tower, mercenary army, uh huh, got it.  Okay, who’s available to handle this job?  The wolf guy?  No, he always makes a mess, bullets flying everywhere, and he hasn’t been answering his phone lately.  The actor?   Can’t trust him anywhere near the nun.  The ex-cop?  Can’t listen to another of his long-winded guilty confessions afterwards; that guy needs to mellow out, try some of the latest pharmaceuticals.

“John, I guess this falls on you.  It’s a local gig.  Don’t fuck it up this time.  I’ll make it worth your while.   Anyway, I owe Otto something commercial.  Even God needs a publisher.”

Sitting down at his desk, he fits a sheet of foolscap in his celestial Smith-Corona, and begins to shape the world around him.

Brothers and Sisters: Let us Prey.

(One of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized

Review: High Adventure


It was now a little past midnight, and he had nearly 800 miles to travel, most of it over water.  Depending on winds and weather, the trip would take between five and seven hours; in any event, it would be before dawn when he landed.  Stowing the last parcel, he yawned and said, “You get the temple put away?”

“Oh yeah,” Tommy said.  “The hill’s a little scuffed up, that’s all.  You can see there’s been digging.”

Luz said “I’m looking forward to those assholes.   They’ll shit when they get here and don’t see any temple.”

“Just so that ends it,” Kirby said, and yawned again.  “I’ll see you guys next week some time,” he said.  “When I get back from this trip, I’m just gonna hibernate.”

Innocently, Tommy said “What’s hibernate?”

Kirby said “What bears do in winter.”

Tommy said, “What’s winter?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Kirby said, and flew away with the music of their laughter in his ears.

Actually, for Valerie, these days marijuana would be superfluous.  She was high already, high on just being alive and high on this wonderful village in which she found herself.  Her initial fears that she might be sexually mistreated faded rapidly when she saw how thoroughly this was a family village; life here was too open and monogamy too ingrained for any hanky-panky.  (Had a few of the boys first met Valerie away from town it might have been a different story, of which she remained happily ignorant)

But the point was, these were Mayas, true Mayas.  Unlike the other archaeologists Valerie had known, her teachers and her contemporaries, she had gone through the time barrier, had actually entered into the ancient civilization the other scholars only studied.  It is true these people were no longer temple builders, were merely the decayed remnant of a once-flourishing culture, but their clothing (apart from the inevitable blue jeans) bore echoes of ancient themes, ancient designs, ancient decoration. The faces of the people were the same as the faces on bowls and stelae a thousand years old.

You know that thing I do where I complain about how some New York Times reviewer didn’t properly appreciate this or that Westlake novel that didn’t fit what was considered his proper niche?   I can’t do that this time, because the New York Times does not seem to have reviewed this book.  At all.  Ever.  The online Times Archive shows neither hide nor hair of a review–the only mention of it I can find is in a much later review of a much later book (and I’ll be complaining about that critic’s shortcomings in due course, won’t that be fun).

I did find this lovely travel piece, contributed by Donald and Abby Westlake (credited as Abby Adams) back in 1984, within which the proximate source of this book’s genesis can be easily divined.  Sounds like exceptionally enjoyable research.  Busman’s holiday, Mr. Westlake?  Say no more, nudge nudge.

The admiring blurbs on this book’s beautifully rendered dust jacket (Westlake never had better art for a hardcover–Otto Penzler was clearly determined to prove to Westlake that he’d found a real home at last) are primarily from fellow writers, lending a comrade a hand.  Pretty sure no film studio ever called his agent about optioning it.  There don’t seem to have been a lot of foreign editions (you can see the Italian one up top).

It did get an American paperback reprint from Tor, a publisher Westlake was then developing a relationship with–that would soon end very badly–even by the standards of Westlake and publishers, and you’ll remember what he said about publishers in our last book. Tor’s rather banal attempt to fool readers into thinking they’re getting an Indiana Jones rip-off should perhaps have come as a warning, but I guess it was too late by then.

This one really fell between the cracks–even though it was published by The Mysterious Press, and was certainly sold as a crime novel (there are crimes committed in it, people do die, there’s plenty of adventure, high and otherwise).  It’s another of Westlake’s Problem Books–hard to pigeonhole, harder to sell, but we can be sure Mr. Penzler bravely refused to say he did not know how to sell it.  It certainly does have elements of some of Westlake’s more popular comic crime novels, but arranged in such a way as to create a very different effect.

It’s also one of those books I liked a lot better the second time through.  In fact, as the plot began to pick up pace, I found myself rather loving it, while seeing its failings even more clearly –love doesn’t necessarily have to be blind.  Much like the lighter and more cynical Castle In The Air, it may not be Westlake’s best work, but it’s still good work, well worthy of a second look.  It’s also something of a lozenge play.  Yes, I’ll explain.

W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, had this idea about a magical lozenge that would change people’s personalities, leading to various comedic complications, and he wanted to make it the basis of an operetta–and it never worked.  He could never once make it work, at least not to the satisfaction of his normally adoring public (or Mr. Sullivan).  He kept trying to reintroduce it, in one form or another, and nobody liked it.   But he did, and he refused to give up on it, probably to his dying day.  And it is my personal theory that every professional storyteller has at least one lozenge play tucked away somewhere in his or her trunk, if writers have such things as trunks anymore.

This is not really such a lozenge play in the literal sense–a narrative hinging entirely on the premise of an identity-altering plot device ingested orally (that would be Smoke, and amazingly enough, Westlake actually did make it work)–but it is a collection of ideas Westlake had used earlier, in books that never did catch fire with the public, or the critics, and he may have felt they were worth another try–and this probably didn’t catch fire either, but it is a much better book.  Maybe good enough that Westlake felt like he could let some of the old lozenges go, and move on to greener pastures.

What previous Westlake books contributed to this one?–well, self-evidently, Under An English Heaven, that work of nonfiction about the proud independent multi-racial people of Anguilla, their quest to remain an independent nation, and to avoid oppression by perfidious St. Kitts  by remaining under the flag of the British Empire, while still getting to do whatever the hell they wanted most of the time.  Anguilla is briefly referenced here by the narrator, but the influence would be obvious regardless.  Belize had just recently become independent of the United Kingdom in the time period this book is set in, but was still under its direct military protection, a rather key element in the story.

Then there’s Westlake’s recurrent obsession with Latin America, and his boundless affection for its people, which has been touched on in many books by now.  Usually he made it an imaginary Latin American country to give himself more freedom as a storyteller, but having spent an idyllic time in Belize, and realizing to his delight that there was a real country that was equal to his wildest imaginings–where people of many cultures and skin hues all got along fine most of the time, the democratically elected government helped its citizenry without getting in their way too much, people had all kinds of fun beneath the tropical sun, and there were even Mayan temples to boot–and they spoke English!–he was not going to pass it up.

You might suspect he cleaned it up a little–there are occasional hints in the novel that not everything there is so perfect all the time–but essentially he and Belize were of one mind with regards to how life should be lived, and perfection is dull, anyway.

However, these things I mention are not lozenges, per se–just enduring interests of the author that crop up throughout his work.  Where’s the failed idea he tried to turn into a successful one?  On second reading, I was rather appalled to realize that the underlying foundation of this enjoyable book was Westlake’s worst book ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?–cunningly disguised, to be sure.  No kidnapped movie stars here.  No crime-plotting computer.  No wacky sidekick who does impressions.  But the outlines of the prior narrative and its thin but likable characters are unmistakable.  He knew that book he’d made out of a rejected screenplay was an awful dud, but he still wanted to make the damn lozenge work the way it was supposed to.  And be damned if he didn’t pull it off here–up to a point.

There are also many elements from Kahawa present–the closest thing to a central protagonist this book has is a pilot, and something of a soldier of fortune. There’s quite a bit of sex, though much less than Kahawa.  It’s one of his foreign adventure books, and those are never his absolute best books, but they’re something he enjoyed doing, because he was interested in the world around him, in different cultures, different races, different modes of identity.  It’s part of who he was as a writer.  Like excessively long intros is part of who I am as a reviewer. Synopsis, please.

Kirby Galway is a pilot who owns his own small plane, which he has named Cynthia.  Cynthia and he have been engaged in various semi-legal and outright criminal enterprises for some time now, and having saved up a bit of cash, Kirby wanted to try cattle ranching in Belize.  He bought some land from a local functionary, Innocent St. Michael, who is described as a happy mingling of African, Mayan, Spanish and Irish influences, and has somehow managed to combine the most roguish elements of his ancestry into one charming (if chunky) 57 year old package.  He is, in short, an affable con man, as well as a ladies man with few peers, and Kirby was one of the many pigeons he’s plucked in his colorful career.

He sold Kirby a parcel of real estate out in the jungle, that looked ideal for grazing cattle, but because of an oddity of the local landscape, there’s no water there for half the year, and therefore no grass to graze upon–then when the rains come, it springs back to life for a few months.  The land is worthless, but Innocent made sure to only show it to buyers when it was lush and green, as opposed to arid and dusty.  Kirby was looking with disgust at this white elephant of an estate he’d sunk all his capital into, when he met some of the local Mayans–descendants of the people who created one of the world’s great civilizations, then for reasons that are still not  well understood, abandoned it, and went back to a simpler mode of living.

Two of them, Tommy and Luz, did a lot of their growing up in the U.S., speak perfect if idiomatic English, and they and Kirby quickly form a fast friendship, aided in part by Kirby being engaged in smuggling marijuana (the locals call it ‘gage’) on the side (this is where the ‘high’ part of the adventure comes from, and I suppose you could say it does constitute a sort of personality-altering lozenge for some people, but more on that later).  Kirby and the entire village get wasted together on high-grade pot and homebrewed beer.  It’s a bonding experience. Well yeah, I guess it would be.  Not that I’ve ever inhaled.  The beer thing I’m more familiar with.

Kirby realizes that he genuinely likes these people, lives happily with a Mayan couple, using the proceeds from his smuggling operation to make their lives more comfortable–they become family to him, maybe the first real family he’s ever known.  He’d been a loner up until then, since his father was a movie stuntman, and his mother a little-known actress, and they were killed in Spain while shooting a scene on a roller coaster, when he was just a kid.  Kirby was raised by his aunt in upstate New York.   But he inherited the wander lust from both his parents.   He’s been a rolling stone for most of his life, and now he wants to gather a little moss.

