Review: Trust Me On This, Part 2

 

The death of Johnny Crawfish stunned the civilized world.  The thirty-eight year old  country singer who had risen from poverty and squalor as the child of migrant farm workers, the gravel-voiced balladeer who had found both God and his muse in a Tennessee prison where he’d been sentenced for manslaughter, the self-taught millionaire songwriter/businessman who by his thirty-fifth birthday had appeared in command performances before both Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan, died that Saturday morning of at first unknown causes in The Shack, his palatial thirty-room waterfront estate on Chesapeake Bay north of Newport News, Virginia, and when the news was flashed round the globe it was as though four billion human beings had just lost their best friend.

What we call fiction today is different from either the history or poetry known to readers before Cervantes’s time.  For a prose narrative to be fiction it must be written for a reader who knows it is untrue and yet treats it for a time as if it were true.  The reader knows not to apply the traditional measure of truthfulness for judging a narrative; he suspends that judgment for a time, in a move that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”  He must be able to occupy two opposed identities simultaneously: a naive reader who believes what he is being told and a savvy one who knows it is untrue.  In order to achieve this effect, the author needs to pull off a complex trick.  At every step of the way a fictional narrative seems to know both more and less than it is telling us.  It speaks always with at least two voices, at times representing the limited perspective of its characters, at times revealing to the reader elements of the story unknown to some of or all those characters.

From The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In The Modern World, by William Egginton.

Donald Westlake loved to experiment with the structure of his novels.   Rarely did he write a book that was just Chapters One Through Whatever.  He split his books–even the short ones–into different parts, with different purposes, and he named them, and you just never knew, opening a new Westlake, how it was going to be laid out.

This book starts off with The First Week, which runs four chapters–the week in question is Sara Joslyn’s first on the the Weekly Galaxy, obviously.  The First Day also runs four chapters, and refers to the fact that Sara gets a permanent parking sticker for her car at the end of her first week, and that’s really when she’s a Galaxy employee in full earnest.  The First Hundred Years takes up eight chapters, and is meant to indicate that even though she’s only been there a month by the time it ends, in reality (as with all indoctrination periods) it’s been more like a lifetime.  Our jobs tend to change our identities, the daily routine marks us, for good and ill, and it doesn’t take long at all for those changes to be noticeable.

Which brings us to The Wedding, the longest part of the book, a very busy eleven chapters worth of mendacious maneuverings.  As we saw last time, having learned that she’s actually brilliant at the job she was initially ambivalent towards, Sara Joslyn, once a strong believer in journalistic integrity and serious news, has been well and truly corrupted by her new job–not by the insanely large salary, the basically unlimited expense account, or even the tender ministrations of her nominal boss and newly minted lover, Jack Ingersoll.

No, she’s just found out it’s really really fun to think up ways to con people, to dream up cunning subterfuges, to obtain unobtainable information about the rich and famous–and get paid for it. Basically a tabloid reporter is a professional grifter/spy, with a weekly paycheck and a presumably excellent healthcare plan. Sara Joslyn, who a short time earlier was worrying about which of her half dozen or so half-finished novels to finish, now believes she may have found her true calling in life.

Jack, watching her rapidly become the the most intrepid scandalmonger the Galaxy has ever seen, worries he may have degraded an idealistic young soul. But he’s so enjoying her idealistic young body.   It’s a moral quandary.  And here he was thinking he’d left all such tiresome concerns behind in the 1960’s, where they belonged.

So John Michael Mercer, the brooding hunky star of Breakpoint, is getting married to a delightful young woman named Felicia, who is quite simply a doll. Sweet-natured, unostentatiously sexy, low-maintenance, neurosis-free, with nary a skeleton in her doubtless immaculate closet.  One would think there would be no story there at all, or at least no story other than “John Michael Mercer got married, sorry girls (and boys who hoped he was secretly gay).”

But it is Mr. Mercer’s misfortune that he is the object of a driving obsession on the part of Bruno DeMassi, the Galaxy‘s pernicious publisher, who owes his success to the fact that he understands his readership on an almost cellular level–he knows what Inquiring Minds Want to Know.  (I want to know!)

So ‘Massa’, as his staff only half-humorously refers to him, will not brook any excuses, or set any budget to the single-minded quest of extensively and intimately covering what is supposed to be a strictly private ceremony.  He has decided in his infinite wisdom that ‘the story’ is going to be an interview with Mercer, complicated by the fact that only certain pesky laws against bodily mayhem have stopped Mercer from habitually doing to Galaxy reporters what he presumably does to bad guys every week on his show.

So in brief, this is to your typical wedding coverage in the news what the D-Day Landings are to the Staten Island Ferry making its 30th docking of the day (at Staten Island).  Think I’m being hyperbolic?  Wanna bet?

Jack’s team having won control of the wedding coverage, he, Sara, Ida Gavin, The Aussie Trio, and many others fly to Martha’s Vineyard and set up a command center in a house the paper has rented at obscene expense (hotel rooms being scarcer than poultry dentition).  Louis B. Urbiton and Harry Razza are deployed to waylay the other ‘legitimate’ journalists coming in to cover the wedding, and get them all royally drunk.

Bob Sangster has an additional assignment–to pose as Jack Michael Mercer’s cap-tugging limo driver.  “I’m just a simple Aussie,” he keeps saying.  Simple like a bloody dingo.  More brass than a Big Ten University marching band.

“I don’t mean to intrude, sir,” the driver said, with a little stiffening of the shoulders to indicate the distance he knew he was expected to keep, “but if at some point you wouldn’t mind to give me just a little autograph for my daughter, it would be the thrill of her life.”

“Of course,” Mercer said, smiling, while Felicia squeezed his hand.”  “What’s her name?”

“Fiona,” the driver said.  “She’s your biggest fan.”

“Is she?”

“But we all are, sir, if truth be told.  The whole family, we wouldn’t miss a thing you do.  Not just Breakpoint, you know, but everything.  That blind rodeo rider in the movie for television, Study in Courage, was it?  That was beautiful, sir, if you don’t mind.  Beautiful.”

“I am proud of that one,” Mercer agreed, nodding in manly acknowledgement.

“Not to intrude, sir.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

You feel kind of sad when the vigilant staff of the exclusive hotel the happy couple are staying at, find Bob out, beat him to a pulp, and show him the door. Fortunes of war, mate.

The Galaxy‘s next move–which both shocks and thrills Sara, increasingly aware of just how much power and money her employer has to throw around when the situation warrants–is to moor a world-class yacht, the Princess Pat, within sight of the hotel, and inform Mr. Mercer that in exchange for his agreeing to an interview, he and his intended may sail off on it, anywhere they please (what do you suppose the odds are there would be no hidden cameras and listening devices installed onboard?).   Mercer is still not allowed to shoot anyone in real life, even in Martha’s Vineyard, so he just says “No” and slams the door in the messenger’s face.

At this point, Massa must acknowledge that ‘the story’ will not be an interview with John Michael Mercer, so it will have to be the wedding album.  Pictures. Exclusive to the Galaxy.  By any means necessary.  And as always wishing to set his reporters at each other’s throats, he tells Jack’s eternal nemesis, the smarmy Boy Cartwright, to go there and get those pictures.  Boy departs with all due alacrity.

Sleeping off a spate of drinking brought up by the aforementioned fortunes of war, Jack and Sara hear shots fired outside Jack’s motel room.  Turns out they were fired inside Sara’s vacant motel room.  Into Sara’s vacant bed.  Unclear if this is a real murder attempt or a very stern warning.  Jack manages to conceal Sara’s presence in his room, since the Galaxy (if you’d believe it) will not brook any moral turpitude from its staff.  Now the police have to actually go interrogate John Michael Mercer, to make sure he didn’t actively follow up on one of his innumerable threats towards the Weekly Galaxy and all those attached to it.  He didn’t, of course.  But now things are really getting out of hand.

The war is going against Mercer and Felicia, in spite of the valiant efforts of the hotel staff–there’s always somebody on the staff who can be bribed.  The manager is sadly forced to admit that he won’t be able to guard their privacy, but being a throughgoing professional (something Donald Westlake appreciates deeply in all walks of life), has a back-up plan.

The couple can stay with Lady Beatrice Romney (no relation, I’m sure), widow of an English general who was forced to leave that more happier land under a cloud after his military bungles led to the Dunkirk evacuations (the most glorious retreat in all of history).   A new Romney Hall, with grounds quite capacious enough to hold the ceremony, has been constructed in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lady Beatrice still broods on the iniquities of the British gutter press which hounded her late husband to an early grave.  No, I don’t believe a word of this either, and I don’t give a damn, do you?  Rarely have I suspended disbelief more gladly.

Hearing that a fellow subject of Her Majesty is now the person to approach, Boy figures he’s got the inside track to nab those wedding photos.  Yes, you see where this is going.  But the thing is, Boy doesn’t.   Been away from home too long. Forgot about the class system.

“Well, he says he’s from a newspaper, Mum,” Jakes said, with a faint but  unmistakable edge of disapproval.  “He says he’s from the Weekly Galaxy, Mum, it’s a sort of servant-girl paper, all in color.”

Lady Beatrice’s eyes glinted.  So the villainous press had traced the fair couple, had it?  Well, it would not be permitted to destroy their happiness.  “And the scamp,” she said, “has the effrontery to come to my front door?”

“He asks if he can have a word with you, Mum.”

“Put the villain on.”

“Boy Cartwright here, Lady Beatrice,” said the villain, and the instant she heard that glutinous voice, that style of Uriah Heep after assertiveness training, Lady Beatrice placed the fellow precisely and unerringly in his proper pew in the great English pecking order.  A tradesman’s son from somewhere like Bradford, a redbrick university dropout, the sort of fellow who in Manchester or Liverpool sells used cars to Pakis.  “If I could have a bit of a chat, Lady B,” this mongrel said, “I’d be most appreciative.”

You’ve had your bit of a chat, my lad, Lady Beatrice thought, and said “Put Jakes on.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That large strapping fellow there with you.  Jakes.  Put him on.”

“Oh, of course, of course.  See you in half a tick, then,” the creature said, and Lady Beatrice heard him, away from the phone, say snottily to Jakes, “Your mistress has instructions for you.”

Oh, that she does, my lad.  Let us avert our eyes from the distasteful events that follow, involving a large leather belt.  At least she didn’t say ‘release the hounds.’ Later on, she does, in fact, release said hounds, but we’ll get to that. A great pity Dame Edith Evans could not be cast to play Lady B.–certain tonal inflections only she could do to complete perfection.  I rather suspect her Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest was in Westlake’s mind when writing this scene–but of course she’d gone to her final reward over ten years before this book came out.  Hopefully they have plenty of cucumber sandwiches there, and I trust no journalists of any kind.

These scenes at Romney Hall are written very much from the perspective of Lady Beatrice and her two young guests, who she takes an immediate liking to–somehow, all aristocrats understand each other, and what else are celebrities but modern aristocrats?  John Michael Mercer starts reverting to the courtly western accent of his boyhood, accentuating it to the point where he might as well be doing Gary Cooper.  He positively beams when Lady B. mentions her late husband’s frequent avowal that all reporters should be horse-whipped on sight.   And you fully sympathize with them, and identify with their perfectly sane and understandable desire for privacy, and you want them to win out against these ruthless ink-stained sewer rats.

And then you switch back to Jack and Sara, who are themselves such a fine couple, so brave and resourceful and determined to get the personal data the great unwashed who constitute their readership demand as their rightful due for making Mr. Mercer rich and famous and privileged beyond all belief, and you’re right back in their corner again.  And this is intentional.  Westlake is pitting our divided sympathies against each other, forcing us to think about the underlying realities that make up our confused modern world.

A bit earlier in the book, Sara, frustrated beyond all endurance by the obdurate refusal of Mercer to allow them any access whatsoever to his personal life, speaks for all us inquiring minds–and we’re a bit embarrassed by how well she does it. Ida asks who the hell Mercer thinks he is (well he’s an actor, so obviously it depends on the script).

“That’s right,” Sara said, as fierce in her own way as Ida.  Jack stared at her in ambivalent surprise–did he want Sara to become Ida?  What a thought!–as the girl shook her fist and declared, “What do people like John Michael Mercer have, except their celebrity?”

“That’s right,” Ida said, glaring at Sara in aggressive solidarity.

“And where do they get their celebrity?” Sara demanded.

“From us,” Ida snapped.

“That’s right!” Sara cried, in full voice.  “When they want publicity, we give it to them.  And when we want, they’ve got to give!”

(Westlake used the the pithy declarative phrase “that’s right” perhaps more than any other writer I can think of, but not even in a Parker novel did it ever occur so many times in so short a passage.  Does this mean he thinks tabloid reporters are harder cases than bank robbers?  Hmm.)

Jack’s own identity crisis, relating to Sara, is now in full bloom.   He’s increasingly seeing her as his own perky blonde Frankenstein’s Monster.  And with her sleeping in his arms, he lies awake, trying to puzzle it out.   Is he having–feelings?

With what trouble and difficulty Jack had rid himself of extraneous emotion several years ago he could barely stand to remember.  A thoroughgoing romantic in college and beyond, slopping over with empathy and fellow-feeling, as naive as a CIA man at a rug sale, he had been hardened, annealed, by circumstances too harrowing to store in the memory banks, and since that time he had been safe.

It had been a conscious decision he had made, four years ago, to retire from the human race, to care about nothing, to become as self-sufficient as Uncas. He had chosen deliberately an environment where emotional attachments of every kind from the greatest to the smallest, were literally impossible.  It was not conceivable to care for one’s fellow workers at the Galaxy, for instance. One amusedly pitied a Binx Radwell about as meaningfully as if he were a puppy with a thorn in its paw; one used an Ida Gavin and then washed one’s hands; one rather relished a Boy Cartwright as so thoroughly representing the environment.

Equally, one could not become emotionally involved with the job.  Not this job.  Nor could one care about the pip-squeak transitory celebrities on whom they all lived their parasitic existence.  Even the state of Florida helped; anyone who managed to sing the glorious rocks and rills of that sunny buttcan needed psychiatric care.

Too thoroughly burnt-out a case even to relish the romantic self-image of being a burnt-out case, Jack Ingersoll had retired to Florida and the Weekly Galaxy and the likes of Ida Gavin and Boy Cartwright to lick his wounds and care never again about anything at all.  Not even possessions; his Spartan life not only gave him more money to put into blue-ribbon investments, the better to prepare for that inevitable day of involuntary retirement, it also kept him from falling–like puppy Binx–in love with things.  He who has nothing has nothing to lose.  And he who has nothing to lose has already won.

Except, Jack realizes with bewilderment, looking down at the sleeping blonde head on his chest, he has everything to lose now.   And he doesn’t have to break up with her to lose her.  He can lose Sara by Sara ceasing to be Sara.  And then what is he?  And that’s romantic attraction in a nutshell.  An identity crisis within an identity crisis.  Because Sara is only doing all this to prove herself worthy to him.  And he’s proud of her.  And ashamed of himself for being proud of her.  Ain’t love grand?

So finally, all gentler strategems having failed, the order comes down from on high–STORM THE WEDDING.   An all-out nuptial assault, by land and sea and air.  And you think Westlake is making this shit up?  Google pictures of Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, if you get the chance. Coming back to you now?  Yes, I know they’re both stuck-up assholes, and that marriage had about as much of a future as Betamax VCR’s, but still.

Sara leads a cavalry charge–on horses rented from a riding stable.  Boy leads a naval assault, a small flotilla of boats attempting to unobtrusively mingle with the vessels belonging to members of the Mercer wedding.  And Ida takes command of a helicopter bristling with long lenses, the heavy artillery of the paparazzi.

And all for naught.  If only Lady Beatrice had been leading Her Hajesty’s forces in spring of 1940, instead of her late husband (unkindly dubbed The Dunce of Dunkirk by the aforementioned gutter press), there wouldn’t be nearly so many WWII movies and documentaries.  The attack is beaten back on all fronts, with no loss of life, but considerable loss of dignity.  Clubs are brandished.  Non-metaphorical hounds are released.  Pants-seats are ripped.  Riders are thrown. Shotguns are fired.  The helicopter pilot has PTSD from Vietnam, and gets the hell out of there.  Napalm regrettably not an option.

All is lost.  No usable photos.  They have an interview with the minister who performed the ceremony–in exchange for them publishing his treatise on how to solve the Northern Irish Troubles–send the Protestants to Mars–not entirely without merit, but not nearly enough to satisfy Massa and the readership.  They mussed the bride’s hair up a bit with the backwash from the helicopter, made her lose her veil, made her cry.  Oh good for them.  A hard-fought victory for John Michael Mercer and his blushing bride, but victory all the same, as the happy couple kiss, and are seen no more in this book.  “Bastards,” Sara says, gazing upon them with hatred.  “Bastards, bastards.”  That’s the spirit.

And that defiant indomitable spirit simply will not allow the possibility of defeat. Sara’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play once more.  Lady Beatrice took the wedding photos herself, being an accomplished amateur photographer.  And where do amateur photographers get their photos developed?   Back in the days when photos still needed to be developed?  The drug store.  She finds out which one.  She picks up the photos herself, claiming to be doing so for Lady B.  The Mercer wedding album is presented to a delighted Massa.  The forces of evil have triumphed after all.

And in appreciation of this magnificent service performed on behalf of Vox Populi, Jack’s team is given a Body in the Box assignment.  In Part Five of this book, which is predictably entitled The Body in the Box.  Sara has been hearing this phrase repeated over and over throughout the book, and she’s been afraid to ask what it means.

It means you have to get a photo of a dead famous person in his or her coffin. The family of the deceased typically objects to this.  But certain disreputable members of that family (and what famous person in all of history did not have disreputable family members?  what person, really?) can often be bribed to provide a covert snapshot, of generally execrable quality, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that The People demand to see their idol’s decomposing corpse, perhaps merely to reassure themselves that if Life is not fair, Death is nothing but.  You see those photos up top?  This is still very much a thing, people.  And will remain a thing as long as people keep buying the papers containing these photos–and then buying reprints of them (the National Enquirer has been reprinting that Elvis issue for decades now).

So the dead famous person is country music legend, Johnny Crawfish, and this is where we came in.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?   Sara, not so much a reluctant detective as an absent-minded one, has completely forgotten about the murder mystery.  The murderer has not.  The murderer is a Galaxy reporter. The murderer intends to shut Sara up for good (even though she’s basically given up trying to solve the mystery) .

