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.