So having been swindled out of his moss by Innocent, Kirby suddenly hits upon a brilliant idea for a con of his own–to turn this worthless land he bought into a goldmine.  Or rather, an archaeological dig.  See, some of his newfound friends are experts at creating the very artifacts their ancestors made.  It’s not fake Mayan art, because they’re real Mayans.  But it’s not ‘authentic’, because it’s not old.  It’s only valuable if some Mayan who lived many centuries ago made it, in between human sacrifices.  Only suppose it was found strewn around a heretofore undiscovered Mayan temple in this country that has still not been thoroughly explored?

All you have to do is build the temple and bait the trap.  So that’s what they do. Making stone whistles, and stone figures of Zotzilaha, the malevolent bat god of the Maya, who conveys unwary souls to Maya hell.  That’s him up top, left of those grinning kids.  Nasty cuss.  Very popular with collectors.  Kirby’s accomplices are reluctant to make the little statues of him.  Well, of course they don’t really believe in him.  Just like modern Irish people in rural areas don’t really believe in the sidhe.  Sure they don’t.

Kirby’s idea is that he strikes up conversations with suckers, I mean enthusiasts, back in the States, let it slip that he owns this land with an undiscovered temple on it, and he’s tried to get the authorities interested, but they keep telling him there’s no temple there, and these amazing objets d’art are just lying around, with no one to appreciate them (modern-day Mayans don’t count), and if only someone with the necessary expertise could come and find them a proper home, and you get the picture.  He’s currently working on a museum curator from Duluth and a gay couple from Manhattan.

Unbeknownst to him, the gay couple, Alan and Gerry, are actually collecting information for a journalist friend of theirs named (also gay, but much less self-consciously so) who wants to do a piece about the illegal trade in Mayan art–which of course Kirby is not engaged in, since nobody worries about the illegal trade in faked artifacts–that’s an entirely different area of criminal endeavor, namely fraud, and to report it, you’d have to admit you were trying to engage in the illegal purchase of real artifacts.

It’s very confusing, yes.  Intentionally so.  This is a comedy of errors, after all.   Which is to say, a comedy that revolves around people constantly misunderstanding each other, coming to false conclusions about the identities and motives of other people they’re dealing with, because we’re always making up stories in our heads about people we interact with, but don’t really know. Most of the time, we don’t even know ourselves.   And this is always the kind of story Westlake wants to tell.

Example: Kirby has to entertain both the curator and the gay couple in Belize City at the same time, then show them both his fake temple, and he can’t let them know that they aren’t the first and only persons he’s made privy to this great discovery.  He can’t pretend not to know any of them.  So he tells the curator that the two other men he’s talking to are drug kingpins he deals with. And he tells Alan and Gerry the same thing about the curator.

And these are three of the most meek and mild-mannered men you could imagine–but they look at each other, with Kirby’s none-too-subtle innuendos in their heads, and they project the qualities such a person is supposed to have onto each other, and in no time at all, as was Kirby’s intent, they’re in mortal terror of each other.  The great thing about being a con artist is that people are so damn good at conning themselves.   You just plant the seed, and they do most of the tilling.   You don’t have to go to Belize or some other exotic locale to see this happening.  Just watch cable news.  (I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ‘T’.)

In the meantime, Innocent St. Michael, himself a con man of high renown, is wondering why his hapless victim Kirby is looking so chipper these days, and why he’s showing these people that worthless land, and did the con man somehow get conned?   He must know.  But he’s also a ladies man, and the ladies man must score.  Which is where Valerie Greene comes in.   Well, technically he comes in her, but we’ll get to that.

Valerie is an impressive sight–all of six feet tall, pleasingly proportioned, with ‘hair colored hair’ (a phrase Westlake took to using when he didn’t feel like going into detail about someone’s hair color–some perfectly nice and unremarkable shade of brown is what he means), and a piercing forthright gaze of unflinching virtue and honesty and almost unfathomable naivete in her eyes.  The ingenue, in other words.  But what an ingenue.  The Xena Warrior Princess of ingenues. Though since that isn’t a thing yet, she gets called Sheena Queen of the Jungle, which works about as well, even though she isn’t blonde.

Valerie is a trained archaeologist, whose passion is Mayan art, which she believes should be properly maintained and studied in its original setting–with regards to the illegal trade in Mayan artifacts, she is prone to saying things like “Despoliation!”  Kirby met her while he was romancing the curator at a party in New York, and in spite of her considerable feminine appeal, his main reaction was that she was a pest getting in the way of his spiel.  She didn’t think much of him either.  So obviously they’re going to end up together.  So obvious, in fact, Westlake doesn’t get around to hooking them up until the the story is nearly over.  Well, Shakespeare did that sometimes as well.  And we are, in case you hadn’t noticed, deep within the Tropical Forest of Arden here.

Valerie’s first hook-up (in Belize I mean, not ever, she’s no prude, sex simply wasn’t at the top of her to-do list for a while) is with Innocent St. Michael, who seduces her almost too easily, and a good time is had by all–her best to date, and maybe his too.  He’s married, but that’s rather beside the point–his marriage is a mere domestic arrangement, on both sides–his daughters want him to act his age and stop being such an old lech, but that’s daughters for you.   He likes Valerie very much–in fact, he likes people in general.

And women are people to him, strangely enough.  In post-coital mode, she expresses concern that he’ll be bragging of his conquest (he was telling her, as part of his seduction routine, that he’d had an affair with their waitress at the restaurant, engaging in sexual banter with the woman, right in front of Valerie–consciously advertising his abilities as a lover, and it worked)–well, you realize suddenly there’s more to him than you realized.  He’s many many things one might deplore, but he’s no misogynist.  Quite the contrary.

Alarmed, concerned, almost shocked, Innocent bounded to his feet with a surprising agility.  “Valerie, Valerie!”  he cried, holding her elbows, his manner totally serious for the first time since she had met him.  “We aren’t enemies!  I would never embarrass you, humiliate you!”

“But you tell everybody everything, don’t you?”

Releasing her, he said, “You mean Susie, at the restaurant?”  He grinned, relaxing, a happy bear, shaking his head.  “When I have lunch there with a businessman,” he said, “or someone from the government, do you think I tell him, a man, “I had that waitress”?  What would Susie do to me?”

“Pour your lunch on your head,” Valerie suggested.

Innocent laughed.  “You misunderstand Susie,” he said.  “She would stick a knife in my neck.”

Take notes, guys.  This is good stuff.   And well worth reviving, in the era of Facebook and ‘slut shaming.’   Men and women don’t always have the same precise interests.   Does that mean we must always be at war?  Can we not enjoy each other as nature intended without guile or subterfuge or vicious retribution? Is the question our feminine-admiring author is posing.  In point of fact, Valerie is co-protagonist with Kirby (and Innocent), but the demands of the plot force her to spend rather little time with either, as she’s off on her own journey of self-discovery.  Down the rabbit hole goes our Alice.

See, she’s there because her study of aerial photography of Belize has convinced her there’s an undiscovered temple there–on Kirby’s land.   She wants Innocent to get her out there to investigate, and he wants her to investigate so he can know if Kirby somehow got one over on him, so he arranges through his assistant Vernon to have this rather unsavory operative of theirs drive her to the site.

Vernon has his own agendas, and he’s the closest thing this book has to a villain–but a comic villain.  He’s not cut out for the role, it’s not who he really is, but he’s tired of living in Innocent’s generous shadow (I detect an echo of something Westlake said about a secretary of an editor he once knew, and you can refer to my review of A Likely Story for that if you like).  So he’s taken to spying for the Guatemalan military, Guatemala having long been of the opinion that Belize is its lost province, wrongfully stolen by the British, always looking for some way to reclaim it (still true, though it seems to be nothing more than a vague aspiration at present).

Belize, with its tiny population and basically no military at all (its policemen don’t even carry guns), would be quickly reabsorbed by that less happier land on its border, were the British to withdraw the small force of doughty Gurkha soldiers from Nepal they left behind them to keep the peace, after Belize became independent in 1981.  Yes, Guatemala is to Belize as Saint Kitts was to Anguilla in Under An English Heaven, very good, you picked up on that.  So did Westlake. Patterns can recur in reality, as well as in fiction, you know.  He’s not making this shit up, just shaping it to his purposes.

Guatemala is not pleased that many of its aboriginal inhabitants (Maya and other tribal groupings), somehow not appreciating the way they are treated by the military (which herds them around like cattle and occasionally slaughters them like same), are making their way over to Belize, where they are, almost unbelievably, greeted like long lost relations, left alone to farm the under-utilized land, and offered whatever assistance they ask for, including schools for their children.

The befuddled Indians don’t quite believe it either, but they aren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, not that they have horses, since they’re not that kind of Indian.  The Gurkha patrols who show up now and again don’t speak their tribal languages (everybody’s getting by with English, I guess), but they look just like the Indians, and they are so much more professional, so much less angry and erratic, than the soldiers these people knew in their old home.

So Vernon has been getting various things to this rather menacing Guatemalan officer who he suspects would shoot him as soon as look at him–photos of the Gurkha soldiers, maps, data on local Indian villages, nothing they could possibly use to overthrow Belize, so he’s not really doing anything wrong, he’s just earning some extra pocket money, making connections–he’s not really a traitor. Of course not.  A man’s got to get ahead in this world, right?

So when Valerie gets to Kirby’s land, sees the ‘temple’, recognizes the curator from Duluth (who cowers before this towering virago), starts shrieking “DESPOLIATION!!!” to the high heavens, while Kirby curses and waves a machete around in frustrated rage–well.  It’s too much.  She’s going to ruin everything.  She thinks everybody, including Innocent and Vernon, is in on it, whatever it may be.  She’ll run to the authorities.  Who will then find out what Vernon actually is in on.  Namely spying for a foreign power.  So Vernon’s accomplice, a skinny black man named Fred, takes her to a small cabin, where Vernon reluctantly gives the order to kill her and dispose of the body.  Then leaves, before the deed is done, cursing his fate.

Everything was coming together at once, in the most terrible way.  He had murdered Valerie Greene, yes he had, he had murdered her just as surely as if he had done it himself with his own hand.  But he was not cut out to be a murderer; too late he understood that.  He wanted to be a man with no conscience at all, and he was riddled with conscience as another man might be riddled with leprosy.  The sting of his petty treason was as nothing to the savage burn of his guilt as a murderer.