Sara and that same killer who now intends to kill again have entered The Shack under cover of being from the Virginia board of health, because (they say) Johnny Crawfish’s corpse has AIDS, so all non-essential personnel must be evacuated, so now they can take all the photos they want. Yes, this is in terrible taste, most insensitive, and I bet it would have worked if somebody had actually tried it back then.  In the rural south, definitely.  But quite possibly anywhere.

This is a terrific book, make no mistake, but I doubt there’s anyone who reads it who doesn’t have a pet peeve.  Here’s mine.  Sara was the detective here, distracted though she may have been.  Westlake typically put his amateur detectives (all of them guys, up to now) in a position where they had to solve a murder mystery to save their own asses.   And they invariably do so, and get to explain to all present not only whodunnit but how and why it was done, and they’re always right.  Because that’s the genre.

This is not really a mystery novel, but it has a mystery in it, and Sara is the detective.  She did all the legwork (and she has much better legs than all the previous Westlake detectives).  And she not only does not figure out who the killer is until it’s very nearly too late, but having survived, she lies there in a gurney, in a state of shock, while Jack, who has raced to the scene of the almost-crime, after belatedly realizing he’s sent her to her death, tells her what happened, and why.

It works.  Dramatically speaking.  Emotionally speaking.  Jack needed the shock of Sara’s near-death to get him to declare his love for her, and it makes sense he’d be able to put together the pieces Sara had assembled, knowing more about the background of that particular crime.   I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the scene, that it’s not very well written.  I’m just saying it’s not fair.

Donald E. Westlake was simply not put on this earth to write novels about female protagonists–great female supporting characters, yes.  But as the central figure in the story, no.  That’s neither a criticism nor an excuse.  It’s a statement of fact.  Even though he’s put much of himself into Sara Joslyn, even though he’s imbued her with many admirable qualities, even though he was destined to write one more book about her (in which she does solve the mystery all by herself, and Jack is relegated mainly to the sidelines)–his great protagonists are all Americans, all caucasians, all males.

That’s the perspective he was most comfortable with, even though he loved writing from many others, needed to stretch outside of his comfort zone–he still retreats back to it, when all is said and done.   It’s not that he’s a man, because many of the most compelling heroines in all of fiction were created by men, quite a few of them before Donald Westlake came into this world.  It’s because as is true of all of us, his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.   A package deal.

Sara’s a fine experiment, and since the book does not revolve solely around her, her deficiencies–chief among which is the fact that maybe she’s just a bit too damn cute for her own good–do not detract from the many pleasures of the narrative, which is not about who murdered whom at all.  And maybe I’m still sulking a bit that the estimable J.C. Taylor from the Dortmunder novel Good Behavior never got her own book.  But a writer is his or her choices, and all writers, even your favorites, make choices you don’t approve of. You live with that, or you read somebody else whose choices you don’t always approve of.  Or you write your own stories, and make choices other people don’t approve of.

And his final choice here is to end on a rather deliciously ambiguous note, in Part Six, The Way We Live This Instant.  Jack and Sara have achieved a fuller understanding of each other, and of themselves, and they know now they don’t want to waste the best years of their lives together serving the whims of Massa. So they make their way to the offices of Trend (promoted as The Magazine For the Way We Live This Instant), which Sara has previously deemed nothing more than the Weekly Galaxy for people with money.

Armed with certain embarrassing personal data, they successfully blackmail an editor there into hiring them on (this relates to his having earlier tried to do a Galaxy-style story about the Galaxy).  And though initially discomfited and angered by this violation of his privacy, the editor decides it’s actually a win–these two sharks will make him look good.  And eventually take his job, but hey, that’s the news biz.

And here’s where we have to ask ourselves–the same way we ask at the end of that brilliant fast-paced gender-switched remake of The Front Page that Howard Hawks gave us so long ago, and nobody has come close to equaling since (except maybe here)–have we been rooting for the wrong side?

Sara and Jack have made strides, certainly.  They’ve escaped the feudal bondage of the Galaxy, the trap that represented–only to wander into a larger trap. They’re still going to be reporting mainly on things that don’t really matter, to satiate the morbid curiosity of a better-heeled class of readers.   They have found love, and material success, and personal empowerment, and all the things that are supposed to matter–but have they lost themselves?   In the media-dominated world they–and we–inhabit–is anyone really completely themselves?

So there’s a double-meaning to that ending–the book is on two sides at once, and so are we.   And nothing has changed.  The Weekly Galaxy is still out there in many appalling forms, and can anyone honestly not look at the media scene we have now, 24/7 cable channels, news blogs that often make the National Enquirer and Weekly World News look positively quaint and old fashioned, and not conclude that Massa is the only real victor here?

And how has he won?  By being “an executive who is fond of promoting rivalries among subordinates, wary of delegating major decisions, scornful of convention and fiercely insistent on a culture of loyalty around him.”  You know who that quote actually refers to? Guess.

Viva Love.  Viva Mystery.  Viva Celebrity.  Viva Chicanery.  And viva Freedom of the Press, seriously.  For all its myriad abuses, it’s our best weapon against the plutocrats. But it’s also their best weapon against us.  And the war goes on.  And Jack Ingersoll and Sara Joslyn are not going to be very helpful to us in that war. They’re too busy enjoying life, and each other.  But they entertained us, and taught us a few things about ourselves.  And that’s something, surely.

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36 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

36 responses to “Review: Trust Me On This, Part 2

  1. rinaldo302

    This is such an outstanding summation of a really good book, I hate to see it devoid of comment! But I already used up my thoughts after part 1.

    Except… a really tiny issue that may mean nothing except how weird my friends and I are. Several of us at work read this when it was new, and talking about it over lunch one day, we realized that all of us pictured Sara with short dark hair. (We all must have been imperfectly attentive readers, skipping over or not recalling the one descriptive sentence, until I went back and picked it out.) We (male and female) agreed that we tended to picture women journalist heroines in the pattern of Lois Lane and Mary Richards. Also, I suppose, as a contrast to the blondes presumably dominating the Florida landscape. Anyway, we had to think back and course-correct; the author has to be accepted on this sort of thing.

    Is Ida ever given any physical description beyond “tough broad”?

