Monthly Archives: June 2016

Mr. Westlake and the 90’s

The 80’s segment of this blog dragged on longer than I anticipated or desired (much like the real 80’s).   I could, if I wanted to, count the next book in the queue, published in 1990, as an 80’s effort.  It was probably written mostly if not entirely in 1989, and the first book I counted as a true Westlake 70’s novel was 1974’s Butcher’s Moon.  Because I felt like Westlake (and to some extent, America) was still more or less in 60’s mode before that–also because he was writing books faster than the publishers could get them in stores, so the publication dates were often misleading.

But in my opinion, he got himself into 90’s mode a lot faster.  I don’t think he cared for that Reaganaut big-haired MTV decade any more than I did.  Anyway, there’s always something arbitrary about an era’s starting and ending points, and I hereby declare the 1980’s are dead as far as The Westlake Review is concerned.  Long live the 1990’s!

The 90’s constitute Westlake’s last groundbreaking era as a writer.  He wrote some very strong books during the first eight years of the 21st century, but with one significant exception, they were all Parker and Dortmunder books (the others will be something of a chore for me to review, but I’m game if you are).

He was drawing back into himself, marshaling his remaining creative energies. As the 21st century dawned, he knew the best was behind him.  He also knew that the public (and the publishing industry) would not accept his ventures outside the genres he was known for.  As we’ve been discussing elsewhere on the blog, he produced one more unpublished novel in the 90’s, and was actually rebuked by his agent for doing so.  In short order, I hope to link to Greg Tulonen’s review of that book, currently languishing in a Boston-based archive–but even more I hope to see it given the public airing it deserved in the first place.

In spite of such bruising disappointments, the best was still ahead of him at the dawn of the 1990’s, the decade in which he hit the big 6-O .   The true test of a writer–youth fully behind him or her–is whether he or she can do more more than just restate what’s come before.  To draw upon the decades of experience, and come up with something new, that builds upon the past without being stuck in it.  To gather his or her creative energies for one last definitive statement.

It didn’t start that promisingly for him.  He had some more serious misfires, most notably a return to science fiction (with a dash of C.S. Lewis) that I’d call his most intriguing and ultimately disappointing failure (that he retained a perverse affection for).  But he followed up shortly afterward with an homage to H.G. Wells that turned into possibly his best (and longest) satire, and a damned good heist story to boot (of course not everybody sees it that way).   He also turned out a sequel to Trust Me On This, and I wouldn’t call that a triumph either.  I’d call it a decent bit of a mystery read, mingled with some good amateur anthropology, and nothing more.

Dortmunder kicked off this decade for him, and for that star-crossed thief, 1990 marked the epic to end all epics (except it didn’t).  Counting the 1990 book, there were four Dortmunder novels that decade, and all of them rank among the very best for me.  Starting the decade with perhaps his most Sisyphean endeavor (and his most heroic), Dortmunder became less and less of a Jonah as the decade wore on, gaining a fuller understanding of his powers, and using them in an increasingly retributive fashion.

But as the decade reached midway point, Dortmunder was pushed aside for a time by the unexpected return of Richard Stark and Parker.  Retrospectively, there were plenty of hints this was coming.  Westlake convincingly resurrected the Stark voice, and somehow made it seem as if Parker and some of his associates (and enemies) had gone into a kind of protracted hibernation, emerging into the Information Age like the splendid anachronisms they always had been.

No coincidence at all that just before he came back to Parker, Westlake produced his masterpiece.  The book that somehow became a fruitful and terrifying collaboration of all the many voices of Donald Westlake, that most perfectly expressed what he had to say as a writer, and as a man.  Once that was completed, and received with a level of critical and commercial success he found oddly unnerving (there was even a good film adaptation!), you could say he’d shot his bolt.  He would have been well justified in just enjoying his final years, maybe turning out articles and short stories–he had nothing left to prove.

But even semi-retirement simply wasn’t an option for him.  He could never top himself again after The Ax, though a follow-up book with a very similar title served as a more personal take on the same general theme–the walls closing in, options narrowing, desperate measures taken–but this time set in the world of novelists.

Westlake was done playing.  Whether he wrote as Westlake or Stark in the 90’s, the harder tougher side of him began to take increasing precedence, even his comedic work taking on a stark edge.  Because nothing, I’m afraid, is starker than old age.   He only produced three Parkers in the 90’s, the beginning of a loosely linked five-book series that led into a final grim trilogy in the 00’s.   But Stark is present in many other books, and to a lesser extent, so is Coe.

This is one decade I’ll be in no hurry to get through, but it’ll go all the quicker because of that.   The closer you get to the terminal station, the faster the train seems to go.   Or to put it differently, the closer you get to shore, the faster the leaky boat seems to sink.

But before I get to that great aquatic Dortmunderian epic, there’s something I have to clear up, regarding Mr. Westlake and a far less distinguished (but still rather fascinating) crime fiction author–almost like a game of correspondence chess.  Unless I’m imagining it.  Which I may well be.  You be the judge.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Grifters

The difference between a movie and a novel is that a movie is just the surface of things, and the meanings and emotions can only be implicit.  Even if somebody stands on screen and says, “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” you’re simply seeing someone who says “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” whereas a novel can convince you that you’re really in the presence of someone feeling terrible pain at this moment.  It’s a different intensity, a novel.  Even a shallow novel is “inside” somewhere.

Since a movie is dealing with the surface of things, it’s easiest to start scripts in the instruction manual mode, as if you are doing an instruction manual from which somebody is making a film.  Start with basics–like in painting, where you put the colors on a canvas to convince somebody to get an emotional response–that’s what a basic script is.  You then put on top of that as much meaning and emotion and reality as you can, but what a script really is basically is a set of instructions.  I would never do a novel the same way.

One thing Stephen and I agreed on right away was updating the book.  A story shouldn’t be done “period” unless it is about the period.  There’s no problem with updating Thompson because his people only live in a very narrow world, with each other.  Their whole interest is the emotional struggle between them.  To update it, all you have to do is take their hats off.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

Donald E. Westlake, as I’ve mentioned many times before, had a long love/hate relationship with Hollywood, and with its primary product.  He’d grown up with movies, he loved movies, he freely admitted to being influenced by many of them.  But the thing about film making is, it’s an inherently collaborative artform, as well as an artform controlled by the people who finance it.  The more stubbornly independent you are, the less you’re going to get done, no matter how much of a genius you are  (Orson Welles alone is proof of that).

Westlake, an independent to his core, aspired to be in total control of his creative output.  That’s an ideal perhaps no successful artist ever fully attains in reality, but you come a whole lot closer with the printed word or the painted canvas than you do with the exposed negative or massed arrays of pixels.  He also aspired to financial solvency.   So what drew him to Hollywood was perhaps in part his fascination with filmmakers and actors, but it was much more the innate economic consequences of three marriages and four sons.

He spent a lot more time writing story treatments, screenplays, teleplays, than was widely known when he was alive.  Many of the projects he worked on never made it to the large or small screen (and in some cases, he ended up wishing they  hadn’t).  But it was mainly work-for-hire, not passion projects.  He was very much a gun for sale, and it often seems to me that he sold out as a screenwriter so he didn’t have to as a novelist.  The novels were what mattered to him.  He might compromise to some extent there as well–writing to the market–but writing on his own terms.  Not what someone else told him to write.

He always stayed aloof from the world of movies, even while observing it and the people who make it work (or fail to work) with rapt fascination, basing many a story on those observations, and above all filling his depleted coffers with its filthy lucre, so he could go back to writing the books he wanted to write, without having to worry so much about whether they’d be bestsellers (as apparently none of them ever were).

Westlake’s financial condition was so tied to the film industry that when a slump in that industry stalled development on a host of projects, he very nearly had to take that dreaded day job he’d been running away from for most of his adult life.  Like teach writing at a university.  Many eminent writers have enjoyed doing this, but to him it meant being an organization man, a mere employee, as opposed doing freelance work for publishers and studios.  Hollywood’s primary purpose, as he saw it, was to keep him solvent so  he could write more novels, and retain his treasured independence.  Thankfully, the crunch didn’t last long, and he was able to remain blissfully jobless to the very end.

But to Westlake, being a professional meant a whole lot more than just doing work for hire.  It meant doing the work, taking pride in your craft.  Whenever he took a job writing a script, he gave it his all –a task complicated by things like incompetent producers, directors who didn’t know how to get the best out of the cast and crew, miscast actors, etc.  And by the fact that (as is true of most screenwriters) the script he wrote was very rarely the script that got filmed.

The one major exception up to this time had been The Stepfather, a very rare instance of a writer who is not also the director having script control on a film–and the results had been impressive.  But still, hardly what you’d call great cinematic art.  Just good original storytelling (which is a rare and precious enough thing in itself).  Westlake was a skeptic about the Cult of the Auteur in movies, but he couldn’t deny that directors are the ones who make movies, even if they need a script to do it.  And I’ve seen no evidence he ever wanted to direct.

I just finished rewatching The Grifters, after also rereading the Jim Thompson novel.  I’ve never seen it in a theater.  This is a movie I remember hearing about when it was released, and when it got four Oscar nominations later on.  As usual for me back then, I paid no attention to who wrote it.  I had seen Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.  But I was by no means a particular fan of Frears.  And I’d never heard of Donald Westlake.  Or Jim Thompson.   I’m pretty damned interested in both of them now.   Frears is a gifted filmmaker, but I’m not all that interested in him.  Well, you can’t be interested in everybody, can you now?   Apart from The Stepfather, the only  Westlake-related flick I have ever seen in a theater remains Mise à sac, the one hardly anybody outside of France has seen.  I like to be different.

It’s a very fine film, The Grifters.  On balance, I can’t call it a masterpiece.  Having now read Thompson’s novel twice, I don’t quite consider that a masterpiece  either, though I’d call it one of his five best books, the others being The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway, Pop. 1280, and South of Heaven (and yeah that last one isn’t on the lists of most other Thompson fans, but most other Thompson fans are wrong)

Thompson didn’t write polished literary gems.  He wrote strange genre-bending books, seething with dark emotions, that you can’t ever fully categorize, or put down until you’ve finished them (he also wrote some real clunkers, very hit or miss).  I feel about him roughly the way Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) felt about Philip Kindred Dick, a writer to whom Thompson is often compared (because it’s hard to find anybody else to compare to either of them, I guess).  “I don’t know if he’s a great writer or not.  All I know is don’t try to take it away from me.”   

Westlake knew Thompson’s work very well, liked it a lot, saw its very serious shortcomings.  Thompson, he was wont to say, wrote too fast, so that he could hand in a book and get paid (and he knew that kind of writing very well).  It’s one thing to write quickly, but when he came to a problem that needed to be fixed, he wouldn’t rewrite what he’d already written.  He’d just stick in some jury rigged solution and keep going, because that’s how he worked.

Today, that makes him seem very ‘modern.’  His best stuff has dated beautifully, precisely because it’s so rough hewn, unpolished, full of odd unpredictable stylistic stunts (like three word final chapters–“He smelled good.”) that make him seem almost like the Beat Poet of Noir sometimes.  The very fact that he was virtually ignored by the literary establishment for his entire life merely adds to his luster now.  He’s here to stay, like him or not.

And he translates horribly to film–partly because the movies just can’t take him straight-up (neither can most film-goers, which is the problem in a nutshell).   Westlake must have known going in that there are things in Thompson you can’t put on film, not ever.  But he did walk away from this particular project feeling atypically pleased with the work, believing they’d gotten Thompson’s soul on celluloid for the first (and thus far only) time.

What do I believe?   That this film is a powerful flawed attempt to reinvent a powerful flawed book for a very different era than the one it’s set in, and a very different audience than the one it was written for.  And as such, I deeply respect it.  But I like the book much better, in spite of its flaws, and I think Westlake did too.

I believe that was one of the things that pleased him about this movie–perhaps more pleased than he’d ever been with any film he’d been connected with, before or since.  They’d gotten enough of the book in there to bring Thompson to a wider audience, retaining its fundamental meaning, without subsuming the book into the movie, as so often happens.  So he’d done genuinely good work with a talented collective of artists, without betraying (as he’d see it) a fellow wordsmith who hadn’t lived to see his name become a sort of hipster household word.  To him, that was the best possible result of adapting a book into a film.  The book should always take precedence.  Unless it stinks, in which case why are you adapting it?

As so often happens, a failed project led to a successful one (two, in this case).  He’d been working on a screenplay for Volker Schlöndorff, based on Passage of Arms, an Eric Ambler novel.  Schlöndorff enjoyed working with Westlake, but the studio kept sticking its oar in, and he decided to abandon the project, make The Handmaid’s Tale instead.  Not Westlake’s kind of story, so they parted amicably.  But he happened to tell Frears how much fun he’d been having with Westlake on the earlier project, and Frears reportedly said “Well, I’d love to have fun!”  He did.

Frears had some familiarity with the Stark novels, which he thought were very much in line with what he was aiming at for this film (he probably never saw Westlake’s early 60’s work under his own name).  He was under the impression Westlake didn’t write that kind of story anymore–just comic capers.  He screened The Stepfather, and came away thinking that Stark had written that script, not Westlake.  He offered Westlake the job, but wanted the screenplay credited to Stark.  Westlake pointed out that Stark was not a member of the Writer’s Guild, and he was not going to let his alter-ego be a scab.  It must have been a very interesting conversation.

What unites Stark and Thompson is that neither pulls his punches much (there are some lines neither will cross, like harming a small child).  What separates them is that Stark is a romantic, Thompson a fatalist.  Stark wastes a lot fewer words.  Parker would never be a protagonist in Thompson’s world–he’d just walk right out of the book, shaking his head.  If Thompson wrote about someone that amoral, he’d write him in the first person, make him talk to us, tell us what he’s thinking, bring us into his confidence, like Shakespeare’s Richard III.  And the ending would always be tragic.

Stark doesn’t really get tragedy.  See, to be a tragedian, you need to have believed happy endings were possible in the first place.  Westlake put that part of himself on mute when he wrote as Stark.   Stark is much less emotional, though no less bleak.  Also much more disciplined, precise, effective.  Thompson is wilder, more expressionistic, more atavistic, more–literary?  Nobody ever called Stark the ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky.’  I don’t know who’s better, just don’t try to take either of them away from me.

Point is, Frears thought Stark was the man to translate Thompson.  But Westlake hadn’t been able to write as Stark for about fifteen years.  Problematic.

Westlake himself had doubts about whether he was the one to write this, under any name–the book seemingly hit some exposed nerve endings inside him, though much less than The Killer Inside Me, his least favorite of the Thompsons, probably because of what its ‘hero’ does to the women in his life (another dividing line between Stark and Thompson–Parker might kill a woman, but he wouldn’t enjoy it).

Westlake never really wrote much about mothers and sons, and it’s exactly such a relationship which is the emotional center of The Grifters.   Frears told him to not think of the mother as the main character, just write it as a story of survival–one lives, one dies.  It’s still tragic, but it’s about choices.  Westlake could understand that (I’m not so sure I do, since clearly the mother is the main character in that film).  So he took the job.

He took Frears, who had never made a film in America before, on a tour of Los Angeles, a town he’d come to know well over the years.  He showed him Raymond Chandler’s house, in spite of his own well-known distaste for Chandler, knowing that English hardboiled fans really dig the guy–Frears loved that.  They got along swimmingly.

And Frears surprised the hell out of Westlake when he remarked in passing that he always liked to have the writer on set, in case the script needed last-minute tweaking (and it would).  This was going to be a collaboration, not just work for hire.  As Westlake put it later, talking to Patrick McGilligan–

I had kind of an astonishing experience with Stephen and The Grifters, and it clearly has ruined me for the movie business for the rest of my life.  Stephen behaved as if we were partners making a movie.  He was the partner who stood out front, like in a store, and dealt with everybody, but when we went inside the office we were partners.  I’ve never had that.

Westlake was on set for about half of shooting, along with Abby Westlake.  He also spent some time working with Frears during post-production.  He talked to the actors, rewrote their lines so that they were easier to read, wrote new dialogue, took out pages of existing dialogue.  He well and truly earned those two nominations for best adapted screenplay he got from the Oscars and the WGA.  Both of which he lost out on to the guy who wrote Dances With Wolves.  I bet Stark never stopped kidding him about that.   And I bet you think I’ll never get around to reviewing the movie.

No synopsis needed, Wikipedia has seen to that.  An awful lot of story from the book was cut out of the film.  But much of that cut material was in the original script, as this early draft available online tells us.   Westlake at long last knew what William Goldman had gone through when adapting The Hot Rock.  He and Frears were much more simpatico than had been the case with Goldman and Peter Yates, and the producers on The Grifters were not the hapless hacks The Hot Rock was saddled with.  Chief among them was Martin Scorsese, who had originally been attached to direct, and was very interested in how the movie turned out, had a lot of valuable input to contribute.

So he was in a much better situation than Goldman had been in.  But it’s the same basic problem, whenever you’re making a book into a film.  A novel is a complex piece of machinery, with lots of moving parts–how many can you take out, and still have the machine run the way it’s supposed to?   And sometimes new components have to be added as well.  I often think the better the book is, the harder the job becomes.  Plenty of great movies have been made from forgettable novels.  And no end of duds have been made from timeless classics.

So most of the backstory between Lilly and Roy Dillon, the reasons for their dysfunctional relationship, was cut. There were flashbacks in the the script that never made it into the film (and flashbacks in the film that aren’t remotely in the book, but those deal with another character).  Westlake had to find ways to imply what they didn’t have time to show.  To hint at the larger outlines of a long sad story of two people who wanted to love each other but never figured out how.  Lilly’s devastating final line in the novel doesn’t seem to have ever been in the script–but the lines that set it up it were, and Westlake sliced them out.  With regrets, I’m sure.

The rather important subplot involving Carol Roberg, a beautiful young Holocaust survivor, Roy’s nurse, who Lilly clumsily tries to push Roy into marrying–a POV character in one chapter–that gets reduced to a mere squiggle.  The nurse in the film is a silly wan figure, who Roy is never seriously interested in, no competition at all for Bening’s Myra.  It’s too much of a sidebar, that subplot.  Westlake and Frears, as noted up top, didn’t want to do a period piece (another way in which their interests converged).  The movie is set in the time period it was filmed in.  So the girl would have to be a survivor of some later mass atrocity (Cambodia, maybe?), which would feel a mite contrived.  And they’d need to tack at least another 20 minutes or so onto the running time, to do her justice.

And it’s a damned shame, because Thompson put some of his best writing into that subplot, and if it’s a sidebar, it’s a crucial one.  She’s there to remind us not everyone is on the grift, some people really are on the up and up.  She’s there to show us you can have a horrendous childhood, far worse than Roy’s, and still be a good person.  She’s there, perhaps most of all, to keep us from feeling too sorry for Roy.  His choices were his, no matter who his mother was.  I do think her loss is felt in the movie–that Roy’s character suffers in particular from her absence, the things his brief relationship with her tells us about him, the good and bad of him–she was his chance at something real, and he failed to grab it.  It’s one reason I prefer the book.  But it’s something a novel can do much more easily than a film (then again, I can think of many similar characters in classic noir movies–the girl the hero should have gone for, but the bad girl hypnotized him).

I think Westlake wrote the scenes with the movie Carol almost cynically–thinking “This is all we could show of that character in this format.”  If he was never as good a screenwriter as he was a novelist, I think this is why–he never fully believed in the medium.  Of course movies could depict a Holocaust survivor, many have, but the way Thompson believably shoehorns her into a cheap little crime paperback that has nothing to do with the Holocaust–and aims a withering sideways glance at the casual anti-semitism he quite certainly grew up around as a boy in the southwest–no equivalent film could do that.  And few novelists besides Thompson.  Many of his most interesting characters and storylines are entirely incidental to the main plot.  He went off on tangents.  I can relate.

The film focuses pretty much exclusively on the titular grifters, played by its astoundingly well-cast stars.  Huston, Cusack, and Bening were all roughly the same age as their characters, and understood them very well. Each of them gave the performance of a career in this film.  Perfect casting?  Probably no such thing.  But they got close to it here.

It must have been a trip for Westlake–not only was he working with the daughter of John Huston, one of the few living filmmakers he’d have been in awe of–she was, at the same time, the former longtime companion of Jack Nicholson, who must have been at least one of the models for Jack Pine, the protagonist of Sacred Monster (which was published around the same time Westlake started work on the film).  Bening would shortly be marrying yet another sacred monster, named Beatty, a relationship that started the same year The Grifters was released.  I said Sacred Monster was what got Hollywood out of Westlake’s system, but it might just as easily have been making this film.  His curiosity was satisfied on many levels here.

However, much as it was Huston and Bening who got the well-deserved Oscar nods, I’d personally say Cusack gives the best performance overall–closest to the book, in many respects.  Only Cusack really resembles his character, as Thompson described him.  In the novel, all three have dark hair.  But for reasons I couldn’t tell you, it was decided that Lilly and Myra (Moira in the book) would be blondes, though Lilly is clearly of the bottle variety.  They had to have similar hair for plot-based reasons–maybe they just decided Bening looked best as a blonde, so Huston had to follow suit.

Again, I think Thompson’s approach is better–Lilly’s fatal attraction to her son seems based on him being a younger less damaged male version of herself.   Two sides of the same coin.  The actors do manage to convey a familial resemblance somehow, but not as well as if they were more similar in appearance.

(Bening and Huston are not Thompson girls in terms of their figures–he liked his women short and stacked.  But that’s a really inside baseball nitpick, isn’t it?)

In the novel, Roy’s got a real shot at becoming a decent person, breaking out of the grifting world for keeps.  A job he took as a cover for his short cons turns into a real gig, almost against his will and he starts to like the straight life–at least part of his fateful refusal to help Lilly at the end is based on him feeling like she needs to go straight as well–as well as a rather petty sense of satisfaction that he did what she told him to do, and now she’s complaining about it (and in the novel, Thompson makes it clear that he also wants to keep Lilly available to him, sexually).

But without the groundwork Thompson did to make Roy’s reformation convincing, you just don’t get the same effect.  Some of that groundwork was in the original script–had to go.  Again, this weakens the impact of the ending–remember what I said about tragedy?  In the novel, you can believe Roy wasn’t too far gone, he just needed a bit more time–Lilly saved him from himself, then dragged him down with her.  But you never really believe it about Cusack’s Roy, hard as Cusack works to convince us.  Maybe in that sense at least, Stark had something to do with the script.

Bening’s Myra is a very edited verson of the more complex character in the book. Most of her best scenes are still in there, but somehow–different.  Moira Langtry isn’t all bad, you  feel–like Lilly, she appreciates decency in others, even if she doesn’t have it herself (she and Lilly are, like Lilly and Roy, and Roy and Moira, all mirror images of each other, working different parts of the same big game). You get into her head, and you find yourself sympathizing.  She’s doing what she has to in order to survive, just like Lilly.