Innocent as well comes to feel the unfamiliar and entirely unwelcome sting of that pestering bee, conscience.  He doesn’t know what happened, but he knows Valerie didn’t come back, the driver she was assigned has fled the country, and Vernon is behaving strangely.  He increasingly comes to believe she is dead, and he finds himself grieving for her–he had deeper feelings for her than he would have thought possible, particularly given that they only had sex once (well, probably several times, but just one tryst).

He only pretended to care about her imaginary temples and her concerns over cultural despoliation as a means of getting to despoil her, but her damned sincerity got to him more than her lush womanly attributes did (though those certainly didn’t hurt).  She begins to become a sort of private saint to him (Westlake the Catholic boy knew too well how easily those raised in that outwardly patriarchal religion can succumb to goddess-worship).  Not suspecting Vernon at all, he assumes somehow Kirby Galway is behind her death, and he vows revenge on that murdering bastard.  And the Comedy of Errors continues.

And Valerie, of course, is not dead.  Not in a Westlake comic novel.   That should go without saying.   And you saw that quote up top, so you know damn well where she is.    Down the rabbit hole, in Wonderland.

I hadn’t meant to make this a two-parter, and I’ve got a Dortmunder coming up next, but I can see no way to finish this review in less than nine or ten thousand words, which is awfully long for a single blog article, wouldn’t you say?   It’s a 326 page book, and it’s not all travelogue.   I did my best to be brief, and as is usually the case, I fell short of the mark.  I will try to get Part 2 done very swiftly, because I hope to get Part 1 of my Dortmunder review done by next Friday.  No, I won’t say why.  I’ve got my reasons.  That’s all you need to know for now.  Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bat god bite.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized

Review: Resume Speed

Strange the world about me lies,
Never yet familiar grown–
Still disturbs me with surprise,
Haunts me like a face half known.

In this house with starry dome,
Floored with gemlike plains and seas,
Shall I never feel at home,
Never wholly be at ease?

On from room to room I stray,
Yet my Host can ne’er espy,
And I know not to this day
Whether guest or captive I.

So, between the starry dome
And the floor of plains and seas,
I have never felt at home,
Never wholly been at ease.

World Strangeness, by William Watson

It does happen now and again (and I mention this in my intro to the blog, so can’t accuse me of bait&switch) that I review the work of authors who are not Donald Westlake, but who have some connection to him, and no author ever fit that description better than Lawrence Block, Westlake’s lifelong friend and frequent collaborator, and that’s why I’m taking the opportunity to review Mr. Block’s latest offering, more or less as a stopgap until my next review is ready.

One problem I’ve had as I work my chronological way through the canon is that many of Westlake’s later books are a lot longer than most of his earlier ones, and I am consequently still rereading High Adventure–but I took a quick break over the weekend to devour this novella, a mere 21,000 words in length, and it seems much shorter than that.  I sat down for a sandwich and a few beers at my local, and I was two thirds done before I paid the check.

On his blog, Block says Resume Speed was indirectly inspired by a story he heard from some guy over thirty-five years ago.  He thought it had the potential to serve as the germ of an idea for a work of fiction, but he wasn’t quite sure how, so he let it germinate a while.  I’d rather like to hear that story, but I guess I’ll have to settle for the story inspired by that story.

The novella is a neglected form these days–not much of a market for it.  It may perhaps be having a bit of a comeback with the advent of ebooks.  I downloaded this story for $2.99 from the Kindle Store, which in modern terms is equivalent to what a short sexy little paperback of the type Messrs. Westlake and Block used to crank out by the score in bygone days to make rent used to run you.   Maybe less.

I’ve no intention of doing my usual lengthy synopsis and analysis–this is too new to take full stock of yet, and the book just went on sale a few weeks back.  Buy it, read it, see what you think.  But here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.

This is the story of a drifter–or rather, one short chapter in a drifter’s life.  You ever think about drifters?  They’ve always been with us, though never for long in one place.  People who, for one reason or another, get dislodged from society, move endlessly from one locale to another, never settle down, never have a career, a family, a fixed place of abode, maybe even a fixed identity.  They live on the periphery of our world, stopping for a while perhaps, to rest and refuel, flirting with the idea of permanence, building a name for themselves–then rejecting it.  Moving on.   Because the only permanent thing in their lives is impermanence.

And they are, for many of us, the stuff of romance, of popular songs, of television shows about guys in cool cars or on motorcycles, off to see America–or, in a different type of story, fugitives on the run from something, forced to wander endlessly, in search of a one-armed man or a cure for turning into a giant green monster, or whatever.  You know the drill.

There’s some drifter in everybody–we get tired of where we are, we wonder if something better might be over the next hill, around the bend of the road.  That’s how America got settled in the first place.  Footloose and fancy free.  The lifestyle has some pretty serious disadvantages to it (what happens when you get sick, injured, old?), so we’re more inclined to dream about it than to actually do it (though some of us, due to poverty, might be left with no choice).  Fictional stories about this kind of life are endlessly appealing to us.

And in fiction, the hook of that kind of story is that you wonder each time if this new place our drifter has arrived at is the place, whether this girl he’s just met is the girl (you could write the drifter as a woman, obviously, but hardly anyone ever does, and it’d be worth trying, wouldn’t you say?)–whether this might be the spot he finally calls home.  But if he does, the story’s over.  And after he’s been in enough places, met enough women, it seems like for him to settle down in any one place with any one girl would just be a purely arbitrary act by the storyteller–not organic to the character.  A drifter’s nature is to drift.

My favorite TV drifter is probably Dave Blassingame, played by Brian Keith in Sam Peckinpah’s very shortlived 1960 series The Westerner.  Just a tough two-fisted kind-hearted cowboy, with a good horse, a good rifle, and a damn good dog (played by Spike, who you more likely remember as Old Yeller).   Dave’s goal in life is to buy himself a spread and live out his days as a rancher, but he’s got no money, and no prospects, and really not that much ambition.  A rolling stone,  and there’s not much in the way of moss out on the prairie.

So the ending they stuck on the final episode, when they realized the network was pulling the plug, with Dave meeting a lovely big-breasted senorita with a fine rancho of her own,  feels entirely tacked on.   You just know at some point he got back on that horse, whistled up his dog, and kept moving. Maybe leaving a kid or two behind him, but not on television in 1960.


But that’s fine–all the home a man needs is a saddle, all the roof he needs is the sky, all the company he needs is a dog.  And I can imagine my significant other nodding approvingly when she reads this.  Just as true for a woman–at least in the mind’s eye.  I can’t ride worth a damn, by the way, and horses kind of scare me, but that’s not the point.  The point is freedom.  Which we all give up to some extent for security, but some much more than others.  And some much less.

Yeah, used to be we were all nomadic tribesmen and tribeswomen, but a nomad isn’t a drifter–a nomad takes his whole society on the road with him (which Westlake suggested was the way to deal with the disorienting effects of endless Travel in Brothers Keepers).  A raggle taggle gypsy has a whole band of gypsies to raggle taggle along with him.  A true drifter goes it alone.  Floats between societies.  Rootless.   Alone.  Like The Tramp.


American music invokes the drifter constantly–Woody Guthrie–Robert Johnson–Leadbelly–Bob Dylan–the Allman Brothers–Jim Croce–do I need to mention the songs?  So before I drift completely away from the subject at hand, let me come back to my point–we romanticize drifters in our stories, our films, our poetry, our art, our songs, our collective imaginations.  But how often do we ever think about what it would really be like to just–drift?   Without a net–a family to return to, friends to stay in touch with, a fixed identity you could home back in on when you needed it?  Well, Lawrence Block thought about it.

Westlake thought about it differently–in Memory, he basically forces his protagonist to live this way.   A brain injury makes him increasingly incapable of retaining memories of past events, and he tries first to hang into his old identity as a stage actor–already half a drifter–then realizing he’d abandoned the more viable identity he’d created for himself in a little factory town he’d worked in after his injury, and a girl who might accept him as he is, he tries to return to that–only to find it’s too late.  Without memory, you can’t have roots.  Block loved that book.  I can see bits and pieces of it here.

But I can see Block’s own past work more clearly in it–notably Keller, Block’s melancholy hit man, featured in several collections of short stories, who leaves his home in New York (where he has put down no roots, has no real friends) to go kill this or that person in some small town out in the hinterlands for some nameless client, and as he learns the lay of the land, preparatory to doing the job, he thinks to himself that he could enjoy living here, there’s a nice restaurant he could hang out and have lunch in, he could make friends, he could belong.  Then he does the job and drifts back to New York.

My favorite Block novel to date, The Girl with The Long Green Heart, is about an aging grifter, who pulls one last long con to get enough money to buy up a stake in a hotel, have something to fall back on in his old age.  But his best-laid plans gang agley (the title gives you a hint), and even though he could still go back and buy that hotel, he realizes it’s not who he is.  He was born to grift–and to drift.  Until he can’t anymore, and then he’ll just die.

In the Matthew Scudder novels, Block shows us a man drifting in one place, with the assistance of alcohol and guilt, and bit by bit, he manages to pull himself back into the world, and make a new life for himself–but Scudder wasn’t ever what you’d call a real drifter.  Still, it’s easy to see how he could have become one, if he hadn’t had an ex-wife and kids to support with his off-the-books detective work.  Or a smart hooker girlfriend he could eventually make a new life with.

A lot of Block I haven’t read yet, but as far as I know, this is his first story about a full-on drifter (might well be his last), and I don’t know it’ll go down as his very best work, but it’s still a small polished bit of old school craftsmanship, and as you can see, it got me thinking, which is what a good story is supposed to do.

A man is on a bus passing through a small town in Montana (drifter country par excellence).  Town is called Cross Creek (probably a reference to Cross Creek Pictures, which was involved in the production of A Walk Among the Tombstones).   The bus passes a little Greek diner, with a sign in the window advertising a vacancy for a short order cook.  There’s a vacant room in a boarding house as well.

The man (I’d give you his name, but it’s not his real name, and for all we know the name he had before wasn’t real either) was headed for Spokane, but he just abruptly gets off the bus, gets the job, gets the room–oh, I’ve seen this movie–Follow Me Boys, Fred MacMurray, Walt Disney, 1966–he ends up leading the scout troop–either that or he’ll end up leading a marching band, 76 trombones and all, right?  No, this is Lawrence Block, not Meredith Willson.  There may be trouble in River City, but if there is, he brought it with him.