    • Not really–we know Ida must be attractive to men when she wants to be, since her seductive powers come into play at various points. But I don’t remember much in the way of physical description. Sara is described as having long straight dark blonde hair, and that isn’t what you pictured, but the word dark could have jumped out at you, and cultural indoctrination did the rest. Lois Lane doesn’t always have short hair, and of course she’s currently being played by Amy Adams, but those movies are destined for the pop cultural scrap heap. Nothing against Ms. Adams. Not her fault.

      It’s arguable whether the second cover image I posted (the Allison & Busby edition)–a woman with long dark hair standing by an open coffin–pictures Sara or Ida. If the former, then you and your friends are not alone in seeing Sara that way. If the latter, it’s a bit of a spoiler.

      I actually forgot the dark part of it, and remembered her as having light blonde hair. Westlake was doing one blonde heroine/love interest after another at this point. Eventually he’d make Claire Carroll ash blonde, but only in the very last Parker novel. He retained an appreciation of brunettes to the very end, I’m sure. Yeah, it’s not the most intellectual discussion we’ve ever had here, is it? Ah well. Hair today, gone tomorrow. 😉

  2. John Micheal Mercer is obviously a fictionalized Sam Holt. Now, who could “Sweet-natured, unostentatiously sexy, low-maintenance, neurosis-free, with nary a skeleton in her doubtless immaculate closet.” be? Go, team Bly!

    • You can certainly see the influence of the Holt books here–as I’ve mentioned, the first Holt book had Sam waylaid by tabloid reporters. Probably in researching the life of a celebrity for those books, Westlake became fascinated by the way these people operate, and the weirdly antagonistic yet co-dependent relationship between them and their meal tickets.

      But Mercer’s just not very bright at all (plus he’s actually gotten to play leading roles other than the one on his TV show, like the blind rodeo star, heh). Sara’s the Bly clone here. Felicia has no career, no interest in writing, no propensity to make obscure literary or movie references, and can you see Bly getting teary-eyed because some reporters crashed her wedding? She’d be the one firing the shotgun.

      Anyway, how can Mercer be a fictionalized Sam Holt? Sam Holt is fictional too. Unless you know something I don’t? 😉

  3. Since discussion has flagged thus far, and my next piece will be a review of a handful of science fiction stories (a certain anthology, and I’ve already covered its primary component), let me suggest a little exercise for those of us who have read the book. My favorite game, Imaginary Casting Director. You can pick any era you like, but I’m going to cast this as if it was going to appear in the near future–say a few years from now. Time for pre-production.

    For Sara, I see Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s just coming into her own now–she’ll be just the right age in a few years, with just the right level of loopy enthusiasm–you need somebody very smart, very funny, and very sexy–no shortage of attractive perky young blondes in Hollywood (just throw a rock and you’ll hit one), but Sara needs that little something extra. About time somebody wrote Moretz some decent lines, even if that somebody has been dead since 2008.

    Jack’s a tough one, because he really seems a lot older than 30–Westlake was wary of making the age difference too great between him and Sara. I basically hate all young leading man types in existence now, but I could probably watch her do love scenes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and not throw up. That’s only about a 15 year age difference. Nothing at all by Hollywood standards.

    Massa: Danny DeVito will never die, but if he does, they would have to clone him.

    John Michael Mercer and Felicia–a matched set. I’d go with James Franco and Michelle Williams, if only because they made such a cute couple in that Oz movie.

    Lady Beatrice Romney: Judi Dench wouldn’t be quite as good as Edith Evans, but certainly quite capable of embodying the character.

    Boy Cartwright: Boy’s supposed to be in his 40’s. Formerly rather handsome, gone to seed. Smarmy, unctuous, repellent, yet oddly charming. Hugh Grant. Yes, I know, he’s in his 50’s, but I just really really would like to see him whipped within an inch of his life with a leather belt. For all I know, he’d enjoy that as well.

    The Down Under Trio: On the one hand, I would like to see them embodied by real Aussies. Paul Hogan might make a great Bob Sangster (he’s still alive, right?). But on the whole, I’d go with the Top Gear Trio (well, the former trio, since Jeremy Clarkson got himself deservedly bounced). Clarkson as Sangster, May as Razza, Hammond as Urbiton. They have the proper chemistry, they’re a bunch of right rascals, and they wouldn’t be playing the characters so much as themselves. They would not be allowed to drive sports cars. The Down Under Trio favor large American sedans. I’m sure they can do a perfectly creditable fake Australian accent, which is the only kind of Australian accent most people recognize. Anyway, I believe there is an Australian version of Top Gear, so I’d consider the guys from that.

    Mary Kate: Megan Mullaly. Duh.

    Ida Gavin: Going to cast against type here–Lauren Graham. She never plays anyone like Ida, and she’s certainly capable of it. Going by what I’ve heard about her behavior on-set, she’s got some Ida in her somewhere.

    Binx Radwell: I can’t bring myself to care, somehow. Leave that to the real casting director.

    Jacob Harsch: Stanley Tucci. I owe him a good actor after failing to mention him at all in my review.

    Johnny Crawfish: This would be a very brief role, since basically his only line in the book is “This coffee tastes like shit” and then he collapses on his own breakfast table. Some country star who doesn’t take himself too seriously, or else you could get Johnny Knoxville, but he’d probably want to fall from a high window into a tank of piranha or something. Jackass.

    And the other roles can to go deserving up-and-comers. I’m opposed to only casting big names in my imaginary movies. You have to give new talent a chance. 😉

    (editing) Almost forgot!

    Omniscient Narrator: Will Lyman. You’d miss so much of the flavor of this book without putting big chunks of Westlake’s narration into it. That goes for a lot of his books, actually. I’d also love to see Lyman narrating a Dortmunder series, if one ever materializes. No further word on that pilot in development, and I wonder if there ever will be.

    • rinaldo302

      I was going to ask about Ida, but you added several characters in the edit, and with very good choices for them, too.

      I was thinking about casting it at the time it was published, but that’s hard, y’know? Just keeping relative ages straight at a time in the past is challenging, and the available actors in a given age range don’t jump immediately to mind. I may still try, but it’ll take some more thought. I can predict right now, though, that I too will use Danny DeVito, because get serious.

      • DeVito was well known for Taxi (and several prominent film roles) by the time this book came out. Westlake wouldn’t have time to watch everything on TV, but Taxi was a highly regarded comedy, and he’d have probably seen it. But then again, could be us projecting our now much greater familiarity with DeVito backwards, fitting him to the role. There’s no mention of Massa being that short, or really much of any indication regarding his height (he’s clearly not tall). That actor who played Carla’s ex-husband on Cheers and its first spin-off, The Tortellis, would probably work too. Dan Hedaya. Looked him up. If DeVito gets hardnosed about contract negotiation, I can use Hedaya as a bargaining chip. The Rhea Perlman connection. 😉

        I should have waited until I had the time to do it right–still a bit blurry in the early morning. But that’s what the edit button is for, and I use it shamelessly.

    • Binx Radwell: Any of the guys who played Bertie Wooster’s idiot friends in the Laurie-Fry Jeeves and Wooster shows. There’s a wealth available because there were several friends (Tuppy Glossop, Bingo Little, Gussie Fink-Nottle, etc.) and all the minor characters on that show were played by different actors in different seasons. (There was only one actress who combined the melting beauty and premature dementia required for Madeleine Basset; the others just weren’t her.)

      • Binx is a very American version of that character (though you are right–the name is pure Wodehouse). And he’s sure not cutting any ice with these sharks if he starts saying “We were at school together.” Which they weren’t anyway.

        He’s not so much funny as embarrassing. And he’s not really an idiot–just lacking a backbone. He gets one in the next (and final) Joslyn book, after a fashion.

    • William H. Macy would be the perfect Jack if he were 30 years younger.

      • When he was 30 years younger, nobody had ever heard of him, but that’s nitpicking. He would actually have been older than Jack’s supposed to be even when the book came out. Also nitpicking.

        I’d probably prefer Alan Alda. I think I’ve mentioned, I end up head-casting a young Alan Alda for nearly all the Westlake Nephews, and that’s basically what Jack is, only he’s already had his identity crisis, and whatever it was, it didn’t go well. My guess would be, he lost The Girl–or else she turned out to not be The Girl he took her for (it happens). So he gave up on life, and love, and integrity. And then in walked Sara.

  4. rinaldo302

    I know Dan Hedaya very well — he was one of the recurring sleazes on Hill Street Blues, and he played a very effective Nixon in that flick with the two young girls, Dick. And also a nice low-key against-type father in Clueless. I may swipe him for my cast when/if I complete it, to avoid duplication. And his TV credits had made him castable, and even an obvious right type, by 1990.

    But I have to agree about William H. Macy at that date (when he was still W.H. Macy): I had pinpointed him by then, from The Dining Room on PBS followed by a couple of TV guest shots, but he meant nothing as a movie lead. I don’t think he’s quite right anyway, or Alda either, though both are quintessential Nephews. I guess I see Jack just a little differently.

    • I always find it easier to cast Westlake’s major female characters than I do the men. But that may just be due to my paying more attention to actresses. To be honest, I think the Great American Leading Man is a dying breed. We still produce great male character actors, and no end of vapid pretty boys, but you need somebody in the middle for a role like this.

  5. Re-reading this book made me wish (once again) that there were more in the series, and the omniscient narrator you mention in your head-casting comment is a big reason why for me. I love the narration in this book, perhaps more than any other Westlake third-person. He was clearly having a blast with it. I can’t remember if the next book’s narration is as great, but I suspect it is.

    For Jack, I would cast Tommy Dewey, who currently stars on the Hulu series “Casual.” He plays a guy who by all rights should be thought of as a creep (and in fact if you’ve only seen the first episode or two, you’d probably agree that he is a creep), but who can be charming when he wants to be and is pretty vulnerable beneath his assholish exterior.

    • ::googles: Hmm–too handsome for the Jack I see in my head. But this is the problem–Jack is described as good-looking, but he’s also described as kind of lumpy. He can’t be too much of a hunk, but he’s got to be enough of one to make Sara’s attraction to him plausible (charisma plays a role there as well, naturally). Bear in mind, it’s a middle-aged man writing this. Jack is basically a 50-ish guy in a 30ish body. Neat trick. Hard to pull off, casting-wise. Used to be possible.

      You know, actually–I think I got it. Joshua Jackson. You need more of a mutt-type. Somebody not classically handsome, yet appealing. He’s 37, so still within the acceptable range (honestly, it makes no sense that Jack is around 30–in the 80’s–thinking about his days as a 60’s activist).

      This is a very pointless discussion. But then, that’s the point.

      The narration is really good–I put that quote from the Cervantes book up there (just happened to cross my desk here at the library) because I felt like the narration here really embodies that double-consciousness Mr. Egginton speaks of–the narrator isn’t quite being ironic, and he’s not quite being tongue in cheek, and he’s not quite making fun of anybody, but he’s sure as hell not taking any of the goings-on too seriously either. He keeps his own counsel. I liked the bit in the last chapter about how those apartment towers on the opposite side of the Hudson from Manhattan are New Jersey doing its feeble best to give New York the finger. It doesn’t serve the story in any way. It’s just there for atmosphere, and to remind us New York is New York.

      Much as I love Westlake’s first-person narrators, he really kicks it up a notch when he goes third-person. But then again, arguably his best book was first-person. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone who did both forms so consistently well over such a long period of time. He had whole pseudonyms devoted to one form or the other. Stark could never do first person, Coe could never do third. And few could best either of them on their home turf.

  6. Tommy Dewey is much “lumpier” on the show than he is in his Google image search. He also carries the weight of middle-aged disappointment, despite being only 37. Moot point, as you say.

    In any case, speaking of Danny DeVito, there’s a great anecdote regarding the pilot of Taxi, during which DeVito’s character berated the cabbies from his perch in the cab stand the entire episode, only coming out (and revealing his short stature) at the very end, to the riotous surprise of the studio audience. There’s always something to be said for casting an unknown.

    • Yes, when you’re actually casting something. But unknowns negate the purpose of the great game of Imaginary Casting Director. 🙂

      If I ever get to watch that series, I’ll consider the gentleman’s skills, but there’s not enough on YouTube for me to assess him.

  7. rinaldo302

    OK, here’s my cast for a 1990 film (figuring that there had to be a time lag after publication). I’ve probably rushed it so as not to keep talking about this after the next blog entry appears, but so be it.

    Sara: Michelle Pfeiffer
    Jack: Tom Berenger. Both perhaps five years older than described, but they had no trouble playing younger. And both better, more varied actors than they’re often given credit for.

    Massa: Dan Hedaya.

    John Michael Mercer and Felicia: I originally thought of Tom Selleck, who fits the background (giant TV hunk whom everyone was briefly fascinated with) but somehow too genial, and too similar in affect to Berenger. Some younger TV stars of the time fit personality-wise but were really too young. So let it be Tom Hanks (only a few years beyond his own TV role) and Rita Wilson.

    Lady Beatrice Romney: Maggie Smith.

    Boy Cartwright: Ian McKellen.

    Binx Radwell: Paul Willson. Do we know him? He was the eternal hanger-on in the Cheers bar, and Garry Shandling’s pushy neighbor. Sort of a lesser earlier Philip Seymour Hoffman in looks and manner.

    Jacob Harsch: Abe Vigoda.

    The Down Under Trio. I couldn’t manage all Australian (Paul Hogan was definitely too trim and together), so I’m making do with one Aussie plus two Brits: Geoffrey Rush (pre-fame at this point), Michael Gambon, Denholm Elliott. All can certainly be seedy enough, and Gambon has the bulbous nose.

    Mary Kate: Bebe Neuwirth.

    Ida Gavin: Swoosie Kurtz.

    Johnny Crawfish: I don’t really see a need to cast him, but if we need a cameo, Jimmy Buffett would fit.

    I would want a narrator for some Westlake films (Dancing Aztecs, obviously), but I’m not so sure about the device for this one. If we go that way, I would like the authoritative yet insinuating voice of David Strathairn, and then he can show up in the last scene to play David Levin.

    • Nice–I particularly like Berenger, Smith, Vigoda, Gambon, and Swoosie.

      Much as I revere Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of my favorite films of all time), she was well into her 30’s by then, and an old soul to boot–she’s not going to have the needed naivete. In fact, I’d cast her as Ida. It might actually work to have both Sara and Ida played by blondes–emphasizes the danger of Sara becoming Ida, if she continues down the path she’s on. So you need somebody like Pfeiffer, but maybe a bit less hard-edged–and just then being noticed. Heather Graham, maybe. Born 1970. Uma Thurman born same year, but she was never naive. Jennifer Aniston? Possibly a bit too knowing. No, on the whole, I’d go with Graham. Until I think of somebody else. Or we change the time period. But again, there’s been a ton of actresses who could do Sara–but only when in their 20’s, and preferably not too far into them.

      And since we’re in 1990–let’s see–Scott Patterson, of Gilmore Girls fame, is 32. Just getting his start, so he’d have to read for the part. I can really imagine him doing that “Believe it or not, I came here as a young and beautiful woman” line and getting away with it. I don’t know if he had the same comedy chops back then, of course. Well, that’s what casting calls are for.

      (editing) Maria Bello! Just the right age, just the right type. And she played reporters. She wasn’t really known for anything until 1996. An unfortunate oversight that can be corrected through time travel. 😉

      • rinaldo302

        I confess I was pleased with myself for thinking of Berenger. Good-looking and likable but just passing into “no longer young” at this date, and with an edge to him when called for.

        • These days, the fashion is for the boys to be as pretty as the girls. To me, it’s the contrast between male and female, rough and smooth, that’s sexy, and that’s my personal taste, and I can’t expect everyone to live by it. But then again, nobody should expect me to change it, just to suit the times. And styles in Hollywood don’t necessarily mirror the way everybody feels in real life. Just looking around me, I can see they don’t.

          I think one problem with stars today (and filmmakers) is that so few of them have done anything but movies and TV (maybe some theater). That was far from the case in the past, and most of the truly great stars did plenty of living before they were stars. Too much acting, not enough living–hard to mirror life when you haven’t experienced it. Like if some of them went out and robbed banks or supermarkets or something, might do their acting chops a world of good. My sister is starting an administrative job at the Lee Strasberg Institute soon, and maybe I’ll suggest she bring this up at a staff meeting. I mean, the whole point of The Method is that you draw on past experiences, right? Which means you need to have had some. 😉

          • rinaldo302

            That’s part of a wider cultural phenomenon in our society that’s been going on (and commented on) for decades now: it’s true generally, not just for actors, that (I forget who coined it) “adolescence now lasts at least until you’re 30.” We can recall earlier actresses like Bacall and Stanwyck, who were fully formed, as women not girls, onscreen at 20 or so. For whom is that true now? An actor friend mentioned the casting of Kevin Anderson in the Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending (also filmed for TV): Anderson was exactly the 30 years old described in the script, but by that age Williams meant someone with some visible years and experience wearing on him, where Anderson was practically still a boy. The category of a middle-class guy who barely finished high school and then drifted around for a few years without an endgame in mind — it basically doesn’t exist any more. (Also a problem for other plays, like Picnic.)

            • It probably still exists somewhere, but not among those people who are likely to become mainstream actors. Because you have to get the training, and form the contacts, and then you’re in that world, so separate from the world the rest of us live in.

              And it’s good and bad–certainly not a bad thing that technique is being developed–though the increased emphasis on physical perfection has limited the extent to which this is true. Can you imagine Cagney, Robinson, or even Bogart becoming major leading men in serious pictures today? Or Bette Davis, for that matter. Stanwyck is to me one of the sexiest broads who ever breathed, but you look at her objectively–what’s the big deal? The big deal is when she turns it on. The big deal is that understanding of life, of people, that came from the school of hard knocks she graduated from.

              So many name actors now come from very well-off families. I mentioned Chloe Grace Moretz–who I think is a very promising young star–her dad’s a plastic surgeon. Well, don’t want to be a reverse snob. Not like I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s actually getting pretty genteel itself these days. :\

      • rinaldo302

        I like Maria Bello, but I’ll leave her to your list. I am kicking myself for only now thinking of the perfect “new” ingenue, 20 when pulled out of a daytime soap in 1986 to embody the title role of a movie: the Princess Bride herself, Robin Wright. Final answer.

        • Duly noted. I like Maria Bello better. My favorite Robin Wright movie is actually The Playboys. And she was good in that, but I liked Niamh Cusack a lot better. And I even know how to pronounce her name. 🙂

  8. Anthony

    Most minor nit-pick of all time: I was a teenager into twenty-something in the Norfolk/Newport News part of the world. Westlake put the Galaxy team into a rented house with a basement. NONE of the houses in that part of the world have basements. Also, the time listed to get from point A to point B doesn’t work. I mention this only because Westlake always went to great pains to get New York geographic details right (he, via Murch, even brags about this in Jimmy the Kid).

    Like I said, minor. But previous comments have pretty much covered all the good territory.

    I love the scene in which Sara has it out with her roommate. The “you little snip, Snip, SNIP” scene. Don’t know why this is. It works with “snip” and any other writer would have gone with “bitch” or worse, which would have been unmemorable. Westlake’s love of words and character quirks is very much alive and well in this one.

    • Sara was obviously brought up in a house where certain words were simply not spoken. I mean, she sees a dead man who’s been shot in the head, and the first word out of her mouth is ‘jeepers’–at least it wasn’t jinkies.

      That sounds like a legit nitpick to me. Westlake had possibly been to that part of the country, but he’d have stayed in hotels–you can’t tell just by looking at a house if it has a basement. And his primary concern would have been getting the mystery-related details right.

      Minor confession–I don’t know Virginia very well at all, though I’ve been there once or twice as a kid, and I took a very very long train ride to and from South Carolina, so I saw some of the less glamorous parts of Virginia from the train.

      So my point is–Newport News? I thought maybe Westlake was making that up. I actually checked to make sure that was a real place. It sounds like the name of a paper, or maybe a ball team. Possibly a cigarette. I think he might have picked it just because the name itself kind of tickled his fancy. As it did mine.

    • rinaldo302

      Sara does call her a bitch once, but thereafter goes with “snip snip snip” — I agree, most memorably.

      Also, because I spend most of my time here praising Westlake’s command of language to create fresh comedic insights (and will be doing so in future, too), I’ll mention one rare punchline (or observation-summation-line, or whatever it is) that, to my mind, falls flat, and has from my first reading. Ida’s advance summation of how the more disreputable-looking Galaxians will fit in on Martha’s Vineyard: “K-Mart meets J. Press.” (Big linespace to let it sink in.) Doesn’t land, to my way of thinking. Not worth mentioning except for how it points up how convincingly his zingers land the other 99.999% of the time.

      • I didn’t see that as a big line–just a bit of offhanded snark. Don’t have the book here with me (moving on to other books).

        K-Mart was kind of the comedian’s gold standard for low-brow couture back then. I went to see Steve Martin at the Garden State Arts Center, back in the late 70’s (back when he was still a wild and crazy guy). It’s the PNC Bank Art Center now. Words cannot possibly express how much I hate this.

        But anyway, we did, in fact, have a K-Mart in our fair community. And no doubt Martin knew this (tailor the material to the audience), when he went into his patented impression of a thin-skinned Middle American, indignant over some off color remark–“Come on, Martha–we’re going to K-Mart!” Brought down the house. You had to be there.

        To be honest, it was the J. Press thing that fell flat with me. I’m not a good enough dresser to even remember they exist. I was thinking “Does he mean J. Crew?” I’m more of a thrift store shopper. My outerwear comes from places like Duluth Trading. Filson, if I’m in the money. 😉

        • rinaldo302

          To be honest, I remembered it as J. Crew, till I verified the quote. Then I had to wiki J. Press to see if they still existed (and oh boy do they; I now know the name of their special tailor who will make you something to measure, because that’s our clientele). So yes, that’s part of it for me too.

          Like I said, not a big deal in any case, but usually when DEW creates one of these full-page tableaux, he rounds it off, and this was a bit of a stretch. (My editor’s eye suggests that using “she decided” instead of “said” betrays a soupçon of awareness that it needs some punching up.)

          One more name for my late-80s cast, if we can cast our minds back. Surely Betsy Harrigan (the telephone repairperson) was made to be a cameo by Tawny Kitaen.

          • It’s your imaginary movie to cast–but Tawny’s not very Irish, is she now? You go to any Irish nabe–yeah, they still exist–Woodlawn in the Bronx, Southie in Boston. Look around and you’ll see a Betsy Harrigan, and she’s always worth seeing. So just pluck her off the street, put her in a phone company shirt, cap, and toolbelt, with shorts to show off those untanned freckled legs, and make sure she knows her lines. The role doesn’t require a pro. And her mom will just die. Not quite as good as seeing her daughter’s picture in the Weekly Galaxy, but it’s up there.

            I maintain the problem with the line is that not enough people know the difference between K-Mart and J. Press. Frankly, I’m wondering how Mary Kate knew. Probably Westlake heard that line (or said it) and it got a laugh, and then he realized it didn’t work so well in print. But ya know, it’s just one line. What confuses me about it is that we’ve been told the Galaxy staffers make huge money for that time period, so what are they doing at K-Mart in the first place? They could actually afford J. Press.

  9. Anthony

    I remember an article in something like Time or Newsweek that came out at more or less the same time as Trust Me on This. The article was a one page run-down on the excesses of National Enquirer and its brethren. The accompanying photograph showed a photographer standing on an opened coffin, one leg on each side, taking a picture of a corpse.

    • It’s one thing to be an ambulance chaser. This is taking it to the next level. And they still do it.

      You know, when famous people died, they used to let people see the body. How many people in America got to see Lincoln’s corpse? Hundreds of thousands, conservatively speaking. His face was black (oddly appropriate) by the time they interred him, and then of course some guys tried to steal his body. And this isn’t just poor people–you’ve heard about that Skull and Bones fraternity, right?

      Point is, there’s this morbid curiosity that pertains to the mortal remains of certain personages. Body in the box pictures used to appear in regular newspapers. Then that came to be seen as in bad taste. And the tabloids figured out they could fill that niche. And it’s been a major revenue generator for them ever since.

  10. Now I’m starting to wonder if Sara and Jack’s escape from The Weekly Galaxy was permanent, after all. The octopus just keeps growing more tentacles.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2017/03/15/national-enquirer-parent-buys-us-weekly-wenner-media/99232236/

    And in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast
    They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast

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