But Myra Langtry, the movie character, seems more more empty inside.  Bening plays her as a sociopath.  It’s a compelling edgy sexy performance, that rightly got the critic’s attention, helped put her on the map as an actress.  Her first really bad woman (and lots of nudity, which didn’t hurt with the male critics).  At times she seems to be dancing her part as much as acting it, selling her main commodity for all it’s worth–always selling, with everyone.  That’s not untrue to the book character, it’s just a stripped down take on the more complex Moira.

One of the real departures from the book Westlake did was to do an extended flashback about Myra’s time as a ‘roper’ for a long con master–that seems to owe a lot to some of the long con episodes from The Rockford Files.  Westlake uses this interlude to make some rather pointed observations about the stupidity and greed of rich people.  He wants to show that not only working folks can be marks. Which is fine, except it’s supposed to establish Myra’s character, explain how she came to be this way, and it doesn’t.  Myra is beautifully acted in the film, but she never becomes as complete a character as Lilly or Roy.

In the novel, Moira tells Roy she does long cons, wants him to join her, but she doesn’t really go into detail, and her apprenticeship with Cole ‘The Farmer’ Langley seemed more in the short con line.  Basically, all The Farmer was selling was charm.  There’s a classic Thompson character, a figure seen again and again in his books, the older worldly-wise smooth talking country boy, folksy and quaint on the outside, all hard-eyed calculation on the inside.   But this version has been running from latent madness, and it finally catches him.  And Moira has to leave him, confronting her own basic selfishness.

Westlake can’t really make that transition work for the younger more sophisticated Langley in his flashback.  He goes nutty because that’s what he has to do.  I didn’t find that flashback sequence at all believable, but it’s entertaining. And like so much of the film, even though it’s set in the modern era, it has this archaic feel, like something out of a much earlier time.

Westlake said all you had to do to modernize Thompson’s characters is to take their hats off.  Well aside from the fact that some of them are still wearing hats, I don’t quite agree.  Yes, he’s right, they’re wrapped up in their own worlds, not interested in the grander events of their day.  But basically most if not all of Thompson’s great characters are, to a greater or lesser extent, children of The Depression, and of the Dust Bowl.  As Thompson himself was.

That experience shaped him, scarred him, and it informs all of his characters, even from his 60’s novels (some of which were set well back in time from when they were published–Pop. 1280 is set around the turn of the century).  He doesn’t have to say that, it’s just naturally implied.  Much of his audience had been through the same thing.  But two women in their late 30’s and a man in his mid-20’s–in the late 80’s–they never went through anything like that.  They grew up in relatively easy times.  Again, something is lost in translation.  Another reason most of the flashbacks from the book had to go.  They wouldn’t match up with the time period.

They had to strip everything down to the essentials–and even so, the characters still feel anachronistic.  Well, it’s the nature of some people to be anachronisms. I’d say everybody in this film is an anachronism to some extent.  Mintz, the old school grifter Roy learns his trade from, played by Eddie Jones in a Fedora (they didn’t take that hat off).  Bobo Justus, the syndicate boss, played by Pat Hingle in a three piece suit.  Henry Jones does a small splendid turn as the crusty manager of Roy’s hotel.

All wonderful casting picks, and all feeling like they’d been plucked from a much older film.  Basically, the only thing about this supposedly non-period movie that doesn’t feel period is the cars.  And since they’re mainly boxy-looking Cadillacs and Lincolns, they don’t feel so very 90’s either.  The film doesn’t really have a time period.   It’s set outside the time it’s set in.  Which is oddly effective in some ways.

Fact is, Thompson’s work always feels anachronistic as well.  Because, again, he’s really setting it in the Depression, no matter what year he says it is.   Just like Parker seems to have stepped out of the Dillinger era–but Westlake always gives you the feeling of the exact time he’s writing in.  Thompson doesn’t really see the era he’s writing in.  All he can see is the grim world of his youth that he somehow escaped–but never completely.  Always there in the background, haunting him.

Frears used Westlake’s guided tour of L.A. to grand effect, and the city he wants to show us is old L.A.   No shiny glass towers for him.  He wanted the seedy faded glamour of an earlier time.  He wanted Raymond Chandler’s L.A., mingled with Jim Thompson’s.  He wanted an Elmer Bernstein score (and he got it, which must have also thrilled Westlake).  He wanted old Hollywood (just like his fellow Brit, John Boorman did, when he made his first Hollywood film, based on a Richard Stark novel).  It makes for a weird disconnect, like the characters are stepping back and forth between the decades, unmoored in time.  I’m not complaining–visually, it works out just fine.  I just happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like seeing Shakespeare done in modern dress.  But the play is the thing, after all.

Even though I think Cusack gave the best overall performance, Bening the sexiest and most out there interpretation of her character, the emotional center of the film is Huston’s Lilly.  Always trying to hold herself in check, keep everything under control, measuring every move she makes, knowing her world can collapse around her at any time.  It was, to all accounts, a physically and psychologically draining role for her to play.  She never really equalled it again.

And her greatest moment comes at the end, when Lilly is forced to make a horrific choice.  Not Shakespearean–Sophoclean.  Crouching over Roy’s dead body, she keens like a banshee, giving birth to him in reverse.  Her survival instinct has triumphed over her maternal instinct, and she can’t accept it’s come to that.  But then she just goes into autopilot.  What’s done is done.  No use crying over spilt blood.

The elevator scene–the ‘descent into hell.’  Brilliant.  Evocative.  Hair-raising. But not from the book.  The book is much colder.  See, one thing both the book and the film tell us is that the supreme achievement for any grifter is not to take some poor fool–it’s to take another professional.  Somebody who was wise, somebody who knew the score.  As Lilly took Roy.  And if you’ve read the novel, you know Lilly is feeling that sense of triumph, as she delivers that line I mentioned further up–the one that wasn’t even in the early draft of Westlake’s script.

I don’t think Huston could have made that transition–from primal grief to cold contempt.  Actors are human, have limits.  It took her days to fully recover from filming that scene.  I don’t think it was in her, that transition, Lilly’s final reversion to form.  But I’m not so sure it was in Westlake either.  Maybe some of Richard Stark came back to him here–I certainly think doing this movie got some wheels turning inside of him, moved him in a direction that eventually got him back to writing Parker novels.  But it’s still a Westlake script.   And he just couldn’t go there.   But also, maybe he and Frears both felt the audience couldn’t go there either.  They could take a mother trying to seduce her son. But not a mother calling her dead son a sucker after she killed him.

A movie is not a book.  Westlake said that, over and over again.  It’s a different animal, and   as long as you’re true to the spirit of the book being adapted, you don’t have to follow it to the letter, and you probably shouldn’t.  For all its departures from what I feel are the best moments in Thompson’s novel, most of it is still there on the screen.  The best lines, delivered with style and verve.  The most viscerally unnerving moments of sudden violence–and sex used as the deadliest weapon of all.   And if I’d seen it when it first came out, the way it was meant to be seen, in a theater (preferably an old one, that had seen better days)–I might be a lot less objective.

And if I hadn’t read Thompson’s novel–but I have.  Twice.  First a vintage copy of the original paperback (with one of the best covers of any crime novel ever), courtesy of a collector friend of mine.  Then the ebook, for this review.  And just like I can’t help but find The Hunter superior to any movie they could ever make of it, I can’t in all conscience say anything but this–Jim Thompson was a better Jim Thompson than Donald E. Westlake.

And Westlake’s ghost would haunt me to the grave if I said anything else.

And we’re out of the 80’s, guys!  So up next an essay on the 90’s.  When Donald Westlake proved that he could be as hard as Thompson, writing under his own name or Stark’s.  As hard as Thompson and then some.


Filed under Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake

Review: Sacred Monster

Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important–like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

(No, Donald Westlake didn’t write this dialogue, but I bet he enjoyed it). 

“The symbolic weight you carry, darling,” Lorraine assured him, “would crush a lesser man.”

Pleased, smiling like a puppy, Jack said, “Do you really think so, darling?”

“Darling,” Lorraine said, holding tightly to his hand as they strode along the beach, “in many ways you’re a monster, a statement of infantile voracious appetite.  And yet at the same time you are God’s holy fool, the sacred monster, the innocent untouched by the harshness of reality.  You can be the hero, incredibly strong, and yet even I don’t know the depths of your vulnerability.”

Jack loved to hear talk about himself.  He listened as they walked together, nodding, absorbed in what she was saying.  “Tell me more,” he said.

Sacred Monster is a novel about the rise and fall and rise and etc. of a major motion picture star who is also a gifted but extremely eccentric actor.    A Brando, a Pacino, a DeNiro, a James Dean, a Steve McQueen, and, I’d posit most of all, a Jack Nicholson (though as opposed to The Comedy is Finished, the protagonist’s bio can’t easily be matched up to any specific real-life star, which probably made it easier to get published).  Before we start in on this one, why don’t we run down the thespian-oriented books Westlake had penned ere now.

There were the three Phil Crawford sleaze paperbacks of the late 50’s/early 60’s, about the life of a callow young stage actor, and his seemingly endless love affairs. Some other Westlake pseudo-porns dealt with acting (there was one about the porn industry, redundant as that may sound), but Westlake wrote so many of these, under so many different names, we’ll just take these three as representative.  I’ve only read the first of the Crawfords, didn’t think much of it, but was rather struck at how hard Westlake worked on describing the theatrical milieu, when all the sleazy publisher cared about was the sex.

There was Pity Him Afterwards, a psychological thriller about an escaped paranoid psychotic who kills a young stage actor, takes his place, and joins the small summer rep company his victim was about to join–the hero of that story is an actor as well.  They never do get around to performing the play they’re rehearsing.  We’re told the madman feels very much at home in the theater.

There were the four Alan Grofield novels, about an actor/heister, who bankrolls his perpetually bankrupt little theater in rural Indiana by committing armed robbery, with and without his friend Parker.  We never get to see him act on stage (even in rehearsal), but it seems like he’s always performing to some extent, sees even his criminal activity as a form of performance art.  Grofield, we’re told, could easily become a financial success on television, maybe even in movies, but he won’t use his craft that way.  Being in Richard Stark novels, selling out isn’t really an option for him.  An alternate universe version of him appears in some early Dortmunder books, and he sells out right quick in those.

Westlake turned a script he’d written for a movie that never got made into what I think was his worst novel ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, about the kidnapping of the #1 box office star in the world, who is so fed up with her high-stress lifestyle that she treats the kidnapping as a sort of vacation, once she realizes the people who snatched her are harmless.  But title character though she is, she’s really a supporting character, and rather a nice well-balanced person overall.  Westlake may have gotten some of the inspiration from this for research he did into the life of Elizabeth Taylor, having written a sensitive (for the genre) unauthorized tell-all biography of her under a pseudonym, that had the misfortune to be written and published just before her epic romance with Richard Burton.

In the literary double-feature Enough, which collected two novellas of his, the second story, Ordo, was about an unsophisticated  sailor of that name who found out that Estelle Anlic, the naive teenager he’d been married to briefly before her mother broke them up had become a film star named Dawn Devayne, and it’s basically a detective story in which Ordo tries to find out what happened to the girl he used to know, who has been subsumed into this new persona.

There were also the four Samuel Holt novels, about an actor who never even did live theater, just went straight to Hollywood after being discovered,  got cast as the lead of a hit TV series after a very short apprenticeship, then found out after the show ended that he’d been typecast, and he couldn’t get work as anyone other than the only character people knew him for.   He kept having to solve mysteries for some reason.  Oh, and he had two beautiful girlfriends, one on each coast, and they knew about each other, and went right on dating him.  Not what you’d call an exercise in realism,  but then again, reality is notoriously overrated.

There are also many references to actors and the theater and movies and television throughout many if not most of Westlake’s novels.   And Westlake’s two excellent but commercially problematic unpublished novels, that were only released after his death–Memory and The Comedy is Finished.  Both of them about actors.   One of them a rising stage performer (perhaps destined for the movies) who lost his memory, and with it his ability to act, after a disgruntled husband skulled him with a chair.

The other is about a kidnap victim patterned very obviously after Bob Hope, and like his model, a major film star for some time.  We get quite a lot of background on him, his rise to success, the chaos of his personal life, his oddly fluid identity, his penchant for commenting wryly on the hellish situation he’s in.  But not much of an actor, really, and he mainly just did minor variations on the same role–the clown in danger.  The role he’s playing in real life in the book.  He’s no longer making movies by the time we meet him.  Comedian first, actor second.  Westlake had to put this book aside for various reasons, having put a lot of work into it.  In some respects, Sacred Monster is him coming at the same problem from a different angle.

So that’s at least fifteen novels and one novella dealing with actors of one sort or another, plus many other peripheral references to thespians in other novels, and let’s not even worry about short stories.  Donald Westlake was himself an actor for a time–that part of his life is not well-documented (like the rest of his life).  What roles did he play?  He referred to himself as a ‘former spear carrier’–it’s unlikely he ever had any leading roles.  But out on the straw hat circuit you never know–maybe he was the star’s understudy sometimes?  Thing is, even if he had some acting talent, he didn’t have the looks to be a leading man.  And well he knew it.

Then again, the movie actors he’d have most admired weren’t always lookers themselves.  Mr. Westlake was an avid fan of Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and 40’s–Cagney and Robinson were hardly fashion plates, even Bogart seems ugly by modern standards.  He might have allowed himself a few fleeting fantasies of showbiz glory, even as he began to concentrate more and more on writing fiction for a living.  In any event, writers call on their past experiences to create, just as actors do.  There are many points of similarity between the two professions, as he often observed.

So even though he wasn’t an actor very long, his need to support his family forced him to keep the lines of communication open with Hollywood, and he kept coming back to his brief tantalizing experience with the stage, to his avid yet ambivalent love of movies, to the lucrative yet compromise-laden world of television, and as always, to the question of identity.  What is an actor’s true identity?  Does he or she ever really know?  If your mission in life is to become other people–to disappear into a role, then another–then how can you be yourself?   And is there not a similar problem for the writer of fiction, who has to inhabit many different people in the course of just one story?

And at a certain point, he just seems to have had enough.  He stopped writing Grofield novels, and never returned to the character when he resumed writing Parker novels in the 90’s–the other Grofield disappeared from the Dortmunders as well after Nobody’s Perfect.  He abandoned the Holt series after a short time, he never published the two novels of his that dealt most directly with acting and show business (in part because he had a hard time finding publishers for either of them).  When he wrote a second Sara Joslyn novel, Trust Me On This having dealt with actors to some extent, it was focused on the country-western music scene.

There may be a few minor exceptions I can’t bring to mind this moment, but it would be fair to say that after he wrote and published this book we’re looking at now that deals entirely with the world of theater and film, he stopped writing about actors and showbiz.   The bug was out of his system at long last.  This is his final statement on the subject.  And one of his best and funniest novels.  But also quite possibly his strangest.

Remember how the Hollywood gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, used to interview movie stars sitting by their swimming pools, said star often attired in a swimsuit or robe, while he or she talked about his or her meteoric rise to fame and fortune from humble origins, while making it clear they’re still just regular folks down inside?  Well of course not, you’re much too young to remember that kind of thing, but you remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons that parodied that type of interview, no?  Well, that’s the format of this novel–an interview.  By a swimming pool.  Of a movie star.  In a robe (and nothing else, which is unfortunate at times).

Our protagonist, Jack Pine (best as we can tell, his real name–don’t you love farce?), believes the bland-looking gentleman interviewing him is from People or some other such celebrity-obsessive publication.  He’s a bit unclear about recent events, and for some reason keeps refusing to look directly at the swimming pool he’s sitting (then lying) by, but he stubbornly clings to this delusion throughout the interview.

We the readers are made privy to more information–the interviewer is a cop, and there has been a murder.  Michael O’Connor, detective second grade, has been assigned to get background information on the prime suspect.  Well really, they could have just asked for his press clippings.  But perhaps a few salient details have been left out of those.

There is the typically atypical chapter structure, of course.  The book opens in first person format, with Jack sharing his inmost thoughts and sensations (and hangover) with us, but then switches to a third person flashback–each flashback is numbered.  Sometimes lettered as well, when a given scene is revisited to be viewed from a different camera angle.

So it goes throughout the book, back and forth between brief first person reveries at the pool and detailed third person flashbacks, moving us through Jack’s life from high school to acting school to Broadway to Hollywood to stardom to superstardom to all that goes with superstardom–but Jack is apparently telling O’Connor all of this himself (quite possibly in third person format, it’s not clear) and O’Connor keeps asking him how Jack knows what was happening and who said what in a given scene where Jack wasn’t even present.

Jack simply says “One knows such things.”  In other words, he perceives not merely his life, but the life of everyone he ever met, as one big movie he’s the star of (probably has script control in his contract by now), and he knows by now how such scenes tend to go, formulaic conventions you see, so where his memories give out, he just fills in the blanks with melodramatic tropes picked up over a lifetime of bad movies and plays.  There’s a few specific blanks he doesn’t particularly want to fill in, but we’ll get to that.

Just to make things a bit more complicated, there are also several scattered chapters referred to simply as ‘Lude’–meaning interlude.  Really strange interludes.  Brought on by (among other things) quaaludes. Jack just shuts down, and stops responding to external stimuli, making O’Connor’s job quite impossible.  He has been imbibing so many arcane substances for so long now, that his grasp on reality, not to mention consciousness, has become sorely compromised.  There are a lot of ‘Tommy can you hear me?’ moments (hmm, how many Nicholson movie references can I fit into this thing?)  Also one dream sequence, Jack floating down a celestial staircase, and ya know, Bob Fosse could have done a great job directing this if he hadn’t up and died, but them’s the Missouri Breaks (a bit forced, but I’ll work on it).

Jack’s taciturn manservant Hoskins (English, of course), has to keep being called over from the house to administer various supplemental chemicals  in finely balanced dosages, to keep Jack functioning (after a fashion) until the interview is over.  Hoskins is a delight, Westlake channeling Wodehouse again, but with a twist–Jack has to keep prompting Hoskins to play the part of the impeccably irreverent manservant correctly–when Jack yells for him, he’s supposed to respond “You bellowed, sir?”, and he keeps blowing the line.  Jack’s reaction to pretty much all of life is “Am I the only one who knows his cues?”   Except by the time we meet him, he keeps forgetting them himself when he’s working, because of all the substances.  Well, that’s what film editors are for, right?

There are so many juicy quotes from this one, I could do a ten thousand word review that was nothing but quotes.  But I don’t want to do that.  Nor do I want to make this a two-parter.  So let me try to do the synopsis more quickly this time.   Spoilers abound, not that this book is really about who did what to whom.

Jack Pine grew up in a small town named Grover’s Corners (I completely missed the Thornton Wilder ref until somebody pointed it out) with his best childhood pal, whose name happens to be Pal.  Buddy Pal.  Farce, remember?  They resemble each other quite a lot, physically speaking (psychologically speaking, not so much) and are inseparable up to the time Jack goes to New York to study acting, and Buddy goes into the army to study killing people.

Their most intimate secret stems from when they went with the local good-time girl to a secluded spot, in order to have a nice courtly gang-bang. Her name was Wendy. What else would Peter Pan’s first lay be named?  Something really bad happened.  Jack does his level best not to think about that, while Buddy does his level best to make sure Jack never forgets that he owes Buddy for covering it up.

So Jack is a natural actor, better in high school productions than most actors ever get–he has a positive knack for inhabiting other identities–having none himself, at least none he wants to acknowledge.  He studies in New York, developing his talent by leaps and bounds, and quickly gets a part in a play with a famous but aging leading lady–in her play, and then in her bed (Jack has no sense of sexual shame at all, which on the whole is one of his good qualities).

Then while they’re having sex in her limo, she dies of a heart attack, in mid-orgasm.  Although he feels, with some justification, that he made her last moments happy ones, Jack is most distraught (brings up unpleasant memories).  So is the lady’s powerful agent, who blacklists him in the legit theater for life, for not having the good taste to stay away from her funeral.

Jack, not to be deterred, gets an introduction to a famous playwright, who holds court out on Fire Island.  The playwright immediately falls madly in love with him–because Jack is attractive, sure, but also because he’s the spitting image of the lead in a play the guy was writing at the time.  So Jack (who is not even a little bit gay but hum a few bars…) goes to bed with him too, because hey, it’s a really good part in a play!  And doesn’t everybody deserve a little love?   Or at least a reasonable facsimile?

O’Connor, the Irish cop, does not think so–he’s disgusted with Jack at this point in the story.  I mean, the actress in her sixties was bad enough, but this?

“The point is,” the prissy interviewer says, viewing me with loathing, “the point is, you slept your way to the top.”

“I did not.” I frown at him with offended dignity.  “I slept my way to the middle,” I correct him frostily.  “I clawed my way to the top.”

It’s an important distinction.   And who does this two-bit reporter think he is, anyway?  Jack still not processing what’s going on, fortunately for us.

The play is a hit, but even hits close eventually, and Jack is still blackballed anywhere else in the world of theater–that agent is really powerful.  Buddy Pal reappears in his life, attacking himself like a shark to a remora (yes, I know, but it doesn’t work the other way), and Jack is now sleeping rather more enthusiastically with his co-star, a tall sardonic brunette named Marcia Callahan, who also fits Buddy in on the side. Somehow I see her as a young Paula Prentiss–one knows these things.  Though I suppose Suzanne Pleshette could work.  Jean Peters?  Rosalind or Jane Russell?  You know, there’s been a lot of tall sardonic brunettes in showbiz.  Not nearly enough for my tastes, but a lot.  I digress.

Marcia heads out to Hollywood to do the movie version of the play that Jack wasn’t deemed suitable for.  Not having anything better to do (or anyone) he follows her out there.   She gets tired of him hanging around the place (all play, no work…), so she gets him hooked up with a Hollywood agent (not literally hooked up this time), who doesn’t care that he’s blackballed on Broadway.  Hollywood agents don’t give a solitary shit what powerful theatrical agents think about you or anything else in life.   And this agent sees potential in Jack Pine.  The statue encased in the marble.

Irwin Sandstone’s blunt thumb caressed the statue’s budding breasts.  “I am a mere servant of the creative impulse, Jack,” he said, circling and circling.  “It’s your unique gift we’re concerned with here, not the life or goals or dreams of Irwin Sandstone.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jack.

Irwin’s fingers oiled and warmed the bronze.  “How to mold, how to shape, how to bring out to the acclaim of the multitudes that unique talent deep within you, that is my humble duty, that is my mantra, to serve great talents, to be the willing stepping stone on which they rise, to do whatever is within my small powers”–with a wave at the power-reeking office–“to bring each wonderful unique private talent to its greatest glory.  That is what I wish do do with you, Jack.  If you agree.  Will you give me that task, Jack?  Will you order me to make you great?”

Accommodating, Jack said, “Sure.”

Fair to a fault, Jack says later in his narrative that Irwin was the real genius of the two of them–I kind of wonder how Westlake’s own agent, Henry Morrison, reacted to this passage.  But he was used to Westlake’s sense of humor by now (even though he originally told Westlake not to try writing comedy, it would ruin his career–then he made him write an Arthur Hailey parody that was pitched to the publisher on a roll of toilet paper).

So they do the normal progression of roles for an up and comer with actual acting talent–first a biker picture, then a psycho killer, and finally a ‘patient picture’–meaning a film where the protagonist is impaired in some way, terminally ill, paralyzed, psych ward–the full spectrum of humanity, in other words.  You can see why I thought about Jack Nicholson, not that his early career can be summarized so neatly.  (The hell it can’t, but I’m being polite.)

And yadda yadda yadda, Jack’s a major movie star.  Not without the odd few bumps in the road, to be sure.  Like finding Buddy in bed with Marcia, who is Jack’s wife by that point (they had a charming little ceremony at a Hollywood church that has been a backdrop to many a film, and the guests were all extras hired by the studio, but still man and wife in the eyes of God and Man and Variety).

Jack eventually forgives Buddy (after stabbing him repeatedly with a rubber prop knife while shooting the psycho picture in Mexico), and told Marcia the baby better look a lot like him (but since Jack looks a lot like Buddy, and DNA testing is a long way off yet….).   That marriage is not long for this world, but here’s my problem–ever hear the one about the big macho film star who caught his wife in bed with his best friend?  Me neither.  That’s not in any movie I ever saw.  Where’d that come from?  Hmmm.  Well, inquiring minds don’t need to know everything.

With Marcia gone, Jack invites his parents to live with him at his Malibu beach house.  Then remembers they are both really hard to live with (Jack’s mother is clearly nuts, and let’s just say the apple didn’t fall far), so he leaves them there at the beach house, chaperoned by an illegal immigrant from Guatemala named Constanza.  At least she wants to see the endless snapshots of his sister’s kids his mother keeps waving around.

Jack gets a ranch in Topanga Canyon.  Of course he does.

The people of Topanga Canyon are loners, oddballs, dropouts, believers in alternatives.  They are not fierce pioneers, the progenitors of capitalists, but gentle solitaries, aware of the fragility of all things in the fragility of themselves.  They do not pound deep foundations into the earth’s skin, do not thrust steel erections at the indifferent sky.  Their houses are modest, set apart from one another, colored in earth tones of orange and brown and green.  Unpainted rail fences enclose their horses: yes, they have horses.  Their driveways are likelier to be of gravel or dirt than glittering blacktop.  They grow eggplant and tomatoes and marijuana.  Their lives are so in tune with their environment, they blend in so well with their terrain, that they are barely noticeable in their bivouacs up on the steep sides of the many canyon walls.  Only their television reception dishes stand out, amazingly, looking in this setting like UFOs from outer space. (They believe in UFOs).

Sounds nice.  Jack finds God there.  Also nice.  Reverend Cornbraker, who helped him find God (for a very reasonable fee) turns out to be a child molester.  Not so nice.  Buddy, sensing another shark clinging to his remora, brought Jack the photos.  “I didn’t know anybody could do it in that position,” Jack mentions.  Buddy explains that young bones are very supple.   A ‘Lude’ follows.  Jack was very very upset about Reverend Cornbraker.

Deprived of God, Jack turned to drugs.  But first he tried the ultimate drug–Love.  The real thing this time.  Well, as real as it could ever get for someone like him.  Her name was Lorraine.  She came to him a simple graduate student from Chicago, beautiful, auburn-haired, effortlessly chic, doing her doctoral thesis on ‘Post-Camp Male Nonaggression in the Popular Arts.’  “Naturally, I was one of the people she had to interview.”  O’Connor is really wondering by this point if this interview will ever end.   While you wonder the same thing about this review.

So they have amazing sex, and they talk about various profound intellectual topics (mainly relating to Jack, which he enjoys, see the quote up top).  They call each other ‘darling’ every other sentence, which kind of makes you want to find a way into the book to murder them, but that never works.  They get married at the London registry office.  Not the first celebrity wedding conducted there, it seems.

“I remember,” O’Connor says, “the news footage of the two of you coming out of there, protected by the bobbies, with the crowd of fans in the street.”

“They’re there all the time,” I say modestly.  “I believe they camp out there.  Some say they’ve been there since the Paul McCartney wedding, others that it goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor.  Some scholars suggest a Druid connection, but I don’t go that far.”

So all is bliss for Jack and Lorraine, but not for poor Buddy Pal, and one occasionally hears the stirring sound of a face being soundly slapped when he and Lorraine are in another room.  Well, they can’t all be Marcia.  Lorraine would just as soon Jack cut Buddy out of his life entirely, but of course Jack can’t do that, for reasons O’Connor would avidly like to learn, but in the meantime something else unpleasant happens, as it so often does to famous people, which is why supermarket tabloids are so profitable.

A young woman of rather questionable background and appearance accuses Jack of fathering her rather questionable infant, which he unquestionably did not do.  Her questionable family and attorneys back her up.  Still no DNA testing (barbaric times).  Jack’s case looks hopeless–even the superb quality of his expensive legal team makes him look guilty.  But he devises a cunning stratagem–didn’t do all those courtroom dramas for nothing, you see.   All he needs is a few good women.

It’s a major Hollywood paternity trial.  As should go without saying, his wife, and his former wife, and three former girlfriends (obviously Jack does not refer to them as five easy pieces) are all present in the courtroom.  Protocol.  He asks them all to step forward and display themselves to the jury, which they do, looking confused.  He asks the jury to compare these sexy sophisticated gals he has married and/or had wild affairs with to the rather unappetizing plaintiff.  He spreads his hands, in the great tradition of irreverent Westlake protagonists.  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury….I ask you.”  The jury finds for the defendant.

And then a seething Lorraine dumps him for being a sexist womanizing pig–which she surely already knew that he was, having done her research, but there are different levels of knowing, and she can’t handle the truth.  Some verdicts you can’t appeal.  She keeps right on calling him ‘darling’ on her way out the door, but the darlings have a certain bite to them now–no longer terms of endearment.   Buddy tries to look sympathetic.  Jack tries to drown his sorrows in drink, among other things.  Many other things.  We’ve been over that.

Jack’s work begins to suffer, but he’s such a big star now, so well-established in the minds of the movie-going public, he’s got what you might call tenure.   His name alone fills theater seats, and somebody like that keeps getting callbacks from studio heads, no matter what he does.  In the days of the old studio system, a Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner might have run him out of town.  But we’ve arrived at the era in movie making where the superstars really did run the roost most of the time.  Jack never forms his own production company, because he’s too stoned, but he can work when he wants to.  And this is how he typically works now.

At the far end of the set, he brought up against the interior door, which was not in fact a working door at all, so that he didn’t pass through it but merely brought up hard against it, with force enough to make the whole set tremble.  Recoiling form this encounter, he reeled back through his previous carnage to the middle of the set, where at last he managed to come to something like a stop; through he trembled all over, like a race horse after the meet.

And he wasn’t quite finished yet.  Turning to say something to the director, raising one expressive hand, index finger upthrust, he lost his balance yet again.  This time, he tottered backward, feet fumbling and stumbling with the shards and shreds of his previous passage, until he reached the wall of the set.  Here he flung his arms out to the sides as though crucified and leaned back against the wall, which gave way, the whole canvas rear of the set slowly falling over, Jack riding it down backward, arms outspread, an expression of harried but mild surprise on his face as he and the wall went completely over and landed with a mighty whoosh and great puffs of dust.

No one said a word.  A final clink was heard from somewhere.  The dust slowly settled.  And then the director spoke.  “Cut,” he said.

There’s a whole short chapter of that (Flashback 19), and it’s a small marvel of comic timing, absolutely first-rate slapstick, and I still have to say–it would work better visually, on film.  With the right actor and director, obviously.  That’s an underlying problem of the book–that you keep finding yourself wanting to see the movie adaptation that doesn’t exist.  With a forty-ish Jack Nicholson playing Jack Pine (okay, so pick your own sacred monster, see if I care).

Parts of it would be hard to bring across visually, of course–certain bits of verbal ju-jitsu that few besides Westlake could ever do just right in any medium.  The constantly switching perspectives (and states of consciousness) might be tough to pull off.  But overall, I think this should have been a movie, and maybe Westlake thought it might be–Hollywood has never really had a problem with satirizing itself (because like Jack, it believes it’s the only really interesting subject in the world), but maybe this hits a bit too close to home, and is not quite reverent enough in its irreverence.  Underneath the light farce, there’s a lot of really biting sarcasm, and a scathing disrespect for glamor, perhaps the deadliest of sins in Lalaland.  But anyway, the industry Westlake was spoofing here doesn’t quite exist in that form today, though certain universal constants hold true (and not just at Universal).  The moment has probably passed.

So Jack finally finds his one true love–and his name is Oscar.  Stoned out of his mind, he gives what would probably have gone down as the most embarrassing acceptance speech ever, had it actually happened (though the qualifier stands).  Probably should have sent a Native American up to claim the trophy for him.  He departs the stage holding Oscar in one hand, and the right breast of the busty starlet who presented the award to him in the other–and then he marries her.  Seriously.  Their wedding at that same little chapel he married Marcia in turns into a riot, with everybody fighting everybody, and the happy couple viciously mauling each other.  Thankfully, he can just get that annulled, since he only had carnal knowledge of her before the ceremony.

And now he just spends most of the year at a compound (the very one he’s giving this interminable interview at), with lots of private security, and Buddy hires nubile young things for him to chase naked around the grounds (they are instructed to let him catch them eventually, otherwise he’d never get any).  Hoskins has mastered the art of maintaining the proper balance of chemicals in his system.  He only has to work once a year or so.  He just did an apparently obscenity-laden remake of  the most overrated film in history. (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a flying fuck!”)

His one really bad moment came when a young woman having a bad trip at a friend’s cliff side home ran through a window with a splendid scenic overlook, and fell to her death.  That brought back some really bad memories. The van.  The girl.  The lake.  O’Connor finally gets to the bottom of that lake–Buddy had already had the girl, and Jack was up next, but he lost control of himself, playing the role of a lover (it was his first time), pretending he was confident macho Buddy–and he killed her by accident in the course of the wild ride–no easy rider, he (is anybody keeping score?).  Buddy and Jack, at Buddy’s insistence, pushed the van into a nearby lake.  The body was found, but the girl was known to drink too much, and the car was her father’s.

But O’Connor (who Jack now understands is not from People, or even US Weekly, nor is he from the Enquirer, so Jack can’t set the dogs on him, even if he had any, as Hoskins helpfully reminds him he does not), was never here about that past indiscretion.  It’s useful background detail, explains some things, but out of his jurisdiction.  He’s there interviewing Jack Pine because in that swimming pool Jack keeps refusing to look at is the waterlogged corpse of Buddy Pal.   Jack had meant to dump his body in a lake too, which would have had a nice dramatic symmetry to it, but he was so high at the time, he thought the pool was a lake.   He’d done such a good job cleaning up the crime scene, but he blew the last detail.

And why did he kill his other self, his alter-ego, his best and oldest friend in the whole wide world?  Because Buddy had just come back from Brazil where (as is well known) the best plastic surgeons in the world reside (Jack goes once a year now), and such is his pre-existing physical resemblance to Jack, it didn’t take that much work for him to be the spitting image of the star–frankly, he looks a lot better than the prematurely aged Bacchus Jack has become.

And all of Jack’s hangers-on, including his agent and doctor, are in on the scheme.  Jack’s no longer the actor he used to be, he’s working much less, and his asking price keeps going down because of his unprofessional behavior.  He’s not so much an actor as a brand, and the brand is losing its value.  His talent has degraded past the point of no return.  He just shows up, as he himself admits to O’Connor, and does a sort of impression of himself.  He can still do the tics, the vocal mannerisms, but the only part he’s playing now is Jack Pine, or rather the public perception of Jack Pine, and that’s all anybody really expects now, so nobody will notice it’s not him anymore, since it hasn’t been for a while now.  Jack will be sent to a rest home somewhere, given all the drugs he wants, and Buddy Pal will take his place, become the sacred monster.

But the real monster wouldn’t have it, you see.  Steal my scene, will you? Nobody puts Jackie in a corner!  He ran screaming at Buddy, wielding his Oscar like a tomahawk, and clubbed his bosom chum to death in the parlor with it.  (Hey, is there a celebrity  version of Clue?)   Finally forced to recall this, he is horrified to know he did that to Buddy, and even more aghast he did it to Oscar, who will never be the same again.  Those statuettes aren’t as solid as they look.

And that concludes the interview.  The little shop of horrors is all sold out.  O’Connor beckons the men in blue to take Jack away, and he accepts the situation graciously, telling Hoskins he’ll be back in maybe twelve years.  Given the situation, his celebrity status, and the ample evidence of his confused mental state, I doubt it would even be that long.  He’s in his early 40’s now, much as he may look older.  A few years of detox.  Lots of publicity (and need I remind you there’s no such thing as bad publicity for a movie star?).  When he gets out there’s always Brazil–a quick trip for a quick nip.

With Buddy gone and much of his entourage probably doing jail time along with him, his operating expenses will plummet, and funds will accrue.  The studios will get into ferocious bidding wars over him once he’s back on the market.  Nobody will care that he can’t act anymore.  His battered Oscar will have a twin in no time.  Forget it Jack (or even two Jacks), it’s Tinseltown.

Nothing can kill the Sacred Monster.  Least of all the critics.  Who mainly loved this book–even the New York Times was kvelling over it.  But it didn’t make that much of a splash (sales were probably decent enough).  Too far outside what was expected of Donald E. Westlake, and he wasn’t really trying with the murder mystery he stuck in there for the sake of form.  More Sunset Boulevard than Double Indemnity.

It’s a very funny book that might have made an even funnier film.  Hollywood’s loss, our gain.  Cynical as all hell, of course.  But you know what Jack Pine would say about that?

“My friend,” I say, “you just used a word that has no meaning.”

His face is blank.  “I did?”

Cynical.  You see, my friend, it’s a spectrum,” I say, and spread my hands like a fisherman lying, and very nearly, very nearly, very damn nearly spill the remains of my fuzzy drink, but recover in time and continue: “It’s a spectrum,” I say.  “Here at this end is the romantic, and over here at this end is the cynic.  So wherever you are on this here spectrum here, you’re the realist, and everybody on that side is too much of a romantic, and everybody on that side is too much of a cynic.”

And a rare few people in this world get it just about right, balance out the romantic and cynic, give both their proper due in life.  Westlake was one of those.  But there is one bit of indisputable cynicism in this book–that comes in Flashback 11, where we are told that after their marriage, Jack and Marcia moved into a larger house that had formerly been owned by “a television star named Holt who’d committed suicide when his series was canceled.”  That’s an atypically mean-spirited dig by Mr. Westlake at his recent failed attempt at self-reinvention, and doesn’t really fit the arc of the protagonist in those books (not that most readers of this book would even get the reference).  Mr. Westlake possibly still needed some anger management on the subject of Samuel Holt.

And here’s the crowning irony (which rhymes with Ironweed)–Westlake basically used this book to purge himself of his lingering infatuation with acting, with showbiz, as I already mentioned.  He made a lot of money in Hollywood, wrote a lot of stories about acting, but artistically speaking, it rarely worked out that well–the movies or the books.  He evidently felt like he finally did the subject justice here, after so many attempts, and as we’ve seen before, this meant he could put it behind him, move on to something else.  Personally I would say his best novel with an actor as the main protagonist is Lemons Never Lie, but that book is not about the acting world, and this one is.  So with that one checked off the bucket list, he never wrote another book about actors, at least not that I know of.

And right around the time this book was in stores (this is the irony part), Westlake was on the set of what would be the best movie he ever wrote the script for, as well as the finest and truest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel ever lensed.  And that’s up next.  This one’s as good it it gets for Mr. Westlake and the movies.  I swear it. Prizzi’s honor.  Oh like you could do better.  Drive, he said.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ordo, Samuel Holt Novels, The Comedy is Finished

Review: Tomorrow’s Crimes

And so we come to to my third Westlake anthology review (I’m counting The Getaway Car, even though it’s nonfiction).  Jut two more to go, unless something else turns up.  And frankly, I’m rather curious as to how this one came to be published in the first place. Donald Edwin Westlake was known as a mystery writer under his own name–mainly somebody who wrote funny crime novels.  Most of his straight science fiction had been published under the wry pseudonym, Curt Clark–and he’d terminated his relationship with the genre by writing a scathing polemic for a short-lived fanzine, aimed squarely at its shortcomings, and at some of its most influential figures.

The centerpiece (endpiece, really) of this collection is his only science fiction novel, Anarchaos, hardly a big seller when it came out in 1967 (I mentioned it was a science fiction novel, right?).  I’ve already reviewed it here, of course–my review was nearly half the length of the book (I mentioned I wrote that review, right?).  I consider it one of the most interesting things he ever wrote, and maybe the best mingling of the conventions of science fiction and crime fiction that anyone ever came up with.   Heinlein meets Hammett and Hammett wins by TKO was my summation at the time, and I see no cause to back down from that.

Tomorrow’s Crimes is not even close to being a complete collection of his science fiction (Westlake probably wouldn’t have wanted most of his early SF to be preserved for posterity), and most of the stories are rather dubiously of that genre anyway.  More in the Twilight Zone mode, I’d say–that nether realm between SF, fantasy, and straight-up horror).  “Anarchaos and Other Stories of Fantastic Suspense” runs the sub-title, and that’s about right.  The target audience is more mystery readers who dig a bit of SF/Fantasy, than SF/Fantasy readers who are in the mood for a mystery.  But readers can move back and forth between genres just as much as genre authors used to do.  And genres themselves can be surprisingly flexible.

Possible Anarchaos had developed a bit of a cult following over the years, and finding copies of the Ace paperback original would have been a challenge back in the 1980’s (no eBay yet).  So reprinting it for The Mysterious Press (since it is basically a hard-boiled detective story) made sense, but it was too short for a hardcover edition–less than 150 pages in this book–and the paperback original market had mainly dried up.  So take a smattering of Westlake’s more distinguished efforts for the various SF/Fantasy pulps (and other venues) to flesh the book out a bit. This is the result.

The main effect of which is to demonstrate yet again that there’s a reason Donald Westlake is mainly remembered as a novelist, even though he began with the short story.  He produced some exceptional work in that format, but it wasn’t his chief area of strength.  He needs time to establish character, room to run with a story.  Writing shorts helped him as a writer, gave him the discipline and economy he needed to pack a lot of plot into a relatively small space.  But he was never as good in miniature as he was with a few hundred pages to work with.  Even the novella was a bit confining for him.

And science fiction itself, as it was typically written for the pulps in the 50’s and early 60’s, was often equally constraining.  As a young man, he’d been powerfully attracted to the form, to the seemingly unlimited range of ideas you could explore with it, but he came to believe that the preoccupations of single-minded mavens like John W. Campbell were overly limiting, stifling even.  They were pushing their own ideas and personal philosophies on the young writers submitting work to them (while being paid mere pennies a word), and they were insufficiently concerned with character, story, motivation, or style–the things Westlake cared most about.

The best SF writers would find ways to transcend its commercially imposed limitations (still do, I’m sure–not keeping up these days), but Westlake had a family to support, a career to build, and couldn’t wait that long.  He busted out of that joint, and only rarely looked back.  And of course, the mystery genre had its own built-in limitations that likewise constrained him–a larger and somewhat more prestigious ghetto, is what it often amounted to.  No writer wants to believe he or she can only write one thing.  You want as many arrows as possible in your quiver.

So he would have eventually decided he’d been a bit too hasty–there were still things to say with this form, sometimes called speculative fiction–but he’d do it his way, and nobody else’s.  In fact, he’d publish at least two more novels that could be lumped into that category.  We’ll get to those pretty soon.  Worth pointing out that of the nine short stories collected here, six were written after he wrote that infamous polemic for Xero.

Anarchaos, as I mentioned in my review of it, was pretty clearly referred to in that polemic (though not by name).  He hadn’t finished it by then, and he thought he never would.  And yet he did, and got it published, and probably got paid a few hundred dollars for it.  Why bother?  Because he could never quite let go of his love for the limitless vistas of science fiction and its various fantastic cohorts .

The stories we remember him best for were rooted more in the prosaic (even if they were about heists and murders), but there’s always something a bit uncanny about them.  If he’d been raised in Latin America, perhaps he’d have written magic realism.  In a sense, he was always doing that.

Maybe we’re never told in so many words that Parker is a wolf born into the body of a man (because that would ruin it, somehow), but there’s something in him that doesn’t fit the genre he’s in.  Because his creator never quite fit in anywhere either.  The best writers always defy categorization.  And yet, so many of them wrote genre stories.  A paradox I doubt I could ever explain.  But I can review these particular stories, and you can pigeonhole them as you please–or not.  My job is to decide how good I think they are, and what they’re trying to say.  Shall we begin?

The Girl of My Dreams: An unusual provenance to this one, which was first collected in 1979, in a British anthology, The Midnight Ghost Book.  And it is a sort of ghost story, but not in the usual sense.

The narrator is a perfectly ordinary fellow, bit of a Caspar Milquetoast type, working as a clerk in a department store, harassed by his overbearing ambitious boss Mr. Miller, living with his mother and sister at home.   But he starts having these dreams–very real, he tells us.  Not at all like the usual disjointed perspective-switching narratives we experience in our sleep.  Very sharp, vivid, coherent, and he remembers them in complete detail when he awakes.  They all involve this girl.

He saves her from a mugger in the first dream.  Her name is Delia–derived, you should know (and Westlake surely did), from the island of Delos, where the goddess Artemis is said to have been born.  Oddly popular among the Irish, that name, but still quite uncommon.  She’s exquisitely lovely, as you would expect.  So grateful for his help.  And he’s at ease with her, confident, manly, as he never would be with any girl in real life.

They start seeing a lot of each other–each and every dream is solely concerned with the time they spend together.  Every single night he dreams of her and her only.   And more and more, his waking life becomes the dream, and his dream life is reality. He can easily withstand the abuses of his supervisor, the petty humiliations of working life, knowing Delia is waiting for him in his sleep.  He also starts to become attractive to women he meets in real life, due to his newfound confidence–he pays this no mind, since he has Delia.  He and Delia never do get around to making love, but he knows it’s going to happen, there’s no rush.  Then Delia starts to become distant with him; cold, abstracted.  What’s wrong?

She tells him.  She met Miller at the country club.  He seduced her.  She doesn’t love him, he makes her skin crawl, but she can’t resist him.   She’s meeting him in a sleazy little motel room–she tells him which motel, and he goes to see it later, while awake–it’s exactly as she described it in the dream.  She tells him exactly what she and Miller have been doing there in that motel room.  In excruciating detail.  She says she loves him, not Miller.  But she can’t stop seeing Miller.  He’s got a hold over her.  She doesn’t sing her dejected beau that song from Porgy & Bess, but it’s there in the subtext.

So, as he informed us in the opening line of the story, he’s bought a gun.  He’s thinking about leaving his bed in the middle of the night while still awake, going to that motel, and seeing what he finds there.  And if he finds Delia and Miller there, he’s not honestly sure what he’s going to do–or who he’s going to kill.  He’s not honestly sure anymore who–or what–Delia is.  And that being the case, how can he know what he is?

It’s very much in the same vein as One Man On a Desert Island, from 1960, which was collected in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution, and which I thought was the best story in that anthology–and I think the same about this one (excluding Anarchaos, of course).  In that story, a man marooned on an island by himself imagines his perfect female companion–then starts finding fault with her and imagines murdering her.  In a state of deep irremediable remorse, he confesses his crime when he’s rescued, and the absence of a body is easily explained.  He sticks to his story throughout his trial, and is executed.

I found some parallels between that story and a Twilight Zone episode, and I do so here as well, but not the same one.  This one reminds me of Miniature, written by Charles Beaumont.  One of the hour long episodes, this one featuring Robert Duvall as a lonely man living with his mother who starts seeing a beautiful woman in a dollhouse at a museum–just a doll, but to him she’s alive.  She’s being treated badly by a man, is lonely and sad like himself, and he wants so badly to get in there with her, join her in the dollhouse, comfort her, and finally he does.  Forever.  Happy ending.  For The Twilight Zone.  For Beaumont.

Westlake wouldn’t have liked that ending.  To him, that’s the wrong kind of escape (Beaumont’s tragically failing health would have made it hard for him to see any other kind–checking his bio, I see he got sick right around the same time he wrote Miniature).  But he could have had any number of stories besides Beaumont’s in mind–including his own earlier less paranormal attempt–when he wrote this one.  It’s less directly suggestive of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story, Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, and of course you can trace it back to mythology–Circe, Succubi, Lorelei.

The point is the same in both stories Westlake wrote–don’t get trapped in your own dreams, your false ideals.  You have to see the world as it is, and yourself as you really are.  You have to accept imperfection.  Falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist is bad.  Falling in love with someone who does exist but not in the same reality as you (the dream world or cyberspace, not that Westlake knew about that yet), and is enticing you to your doom–much worse.   Real lovers can be hard to deal with, fall short of expectations, but at least they’re real.

And I feel strange saying this, but pretty sure I met Delia once in a dream.  Or someone like her.   Haven’t seen her since.  Maybe I wasn’t her type?  (Oh God.  Do you suppose Beaumont was?)

But at least in that story, your imagination can only harm you.  Not so in the case of–

Nackles:  The narrator tells us about his brother-in-law, Frank.   A former football star, turned insurance salesman.  Frustrated with his life, he became angry and abusive, took it out on the narrator’s sister Susie, but the narrator, armed with a baseball bat, adequately made the point that this would not be tolerated.  Feeling like this somehow made them friends, Harry confided in the narrator afterwards, they hung out, even though Frank quite frankly remained a jerk.

As the years passed, and his family grew, Frank, feeling the burdens of fatherhood a bit too keenly (but probably thinking about that baseball bat), began telling his frightened children awful stories about Nackles, the evil opposite of Santa Claus.  The point was to make them stay quiet and well-behaved, and it worked–they’re even more frightened of Nackles than their dad who constantly screams at them.  However, no matter how well they behave, Frank keeps telling them they’re awful, and Nackles is going to get them soon.

He’s tall and skinny, dressed in black, gray face, black eyes.  He lives beneath the earth, travels in tunnels, in a sled pulled by eight goats.  He likes to eat children.  As long as the children in a house are good, Santa Claus can project a shield that keeps Nackles from getting in.  But when children are bad, Santa’s magic weakens, and Nackles will appear, stuff them in a sack, and take them below the earth to be devoured.  The Grinch, before his heart grew three sizes, would find Nackles a mite extreme.

There are many versions of this kind of story, and they all end the same way.  Frank disappeared from an upstairs room one Christmas, and was never seen again.   He did not take his car with him, and his car was the only part of his life he liked. Nor did he berate his wife before leaving, and tell her it was all her fault.  Which he would have done.

The police just assume he ran off on his responsibilities, and the narrator wants to go along with that, but he can’t.  See, Frank made his children really believe in Nackles.  And he told many other dads he knew, some of them salesmen from out of town, about Nackles, and how well the story worked as a way of making the rug rats keep quiet, and of course some of them tried it, and their kids believed.  Spread by both parents and children, the story of Nackles grew, promulgated itself, became an urban myth–and Nackles became real.  And what was Frank himself but an overgrown spoiled child?

It all depends, you see, like the chicken and the egg, on which came first.  Did God exist before Man first thought of Him, or didn’t He?  If not, if Man creates his gods, then it follows that Man must create the devils too.

With the possible exception of a Dortmunder tale penned much later (the one he got an Edgar Award for), this is probably the best-known and most influential short story Westlake ever wrote.  And that’s purely down to the idea itself, because well-written though  it is, taken simply as a story, it’s not that much.  I’d call it more of a dramatized thought experiment.  Jung would have enjoyed it, I’m sure.

It’s hard to trace the lineage of an idea, and certainly an idea in genre fiction.  The genome is too complex.  The basic idea that you can bring something awful to life by believing in it has undoubtedly occurred independently to many unconnected persons.  But I can’t, at least so far, find a story quite like this that predates Nackles.

De Maupassant’s Horla?  Bierce’s Damned Thing?  Perhaps the idea is latent there, but we can’t know that the haunted narrators in those stories created their own monsters. So many stories that came after Nackles, though.  The implicit became explicit.  With a vengeance.

Westlake had been stationed in Germany while in the Air Force, so very likely he’d heard about Krampus.  I’m guessing he did not approve of this aspect of Teutonic parenting.   And there had been a story in the 50’s EC comic, The Vault of Horror, that later made its way into 1970’s Tales From the Crypt, but though that also deals with a murderous Santa, that’s got quite a different point to it.  And about as much depth as a mirror (great artwork, though).  Robert Bloch published a story in 1968 called The Gods Are Not Mocked, which made the precise opposite point–irreverently disbelieving in folkloric beings–like Smokey the Bear–can lead to horrific consequences.

Nackles really seems like something Harlan Ellison could have written (he would have made a much freakier trip out of it), and I have to say I thought about Ellison a lot while rereading Tomorrow’s Crimes.  Westlake and Ellison are connected in many strange ways.  Perhaps the best short story writer science fiction ever produced–he was as much Westlake’s superior in that form as Westlake was his at the novel.  Ellison was just starting to really hit his stride in 1964, when Nackles was published (under the Curt Clark handle) in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, co-founded by Anthony Boucher in 1949, but just then being edited by Avram Davidson.

Ellison also tended to believe we make our own devils, one way or another.  He expressed his admiration for Westlake on more than one occasion.  I have more than just a vague inkling to convince me he was influenced by Nackles, and here it is.  Serling-ized.  Or really, Harlan-ized.  And a damn shame that segment never aired.  And at the same time, do we really want Nackles on television?   I don’t mean the story.  I mean Nackles.

But perhaps the ultimate homage to this story and its title character came in a more real–and horrifying–form.  What are his primary attributes?  He’s very tall.  He’s very thin.  He’s gray-skinned.  He preys on children. He gets stronger and stronger the more people believe in him, the more they spread belief in him–he’d absolutely love the internet. I’m not going to link to the Wikipedia article for Slender Man.  Look it up yourself, if you want. You can take thought experiments too far.  Westlake died the year before that one started.  Coincidence.  Sure.  If Rod Serling steps out of the background now…….

Frankly, the rest of the short stories are not so interesting, and I’m going to give most of them short shrift.  And most particularly–

The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter:  A very short spoof, published in the New York Times magazine, in 1975.   A hardboiled detective is approached by a mysterious fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet, or if he’s not available, Robert Morley) on a quest to find the fabled lost letter of the European alphabet.  A bit like the stuff Woody Allen used to write when he wasn’t making movies.  And quite a bit like Comfort Station as well, but not as good.  And a little over three full pages in length in this book, so how good does it need to be, really?

“No one has pronounced that letter,” the fat man said, “in over a thousand years.  Some think it’s the sound in a man’s throat on the third day of Asian flu when watching a rock record commercial during the six o’clock news.”

“Gutteral,” said Staid

The fat man, whose real name was Gutteral, frowned at Staid through narrowed eyes.  “It seems I’ve underestimated you,” he said.

The title is a bad pun, and so is the final line.  Everybody who reads Hammett or watches John Huston movies knows sneaky fat men never find the dingus they’re looking for.  Westlake had fun writing it, you might have fun reading it, but it’s no fun at all to review.  On to the next story, which like the two after it, is actual science fiction, huzzah!

The Spy in the Elevator:  When the high-rise apartment complex showed up, science fiction writers got very interested.  Could this be the new social unit?  Might people someday live entirely in self-contained environments, and stop going outside?   To sum up–no.  Extrapolation from isolated trends is not a reliable means of predicting future trends.  But the stories still got written, and this is one of them.

A man living in a  futuristic post-apocalyptic complex (called ‘Project’), is prevented from going to his sweetheart’s apartment some floors below him by a malfunctioning elevator.  He intends to propose to her that night.  He’s told by a friendly telephone operator with nice cleavage (it’s one of those phones where people can see each other, well that happened anyway) there’s a spy from another Project in the elevator, and they’re having a hard time getting him out.

So our narrator, worried his girl (who has a major thing about punctuality), will dump him if he’s late, tries taking the stairs, something nobody ever does anymore.  And with good reason–the spy is in there, and he makes the narrator take him back to his apartment at gunpoint.  And it turns out he’s not a spy at all–he’s from another Project, yes.  But his mission is to try and make people understand that the radiation from WWIII that drove them all into these horrid techno-caves is gone now, they can go outside, they can be free again, walk in the sunlight!

In reaction to this insanity, the narrator, well-versed in martial arts, gets the drop on the spy and kills him.   Why would anyone want to go outside?   That’s just nutty.  His girl does dump him for being late (even though he’s a hero for killing the spy), but it’s cool, there’s plenty of other girls who want to meet him now, like that busty operator.  Life is good.  Why would anyone want to change it?

If you were to collect all the science fiction stories about this particular idea in one book (including that J.G. Ballard novel I have a copy of and keep meaning to read), you might well end up with a book you’d need a forklift to carry around with you.  There’s nothing particularly special about this one.  It was published in 1961, in Galaxy, and entirely possible it was one of the first stories of this type, but I don’t know how you’d go about finding out.

I do know Westlake disliked the new high-rise apartment complexes–felt like they were a threat to individuality.  He later wrote a story called The Sincerest Form of Flattery, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, that covered some of the same ground (and that I’ve reviewed here).  It’s a better story than this, I’d say–as a story–but philosophically speaking, this one is more interesting (Westlake used science fiction sometimes to get into a more philosophical mode, and so did many others).

The ‘spy’ asks the narrator if he knows how long it took for primitive man to leave his cave and go outside (and this is terrible anthropology, but I’m probably being too literal)–

“I’ll tell you this,” he said belligerently.  “A lot longer than it took for him to turn around and go right back into the cave again.” He started pacing the floor, waving the gun around in an agitated fashion as he talked.  “Is this the natural life of man?  It is not  Is this even a desirable life for man?  It is definitely not.”  He spun back to face me, pointing the gun at me again, but this time he pointed it as though it was a finger, not a gun.  “Listen, you,” he snapped.  “Man was progressing.  For all his stupidities and excesses, he was growing up.  His dreams were getting bigger and grander and better all the time.  He was planning to tackle space!  The moon first, and then the planets, and finally the stars.  The whole universe was out there, waiting to be plucked like an apple from a tank.  And Man was reaching out for it”  He glared as though daring me to doubt it.

One hates to nitpick, but wouldn’t going to the stars mean spending untold generations enclosed in hermetically sealed–sorry, being over-literal again.   The basic point is sound–we’ve turned from outer space to inner space–this blog itself is evidence of that.  Netflix alone is proof of that.  But isn’t that what Westlake himself did when he went from science fiction to mystery?  1961.  Probably written a year or so earlier.  He still had some growing to do.

But always, with him, the emphasis on the rugged individualist over the organization man, and while that didn’t work out so well for the individualist here (because he wasn’t rugged enough, talked too much, cared too much about making other people agree with him), it works out rather better for the independent in a longer story, published the same year in Amazing Stories (the very first SF mag, founded by Hugo Gernsback, a writer of enormous cultural significance who nobody can stand to read anymore).

The Risk Profession:  This is the one story in the collection that had already been collected–in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions, from Random House.  I didn’t really want to deal with it in my review of that collection–in fact, I said I’d deal with it when I got to my review of this collection, so I guess I have to do that now, huh?  I’m just not that enthused about it.  And yet Westlake must have been, because he knew it had already been collected, and here it is, collected again.  He must have liked it.  I more or less forced myself to reread it.

It’s a murder mystery.  That may be the reason it’s in this anthology from The Mysterious Press.  As such, it’s fine.  The mystery is simple–an asteroid miner is dead. He had a policy with an insurance company–an annuity he paid into over the years, that was supposed to pay off after he retired, if he lived that long, which most of these miners don’t, or at least not very long after they retire.  The asteroids are low-g, so they fall apart once they come back to earth.  The company makes lots of money off the poor schlubs.

So his partner came into a mining town on a nearby planetoid one day, said his partner got himself killed in a stupid accident–they’d made the big strike all these miners are waiting for, they both got drunk, his partner got careless.  No body, because no gravity–he went up into space and never came back.  He left all his worldly goods to his partner, and since he had just applied to get his money from the policy refunded, that counts as worldly goods, and the partner gets it.  The insurance company suits smell a rat (other than themselves, I mean).

So they send an investigator.   Our narrator.  His name is Ged.  I can definitively answer one question–no–this is not a Wizard of Earthsea ref.  That book came out seven years after this story.  Ged is a real English first name, that non-wizards used to have.  I’ve never met a Ged, but maybe there’s still some of them out there.

So our Ged, who hates his boss, and his job, and outer space, goes out there, sniffs around.  In spite of his dislike for his job, he’s exceptionally good at what he does, and his gut instincts tell him the miner is lying–that he did in fact somehow murder his partner.  But he can’t figure out how to prove it.  Then he does.  When you see how, you think “damn, I should have noticed that!”  Just like you do when reading all the other mystery stories you’ve ever read based on a small easy-to-miss detail.  There is a certain element of masochism in the average mystery reader, I’ve often thought.

So that’s all the usual boilerplate–from two genres absolutely packed solid with boilerplate–so what’s interesting about this one?  That Ged uses the fact that he solved the mystery to get rich, and retire, and go lie on a beach somewhere, collecting interest.   It’s like a Continental Op story where the Op tells the Old Man at the Home Office to go screw himself.  Which is kind of cool, but to my way of thinking, not enough to justify the story.   Which has never been anthologized again that I know of, and honestly–once was enough.

I would like there to be more Westlake story anthologies in the future, and I would like even better for this story to not be in any of them. It’s not bad or anything.  It’s a fine professional piece of work.  It’s just not that interesting.  If this is what Westlake thought his best science fiction writing looked like, small wonder he mainly stopped writing science fiction.   The next story in this book is no masterpiece, but I liked it a lot better.

The Winner:   From 1970, first published in Nova 1, edited by Harry Harrison (a writer who had many things in common with Westlake, not least an affection for intrepid thieves).  Not very far in the future at all, political prisoners have been implanted with a small black box that causes them to feel unbearable pain if they venture too far away from a signal transmitted inside their unwalled and mainly unguarded prison.  It’s a pilot program, that may soon be used in all prisons, for all crimes.

A poet has been imprisoned for unknown crimes.   He refuses to accept his imprisonment, and tells the warden (named Wordman) so, before he walks out into the field surrounding the prison, in ever greater agony, until he collapses.  His screams can be heard from the warden’s office.  Wordman feels every scream in his soul, but he wants the poet to learn his lesson.  Then the screams stop.  They search for the poet.  They do not find him.

The poet was picked up by a farmer, who not understanding what was going on, took him to a doctor, who does understand what is happening, and thoroughly disapproves.  He removes the black box.   But by then the authorities have found them, and both are now imprisoned, with black boxes inside of them.  The poet says he’s sorry.  The doctor says not to be.  At their earliest opportunity, they both intend to go walking into that field again, together.  Wordman thinks they’re both insane.  But the madness may be catching.

Now this reminds me a lot of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Tick-Tock Man.  Harlan Ellison turns it into a fairy tale, a fable, and it works better that way.  The story, as Westlake writes it, isn’t of the proper style to accommodate characters with names like Wordman.  It’s heavyhanded, but extremely sincere.

Wordman’s hands gripped the foot of the bed.  He said “What’s the matter with you?  You can’t get away, you have to know that by now.”

“You mean I can’t win.  But I won’t lose.  It’s your game, your home ground, your equipment; if I can manage a stalemate, that’s pretty good.”

It could be a lot better, but again, the main value of it for us is to get a less filtered version of the author’s own beliefs than you’d normally find in his novels, where he covers his tracks a lot better.  And makes his points more powerfully, I’d say.  And that’s it for the straight SF short stories in this book.  Up next is–

Dream a Dream: First published in 1982.  A young woman who married an older archaeologist she feels no passion for, simply because she wanted to explore Mayan culture, has a dream while they’re on a  dig together.  A Mayan priest brandishing a stone knife says they’re going to sacrifice her as a virgin.  She protests she’s no virgin, but he says she might as well be, since she’s never really given herself to a lover.

Waking up feeling oddly chastened, she proceeds to seduce a handsome young man working on the dig with them, though she’s not in love with him either.  She goes back to sleep, feeling quite pleased with herself, and dreams again of the Mayan priest, who says “Now what we do with adulteresses…”   Rimshot.  Man, what macho haven of misogyny published this Feathers or Lead fable? Cosmopolitan.  That figures. The worst story in the book.  Not worth another word.  But the next one is to die for….

In at the Death: First published in The 13th Ghost Book, 1977, another British anthology, same publisher as the first story.  The narrator informs us he’s a ghost.  But he’s not haunting anyone but him.  He hung himself, because his wife was unfaithful.  He wanted her to feel as badly as he does.  But as soon as he kicks the chair away, he wishes he could take it back.  Too late.  He vividly describes the sensation of death by hanging.  He tells us how he found himself a spectral presence, trapped in the room, forced to look at his corpse, with its bulging eyes and distorted features, and his only physical sensations are those he felt while he was dying.

He wants more than anything now for his wife to never see him like this.   But she does.  It destroys her.  She loved him.  Her affair meant nothing–her lover is actually bisexual, leaning towards gay–he was just comforting her, because her husband was emotionally distant.  The narrator finds out in bitter detail just how wrong he was, how much harm he’s done, how much he did in fact have to lose.  The police come, his wife is taken away, his corpse is taken away, and he’s alone.  And then he sees himself come into the room, with a rope.  The entire scene begins to replay itself.  He knows what hell is now.

I could compare this ghost story–not at all unfavorably–to James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.   That has a science fiction gloss to it, but it’s the same basic point, and I don’t believe either influenced the other.  Just a shared fear that the failures of one’s life could haunt you after death.  To die, to sleep–to sleep, perchance to dream.

Westlake had very strong feelings about suicide, as the first Levine story, The Best-Friend Murder, made clear.  But in that story, the emphasis was on his contempt for those who give up on life.  Here, it’s more about the damage suicide does to the survivors.  He was, of course, raised as a Catholic with the belief that self-murder is a mortal sin.  But I don’t think his dislike of it is specifically Catholic.  It’s more the sense of a man who very nearly died as a baby, whose health may have been shaky at times, who died suddenly at the age of 75, that the real sin is to not take every bit of life–and love–you can grab a hold of.  And to throw love back in the face of those who offer it–no forgiveness.  Not in this life or the next.

And I almost forgot to mention the dead narrator’s name.  Ed.  Presumably short for Edwin.

And that brings us to the last short story in the book, which I’d call more eco-fiction than science fiction–an unusual sub-genre for Westlake.    It’s called–

Hydra: From 1984 (heh), first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.  A man and his wife have returned from Latin America, where the man’s work for a corporation that manufactures chemicals had taken them both to live a while.  They’re showing slides, which they provide a sort of running narration for, very condescending towards the natives, bordering on contemptuous.

Their guests are curious, and one in particular, named Fay, is a bit more questioning of the husband’s attitudes.  He’s a company man, through and through.  Yes, there have been unfortunate excesses, that thing in Brazil was awful, but that was Europeans, multinationals–they know better than to go that far now, and these people should be grateful for the work they’re getting, all the modern improvements they can’t really appreciate, being so backward.

He’s a bit vague about what his company was doing down below the border, free of pesky government intervention that’s holding America back, keeping it from being competitive in the world economy.  There’s a mention of a company lake that everybody swims in.  A man named Julio who made wine from flowers he somehow grew from the poor soil.  There are slides of children with strange birth defects.

Then Fay goes to have a look at Vickie, their new baby, gestated down below the border.  Beautiful child.  Green eyes.  Forked tongue.  Well, her mother says from the doorway, so what?   They can fix that surgically later on.  So many children back around the company lake have them.  Don’t tell anyone about it.  Fay promises not to.

The only way you’d know this was a Westlake story is that there’s a mention of how they used to go swimming in Lake Monequois.  Somebody mentions it’s all covered in algae now. Well, that’s progress.

Westlake loved Latin America.  He loved the people, he loved the countryside, he loved the sense of the past there.  And he was ashamed of the way other Americans behaved there.  And he hated corporations, as few writers ever have, before or since.   He had a strong feeling that those who figured what we did in the so-called third world could never come back home to bite us were a bunch of damned fools.  And this is a nice little cautionary tale.   And it probably didn’t do any good, and he probably didn’t expect it would.  But slight as the story is, again, it does contribute to our understanding of him.  A man of many parts, Mr. Westlake.

And that’s Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t like having to say, over and over, that somebody else did the same idea only better.   I rarely ever feel that way, reading his novels.  I definitely don’t feel that way reading Anarchaos, which is the last story in this book.

There, in that very short novel, all the different threads you can see in the earlier stories in the book (some of them written years later) come together seamlessly–the influence of Hammett and other classic mystery writers.  The admiration for tough-minded individualists who refuse to compromise with the system.  The hatred of corporations (which leads to the paradoxical awareness that true individualism requires laws and governments to enforce them, to protect you from the money men, inconvenient though that may be for the libertarians among us).

Above all, the hunger for human connection–the sense that the only real wealth we have in this world (or any other) is each other, mingled with a sad understanding that we throw that wealth away, get lost in fantasies, forget what’s real.  It’s all there, and it all works beautifully.

Westlake just wasn’t a great short story writer.  Anymore than I’m a great short review writer.  Over 6500 words about nine stories.  Yeesh.  This was a book on tape, as you can see above.  Same as the earlier anthology.  Theodore Bikel, huh?  That’s all I’ve got.

Anyway, we’re almost through the 80’s now.  Thank God.  Just two more novels.  The next of which is about an actor.  Yeah, another book about an actor.  A movie star, no less.  But with a difference.  Westlake’s just been playing with his actor books up to now.  He’s ready to get serious about this obsession of his.  And then put it behind him, forever.  Time to slay the monster.  Or be slain in the attempt.


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories