Wally asked, “Well, when do we do it? Do you want to wait for the rain to stop?”
“Yes,” Tiny said.
“Well, I don’t know,” Doug said. “Depends on how long that is. You know, the engineers in the dam put a little boat in the water every once in a while, run around the reservoir, take samples and so on, and if they run over our line they’d cut it. Even if they didn’t foul their propeller, even if they didn’t find it, we’d lose the line.”
Tiny said, “They won’t do one of their jaunts in this weather, count on it.”
“That’s true,” Doug agreed.
May cleared her throat and said, “It seems to me, John would point out right here that the instance the rain stops the people in the dam might go out in their boat so they can get caught up with their schedule.”
“That’s also true,” Doug agreed.
Wally said, “Miss May, what else would John point out?”
“I don’t know,” May said. “He isn’t here.”
Everybody thought about that. Stan said, “What it is, when John’s around, you don’t mind coming up with ideas, because he’ll tell you if they’re any good or not.”
“Dortmunder,” Tiny said, ponderously thoughtful, “is what you call your focal point.”
With his patented bloodless lipless cackle, Tom said, “Pity he tossed in the hand just before the payout.”
All spring now we’ve been with her on a barge lent by a friend.
Three dives a day in hard hat suit and twice I’ve had the bends.
Thank God it’s only sixty feet and the currents here are slow
Or I’d never have the strength to go below.
But we’ve patched her rents and stopped her vents, dogged hatch and
Put cables to her ‘fore and aft and girded her around.
Tomorrow noon we hit the air and then take up the strain.
And make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!
RISE AGAIN! RISE AGAIN!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men!
All those who loved her best and were with her ’til the end,
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!
I don’t consider this one of the very best Dortmunder novels, you might be surprised to hear, given the amount of time I’ve spent on it. I think it was well worth the time, but I look at The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Good Behavior, and a few of the remaining books in the series, and I find them to be better-crafted narratives, with more coherent points to make, and while I like Wally Knurr as a character, he’s sure as hell no J.C. Taylor.
And I suppose I am a mite peeved at Westlake for dangling the magnificent Ms. Taylor in front of us in the last book, referring to her in passing in this one, but refusing to give her even a brief walk-on. He only partly made up for this omission in the next book.
As I was telling someone in the comments section for the Third Down review, this novel is, for want of a better word, ungainly–loose-jointed, as ponderous as Tiny Bulcher making a point. It operates in fits and starts, breaking down, then starting up again, going off in all directions. But as I said, you could make the same statement about The Pickwick Papers. People still like that, and I still like this. A pity, in fact, it wasn’t published as a serial–it has that kind of feel to it. It holds together quite well enough as a single volume. But I’ve rather enjoyed taking it apart section by section, to analyze what I suspect is just a small sampling of its moving parts.
And if it has many disparate points to make, instead of just one, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make them well, or that its variant themes don’t ultimately blend harmoniously together. Uniformity of execution was never something Westlake strived for in his series. He aspired to make each book different from the one before it.
The central theme, as always, is identity. But with such a large cast of characters, and so much room to run, Westlake is free to come at it from many different angles. The dark mystery of Tom Jimson. The amateur turning pro saga of Doug Berry. The coming of age of Myrtle Street (and the belated realizations of her mother, Edna, that she’s made serious mistakes as a parent). The social awakening of Wally Knurr. The psychic unraveling of poor befuddled Bob.
And our beloved gang faced with a terrible new foe–the small rural town environment, in all its bucolic splendor. Eating away at their sense of self, trying to reshape them into compatible components of a radically different social order. Trying, in fact, to make them into solid citizens. If they didn’t have the reservoir job to anchor them, and they couldn’t get back where they belong, it might eventually succeed.
And Dortmunder–the focal point–turning his back on what he was born to do. Sure, he’s not going straight, but he took on this job, and twice he’s walked away from it, only to be sucked back in. Three times he’s nearly drowned in that accursed lake, and as the Fourth Down begins, he says he’s really out this time. “Game called on account of wet” is his final word. Or so he thinks.
The gang accepts his decision graciously, and Kelp, agreeing with Dortmunder that the Vilburgtown Reservoir is out to get him, steals him a car–a Buick Pompous 88. No mention of whether it has MD plates. Dortmunder drives back to New York, and he should be relieved it’s all over. He doesn’t have to ever see that reservoir again. The money has been located, they can get it without him, right? Tom will try to take it all, but Tiny’s there, Kelp is there, Murch is there, Murch’s Mom is there–not even Tom Jimson is that tough, right? May will be fine. But most importantly, he doesn’t ever have to see that reservoir again. And of course he’s violating his nature by giving up this way. And people who violate their natures have bad dreams. That sometimes turn out not to be dreams at all.
It was during a somewhat shallower stretch that Dortmunder was slightly disturbed by the scratchings and plinkings of someone picking the lock on the apartment door, opening it, creeping in (those old floors creak, no matter what you do) and closing the door with that telltale little snick. Dortmunder almost came all the way to the surface of consciousness at that instant, but instead, his brain decided the noises were just Tom returning from one of his late-night filling-the-pockets forays, and so the tiny sounds from the hallway were converted in his dream factory into the shushings and plunkings of wavelets, and in that dream Tom was a giant fish with teeth, from whom Dortmunder swam and swam and swam, never quite escaping.
The intruder, of course, is Guffey, from the ghost town of Cronley, Oklahoma, who we last saw when Tom broke a very smelly wine bottle full of money over his head in that godforsaken little burg, and just left him there. And he shouldn’t have done that. Left him there. Alive. Easy man to underestimate, Mr. Guffey.
We get a short chapter detailing rather plausibly how Guffey tracked Dortmunder down and made his way east, and now he’s got a rifle pointed at Dortmunder’s head, and he’s making it very clear–he wants Tim Jepson (as he insists on calling Tom Jimson). Dortmunder helps him, or Dortmunder dies.
And meanwhile back at the bungalow in Dudson Center, Myrtle Street, no longer content to peep at the gang through binoculars while speculating on what they’re up to and who the boss is (there isn’t one, Myrtle), comes creeping up to the house, and is immediately apprehended by Tiny Bulcher, which would be enough to scare anyone, but then she sees Doug looking out through the window, and he looks scared, and now she’s bloody terrified.
So this is where Doug’s young Lochnivar side comes out, right? He’s the Nephew in this story, and the Nephew will do anything for The Girl. Except here’s the thing. He’s not a Nephew. And Myrtle isn’t The Girl. Not for him, anyway. All he cares about, seeing a woman he was professing tender feelings for just recently being on the edge of getting killed, is not getting mixed up in a murder. Fortunately, the only one advocating that Myrtle be disposed of is (you guessed!) Tom Jimson–Myrtle’s father–not that Myrtle is dumb enough to bring this up with him. If anything, that might make matters worse. Leave him in the dark about her being the fruit of his loins and all. You just do not want to know how he’d react to that.
And the true Nephew of the piece springs to the fore-Wally Knurr. He, the Hero, has waited his moment, as his computer instructed, and here it is–he says they can just lock her in the attic until they’re ready to escape–she doesn’t know enough about any of them to help the authorities–she doesn’t even know what they’re doing there. Tom objects that she can yell out the window. Wally shrugs and points out that in this rain, nobody will hear her, or care if they do. At this point, Myrtle concludes Wally must be the ringleader. Nancy Drew she ain’t.
And back at the apartment, Dortmunder and Guffey are waiting for Tom to come back. Dortmunder showed Guffey some handcuffs he’s got (trying to remember if they figured in an earlier book) that would guarantee his good behavior, and Guffey’s not really a killer, just because he wants to kill Tom Jimson (I mean, who wouldn’t?).
Guffey had mentioned something about shooting parts of Dortmunder off until he told him where Tim Jepson was, but he’s decided he just has to sit tight and wait. And as he waits there, and they watch TV (Fantastic Voyage), and they drink beer, and eat pizza, and try to figure out what Guffey’s first name used to be, they kindasorta become friends. Well, friendly acquaintances. Dortmunder has this effect on people.
Guffey even takes the handcuffs off him, so he can go to the bathroom. Then Guffey goes to the bathroom. Without the rifle. By the time he comes back, the hostage situation has just sort of petered out, and Dortmunder is telling him any enemy of Tom’s is a friend of his, and they finish watching microscopic Raquel Welch save the President’s life or whatever that movie was about, and head back to Dudson Center, because what the hell.
Guffey rested a scrawny fist on the kitchen table. “That man ruint my life,” he said. “And I mean that, Dortmunder. I was just a young fella when he got his hooks into me, and he ruint my entire life. My destiny is to catch up with that son of a bitch, or why would you and him come all the way out to Cronley, Oklahoma? What happens after I catch up is between him and me, but I got to have him in my sights one time before I die.”
“I guess I can understand that,” Dortmunder said. “So this is what I offer. You give me your solemn word you won’t make a move on Tom until this other business is over with, and you can come along with me upstate.”
“But you have to swear you won’t do anything till I say it’s okay.”
Guffey thought about that. “What if I won’t swear?”
“Then I go out to the living room and I get our rifle,” Dortmunder told him, “and bring it back in here, and wrap it around your neck, and go upstate by myself.”
Guffey thought about that. “What if I swear, only I’m lying?”
“I got a lot of friends up there where I’m going, Guffey,” Dortmunder said. “And all you got up there’s one enemy.”
While all this was going on, Doug has persuaded the gang that they need a real boat this time–something that won’t sink in the rain, and that they can use to winch up the coffin with the money in it. Tom refuses to even consider going after any more stashes to pay for it (in this one instance, I’m on his side), and so very reluctantly, Doug becomes party to a felony crime–he happens to know this guy with a boat dealership on Long Island who screwed him in a deal once. They get a real nice boat, a 20 foot Benjamin inboard cabin cruiser. There does not seem to be any such boat maker as Benjamin. There’s a Gannon & Benjamin, but they make wooden sailing vessels. No, I don’t know why Westlake made that name up. If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.
Doug’s not comfortable with crime, doesn’t consider himself a criminal, though he’s always been on the shady site. But he’s committing serious crimes. He’s also been seducing a nice young girl, making her fall in love with him, then he turns around and acts like she doesn’t matter a damn to him, which she doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know who he is, where he belongs. He’s changing his identity without really stopping to consider the implications. You have to figure something bad’s gonna happen to him. That’s how it always plays out in a Westlake novel, right?
So the reservoir gang goes out one last time to get that money, and everybody, even Wally’s computer, knows Tom is going to pull a cross once they have the money. Wally talks this over with May and Murch’s Mom, back at the house. He says if Tom manages to kill the other string members and take the money for himself, his first move will be to come right back to the house and tie up loose ends. Meaning them. And most importantly to Wally, meaning Myrtle.
He suggests they all move over to Myrtle’s house, where they can keep watch on the bungalow from a safe distance. Now that’s a guy who knows who he is–I’m sure his virtue shall be rewarded in the end, and the princess will fall swooning into his arms. Yeah, that’s what Luke Skywalker thought too, before Lucas sib-zoned him. Storytellers can be real bastards sometimes.
So of course when Dortmunder and Guffey arrive at the bungalow, they find it empty. Dortmunder can’t believe he’s doing this, but he decides there’s nothing for it but to go back to that damn reservoir, and give it one last chance to drown him.
So they find the gang just before they push off in the cabin cruiser (fittingly named the Over My Head), and Tiny knocks Guffey out with a sap before recognizing Dortmunder. Dortmunder says Guffey is a hitchhiker he picked up in the rain. It says something for the gang’s assessment of Dortmunder’s judgment in matters other than heist planning that they accept this.
They lock Guffey in the cabin, and set off. Tom, of course, doesn’t recognize Guffey. See, the problem with seeing humanity as one indistinguishible unimportant mass, Mr. Jimson, is that sometimes it pays to notice things like this one guy who’s spent his whole life waiting to kill you. But Tom is, in all fairness, distracted by more important matters. He’s got to kill five guys, none of them pushovers, though Doug won’t be too hard. One of them is Tiny Bulcher. He needs a little something extra in the arsenal. And he’s got it.
The Ingram Model 10. More popularly known today in both white militia and gangsta rap circles (how guns bring us all together!) as the Mac 10. Thirty 45 caliber rounds. Easily concealed, quiet, accurate. So ten rounds for Tiny, and five each for the other four. That’s what Tom is probably figuring. I’m figuring more like twenty rounds for Tiny, but that’s still plenty left for the others. He can just smother that hitchhiker with a pillow or something. See, this may be a Dortmunder novel to us, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a Tom Jimson novel, and they all end the same way.
The thing was, Dortmunder and his pals would expect Tom to make a move. Everybody always did, that was wirtten into the equation. Tom’s job was to figure out the earliest point at which they’d expect something from him, and the earliest point before that when he could usefully make his move, and then pick the spot between the two.
This time, it seemed to him, they wouldn’t really expect much trouble before they got the loot ashore, but they would probably start being tense and wary once the casket was actually inside the boat. Butnow that they had a boat with its own winch attached to its own motor, so that Tiny was no longer needed to drag the casket out of the reservoir, Tom’s actual first potential moment was much earlier than that.
Not when Doug found the marker rope.
Not when he tied the boat to it.
Not when he untied the marker rope from the monofilament and handed it to someone in the boat.
When the marker rope was attached to the winch: then.
So Doug finds the marker rope. He ties the boat to it. He unties the marker rope from the monofilament and hands it to someone on the boat. Tom, down in the cabin, reaches under the mattress Guffey is unconscious upon, where he’s concealed his Mac–it isn’t there. And all of a sudden, he find himself handcuffed to a wild-eyed maniac, holding his gun. “Now, Tim Jepson! Now!” Followed by the sound of gunfire.
So I guess really it was a Guffey novel all along. Short-lived franchise. Tom wins, of course–even with that gun, Guffey’s no match for him, never was. But they’re still handcuffed together, and Tom, figuring Dortmunder had this planned all along, comes up saying he’ll give Dortmunder the gun in exchange for the key (which Guffey actually has, and Dortmunder isn’t dumb enough to tell Tom that).
Tom’s clearly still hoping to pull the cross somehow, but the main thing is, he’s chained to another human being, and for such a singular soul as himself, that’s a terrifying situation to be in. It’s skewing his judgment, dulling his instincts. So he’s not ready when Guffey comes to, and grapples with him–and they both go over the side.
You ever wonder why sailors all stick together in a pinch? It’s because sailors spend their lives out on large bodies of water that are constantly trying to kill them. They may not always love each other, but they need each other. A boat full of Tom Jimsons is a boat full of dead men. Even Jack London’s superlative Sea Wolf didn’t survive longterm. No atheists in foxholes, no solo players at sea. Or at reservoir, same difference.
So as Guffey, his life’s work achieved, lapses back into unconsciousness, sinking down under the waves, taking his enemy with him, Tom Jimson’s last words turn out to be “Al! The key! For Christ’s sake, the key!” A bit late to bring Him up, wouldn’t you say? And Tom, for literally the last time, Dortmunder’s first name is John.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Tom’s best-laid schemes that have gone agley. Doug lost the rope. Guffey filled the hull of the boat with holes when he was grappling with Tom. They’re going to sink. It’s getting to be a habit.
Doug has gone back under, looking for the rope. While the gang, faced with the very real possibility of both drowning and being caught by the law, makes its way back to terra firm by way of Tiny hauling them in with the monofilment line anchored to the shore. They can’t wait for Doug. And Doug can’t seem to wait to die.
For the first time in his diving life, Doug was being stupid underwater. Greed and panic had combined to make him forget everything he knew. He was down here alone, an incredibly dangerous thing to begin with. He was improperly equipped for the kind of search he’d suddenly started to undertake. And, most stupid of all, he was paying no attention to the passage of time.
He’d had an hour of air when he started.
Reading this the first time, I knew this was where Doug Berry met his final end. And (spoiler alert)–he doesn’t. He just keeps looking for the money, for those train tracks leading to the casket of cash, thinking that it just wouldn’t be fair for him to get so close and not get it. He refuses to give up. He’s a salvage diver, and he’s getting his salvage. He finds the tracks, but by that time he’s about to black out from oxygen deprivation–only instinct gets him back to the surface alive. And then pure dumb luck takes a hand.
As he tries to hitchhike his way back into town, still wearing his wetsuit, who should pick him up (in a Chevy Chamois) but the pregnant wife of Bob–poor confused Bob, who spent the whole book questioning his lot in life, his place in the universe, his decision to marry a girl he barely knew, growing more and more confused, until his sanity just gave way entirely. Leaving his wife still pregnant and apparently that condition agrees with her, because Doug, very much in the mood for a nice comforting lay, is instantly very attracted to her (more than he ever was to Myrtle)–and she to him. Oh God damn. He’s getting a happy ending, isn’t he?
There is no greater certitude in the world of Dortmunder than this–Life Is Not Fair. And in this specific sense, these books are an exercise in realism. There may be moments of justice in this world, but they are far and few between (looking at you, Roger Ailes). Doug broke nearly all the rules for suvival in the world of a Westlake novel, and he would just be stone cold dead in a Richard Stark novel, but somehow Westlake decided to let him off the hook.
And you could argue he’s earned it–Dortmunder gives up, and this time, so does the rest of the gang–they’re just not meant to get that money, and they don’t have to worry about Tom anymore, and it’s just time they all went back where they belong. Wally never really belonged there, so he’s going to stay in Dudson Center, at Edna and Myrtle’s house, and he’s hoping it somehow leads to more than friendship with Myrtle, and best as I can recall (we see Wally later in the series) it never actually does. Because Life Is Not Fair. But he’s better off than he was before. Life is not totally unfair, either.
So in the final two-page section of the book, entitled Fifth Down?, Dortmunder and May are watching television at home, and it’s this travel show, and they suddenly see Doug Berry, who is the proud new owner of a Caribbean resort hotel, his beautiful wife on his arm, holding ‘little Tiffany,’ Bob’s baby, and Doug just could not possibly be any happier.
Then there was a shot of Doug wind-surfing, grinning like a baboon, huge ocean, huge blue sky, fantastic yellow-white sun. The off-screen announcer said, “Berry himself, a qualified professional dive instructor, leads the snorkel and scuba-diving classes. His emphasis is on active vacation life.”
And now a shot of Doug bursting out of the ocean into close-up, in full scuba gear, pulling off the face mask and mouthpiece, giving that shit-eating grin right at the camera. “Come on down!”
“You’re goddamn right I will!” Dortmunder raged, on his feet, about to jump headfirst into the TV.
And of course he won’t. They don’t even know what island he’s on, nor could they do anything about it if they did. He won. They lost. It’s over. Dortmunder might as well go to Hollywood and tell little Jimmy Harrington, boy director, to cough up Dortmunder’s ransom money or die. It’s just not who he is. Born to lose. Like most of us. Which is why we love him. And why we pray for Doug Berry’s island to be hit by a tsunami. Soon. Please, God, soon. Or if that’s too hard on all the other people there, how about a shark? Huh? Just one little fifteen foot Great White Shark mistaking Doug Berry for a seal. Is that too much to ask? Okay, then how about a Bull Shark? Since Doug is full of–oh never mind.
So that’s Drowned Hopes, and I honestly think this was a transitional work for Westlake (he had a lot of those). If he could write a comic novel this dark, a Dortmunder story where people actually die violently, something’s happening with him. His early books are very dark indeed, but as the 60’s waned, and the 70’s took hold, he tended more towards the lighter side of things–not light-weight, by any means. But more optimistic, more upbeat, more inclined to look for the good in people, without ignoring the evil.
But thing is, evil is an interesting subject. Tom Jimson was an interesting character. And as I said last time, partly derived from Westlake himself. From the misanthrope that lurked inside of him, casting a caustic eye on the fatuity of humankind–there’s a moment where he calls Doug ‘Popeye,’ and Doug doesn’t get the joke, is just confused by it. We’re told by the narrator that “Tom had found, in his long life, that an astonishing number of people had just about no sense of humor at all” The narrator and Tom are totally in synch at that moment.
But where they go out of synch is that the narrator, Westlake himself, knows that Tom was wrong–no matter how tough you are, you’re going to need somebody sometime. Like when you’re going down under the water for the last time. It’s tempting, to live your life like you’re the only person in the world who is really real, but it’s not smart. And it’s not really living. Solipsism isn’t a philosophy. It’s a delusion.
Still, there’s something there–something he might do more with, in a different context. Our next book isn’t really his–it’s a sort of Mad Libs for Mystery Authors, conceived by a guy who clearly had too much spare time on his hands, and it’s a lot of fun–Westlake’s contributions most of all. And you ask me, it’s the Tim Jimson in him that wrote those. And then comes a book where Westlake takes his misanthropy to cosmic levels. He wants to see how far he can go with it–and you ask me, he went too far that time. But sometimes you need to find where your limits are, before you can do your best work.
And all of this is leading, inexorably, to what may well be his best book. But perhaps even more importantly, this rediscovery of his darker self is sending out signals, to a long-buried alter ego. You’re needed. Come back.
And what rough beast, his hour approaching fast,
Slouches towards Monequois to be reborn?
PS: I did enjoy finding nautically themed poems and song lyrics to introduce each segment. For the last one, I considered several alternatives, including the Popeye Song, one of the racier versions of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, or maybe something from H.M.S. Pinafore. But nothing seemed quite as right as Stan Rogers’ great salvage chanty, and I’ll end with that–but not Stan Rogers’ version (which you can find yourselves easily enough). No, I think I’ll go with Liam. Still missing him. Three times I saw him and Mr. Makem perform live. And I’ll never see them again. No, Nay, Never. No Never, No More.