So he doesn’t quite settle down, but you might say he settles in, makes himself comfortable, starts building a name for himself around town–even hooks up with the town librarian.  Whose name is not Marian.  And we know he’s running from something, but there are so many variations on this basic story by now, it’s hard to be sure from what–or whom–and the clues are a bit fuzzy.  It’s not 100% clear he’s got anything to run from, except maybe himself.  But he’s still running.  Or rather, drifting.

At the end, we’re left with the realization that his true crime was to let himself slip into a new identity, try it on for size, then walk out of the store, leaving it behind–along with all the people who believed in that identity, invested in it–the rooted people who gave him everything they had to offer–while he was simply not able to respond in kind–because he figures they don’t want to know the real him–if there even is a real him anymore.  But don’t we all fake belonging at times?   While in our minds, we’re just drifting through this strange world, looking for something real?   Well, maybe that’s just me.

The people in that town all dream of travel, adventure, pulling up stakes, finding out what’s over the next hill–but for him, it’s not a dream.   Or rather, it’s a dream he can’t ever wake up from.  If you’re a drifter, it’s like everything else in life–all the way in or all the way out.  You can only fake it so long, and then you have to resume speed.  And how many times has he done this already?  How many times will he do it again?  How many more towns will he stop in?  Forever unknown.

So I can’t do more of a synopsis than that.  Fair is fair.  This just got published.  Buy it, read it, see what you think.  Your guess is as good as mine (not as good as Block’s, obviously).

Now I think on it, Westlake did do a story somewhat comparable to this, but it was a collaborative effort (Brian Garfield was involved)–a screenplay, also based on a real story.  We’ll be getting to that soon.  Comparable–not really that similar.  But their minds did run on parallel tracks a lot of the time.  Different gauges, though.

The way Block makes you believe in this story–and there is nothing in this story that could not have happened, and probably nothing that has not happened–it’s really something.  But it’s still just a 21,000 word novella.  So maybe I’ve rambled on long enough about it.  $2.99 at the Kindle Store.  Zero dollars and zero cents if you have Kindle Unlimited.  Drift on over and let me know what you think.  We can get to spoilers in the comments section.    Anyway, see you in Belize next week.    Hopefully.


Filed under Uncategorized

Review: A Likely Story, Part 2

Publishing is the only industry I can think of where most of the employees spend most of their time stating with great self-assurance that they don’t know how to do their jobs.  “I don’t know how to sell this,” they complain, frowning as though it’s your fault.  “I  don’t know how to package this.  I don’t know where the market is for this book.  I don’t know how we’re going to draw attention to this.”  In most other occupations, people try to hide their incompetence; only in publishing is it flaunted as though it were the chief qualification for the job.

A Fictional Character in a Fictional Work that is in no way meant to represent the Real World.

Anyway, I decided to try to describe my experience in publishing without describing my experiences, if you follow my drift.  Not a roman a clef, that boring substitute for invention.  No thinly disguised actual people, no undigested anecdotes of true happenings.  What I wanted to write was a novel, which is a parallel universe as real as our own but with different incidents and a different cast list.  So I didn’t include the fellow who said to me “I’m not your real editor, so I don’t have to get to know you.”  I didn’t include the friend’s publisher who forgot to send out review copies; nor the publisher who habitually describes books in next season’s catalog that haven’t been written yet (as a result of which, a novel that was never written and never published nevertheless got an admiring magazine review); nor the publisher who reneged on a contract because he wanted to save my career, which would be ruined if I permitted him or anyone else to publish a novel of mine called Adios, Scheherazade, which was later brought out by someone else and hasn’t ruined my career in the 15 years since, but I suppose still might.  Nor did I include the editor whose secretary hated him because she knew she was younger, faster, smarter, thinner, and prettier than he was, and he was in her way.

No, I invented my own parallel universe, so none of those people or incidents are in it, so A Likely Story isn’t true.  But it’s true. 

From an article in Writer’s Digest, by Donald E. Westlake

This book garnered Westlake a rare rave review in the New York Times for one of his non-criminal efforts–but somehow I don’t think it gave him much pleasure to have the well-meaning Marilyn Stasio (who would soon take over the mystery fiction beat there from Newgate Callendar, who had taken over from Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s great critical champion) tell the world in what was supposed to be an inducement to buy and read the book that it had been turned down by one confused-looking publisher after another, and that it fell to Westlake’s compatriot Otto Penzler to get it out there.  Westlake told the same story himself later on, mind you, but with a lot more pizzazz, and after the book was already safely in paperback.

(Also, I would think he winced a bit when he saw that Ms. Stasio, no doubt contending with multiple deadlines, had tossed off her review so quickly that she’d rendered the title of his book as “An Unlikely Story” at the conclusion of the piece, having given the correct title to start with.  And no editor caught that?  I bet this never happens to John Irving.)

Mr. Penzler went above and beyond the call of duty here–that copy in the distinguished looking protective sleeve you see at the top left of this review is part of a limited deluxe printing Penzler Books put out, signed by the author, and it was on sale for $14.95 at the site I filched this image from.  O tempora, o mores.

Penzler would be amply repaid for his loyalty and professionalism in the years to come with nineteen more Westlake books and seven Richard Starks for The Mysterious Press (twenty-six novels, two anthologies),  many of which were instant classics, and none of which were anywhere near as hard to pigeonhole (or market) as this one.  This book had its admirers then, as it does now, but the lack of even an electronic edition attests to the elite nature of that fanbase.

And to attest further to that elitism, I provide to the right of that limited edition copy, the title page of a rather delightful 1987 article Westlake did for Writer’s Digest, which seems to have come out around the time the paperback edition of A Likely Story showed up, and I finally figured out how to read it just now (The Official Westlake Blog could have made reading that scan a bit easier, but then again it could have provided no scan at all, so head over there and get the rest of it, post haste–it prints out fairly well, but you’ll have to download both pages individually first).

It’s always gratifying to me when my guesses regarding the origins of a book I’m reviewing prove out, and I can certainly feel for Mr. Penzler’s situation when, on the verge of landing one of the world’s great mystery writers for his  start-up mystery publishing house, that writer told him his next book would not be a mystery, but rather a comedy about the mind-boggling incompetence of the publishing industry and the woes of ‘serial polygamy’, that had been vehemently rejected by multiple publishers already.

His mettle was being tested here, you see–and he cleared that high hurdle with room to spare by saying “That’s okay, I’ll publish it anyway, because your next book will be a mystery.” It was actually a sort of multicultural comedy of errors set in Central America– the one after that ranks among the greatest of all Dortmunder novels, and the Dortmunders aren’t really mysteries either in any strict sense, but let’s emulate the broadminded Mr. Penzler, and eschew the foul practice of nitpicking–close enough.

He actually had to create the Penzler Books imprint out of thin air to accommodate this novel, and it worked out pretty well for him–turns out a lot of people slotted as mystery writers sometimes want to write a non-mystery, and he subsequently added the scalps of Gregory (Fletch) McDonald and Patricia (do I have to say it?) Highsmith to his publisher’s belt.   Don’t you love it when virtue is rewarded in fiction?   As it hardly ever is in real life.  Back to the synopsis.

Tom Diskant, journeyman nonfiction author, and aspiring anthologist, is still slaving away at his magnum opus, a ‘Christmas Book’ that happens to be about Christmas, full of artful stories and essays and visual representations of that holiday to end all holidays, from a virtual Who’s Who of Literature, Politics, Showbiz, and the Arts, circa the Mid-80’s.   With an established publishing house behind him, he sends out a letter requesting submissions, to a wide variety of famous names.  To wit (and in order of mention):

Edward Albee, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov, Russell Baker, Ann Beattie, Helen Gurley Brown, William F. Buckley Jr., Leo Buscaglia, Truman Capote, Jimmy Carter, Francis Ford Coppola, Annie Dillard, E. L. Doctorow, Gerald Ford, William Goldman, John Irving, Stephen King, Jerzy Kosinski, Judith Krantz, Robert Ludlum, Norman Mailer, James A. Michener, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Nixon, Joyce Carol Oates, Mario Puzo, Joan Rivers, Andy Rooney, Philip Roth, Carl Sagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer (what the hell), Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Diana Trilling, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Wambaugh, Tom Wolfe, Herman Wouk, Charles Addams, Richard Avedon, Jim Davis, Jules Feiffer, Edward Gorey, Robert Kliban, Jill Krementz, LeRoy Nieman, Charles Schulz, Andy Warhol, Arthur C. Clarke, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, John Kenneth Galbraith, Garrison Keillor, Henry Kissinger, Jonathan Schell, Mickey Spillane, William Styron, Paul Theroux, Roddy McDowall, Helmut Newton, Francesco Scavullo, Gahan Wilson, Jamie Wyeth, Pauline Kael, John Leonard, Sam Shephard, John Simon, Calvin Trillin, Jasper Johns, David Levine, Roy Lichtenstein, Saul Steinberg, and Tomi Ungerer (backdated, see the opening quote from Part 1).

It really says something about our popular culture, such as it is, not to mention Mr. Westlake’s deadly accuracy as a satirist of same, that most of these are still names to conjure with today.   There’s maybe half a dozen people on that list I hadn’t heard of before.  Of course, I was in my 20’s during the 80’s–that helps.

He gets an unsolicited offer from Pia Zadora’s agent (not all 80’s icons held up over time), and Scott Meredith, being the agent for several of the writers who don’t want to contribute, keeps sending him cartons full of unsold material from his undiscovered clients.   It’s hard to say whether he expects Tom to buy any of it, but the point is, he tried, and he can keep exacting fees from aspiring wordsmiths with a clear conscience, though the stories one hears about Mr. Meredith would tend to argue against his being burdened with such an outdated encumbrance.

Andy Warhol sends him a photo of an old Coca Cola tray with their classic version of Santa Claus (courtesy of McCann-Erickson, and would you believe I worked there too?  I get around, I’m telling you).  Mr. Warhol has, with his typical protean creativity, embellished this venerable pop cultural artifact with a few tasteful squiggles.  Tom regretfully declines, then contacts Coca Cola’s PR department, and gets the rights to use the unembellished photo, gratis.  Which, when you think about it, is the best possible homage he could pay to the genius of Warhol.  Whose museum I visited once.  What else can you do in Pittsburgh?

Gathering the material from which the book shall be shaped has gone better than he had dared hope (and stranger than he could have dreamed), and he knows he’s got the makings of the most brilliant and original coffee table book ever printed here, but to make the book happen, he needs two things–a publisher–and an editor.   And he has been rather less fortunate with regards to those two grim necessities.

His original editor, the guy who originally bought the book, and was supposed to see it through to publication, has departed his former employer of Craig, Harry & Burke, to take a job with a pay-TV Company.   Tom generously hopes that he will rot in hell, and if it’s Cinemax, that probably did happen.  In the meantime, Tom has been stuck with replacement editor Vickie Douglas,  who showed no interest in his book at all, until in a burst of sympathy over her terrible relationship with her mother, he kissed her, and one thing led to another (and another and another and another).

So now Vickie is full of enthusiasm for The Christmas Book, but that enthusiasm is contingent upon her enthusiasm for frequent illicit coitus with Tom.  The fact that he is still legally married to one woman and openly living with another while shtupping his editor on the side merely adds further zest to the proceedings, as she sees it.  He’s got to stick it out with her (so to speak) until the book is safely off to market.

His wife Mary continues to try to win him back, while his mistress Ginger gives him suspicious looks and insists that he maintain his usual high standard of performance in the bedroom.   Tom starts to lose weight rapidly–hey, maybe Vickie was onto something with that Fuck Yourself Thin book she got from a retired hooker and repackaged under the title How a Better Sex Life Can Lead to a Thinner You.  Except she was already thin, and after they’ve been at it a while, Tom begins to notice she’s putting on weight.  Huh.  More on that shortly.

Could Tom’s domestic and personal affairs get any more complicated (is a question no sane man would ever ask)?   Ginger’s husband Lance, to whom she is still legally married as well, gets thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, and apparently finding affordable new digs in Manhattan wasn’t any easier in the 1980’s than it is today.  He’s the father of her children–he’s contributing to the rent for the apartment she shares with Tom and her own children–can she just turn him away when he’s in need of a roof over his head?  Tom devoutly believes she could, but is forced to concede that she won’t, and neither would he in her place (there really are no bad guys in this book at all–just bad publishers and bad relationships).

So Lance is now sleeping in the room Tom normally uses for his office, and he’s reduced to working on the book–and on his secret diary he is so generously sharing with us–in the small bedroom he shares with Ginger.  Eventually he just says the hell with it, and accepts Mary’s far from selfless offer to use his old office at their old apartment, where she is in constant and extremely tempting proximity to him.   Ginger is not happy with this situation.  Tom is not happy with this situation.  Mary’s fine with it.

Domestic complications abound, most of which keep drawing him back into the coils of a marriage he is trying to abandon–his 11 year old daughter Jennifer, a tough streetwise city girl, gets mugged, and needs to be reassured of her toughness and street wisdom (and indirectly that she’s not racist for having been scared of the two older black kids who robbed her).  His son needs to do father-son stuff with his dad, go to ballgames and such, often with Ginger’s son coming along as well.

But he also has to deal with the fact that Ginger’s daughter Gretchen, who sees him much more regularly than her own father Lance, wants his approval and encouragement and love, even though he’s not particularly fond of her–he doesn’t dislike her, he’s trying to be nice, but does he have to act like he adores her?   Both Ginger and Mary inform him that yes, he does in fact have to do just that.  And he’s forced to acknowledge to himself, and to us, that he’s done a crappy job as surrogate father to her.   (And maybe there’s just a wee touch of roman a clef there, but I wouldn’t know.)

We all have work lives and personal lives (these days, the latter may be almost entirely conducted via electronic impulses, but hopefully not).  Balancing the two was never easy, but it’s become bizarrely comically difficult as our work selves become more and more divorced from our true selves, and may even begin to replace our true selves.  And those of us who engaged in ‘serial polygamy’–that is to say, marrying, producing offspring, then separating from our spouses, but still trying to maintain a relationship with our abandoned offspring (which the law generally insists upon to some extent anyway), or failing that, our abandoned pets.

Westlake had two subjects in this book, as he details in that article for Writer’s Digest.  But underneath, they’re the same subject–he wanted to create a protagonist who is in the grips of a great idea–the significance of Christmas in our yearly cycle of existence–but the people he needs to work with in order to bring this idea to fruition are hopelessly inadequate to the task, endlessly sabotaging him–even the creative people, the writers and artists he’s calling upon, are a preening passel of enfants terribles, squabbling over cash and copyright.  But at least they’re giving him good work–they’re not the real problem.  I think you’ve figured out by now where the real problems are coming from.

But then he goes home, to the results of serial polygamy, of abandoning one relationship and starting another with somebody who had done the same exact thing, each seeking some romantic ideal, but still obliged to cope with the variously appealing but equally needy results of human reproduction, and (this being New York City in the 1980’s), each having his or her own career to worry about, as well as children, as well as trying to find that ideal partnership, that perfect pairing of opposites that we see in movies and read about in books and never quite find in tangible reality, though certainly some get closer to it than others, which just adds to the overall sense of injustice, and leads to still more broken homes.

So Tom Diskant, split into many disharmonious parts by this life he’s chosen, tries as best he can to do justice to them all–to be a good nonfiction author and compiler of other authors, a good lover (to two different women), a good ex-husband to the wife he still has feelings for (and is still married to), and a good father–to his own children, and to children he had nothing to do with putting in this world.

And sometimes he pulls it off, and more often he doesn’t.   But he wants to get it right, that’s the thing–he wants a career, he wants a family.  His obsession with Christmas–and really, with every single holiday on the Gregorian calendar (he’s becoming something of an expert on the subject)–it all comes back to his desire to find that perfect family unit, that sense of belonging to something eternal and pure.  That’s what Christmas is really about, he realizes–not the birth of Jesus (which didn’t even happen anywhere near that date), but the birth of The Holy Family.  The ideal we all strive for and never reach (and presumably neither did the actual Holy Family).

His only published novel was about his ideal childhood in Vermont (ideal as he remembered it, anyway), the friends and family who formed his sense of himself, the happy Christmases every child treasures–and airbrushes into some Currier&Ives postcard of the mind as he or she grows older and life gets more complicated.   Maybe he failed as a writer of fiction because he didn’t realize that the best fiction has to be about precisely those complexities.  Unless you’re writing children’s books.  And the best of those are deceptively complex themselves.

But the mission statement here is laughter–at ourselves.   So Westlake piles complication upon complication–summer in New York City is a hellish thing at times, and those who can afford an escape route try their level best to get away from it–for hardworking professionals who can’t get too far from the office for too long, one such escape route is Fire Island (which factored heavily in Two Much, and will be seen in a much later novel as well).  Tom has gotten enough of his advance for The Christmas Book that he can just barely afford to take himself, Ginger, and the kids (all the kids) to stay there for a few blissful weeks in a tranquil carless beachfront environment ten degrees cooler than the sweltering city.   Get away from it all.  Or so he thinks.

Mary insists she has to come as well–there’s no money for her to go off on a separate holiday–and then Vickie protests she needs to spend time there, to go over the galley proofs of the book (among other things).  So in no time at all, the increasingly horrified Tom finds himself sharing the same domicile with his mistress, his girlfriend, and his wife–three smart sexy women in bikinis, lounging in the sun, each with very specific designs upon him,  and it may sound like a salacious male fantasy, and that it most certainly is, but rest assured, it’s a fantasy with teeth.

I was seated on the back deck a little while ago, reading the Sunday Times Magazine, and then I looked around at the three other people also on the deck, also reading sections of the Times, and I found myself thinking: I have been to bed with all three of these women.

The thought did not make me feel like a harem master or anything particularly macho.  In fact, all I felt at that moment was vaguely scared.  Three women in bikinis in the sunshine, reading Travel and Arts and Leisure and The Week in Review.  If they were suddenly to rise and turn on me, they could tear me to shreds.  Sitting there, looking at them, thinking about it, I could find no very good reason why they wouldn’t rise and turn on me.

Art Dodge, the blithely bed-hopping twin-fucking anti-hero of Two Much (a much easier book to sell to a publisher than this one–or a film studio, for that matter),  would relish this erotic tableau–at least until the bill came due–but somehow Tom Diskant can’t just relax and enjoy the view.  He retreats to his makeshift office in the rented beach house, and works on his book, while the girls work on their tans.

Before long, Vickie will demand sexual favors from him while Ginger is out of the house, then Ginger will demand still more sexual favors once she’s back in the house, and all the while Mary will go on telling him, as provocatively as she knows how (and that’s pretty damned provocative), about all these men she meets who keep coming on to her in various disgusting yet strangely fascinating ways because they can tell she doesn’t have a husband to protect her.   Tom is very much of the opinion that she’s not the one who needs protecting here.

And they still all somehow end up having a great summer there on the island (the kids most of all, who just ignore the adult-themed goings on because they have their own personal dramas, far more interesting and important and irrelevant to Tom’s narrative)–even Lance gets into the act–but all vacation idylls must end, and then one has to deal with the grim realities of the workplace.

And those realities are grim indeed–Vickie is pregnant.  That’s why she was putting on weight.  An innate design flaw to the whole Fuck Yourself Thin weight loss plan.  She flatly insists it’s not Tom’s, so that’s something–my personal opinion, not quite corroborated in the book, is that she’s pregnant by Tom, and simply isn’t crazy enough to exert a claim on a man of limited means and dubious prospects she knows to be multiply claimed already–it was just a fun fling for her, no deeper feelings.

Now I would have thought the 80’s were modern enough, at least in Manhattan, for a successful career gal who got knocked up out of wedlock to go on working for at least a while, but whether it’s the innate conservatism of the publishing industry, or Vickie’s now urgent need to do what her mother has been telling her to do for years and find a husband (which she does with admirable alacrity, as Tom finds out later), she quits her job as editor.   The Christmas Book is now doubly orphaned.  And it turns out Vickie was very far from being the editorial worst-case scenario.

Tom’s third and final cross to bear is Dewey Heffernan, 20’s, tall, gangly, earnest, and intensely stupid.  He got this job through a cousin at Random House, who made damn sure Dewey would not be employed anywhere near Random House.  Turns out the cousin had contacts at the Solenex Corporation (which has figured in earlier Westlake comedies, as has the Tre Mafiosi restaurant Tom lunches at with Dewey), which owns, among many other things, Craig, Harry & Burke.

Dewey has never worked as an editor before, or indeed any position of the slightest significance.  This is his very first job in publishing–editing Tom’s book.  This is starting at the bottom?  Whatever happened to the mail room?  Worked out fine for Robert Morse.  Well, he should at least be malleable, right?   Open to suggestion?  Tabula Rasa?  Unfortunately, his mind is already packed to the rafters with bad ideas, leaving no room at all for any good ones.  Dewey sees himself as a voice of his generation.   He probably is.  That would explain a lot.

“Pictures,” he said.  “Color.  Youth appeal.  You see what I mean?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“We’ve got to attract that youth audience, Tom,” he told me.  “Those are the readers of the future!”

“Undoubtedly true.”

“They see things differently, Tom!  They’re used to, they’re used to, video screens.  Display!  Computer programs!  Rock and roll!”

“Ah hah.”

“If we want youth to be interested in us, Tom,” he said, leaning close over his forearms, eyes and nostrils staring impassionedly at me, “we have to be interested in what interests youth.”

“Interesting,” I said, as our waiter brought our drinks.

Tom figures the book is already done, the checks have been mailed, the publishing house is committed, the release date is set in stone for just before Christmas–what the hell.  He just has to humor this twit a while, he can’t do any real harm.

Unfortunately the twit has no sense of humor–or of the absurd.  In the midst of their increasingly drunken lunchtime meeting, Tom just sitting there nodding vacantly with a glassy eyed expression, making vaguely compliant noises, he got the impression Tom was agreeing to let him commission an entirely new work of art, appealing to those hot happening young hipsters who so love to buy large expensive books about Christmas to place on their coffee tables.

And does he at least get Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, or some equivalent Underground Comix god or goddess?  Of course not.  He gets this guy named Korban, who does a lot of stuff for Heavy Metal.  And he didn’t talk to anybody–he just made the offer.  On company stationary.  And received the goods.  For which payment must now be made.  Even though it was never approved by anyone.  Other than Dewey.  Who has no authority to approve jack spit.  Oh shit.

Now Westlake went out of his way to say at the start of this book that all the very real public figures he refers to in it should not think that he is genuinely depicting them–he is merely having fun with their public image, the idea people have of them.  Well and good, but thing is, much as he may approve more of some of these people than others (most he simply admired from afar, a few he was on warm personal and professional terms with), he’s not going to seriously critique them or their work.  This would be impolite, for one thing.  For another, it might be grounds for a lawsuit, if he wasn’t careful.

So instead of referring to a real Heavy Metal artist, he makes one up.  Because he has some highly critical things to say about this style of artistic expression.   Fair or not.  He’s got a bone to pick.  And this is most definitely his opinion, conveyed through Tom.   Because, you see, the illustration that Dewey intends to put in place of The Adoration of the Magi, a Dürer woodcut that Mr. Dürer will not be demanding payment for, is a sort of acid trip comic strip version of The Night Before Christmas,  with a freaked out Santa, a low-rider sleigh, and a libidinous half-naked Afro’d Nun.  And that’s perfectly fine in its place (namely Heavy Metal), but its place is not Tom’s book.  And he wants us to know why that is.

What’s wrong with Korban’s work–apart from the thuggish crudity of the mind behind it–is what tends to be wrong with a lot of things directed at young people; it’s nihilistic for fun.  In a nervous effort to be knowing before they know anything, not to be taken in, a lot of kids throw out the sentiment with the sentimentality and are left with nothing but surface.  Then they try to replace what they’ve lost by being sentimental about themselves.  (None of this is new, of course; remember “Teen Angel?”)

But the caustic harshness still such a strong element in this tripe is a leftover from the anti-war, pro-drug sixties, and is nastily inappropriate in the me-first eighties.  It is true that some of the contributors to The Christmas Book are cynical about Christmas, but it’s an earned cynicism.  Korban may have earned his fifteen hundred dollars, but he hasn’t earned his attitudes, and I won’t have his work in the book.

So at first Dewey is in trouble, but once it becomes clear that Korban is going to have his money or else, and payment is made, and Tom absolutely refuses to allow the purchased material to be used in his book, they start looking at him as if this is all his fault.  And all of this fol de rol has delayed sending the book off to the printer, but some preliminary copies are made up, and Tom is happy–it’s what he wanted.  It’s the book he meant to create.   He’s finally done something he can be proud of.  And because of all the famous names attached to it, people will see it.  Or will they?

Tom is served with a summons.  He’s being sued.  The publisher is being sued as well.  Because it turns out a woman out in the midwest somewhere (I know I could look it up, but I don’t want to) had an idea for a book about Christmas (her favorite holiday) that was going to feature many of the same famous writers as Tom’s book, not that any of them ever wrote anything for her, because she didn’t have a publisher to back her up.   She sent a letter detailing her idea to Craig, Harry & Burke, before Tom approached them with his idea, not that Tom ever heard of it.  And did I mention she’s in an iron lung?   It’s her dying wish to see this book of hers in print.

So Tom’s original vision was not so original after all, and so what?   You can’t copyright Christmas.  You can’t copyright the idea of an anthology of famous writer and artists giving their personal impressions of a holiday.  And you can’t persuade a bunch of hick lawyers who don’t know anything about this area of law that they don’t have a goldmine here with all these famous names involved; at least not without spending years in court first.  So Tom is forced to compromise and let this woman’s name be on the book.  Okay, fine, whatever, done.  Can he have his book in stores now?

Nope.  The workers at the printer chosen for his book choose this precise moment in time (for sound strategic reasons) to go on strike.  It’s too late to change printers.  It’s too late to get the book in stores for Christmas.  The whole point of the book was to have it in stores for Christmas.  That’s what a Christmas Book is.  And by next Christmas, the rights to all the material that isn’t in the public domain will have reverted to its various creators, who would need to be paid all over again in order to use it.  It’s in the contract Tom’s agent drew up and if she hadn’t drawn it up that way, they’d never have resolved the lawsuit, and they’d be screwed anyhow.  There is no Christmas Book.  C’est fini.  

So Tom suffers a major professional defeat–having already suffered a personal one.  His long war with Mary is over–he moves back in with her.  She changed her strategy–stopped coming up with excuses for him to come over to do something for the children, stopped telling him about all the passes she had to deflect from horny guys, and she just listened.

Once she had him at the apartment working on his book all the time, those ruses were no longer needed–she knew all along all she needed was to get him back home, and the pull of home itself–of the family he’d half-abandoned–would seduce him more effectively than anything else possibly could.   She finally lets go–at which point he realizes he doesn’t want her to let go.  So he tells Mary he’s moving back in, and at the very same time tells Ginger he’s moving out.

(And the infuriated and incredulous Ginger, who we know will be perfectly fine once she gets over the indignity of having been dumped, never tells Tom she had sex with her ex at least once while he was living there in Tom’s office, even though it’s made really obvious in that chapter, and Tom can be incredibly dense for such a smart guy, and I have no trouble at all buying that–the smarter the guy, the denser he is about such matters, I’ve always found, and I would know.  What I don’t know is if that’s a self-deprecating comment or an egotistical one.)

So the Holy Family is reunited, Tom and Ginger’s two sports-obsessed sons remain chums, Lance continues his search for an apartment and a woman (in no particular order of importance), Ginger will get over it someday, Vickie somehow finds a husband before she gives birth (two weeks early–hmm), Dewey Heffernan is royally chewed out by his overbearing father for being such a gawdawful pest (minor subplot, no time),  the printers strike labors on, and that lady in the iron lung is still suing Tom over a book that will never exist, except in the form of a few advance copies.  Everybody needs a hobby.

Tom puts his advance copy away–proof that he’s more than just a cheap hack–he’s a damned expensive one, seeing how the publisher made out on this deal.   He got to keep his advance, and he did convince some people he’s good for more than how-to books, and he and Mary are averaging three times a day until they catch up, so all things considered, he came out ahead of the game.

He’s got other projects going (he’s even going to work with Dewey again, on a book about video games–told you Dewey was a voice of his generation) but he can’t help but believe that somewhere out there in this alternate reality his creator has made for him, there has to be “an ally who won’t quit, get pregnant, or enter second childhood before leaving the first.”

And in the equally befuddling reality Donald Westlake’s creator made for him, such an ally had in fact materialized, in the form of Otto Penzler, and Westlake did in fact write a novel for him that falls within the extremely broad parameters of the mystery genre (if you don’t want to nitpick), and that’s our next book.

And it is somewhat prefigured in an offhanded comment the now somewhat more harmoniously composed Mr. Diskant makes, while contemplating the fruits of civilization–“I wonder what the Mayans did when things got too confusing.”

You could always ask them.


Filed under A Likely Story, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: A Likely Story

As for The Christmas Book, that continues apace.  I have actually received three submissions, one of which I unfortunately had to reject:

      Dear John Irving,

      ‘The Stars Wink,’ your short-short story about a bear whose eyes are put out by feminists on Christmas Eve, is certainly a powerful piece of writing, right up there with the rest of your work, and I for one would be proud indeed to publish it under any circumstances at all.  Unfortunately, I don’t always have final say on these matters, and the feeling at Craig, Harry & Burke was that the date of Christmas Eve in the story was merely happenstantial (apparently typed in later once or twice, in fact), that the story had very little to say about Christmas qua Christmas, and that all in all the tale was rather more depressing than we prefer for the contents of The Christmas Book.  Your suggestion that Tomi Ungerer illustrate your story would be an excellent one were we to publish the story, except that we already have approached Mr. Ungerer to do something rather different and more Yulesque.

Otherwise, Isaac Asimov’s piece about the aerodynamic qualities of Santa’s sleigh, and Andy Rooney’s piece about how there weren’t all these different sized batteries when he was a child, were both slight but puckish, and I was pleased to take them.  That is, I’ve sent them on to Jack Rosenfarb for approval and payment, and have no doubt he’ll accept them.

“How much?” letters have now been received from Russell Baker, William F. Buckley Jr., Truman Capote, Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut, and have been answered.  And this came from Mario Puzo’s secretary.

     “Mr Puzo has asked me to tell you that he is tired of people trying to capitalize on his alleged relationship with the Mafia.  He has not the slightest interest in writing about the Mafia’s view of Christmas, nor if he did have such an interest would he be willing to share his thoughts with you.” 

Well, I just sent him the regular form letter, didn’t I?  I never mentioned the Mafia!   Enraged, I sat at my typewriter and wrote:

     Dear Mr. Puzo:

     Thank you for your prompt response to my query letter concerning The Christmas Book.  If you have nothing at the moment about the Mafia vis-a-vis Christmas, perhaps you’d like to give us a few words on Christmas in Las Vegas (though we do have a shot at Carol Doda on that topic), or maybe even a thinkpiece on the Christmas presents exchanged by Superman and Lois Lane.  Or it could be you have in the trunk something about Easter or the Fourth of July that could be adapted.  Looking forward to your response. 

One of the reasons people are always more complicated than you expect them to be is that they are always sillier than you expect them to be.

The least likely element in the story of A Likely Story is that Donald Westlake ever got to publish this story at all–and in the form of a 248 page novel, to boot.  He’d struck up what would be a mutually beneficial friendship and professional partnership with Otto Penzler, who had started his own publishing house, The Mysterious Press, in 1975, and his own matching bookstore to boot (Westlake helped build the shelves).

But Westlake’s first book for The Mysterious Press had been a collection of six short stories about that mortality-obsessed police detective, Abraham Levine.  The first novel of Westlake’s that Penzler published was under a different imprint, Penzler Books, and this is it.  And it’s hard to see how The Mysterious Press could have handled this one.

This is not a crime novel.  It is not a violent heist story, a comic caper, a criminal picaresque, a police procedural, a spy thriller, a mob melodrama, or a murder mystery–a coffee table book about Christmas gets pretty well slaughtered, but there’s no question about whodunnit.  No person appearing in this book is physically harmed, nothing is stolen (though there is an allegation of theft), no one is kidnapped and held for ransom, and in fact no laws at all are broken (there’s a minor mugging, but it’s offstage and not important).

True, those venerable and little-enforced laws against adultery are repeatedly violated here, but in the main with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, however reluctant–lot of partner-swapping going on (it’s the 80’s, not that you couldn’t find similarly libidinous tales from previous decades, or centuries, or millennia).

Nobody ends up on the run from the law for any crime he didn’t commit.   Nobody even gets amnesia, or comes to a bad end through the vagaries of fortune.   Nary a gun in sight.  Nobody gets so much as a paper cut.

There are no genre elements at all here, whether from mystery, science fiction, fantasy (maybe male fantasies), or westerns.  Though I will say, there are aspects of the pseudo-porn sleaze genre here, much as Westlake despised it–he did have a knack for sex comedies, rarely though he chose to pen them under his own name.  There’s even a brief cameo by Scott Meredith, the suitably sleazy dean of that short-lived publishing niche that gave Westlake his start.

This is as far outside the lines of what was expected of him as a writer that Westlake ever got, and he obviously loved every minute of it.  And re-reading it,  I can’t for the life of me see how anyone wouldn’t. It’s one of his funniest Non-Dortmunder books, and only a few of the Dortmunders could be honestly said to top it.

But to fully appreciate its humor, it may be that you need a certain grounding in the subject matter being spoofed here–referential humor is, by its nature, off-putting to people who don’t have the right frame of reference.   You don’t need to know much about bank robberies or police work to enjoy a comedy about either–in fact, the more you know, the more likely you are to be nit-picking the story, instead of enjoying it.  The subject matter of this book is books; the people who write them, the people who publish them, and in particular the poor schmucks who broker deals between those two opposing camps.  And I don’t know a whole lot about that general subject, but I do know a little.

I worked very briefly in publishing as a young man (jack of all trades….), in the 1980’s, the very period this book is set in.  Paragon House.  Ever heard of it?  No disgrace if you haven’t.  It was and I believe still is owned by the Unification Church.  No, I never saw the good reverend, and I gather all he cared about was that the place turned a profit.

Primarily non-fiction, some solid scholarly stuff mingled in with a lot of new-age nonsense (and the occasional techie book–there was one about how Steve Jobs was an over-hyped has-been whose best days were behind him), and that still seems to be the case, going by their website.   They do have one new offering that seems eerily on-point for this week’s review.


(I’d make the image smaller, but WordPress won’t let me unless I put some other image next to it, and nobody’s volunteering.)

They fired me after a few months.  I have no nostalgic feelings at all about that job, except the receptionist was cute, and it was walking distance from my building.  I also applied to quite a few more respectable houses (and the Scott Meredith Agency, as I’ve already mentioned elsewhere), figuring that somebody who liked books as much as I did might enjoy working in the business that produces them.

In retrospect, I believe the reasoning that lay behind this theory was not entirely sound–just because you like sausages doesn’t mean you’d enjoy working in a factory that makes them–but you have to start somewhere.  I work in a college library now, so all I see is the finished product, and sometimes that just makes the sausage analogy seem even more apropos (Polish or Perish?), but never mind that now.

Where did the idea for this book come from?   First of all, Westlake had just gone through a terrible experience with Viking Press.   He shared some details of that experience in the introduction he wrote years later for the Mysterious Books reprint of Kahawa.

The original publisher of Kahawa, in 1982, was in the midst of an upheaval.  My original editor was let go before publication to be replaced by an oil painting of an editor; pleasant, even comforting to look at, but not much help in the trenches.  The publisher moved by fits and starts–more fits than starts, actually–and though the book received good reviews, no one at the publishing house seemed able to figure out how to suggest that anybody might enjoy reading it.  So it didn’t do well.

Hardly his first bad experience with a publisher (nor his last), but he’d put a lot more time and effort into that novel than was the norm for him, he was proud of it, and it must have been painful–and Westlake was of that temperament that often converts pain into laughter.

Secondly, he was now on his third (and mercifully final) marriage, to a woman with three children from a previous marriage, while he had four sons from two previous marriages, and the second of his prior spouses also had a spouse before him, and let’s just say family life had gotten extremely complicated for him, as it had for many others, and still is today–but it was still enormously important to him.  He even reportedly packed up a great portion of this army of children and ex-spouses and future spouses for an extended European junket, which must have been a memorable experience for all concerned.

He had rarely written about married life; even more rarely had any of his protagonists been married men with children–children were rarely seen in his books, let alone heard.   Somehow this kind of subject matter didn’t fit the hard-boiled literary milieu he was associated with, but it would work fine for a comedy of manners, set in 80’s Manhattan, about a man working in roughly the same profession as himself.

It’s not autobiographical fiction–or a ‘roman a clef’, as it’s sometimes been accused of being–but it is heavily informed by the author’s own personal and professional life, that we’d love to know more about, but those memoirs remain forever unfinished and still mainly unpublished.  You can try to guess which experiences of the protagonist were directly experienced by the author (probably more than a few), but you can’t know for sure, and you don’t really need to.  A likely story is a story, nonetheless.

I would think Westlake read the ‘real-life’ segments of his friend William Goldman’s The Princess Bride with great interest.  Those chapters are no more fact-based than the ones about giants, father-avenging Spaniards, and Miracle Max.  They read like a confession, when they are merely a distraction–a way to make the fantasy segments more rooted in reality.

I’ve theorized that Goldman might have been influenced by Adios Scheherazade, Westlake’s 1970 novel about the ‘sleaze’ publishing industry–one of his few other books with a protagonist who is married and a father.  My theory about Goldman could well be wrong, but it is nothing more than a statement of fact to say that Westlake was using the raw materials of the 1970 book to create this one.

Both are novels written in diary form (something the protagonist of this book says upfront you should never ever do), both are about an abortive book project and its author’s troubled relationship with a publisher, both have the hero agonizing over his relationship with his wife and his daughter.  (He’s got a son as well, but the daughter gets a lot more attention, as does the younger daughter of the protagonist’s girlfriend, who also has a son, who also doesn’t get much attention–methinks Mr. Westlake, much as he loved his boys, rather yearned for a girl).

And both novels have a character named Lance, though the similarity goes no further–doesn’t need to, since it’s only there as a sly acknowledgment of the earlier work, that only his most devoted readers would even notice.  Okay, I’m over two thousand words into this, and if I don’t publish soon, people will think I’ve perished.   Clearly a two-parter.   Let’s get started on the synopsis.

Tom Diskant is a freelance writer who produces mainly non-fiction books and articles.  This is not what he always wanted to do.  He wanted to write fiction, novels, and he did get his first book, a slice of life reminiscence of his idyllic childhood in Vermont, into print– and he thought it was great, and maybe it was, but the publisher didn’t know what to do with it, and it got a very small printing, and his dreams of authorial glory died on the vine, as they so often do.

Truth is, he was working so hard just making a living as a writer, cranking out whatever he could sell (which was mainly nonfiction), he didn’t really have time to come up with any more ideas for a novel–and since his book was drawn entirely from his life–and his life hadn’t been all that interesting–he was out of material.   Without a genre to sustain him or her, provide plot templates he or she can come up with variations on, it’s tough for most writers to come up with a second act, particularly when nobody showed up for the first.

How did Eugene O’Neill put it?  You don’t even have the makings.  You just have the habit.  But for some people out there, the habit can be awfully habitual.  And at least you get to be your own boss–kind of.   Sometimes it isn’t that simple, which is a big part of what this book is about.

So Tom writes whatever there’s a market for, as professionally as he knows how, and this leads to his name appearing on such highly esteemed works as Golf Courses of America, The Ins and Outs of Unemployment Insurance, Hospitals Can Make You Sick, and The Films of Jack Oakie.  Somebody’s got to do it.

Diskant is a real name, that real people actually have.  But it’s also a term in music–spelled with a ‘c’ in English, but a ‘k’ in German–that refers literally to ‘singing in two’–an intended disharmony.   And that’s Tom, whether he knows it or not.  He’s divided against himself–he wants to be creative, to express something real and true–he has that impulse.  He’s not a hack, but he makes his living as one.

And as he goes about his mercenary trade in public, he expresses his inner doubts to us–through a diary he keeps, and this book is composed of about one year of that diary–from one Christmas to the next.  Since as we all know, we think of our lives in this western world of ours as a succession of Christmases–each of which makes us question where we are in life, and what the hell we’re doing with ourselves.

And his professional disharmonies are nothing compared to his personal ones. About a year before this book begins, Tom left his wife Mary, with whom he has an eleven year old daughter Jennifer and a slightly younger son Bryan, both of whom he adores. He used to adore Mary, a very good looking girl and there was nothing wrong with the sex life, but for reasons he has a hard time explaining–but which probably had more to do with his dissatisfaction with his career than with their relationship–he got restless. He felt like she wasn’t taking him seriously enough.

He’d have affairs, more or less to get Mary’s attention, and she’d act like it was no big deal, just a phase he was going through.   Mary is herself a professional photographer, but not a very successful one–like Tom, she feels the need to be creative, even if her temperament is too warm and sympathetic to cast that cold eye on life that an ‘artistic’ photographer needs–but too discerning to just do sentimental schmaltz for calendars and such.  Like Tom, she’s stuck in the middle somewhere, and perhaps that’s why she assumes they’re meant for each other.  Tom is not willing to concede this point.

Not long before he moved out, he took up with Ginger, separated from her husband Lance (I told you there was a Lance), and they live together now, with her two children from her own failed marriage–Ginger, we gather is quite a hot item herself (there is little in the way of physical description in this book, particularly with regards to Tom and the two women in his life–we never even find out what color their hair is, though I guess with Ginger you could make a guess–as you could guess what first name Mr. Diskant would have if this new pairing was going to work out longterm–a fine romance indeed).

So now he’s in this impossible financial situation–he has to support his wife and family–Mary makes very little money as a photographer, and she absolutely refuses to ‘get a fella’, as Ginger keeps putting it, because she is waiting for Tom to come back to her.  But he also has to contribute to the household he’s currently a part of, which the absent Lance is contributing to as well, but Lance has got to contribute to the upkeep of the woman he’s living with now, who also has kids that are not his, and you get the picture.  The 80’s were the decade where the price of the sexual revolution started to express itself in dollars and cents, and the accounting got more creative all the time.

So Tom has a Big Idea–he’s tired of writing stuff he doesn’t believe in–he wants to try being an anthologist–which is to say, somebody who compiles stuff he does believe in, that doesn’t happen to be his.  A different kind of creativity–organizing more creative people along some unifying principle that you came up with.

(I should mention that this is one of the things Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s former editor at Pocket Books, did after his downfall as a novelist brought about by the McCarthy Witch Hunts–he compiled an anthology of short fiction for Doubleday that came out in 1962.  The last significant piece of work he produced in his life, unless you count the Parker novels of ‘Richard Stark,’ that he  played a significant role in fostering, which also began in 1962–Westlake never forgot that debt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moon was one of the people he was thinking about here.)

Tom’s idea is simple–every Christmas, a big publisher has to have a Christmas Book.  That is to say, a book people can give as a Christmas present, which by its nature has to be bigger and fancier (and more expensive) than a normal book, and can be displayed proudly on coffee tables and such.

Okay, suppose this year’s Christmas Book was about Christmas (and was, in fact, entitled The Christmas Book)?  What it means to different people, and particularly what it means to famous writers and artists, who Tom will contact by mail, and solicit from them stories, essays, fact-based articles, and works of art. And he will then compile these contributions into a book, supplemented by a variety of public domain writings and works of art that won’t cost the publisher anything.

He manages to sell this idea to Jack Rosenfarb, an editor at the publishing house of Craig, Harry & Burke–Jack has worked with Tom before, trusts his professionalism, but is dubious about Tom being ready for such an ambitious project, with such a high overhead–still, you’ve got to get that Christmas book ready, and if it’s going to be ready for next Christmas, you need about a year.

So Tom’s chosen his moment well, and with the aid of his elderly, endearingly irascible, and just slightly absent-minded literary agent Annie (who occasionally calls him Tim), he gets a guarantee of a big advance–that he will have to pay the contributors with, keeping what remains for himself and his blended family–but now he’s got to procure the raw material for him to shape.  He starts sending out letters to what seems like a list of every well-known author in the country, as well as numerous artists  (and Roddy McDowell, who when not playing urbanely sarcastic future-chimps, was actually quite a well-regarded photographer ).

This is the most enjoyable part of the book by far–the answers Tom gets from these legendary literary lions (nearly all of which begin with some variation on ‘how much?’).  And Westlake is having entirely too much fun with these much more famous colleagues of his, nailing each one’s style and preoccupations–he’s so wickedly on-target here that he had to put in a disclaimer in the front of the book, saying that he’s not sending up the actual human beings behind these famous names, but merely the public image that has accrued around each–which is true.

But since that image is precisely what makes their work worth more on the open market than some equally good work from some less famous writer or artist, the distinction is, you might say, academic.  When you become famous enough, the line between your true self and your reputed self becomes blurred, a theme Westlake returned to time and again in his fiction.   Westlake himself never got that famous in his life, and I think he alternately regretted and rejoiced over this–that his work, popular though it often was, mainly got to speak for itself, because most people didn’t have a very clear image of him, personally.   He never became a celebrity.  There are no Al Hirschfeld caricatures of him in the New York Times.

That passage I typed up top, describing the John Irving story that Westlake just made up himself–Irving’s obsession with bears has been such an enduring cliche about him–that is amply justified by his actual work–that he just recently spoofed it himself, on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.   Personally, I read The World According to Garp not long after it was published, and that was all the Irving I needed for the rest of my life–but he’s got this enormous media profile, that sells a lot of books–and defines him as a writer.  Love him, hate him, you know he’s into bears, and is really scared of feminists.

And this literary meme has endured over three decades from the time Westlake wrote that passage.  Irving can laugh about it, but he can never escape it. Westlake never got that famous, but he can relate–and subtly suggest that maybe mainstream authors are as constrained by cliches as lowly genre writers like himself.

Not that genre writers are immune from his satiric lash.  Isaac Asimov sends, as you see, a perfectly nice piece in about Santa’s sleigh–the kind of thing he used to produce all the time, when he wasn’t expressing fascinating influential ideas in slightly stilted prose, in the form of science fiction.  So Tom writes back and says the article is accepted.  And Asimov sends him another article, and another, and another–all Christmas-themed, all clearly composed in direct response to Tom’s original solicitation–he can’t stop himself.  Tom has to start sending the pieces back unread.

Asimov was one of the very few well-known writers of the 20th century who could make Donald E. Westlake seem laggardly and slothful in his rate of production.  I suppose this could be seen as a backhanded homage, but I think Westlake’s actual point might have been more along the lines of “If you’d stop vomiting out all this damned extemporanea, you might produce some more good science fiction stories, which is what people really want from you, and is all you’re going to be remembered for anyway.”  And really, there may be somebody out there who has read all of Asimov, but it’s never going to be me.   I’ll take the Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, the first two Baley/Olivaw detective novels, and the best of his short fiction. The rest will just have to wait for the hereafter, if they have libraries there.

But really, the only point is that we know Asimov through the public perception of him as somebody who never stopped writing, had opinions on every subject imaginable, all of which were disconcertingly well-informed.   You’d almost think the man was some kind of  writing robot–um–he wasn’t, right?   Did he ever allow a human to come to harm?  Never mind.

And then there’s the little dig at Mario Puzo, who wrote one of the great best-sellers of all time–which ate his career.  Nobody could ever think of him as anything other than the Godfather guy from then on.  And he’s understandably peeved, but what did he expect?   That’s the inherent risk to writing a book that gets too big (even though everyone who even imagined writing a novel has dreamed of precisely this happening), and all the bigger because of a hit movie based on it that has basically taken its place in popular culture.

So he takes it out on Tom, who writes that rather nasty rejoinder–then doesn’t send it.   He sends a very polite follow-up letter, explaining the misunderstanding, and hoping that Mr. Puzo can contribute something about his personal relationship with Christmas–which he does, and it’s excellent, and has nothing to do with the Mafia, Las Vegas, or Superman.  Though really, those would all have been worthy Yule-themed topics to address.  Tom is just happy to add another big name to his list.

It gets complicated, dealing with those big egos–Norman Mailer and Truman Capote each send in a piece about Christmas on Death Row.  Tom doesn’t know what to do–they’re just about the same exact length, both extremely powerful and well-written, each quite an individual expression of its respective author’s style and sensibility–what to do?  He wants both of them.   So he writes to them, explaining the problem, and the first thing each of them wants is to read the other’s piece (and perhaps show it to their lawyers).

The compromise arrived at is that the two submissions will be printed together–on alternating pages, Capote on the left, Mailer on the right (alphabetical order), in different fonts, with a little introduction from Tom himself, about how this came to pass, and how it graphically demonstrates the way two such unique literary talents can have such contrasting takes on the same subject, great minds think alike yet differently, etc.  Genius.  Tom’s actually putting together a book worth reading here.   He’s living out his dreams of authorial glory through these glorious authors.  He’s so excited.   But shortly before he gets the Capote and Mailer submissions, his editor quits.

When the editor who bought the book leaves the company before the book is published, the winds blow very cold.  In the trade, such a book is called an “orphan” and the word barely suggests the Dickensian–nay, the Hogarthian–horrors that await such a creature. Who shall defend these pitiful pages?  Who shall raise this tattered banner from the Out basket?  No one.

A new editor is “assigned” to the book, the way homework is assigned to reluctant schoolchildren, and the futility is evident in the word iself.  What commitment has this assigned editor in this book?  None.  How much time and thought will he divert to it from the books he chose for the company to publish?  Guess.

And it turns out the new editor assigned to his book is this rather attractive thirty year old named Vickie, quite tall (I’d cast her as a young Allison Janney in the movie that will never ever be made), who made her reputation by pushing through a book by a retired prostitute about how to lose weight by having lots of sex–and who never stops talking about her terrible relationship with her mother, who never stops talking about how Vickie should be married by now.   And who, as a consequence of this and other personal distractions, is doing precisely nothing to nurture and develop Tom’s book.

So they finally have a big fight over lunch, and feeling apologetic, Tom takes her home, and then he kisses her.  He didn’t plan it, it was spontaneous.  And then she looks at him with this strange expression in her eyes, and says maybe they should just fuck.

He’s got two women in his life already.  Mary may not have been the jealous type, but Ginger more or less defines that type.  She has this way of narrowing her eyes at critical moments that sounds quite frightening.  But Vickie has put herself in the position of offering sex to a colleague who desperately needs her help, and if he refuses, she will be terribly hurt and offended, and all future communication between them shall be rendered impossible.  As he explains it to us, “I just couldn’t be that rude.”  They fuck.

So now Tom Diskant, man of many disharmonious identities, has a wife who wants him back, a mistress who wants him faithful, and an editor/girlfriend who wants him, period.  And if he jilts the girlfriend, he loses the editor, and The Christmas Book shall be twice-orphaned.  And if the wife and mother of his children finds out about this burgeoning harem of his, she’ll lose all respect for him (and that matters to him, much as he wishes it did not).   And if the mistress finds out, he’s dead.  Alas and alack-a-day, what’s an aspiring anthologist to do?

For the answer to that and many more questions, dear reader, please tune in next week (or failing that, the week after), for the next  thrilling installment of The Westlake Review.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)


Filed under A Likely Story, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized