Review: Humans

Once when he was dining with Rabbi Goldman in Chicago he stopped in the midst of Mrs. Goldman’s pot roast to discourse on the improbability of a God or a life after death.  Rabbi Goldman’s eleven-year-old daughter listened gravely,  then replied, “Mr. Darrow, Mother gave me a beautiful box of beads for my birthday, and when I dropped the box the beads rolled all over the floor because they had not been strung.  We need God to string together all the different parts of life.”

Darrow smiled as he replied, “I won’t argue with this younger generation.  I’ll stick to the older generation, they’re easier.”

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

We are all of us parts of God, parts of His dream, His desire, but none of us know any more than our own role in His plan, if indeed He has a plan, and is not merely moved this way and that by cosmic Whim, as sometimes seems to be the case.  And so I, a tendril in God’s imaginings, had to be informed by another entity, as insubstantial as myself, just what my task was to be.

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

“To announce, and to affect, the end of their World.”

I don’t have to explain myself.

The instant I saw it there, sitting with the woman, I knew what it was.  The stench of God was all over it, like dried roots, like stored apples.  Laughing!  And a servant.

I am not a servant.   We are not servants.  He Who We Serve is not our master but our lover.  We act from our will, no others.  Could this…thing say as much?   Or any of its swooping, tending, message-bearing ilk?

And did its master really think he could sweep away this compost heap without the knowledge of He Who We Serve?  We love this world!   How it seethes, how it struggles, how it howls in pain,  what colors there are in its agony!  It is our greatest joy, the human race.  We cannot see it removed, like game pieces from a table at the end of the day, simply because he’s bored.

Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.

I’m going to try and make this a one-part review.  I have several reasons for this, but chief among them is that hard as I look, the only edition of this book I can find is the first one, from The Mysterious Press.  So I don’t even know what images I’d use for a Part 2.  I don’t believe that’s ever happened before.   Westlake novels nearly always got a bunch of editions, foreign and domestic.  If there are any foreign editions at all, I can’t find them.  And that’s more ironic than I can possibly express.

This is not on its surface the kind of book The Mysterious Press was established to publish.  If this is a crime novel, a mystery, and I think you could make a fair case that it is, then the criminal mastermind is God Himself, his primary henchman an angel, and their intended victim is Life on Earth.   The novelist Michael Upchurch (no, I never heard of him either), reviewing this novel for the New York Times, referred to it as ‘universal fiction,’ which I kind of like, and Westlake might have too, but the review, while decent enough, says that Westlake’s prose is ‘hokey’, that he has an excessive reliance on italics (oh really?), and this keeps the book from being as good as it might have been.

Much as I agree with Mr. Upchurch that this book could and should have been more than it is, hokey writing and over-accentuated typography are not the problems with it (oh no, I used italics!).  But in saying it failed to live up to its potential, I am, of course, assuming I know what it was supposed to achieve.    The Great God Westlake moves in mysterious ways.  That’s why he’s a mystery writer.

This much we do know–it was supposed to be a best-seller.  It was written for that express purpose.  Westlake mentions in the dedication that Evan Hunter told him he should write something large in scope, unexpected in subject matter, and in that it most certainly succeeds.  Lawrence Block, in a piece you can find in The Crime of Our Lives, went into a bit more detail about that conversation, and I think a rather vital clue to why this book failed (in more ways than one) is to be found there.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of times,  it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better.  Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why.  Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom.  They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.  The perfect can’t miss idea had come to him.

The idea?  The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission.  Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

Probably a few more than that (I’ve found a surprisingly large number of positive online reviews), but then again, I can’t find even one other edition, and I looked hard.

I cannot help but detect a certain unseemly note of satisfaction in Mr. Block’s recounting of that telling little anecdote (it’s a writer thing), but had he been so inclined, Mr. Westlake could have reminded him of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, a 1970 novel about a man in his thirties engaged in various orgiastic activities with a group of bisexual teen-aged Catholic school girls, that Block wrote in four days, and which he had at the time firmly believed would be a huge critically acclaimed racy best-selling novel along the lines of Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  They had good drugs back then, didn’t they?

Bad writers can write bestselling novels on purpose, by design.  With a few rare exceptions (maybe Stephen King), good writers can’t. Because good writers are good precisely because they are not prisoners of formula (even those known for a specific genre), because they listen more to their inner voices than to book sales.  The rest is up to us, our secret desires, which are hard to predict, once you’ve strayed away from the mediocrity of market surveys.

Westlake got close to the bestseller lists a few times in his life, but never, not even once, with a book he wrote to that end–the harder he strove to reach that goal post, the further away it got.  It always came as a surprise to him when a book of his sold especially well, and not always a pleasant one either (we’ll be talking about an instance of that a few books from now).

So right away, we see the identity crisis in this novel–not in its characters, but in itself–that it is at the same time striving to break away from the kind of story Mr. Westlake was known and admired for, to convey a powerful (and not entirely palatable) message to all of humanity–and at the same time is basically trying to out-Hailey Arthur Hailey, who Westlake had lampooned mercilessly with Comfort Station, years before.   “Earth–crossroads of five billion private lives.”  Or in this case,  just five, standing in for the five billion.

When you know you’re so much better than most of the people selling untold millions of books, it must be frustrating to keep failing to reach those Olympian heights.  You have to settle for having actual depths, and plumb them as best you can.

Westlake more than once referred to Humans as a special favorite of his among his many novels, but I’ll point out once more that calling something your favorite is not the same thing as calling it the best.  Our preferences and our judgment are often at odds with each other, a human oddity the angelic narrator of this novel (parts of it) would be at some pains to point out.   And if I want to make this a one-parter, I had better be at some pains to get the synopsis in gear.  This one’s going long, so bear with me.  And my italics, pace Upchurch.  (Upchurch–I can hear Westlake chortling all the way from 1992).

Humans is divided into three Hegelian sections–Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The chapter count does not reset at the start of each new section.  As we’ve seen him do in several previous books, he alternates between numbered third person chapters, and first-person narrated interludes, in this case from two different characters–an angel and a demon–each commenting on the story thus far, and speaking directly to the reader about the apocalyptic situation that is unfolding–and with the usual Westlake perversity, it’s the demon who is trying to reassure us, and the angel telling us we’re all doomed.   For such beings, there is no fourth wall, it seems.

The premise is actually very simple–God has gotten tired of us.  We’re not entertaining Him any more.  We just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again.  It’s boring.  He’s got a lot of other shows to watch (we’re informed there are many other inhabited worlds in His Universe), so He’s deleting us from the cosmic TiVo.  Permanently.  But there are rules to how this is done.   He won’t just smite us.  God gave us free will, and it is by our own volition that we must shuffle off this mortal coil.

God dispatches Ananayel, a relatively callow and inexperienced angel, who hasn’t been to earth in centuries (his last memories of Manhattan involve birch bark canoes).  He thinks this is because some of the more experienced angels like Michael and Gabriel could have hidden sympathies for humanity.   Knowing so little about us, he won’t have any interest in our survival.  Angels have free will as well, he explains.  They can choose to disobey, and one of them did, quite famously (there’s a very long poem about that, and you see an early edition of it up top).

All knowledge of our civilizations is available to him, along with the services of legions of cherubim (he insists they are not chubby infants in diapers like in the oil paintings), but his means of enacting the doom of Terra are limited.   And it’s the entire planet that is to be destroyed, you should understand–not just humans, but all biological life.   Clean sweep.  The Big Guy’s not kidding around like he was with that flood.  No rainbows this time.  No doves.  No bacteria, even. Nada.

Ananayel must find five representative humans, from each major racial group (black, white, Latino, Asian), and each major inhabited land mass (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa–sorry to tell ya, Australia, but you didn’t make the cut–and you’re doing so well at the Olympics too).  They must all speak a shared language (English, in this case, but we’re told if this attempt at Gaiacide doesn’t work, French might be next).   And they must all have some reason to give up all hope in the future–without having actually done so yet.  It is that choice–the choice to give in to utter and absolute despair–that Ananayel is to invoke within the five of them, at a crucial moment in time.  At that moment, they will be given the physical means to commit suicide on behalf of us all.

Ananayel is capable of possessing a human body, but this is a power that angels only rarely use, and on this mission he will use another ability to create physical forms for himself, which he can do with ease, becoming anyone he needs to be, creating a variety of human identities for himself, to influence his five catspaws, move his playing pieces across the board.  This latter power is something that the fallen angels have been deprived of–they can take on many different shapes, but not a human form–so they have to rely heavily on possessing existing bodies in order to interface with humans.

And as God dispatched just one angel to bring about our destruction, Lucifer, having learned of God’s plan, and thoroughly disapproving of it (we’re like the best most dysfunctional reality show ever–so fun!  God doesn’t know good TV when he sees it!), may only send one demon of consequence to oppose–we never learn his name–he is referred to only as ‘X.’  That’s him talking up top, and we never do get quite enough of him for my liking–far and away the most engaging character in the book, but that’s always going to be the case, isn’t it, when you bring demons into a story.

Everybody who reads Paradise Lost (I first read it in high school) sooner or later starts skipping over the tedious moral sections to the parts with Satan and his brimstone brigade.  C.S. Lewis, that most conscientiously committed of Christians, was invariably more entertaining when he wrote about such devilishly compelling creatures.   There is much of his senior devil Screwtape in ‘X’, but Westlake’s incubus is not addressing his dear nephew Wormwood–he’s talking to us.  The way you or I might talk to a hissing cockroach somebody gave us as a pet.   Kind of cool to watch, but still disgusting.

As for the widespread belief that they inevitably win, well, that’s just crap, isn’t it?  Of course it is.  If they inevitably won, we’d no longer be here, would we?  But here we are.

And here you are, you scrofulous fleas.  And now he’s after you as well, isn’t he?  Now you’ll know what it’s like to suffer his snotty displeasure.  But be encouraged.  He can be resisted, as we are here to prove.  He was just an early master of propaganda, is all.

But how shall we save you bilious earth-lice from your creator’s boredom? First we have to know what he’s up to.  He’s always, of course, up to something: testing Job and Isaac, tempting Thomas and Judas, on and on. Idle hands are whose workshop?

The notion that the biblical stories all happened in some form, but that the versions of them we have, the interpretations they place upon events, are mere heavenly hype, is not a new one.  The science fiction writer James Blish had covered this angle very well in 1968, with his short novel Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null).  I can’t be sure Westlake read it, but note with interest that a minor character in that supremely dark story (that I’m oddly disappointed to learn Blish wrote a more optimistic sequel to) was named after Anthony Boucher, that great linking element between mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and someone Westlake knew very well also.

Westlake had mainly cut his ties to science fiction by the late 60’s, but that by no means proves he stopped reading it.  And if we consider that book science fiction, wouldn’t this also qualify?  Westlake’s book actually has real science in it–well–kind of.  We’ll get to that.

Jesus was part of God’s plan, we seem to be told here, but he was a mere mortal–God was using him to try and get His experiment back on track.  God tempted Judas to betray Jesus, because he needed a martyr.  Somehow I don’t think Westlake’s Catholic School teachers would approve, but no question at all–they left a mark.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–you can never really shake it off, and the more you fight it, the stronger the influence becomes.  I know what I’m talking about.  But enough of the ethereal.  Let’s talk about the humans.   They are, after all, what the book is really about.

Although Ananayel is only supposed to recruit five people, factors in a planet-killing equation, he needs sufficiently appealing bait to dangle in front of one of them, and she ends up becoming a factor in her own right, so we’ll start with her.

Susan Carrigan:

Well, yes.  I have made a study of this one problem, while my players have been ricocheting toward one another, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that Susan Carrigan is nothing special.  There are millions of such young women scattered over the globe, unmarried as yet, doing small things with clean neat fingers, whether in banks like Susan, or in clothing mills, or in lawyer’s offices, or in computer assembly plants, and they are all the same.

Susan Carrigan lives in Manhattan, works in a job she doesn’t particularly love or hate, just got out of a bad relationship, and is tricked by Ananayel (in the form of a bag lady in a coffee shop) into entering a contest where the prize is a free trip to Russia (where another factor awaits, we’ll get to him).   She’s another of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, which we’ve been seeing so many of lately, and I wouldn’t say they’re all exactly the same, but none of them are going down as his most unique creations, and I kind of wish he hadn’t gotten stuck in that groove, and maybe he did too, at times.

Her significance in the story is both pivotal and peripheral (and in fact she never comes close to finding out what’s going on), but basically it’s the old story–angel falls in love with mortal.  Many variations.  There was one with Jack Benny once. Well actually he was in love with another angel in that one, but again we see Mr. Westlake taking with both hands from old movies.  The point is, the angel can remain detached from the impending death of humanity only so long as he remains detached from humanity itself, and Susan is the great sticking point.

She’s not a very interesting character (a fact much commented upon in the book itself), but you do like her.   She’s a certain kind of American that people all over the world look at with a mixture of bewilderment, affection, and perhaps a soupcon of contempt.  The ones who always think that something can be done. They don’t know what the world really is, and you’re not sure if you ever want them to know.  Somebody has to have hope, right?

Susan reminds me of something I read in a book of photos of feral dogs in the Greek Islands (who are, to my way of thinking, leading an utterly enviable lifestyle)–the way different sets of tourists react to them.  The photographer, in his introduction, said that the French find the dogs funny, the Japanese snap endless photos, the Germans think it’s a bit of a scandal they’re running around unsupervised, the English just pet them, and the Americans scream “They’re starving!” then run off to buy them food.  My people.  I’ve lost count of all the foreign ferals from far-flung corners of the globe I’ve met at our local dog run.  Sometimes we take strays home with us at the end of a vacation (or a tour of duty).  Well, I digress.  Well no, I really don’t.  That’s what happens to–

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

Was he not, after all, the power behind a television throne?  Was he not the author of half the words to come out of Boris Boris’s mouth?  Wasn’t he the next best thing to a celebrity; which is to say, a celebrity’s ventriloquist?  Be off with you, my man, Grigor thought, I have Romanov blood in my veins. (Hardly).

From the least interesting human to perhaps the most interesting.  Grigor was a fireman at Chernobyl during the meltdown.  He did his duty bravely, as so many others did, and is dying of cancer, as so many already have.  By some quirk of fate (that Ananayel does not take credit for) he met a rising comedian, Boris Boris (not his real name, it’s a joke, and if you’re Russian it’s apparently hilarious), taking advantage of glasnost to do a satirical television series (a Russian Jon Stewart, though maybe closer to Benny Hill in some respects–or Bob Hope?), and he liked Grigor’s understandably morbid sense of humor, hired him on as a writer, and he’s been a great success.  Which is fine, except cancer is one thing success doesn’t cure.

He’s a complex brooding sardonic personality, loving his country yet alienated from it, which is why he’s ideal for Ananayel’s purposes, and vulnerable to his method of attack–he arranges for Grigor to meet Susan at a party held at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, and when she hears her story–do I need to say it?  She says he must come back with her to America, she knows doctors, who know other doctors–something can be done.  And she’s very pretty and appealing and alive, and interested in him, and he agrees.   He has nothing to lose–or does he? Does it ever go well for Russian characters in novels when they leave their motherland?   Not in Russian novels, and Westlake is writing in the spirit of that great branch of world literature here.

Sound billowed from the International Room like pungent steam from a country inn’s kitchen.  Cocktail party chitchat is the same the world over, bright and encompassing, creating its own environment, separating the world into participants and non-invitees.  Cheered suddenly at the idea of being among the blessed this time around, Grigor moved forward into that cloud of noise, which for him was not rejecting but welcoming, and was barely aware of the person at the door who took his invitation and ushered him through the wide archway into a large,  high-ceilinged room that had been deliberately restored to remind people as much as possible of the pomp and privilege of the tsars.  Gold and white were everywhere, with pouter pigeons of color in the Empire chairs discreetly placed against the walls.  Two chandeliers signaled to one another across the room, across the heads of the participants in their drab mufti; not a red uniform in the place.  It was as though, Grigor thought, the nobles had permitted the villagers one annual event of their own in the chateau’s grand ballroom.

Was there a joke in that?  Well, there was, of course, but was it usable?  Now that the proletariat had been shown to have made a mess of things, there was a great embarrassed ambivalence about the aristocratic baby that had been thrown out with 1917’s bathwater.  Both Grigor and Boris Boris had been trying for months to fit references to the tsars and their families and their world into the stand-up routines, but everything they’d come up with was too flat, too wishy-washy.

The trouble was, they had no clear attitude to express.  Surely no one wanted to go back to rule by a class of people who sincerely believed that peasants and cattle were at parity, and yet…And yet, there was something about the style.  Not the substance, the style.

 The tsars are still in our throats.  We can’t swallow them and we can’t spit them out.

That isn’t funny.  That’s merely true.

I think Tolstoy would have been proud to have written that passage.  The book as a whole maybe not, but who can say?  Leo was writing weirder things than this by the end of his life.  And even before that, there was an entire story written from the POV of a horse (quite good, too–livestock have things to say for themselves as well).

And over next to Russia, there’s China–even less free, but in spite of that, the birthplace of a truly free spirit, who goes by the name of–

Li Kwan:

“The trial would last one day,” Kwan told him.  “I would get to say very little.  The second day, I would be taken outside and told to kneel.  A pistol would be put to the back of my head, and I would be killed.  The third day, the government would send my family a bill for the bullet.”

Mortimer’s eyes widened at that.  “A bill?  You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

“That’s the family’s punishment,” Kwan explained, “for having brought up a child without the proper discipline.”

Kwan (Li of course is his family name) was one of the people holding bullhorns in Tianamen Square when the tanks rolled in.  Remember that?   All we here in the west really got out of it was that thing about the two characters signifying ‘crisis’ meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ when looked at separately.  That was very popular at the time.  He got a lot less than that.  But he’s still in there pitching.  I think in many ways he’s the one Westlake admires and identifies with the most–and treats the worst.

Kwan is a libertine for liberty, a trickster with integrity–much like Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment (who ironically had to contend with a Chinese American secondary villain), and perhaps a few others among his protagonists.  Instead of pacifism, his goal is simple Democracy–something we take for granted here.   Kwan dreams of somehow overthrowing the ‘Ancient Murderers,’ as he thinks of the ruling class in China, all ruling classes in China, going back for thousands of years.  If not overthrowing them, at least giving them one in the eye.  Something.

He’s a shameless seducer of women (who find him nigh-irresistible), a sly and humorous person with a great zest for life, but he believes absolutely in what he’s doing–while knowing too well he’s actually done nothing but put his own life in immediate danger.   Tricksters don’t tend to do well in totalitarian societies.  Even fictional ones.  Ask Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin.   A trickster needs more room to maneuver than a closed society will ever offer.

He’s managed to make his way to Hong Kong, but with 1997 approaching, even there he has nowhere to run, no safe harbor–the authorities there will hand him back to Beijing if he’s caught.  He’s about to be apprehended, betrayed by a naively cynical American journalist in exchange for a story, when Ananayel directly intervenes, gets him onto a luxury liner, working in the kitchen, heading for America, but it all goes wrong when he reaches New York.  Ananayel intends for it to go wrong, makes sure of it.

He’s betrayed again and again, and languishing in a detention cell in New York, where the authorities fully intend to send him back to avoid an international incident, he tries to commit suicide (with toothpaste, yet–didn’t even know that was a thing), and by the time he meets the others, he’s a shadow of his former cocksure self, with a damaged esophagus, incapable of even speaking, or eating properly.  The point, again, is to crush all sense of hope.   To guide him to despair.  So he’ll make the intended choice.  At least he could take the Ancient Murderers down with him.  All of them, not just the ones in Beijing.

Oh, and that thing about the bullet fee?   Westlake didn’t invent that.  I forced myself to look it up.  It happened to this girl’s family.  If you feel like it, you can force yourself to read online discussions where people in our great Democratic West cast doubt on it, say it’s not really proven to have happened, just an urban myth, and if it did happen once, it doesn’t anymore (now they have roaming vans that give lethal injections, yay progress!).

Except it’s apparently happening in Iran too.  It’s a bit funny, people who accept the reality of the authorities shooting someone in the head for disagreeing with them doubting that they’d humiliate the family just to hammer their point home. Maybe they just charge the bullet fee if the family wants to claim the body.  Well, that makes it all better, now doesn’t it?  Kind of rooting for Ananayel now. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I get to writing about–

Maria Elena:

Frowning, Maria Elena said, “The company is Brazilian.  Isn’t it?”

“The subsidiary is Brazilian.   That’s the company you know about.  But the main company is far from here.  The stockholders don’t live in Brazil.”

“Where do they live?”  I’ll go there, Maria Elena thought.  With photos, with statistics.  How dare they not be part of what they’ve done?  How dare they not even have to lie?

“Where do they live?”  The pilot looked down at the copper colored river they would follow for the next quarter hour.  “Some in Britain,” he said.  “Some in Germany, Italy, Guatemala, Switzerland, Kuwait, Japan.  But most in the United States.”

“The United States.”

“The multinational corporation is responsible to no country,” the pilot told her, “but it was an American idea.”

“They couldn’t do this in America.  That’s why they come here.”

“Well, of course,” the pilot said, and laughed.

Maria Elena is, I believe, Westlake’s first and perhaps only Brazilian protagonist. She is described as exotically attractive, not thin, and we don’t find out her precise ethnic ancestry, but we can assume she’s a mixture of Portuguese, Indian, and perhaps African ancestry, like most people in that remarkable nation, regardless of color.   What we know about her for sure is that she is a person of conscience and determination–and almost unfathomable sadness.

She had been a singer in her youth, a minor star, growing in fame, but she put that aside to marry and have a family–only her rural town was next to a factory that poisoned the earth and the water, and even the children in her womb.  Her husband left her, saying she was cursed, and part of her believed that was true. The church offered no comfort.  Her environmental activism achieved no results.

And now a pilot, transporting her with the American doctor she works for, tells her that she hasn’t even been directing her efforts in the right direction.  The true malefactors are elsewhere, mainly in America.   That isn’t a lie.  But the pilot himself is–it’s Ananayel.  Bringing his players together.  Suggesting she only has to marry the doctor, named Jack, who is in lust with her, and he’ll take her back to America with him.

The marriage goes sour when the doctor’s passion fades, and her activism is no more effective there than it was at home.  She leads a drab passionless middle class suburban life, with nothing to anchor her.  One day a woman who has been having an affair with the doctor comes to the house, and accuses Maria Elena of refusing to give Jack a divorce (it’s the first Maria Elena has heard of it).  The woman says she and Jack deserve a chance at happiness.

Maria Elena looks at this deluded creature wearily, as at a spoiled child, and asks what she has ever done to deserve happiness.  A question I’m not sure anyone has ever had a good answer to, but if anyone ever did, it’s Maria Elena herself, and look at her. She can’t even sing now–the music isn’t there in her anymore. Everything has been taken away from her, partly by Ananayel and God, but mostly by her fellow humans, by what we have made of this earthly paradise God gave us so long ago.  But she somehow soldiers on, waiting for a change to come. All good things, right?   Sure.

Westlake was drawing here upon research he’d done for the 1984 short story, Hydra, which I covered in my review of Westlake’s science fiction anthology, Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t know when he started research on Russian politics, but of course it was all over the news at this time.

I’m now wondering if his interest in China and Hong Kong predated his agreeing to work on the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, which he is supposed to have written in 1995.  Seems unlikely he’d be doing research for that this far in advance.  But really, all over this book, we see his enduring and all-encompassing interest in the world around him, his conviction that Americans ignored what went on beyond their shores at the peril of both their own material welfare and their immortal souls.  Hmm, I suppose that is a bit hokey.  Mr. Upchurch would be cross with me, no doubt.

You have perhaps noticed that these three humans Ananayel has recruited for God’s plan thus far are not the people you’d think would be chosen to bring about world destruction–each has shown exceptional courage and devotion to the common good.  Each is a true member of E. M. Forster’s fabled Aristocracy of the Considerate, the Sensitive, and the Plucky (and indeed there will be a secret understanding between them when they meet).

But that is, in fact, the point of choosing them–that they know, so much better than the average human, what a cruel place this world is, how resistant to change, how entrenched the Ancient Murderers (in all their innumerable forms) truly are.  To be hopeless, you need to have had some hope to start with.

And all have been afflicted physically in some way–not for nothing did Job, having lost his family and his fortune, only curse God when Satan (visiting God in heaven, as we are informed the Satan in this story sometimes still does) was given permission to inflict great physical suffering upon him.  As long as the body is strong, the spirit can withstand almost any reversal.  But the body is fragile, an untrustworthy bastion to fall back upon.  It always fails us in the end. Gosh, how did this book ever not make the best-seller lists?

And how did I think I was going to make a one-part review out of this?   I’m closing on on six thousand words, and I still have two more characters to talk about before I even move into the wrap-up.  Two very different characters than Grigor, Kwan, and Maria Elena, but not entirely different.  All human, too human.

So I’ll come up with some images for Part 2 somewhere–it’s hard to search for foreign editions when you don’t know what the title would have been.  But I would say the intended audience for this book was not the rest of the world.  It was America.  And it missed the target, badly.  And perhaps that was Mr. Westlake’s failure.  And perhaps it was someone else’s.  Perhaps there’s blame enough to go around.

And perhaps we could do with a song now.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

65 responses to “Review: Humans

  1. rinaldo302

    Damn. So this is gonna be another 4-parter, huh?

    • Two. I swear by all that’s holy (and something must be). I realize that I only seem to be a short way through it, but once I’m through the character sketches, I’m going to do a quick fade. If I did a full plot synopsis, it’d probably be three. In many ways, this books is like Kahawa, and Kahawa is much longer–and I only did two parts for that.

      Why did Drowned Hopes go so long? Because there were so many little hidden details I wanted to dwell upon–because that book is much deeper than it seems (appropriately enough). This book is not trying to conceal its depths, and therefore I don’t have to go to such pains to reveal them. And it’s not actually a super-long book for Westlake in this part of his career.

      So fear not, we’ll be back with Dortmunder in no time. How long will that review go? Don’t ask. 🙂

      (editing) Good news, everyone! I found a French edition–nice artwork too, better than the original. Someday I’m going to do an homage to Rivages/Noir. They seem to be doing all the heavy lifting in France with regards to Westlake books lately.

      • rinaldo302

        I wish there was some way for me to make money on this bet.

        Good news about the French edition, though.

        • I wish somebody would say something about the book. God damn it, I worked hard on this. And it was freakin’ hot in the room I was typing most of it in. ‘X’ would have felt right at home. :\

          • rinaldo302

            I can see the hard work and (as always) admire the level of thought that went into this. But I feel like there’s nothing for me to say at this point: It feels as if we’re still in the “prelude” stage, which you’re summing up splendidly. Our differences of opinion about the book overall (or, who knows, you may convince me) will come up around installment 3 or 4.

            Oh all right 🙂 I’ll start rereading it and see what it inspires me to say.

            • I go in both directions on this one–I liked it better the second time through, I understand it better now, and I still have to call it a failure–but a magnificent one.

  2. Martin

    As usual, your review is interesting, well-considered, and you always find bits that I didn’t consider (although you sometimes see those bits a lot differently than I do). Had this been a one-part review, I suspect you’d have already seen many comments about your thoughts.

    Like rinaldo, I feel we haven’t yet stumbled onto the meat of the review. It’s clear you think D.W. probably shouldn’t have written this novel — and if the time used deprived us of another Dortmunder, we could have a discussion, but if we only lost a Parker, I’m all for it — which is where you’re wrong.

    This is one of the author’s least cynical novels and that’s why there’s so many positive online reviews for the book. It’s pretty much the opposite of Sacred Monster, my least favorite Westlake. I suspect if a reader likes one of those novels, they’ll dislike the other.

    Now bring on parts 2 – 4!

    • rinaldo302

      “It’s pretty much the opposite of Sacred Monster, my least favorite Westlake. I suspect if a reader likes one of those novels, they’ll dislike the other.” Bingo. For me, anyway. (Well, Sacred Monster shares my least-favorite slot with one other yet to come.)

      • I liked both of them–I’m a sport of nature when it comes to Westlake, I suppose. I just didn’t get that feeling from Sacred Monster that the writer had failed to achieve everything he’d set out to achieve. I got that from this book. Honestly, I’m not sure the other three books I posted images of up top achieved everything they set out to achieve, and they were probably all less ambitious than this one.

        Sacred Monster is about one creative dysfunctional personality. Humans is about one creative dysfunctional SPECIES. It should go without saying the second task is exponentially harder than the first. Rule of thumb with books, and certainly Westlake books–the more satisfactorily executed work is not necessarily the superior work.

    • I felt like I had to set it up, and the set-up took longer than I’d hoped. These people in the book suffer so much–as have the people who inspired them–and I couldn’t just give each of them a one paragraph thumbnail sketch. I’m not Richard Stark, that’s for damn sure. But it will go quickly enough once I’ve given each his/her proper due.

      It’s not clear to me that he shouldn’t have written it. Did I really give that impression? I just think he should have either written the commercial book he planned to write, or said the hell with a best-seller, because there was no way he could make a blockbuster out of this material. Yes, some very grim books have sold huge, but people didn’t expect this from him. They weren’t prepared for it. I find it to be a powerful but somewhat unbalanced work, that has a great deal to say, and struggles to say it.

      I don’t think it deprived us of another Dortmunder, because he could only write so many of those (if anything, he probably wrote a few more than strictly necessary), and I’d posit Humans probably helped him get back in the zone for writing as Stark again (not as much as The Ax, but it was a process he was going through in the early to mid-90’s). My feeling is that when Westlake wrote a book like this, it’s because he had to, and you don’t ever say an artist shouldn’t have done what he or she was compelled to do.

      It is certainly less cynical than Sacred Monster, but it’s also a lot darker. That was a much slighter work, less ambitious, and for that reason more harmoniously arranged. He said all he had to say with that one–with this one, it just feels like some parts of it needed to bake a while longer.

      Also, it irritates me, as a science fiction reader, that he implies there are black holes just a few light years away we could ‘lasso.’ Thankfully not! His science is terrible here, and he knows it, but he’s got the God loophole, and he takes full advantage of it.

      Part 2, and done. Oh ye of little faith. 😉

  3. If it was published in 1992, when was it written? The reason I ask is that Good Omens, a very funny book about the apocalypse by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which also has as main characters an angel and a demon, and which is roughly a thousand times better than Humans, was published in 1990. Presumably if Westlake had known about it, much less read it, he wouldn’t have started another book that would suffer by comparison. (Westlake was a Discworld fan by 2006, but there’s no telling when he started reading Pratchett.)

    • rinaldo302

      Good Omens is terrific. In a totally different tonal vein from Humans, of course, but yes, likewise apocalyptic.

      • Well not literally, or they wouldn’t be talking about a sequel to it. Let alone a movie of it.

        1991 was the year Tom Clancy’s The Sum of all Fears came out. And sold huge. Apocalypse was in the air, somehow. People wanted to read books about apocalyptic events, and it’s still fairly popular. But it’s usually so much more heroic, romantic. And I’m not sure people want to be told “If the world ends, it’s going to be your fault.” Even though that basically is the original import of the Apocalypse, in Christian theology. Sooner or later, God just gets fed up with us. And seriously, who could blame Him?

        Ah yes–just thought of it–the Left Behind novels. First one came out in 1995. Wellllllll, I suppose you could say those books agree that it’s humanity’s fault the whole shebang is going bang, but seems like they’re just comfort food for born-again Christians, somehow. “You were good, and you will be saved, and you’ll get to watch the thrilling events of the End Times from Heaven, while eating deep-fried Snickers bars.” 😎

        So Westlake was onto something–there was an appetite for this general kind of story. But only if it’s portrayed in a certain way. He was taking it seriously, and using it to talk about the actual reasons the world might actually come to an end. And that’s not what the people wanted. Well, not most of us.

    • I had hoped I made it clear, this is almost a genre unto itself, and Westlake was never shy about going where other genre writers had gone before. This is not a comic novel, even though it has comedic elements, and there are things here Pratchett simply could not do, and would not do. And for good reason–people don’t want to read about the things Westlake is talking about here. They would rather think about the Apocalypse in more abstract terms–rather than the daily Apocalypse we are always bringing about with our own activities.

      Reading the synopsis of that one (yes, I know, hardly satisfactory, but at least Pratchett and Gaiman rate Wikipedia synopses, which somehow Westlake never does), I see elements of earlier books in it (Philip K. Dick’s Eye in the Sky, for one–favorite of mine, and that was no best seller either–don’t think PKD ever had one?).

      Just a bunch of swimmers in the same ocean. Pratchett and Gaiman would be on familiar territory there–hardly stretching themselves. Westlake wanted to stretch himself, and he wanted to find some way to talk about the things that were troubling him about the world. Still, you’ve touched on something–if that book sold very well, and I imagine it did, Westlake might have thought “Hmm, here’s a commercial avenue for me to exploit, but I’ll do my own thing with it.” I wonder if he still believed he had a best selling book by the time he’d submitted it? Hell, I’d give a lot just to see the expression on Otto Penzler’s face when he read it. 🙂

      People accept this kind of thing from Pratchett, from Gaiman–not from Westlake. Imagine if either of them tried to write a contemporary comic crime novel, or a hardboiled thriller (and I’m sure they’d both be delighted). Frustrating. Writers try to build reputations, and end up building ghettos for themselves to live in.

      I can not, of course, refute your math, not having read the book, but I very much doubt anybody ever wrote anything a thousand times better than Donald E. Westlake (literalism–so annoying). But it’s not really about good writing, is it? It’s about telling a story people want to hear. Most people did not want to hear this story. Not because of the stuff about God and Satan, angels and demons. Because of the stuff about poverty and disease and badly managed nuclear plants, and just our general penchant for making terrible terrible decisions that impact everybody on the planet.

      And that is still very much a thing, you know. Well, yes. We all know. :\

      • I haven’t read Humans for probably a decade, and it didn’t make much of an impression, so I’m going almost entirely on your synopsis. But Good Omens also has the idea of Heaven and The Other Place as rival firms that sometimes collaborate informally (not original with either, I know) and a rival angel and demon, with the demon being the coolest character in the book. (He began as the serpent from Genesis, got nicknamed “crawley”, and now goes by “Crowley”, with the implicit reference to Aleister. I’m guessing that’s a Gaiman pun, but it could have been either of them.) And GO is not purely a romp; it has some pointed things to say about the modern versions of pestilence, war, famine, and death.

        Not that it isn’t very funny. There’s a scene where Crowley and the angel Aziraphale share a cab, and the woman cabdriver starts to get nervous. They’re out in an isolated part of the country, and she’s getting a weird vibe from both of them. Then Crowley calls Aziraphale “angel”, and she thinks “Oh, it’s like that” and relaxes.

        What’s I’m trying to get at is that both books fit into a fairly small niche of secular, more or less humorous takes on the popular understanding of the Book of Revelations, they were published within two years of each other, and Westlake’s is (for once) very much second-best,

        • Sounds reasonable, and whether he read it or not, I’ve little doubt Westlake noticed the book, and how well it sold–but again–well-trod terrain for both British writers by the early 90’s (maybe Gaiman more than Pratchett)–not for Westlake. Going by the Wikipedia synopsis, it sounds quite–pleasant. The angel and devil have their differences, but are on guardedly friendly terms, and are allies because of their mutual affection for earth. It’s a bit like those cold war stories where Bond or some other western superspy teams up with a KGB agent (frequently a luscious female) to save the world from some mutual menace (I gather they don’t end up screwing in this story).

          They do the Antichrist thing, which is not present in Westlake’s book–because in Westlake’s version there was no Christ–only Jesus, who it is strongly implied was yet another Pawn of God, not his begotten son. Hell doesn’t want to destroy the earth, or even rule it–just to play with it, forever. To feed on its pain. These are cynical devils, not romantic ones.

          I honestly think the basic germ of the plot came from that 1940’s movie where Jack Benny plays Gabriel (he’s actually a trumpet player in a swing band who gets hit on the head and dreams he’s Gabriel–distancing mechanism for the devout), and he’s supposed to blow his horn and end the world–Planet 339001 as Heaven’s bureaucrats call it–and two devils in the guise of gangsters want to save it. For all I know, Pratchett and/or Gaiman saw that movie too. But sympathy for the devil in fiction goes back further than John Milton.

          Thing is, this devil isn’t really sympathetic–Westlake makes him a thorougly repulsive character, who despises humans, who does terrible things, is somewhat self-deceiving, and is clearly no match for his angelic counterpart–very much the underdog in this contest–and he’s still oddly likable. And why is that? I’ll have to give it some thought next time.

          Let me try another angle–maybe some of the problems in this book stem from Westlake’s familiarity with Good Omens–maybe he’d had the idea before he became aware of it, but having become aware of it, he had to make changes to his story–and minimize the presence of ‘X’ to some extent. X is the most entertaining character in the book (which again, is pretty much always going to the case when you do a story about angels and demons), but we see very little of him. He’s on the edge of the story, looking in. He doesn’t even know exactly what’s happening until the very end. He’s the typical Westlake-ian clueless detective. It’s the angel who is pulling the heist here–he’s heisting the entire planet out from under Lucifer’s cloven feet.

          I rememember well, reading the book the first time, wondering if Westlake wouldn’t have been better off making X the main protagonist, not Ananayel. Or at least to give him a role equal to Ananayel’s, go deeper into his POV. But if Westlake had considered that possibility–and he must have–the publication of Good Omens would have closed it off. He couldn’t make it that similar. He had to find other variations on a long-standing theme. Which variations are better is debatable (we are, in fact, debating it). But which would have the larger built-in audience–no contest. People would rather imagine themselves as devils. It’s more fun.

          I have not found a single review of Humans, from 1992 or more contemporary times, that mentions Good Omens–including Upchurch’s snooty brush-off–so much as the earlier book was more successful, it’s not like everybody makes that connection–glad you did.

          I have tried to read Pratchett–I have met so many people whose tastes I admire who adore him–the day will probably come when I immerse myself in his various worlds–but here’s the thing–I’ve yet to read any passage of his prose and think to myself “I wish I’d written that.” Great storyteller, brilliant imagination. Not Westlake’s equal as a wordsmith. And somehow, Gaiman only works for me in graphic form. And even then, I like Alan Moore better. No accounting for taste–the books never balance.

          • rinaldo302

            I got to know Good Omens simply by seeing it on display in the local bookstore (not knowing either author), looking it over, and thinking, “Huh, this sounds like my kind of fun.” And I bought it, and it was. But it didn’t particularly inspire me to read more by either author. Don’t know why. I still haven’t explored Gaiman, though I’m now aware what he’s known for. I’ve now read a fair number of the Discworld books, enjoyed them quite well (especially when I was BritRailing around the UK and his books were on sale in all the train-station stores, and perfect for light reading to pass the time), but one was usually enough for now, and I never felt the urge to get through the whole series. Whereas reading my first couple of Dormunders gave me that “I have to read everything this guy wrote” feeling. Not trying to make a general point, but that’s how it was for me.

            • Here’s the thing–on one level, a writer is a person–a person who is trying to express him/herself, to get certain perceptions and insights across, and of course to make a living telling stories, which is one of the great joys of human existence, and arguably the first storyteller was the first human, in the strict sense of the term. It’s perhaps the one thing we do that we can’t seem to find any evidence of other animals engaging in. Even religion is merely a subset of storytelling. You can’t have religion without myths, and myths are just stories. Obviously stories came first.

              But on a purely commercial level, and this has been true since at least the birth of the novel, and probably much sooner, a writer is a BRAND. Writers who succeed do so because they establish a niche of some kind, and how many books they sell depends on how many people are interested in that niche.

              Some brands are very well defined–Pratchett would be an example of that–can you imagine him writing about the people in this book we’re talking about? Others are more nebulous–what was Norman Mailer’s brand? Being Norman Mailer, a controversial media personality, an ‘important writer’, a writer who didn’t produce a whole lot of work, but managed to stay in the public eye pretty consistently, and people were always interested when he had a new book out, even if that book wasn’t very good, because then you could talk about it with people at cocktail parties, and play at being an intellectual (or actually be one, but Mailer’s book sales far outstripped the number of real intellectuals on this planet). He was his own brand, his own genre.

              A writer like that can have a best-seller pretty much every time, but it’s mainly based on what he’s done in the past–on a reputation. And it can be more limiting, in some ways, than even a genre writer’s brand. What was J.D. Salinger’s brand? Two books. In an entire lifetime. Same for Harper Lee. Her buddy Truman Capote’s brand was fey outrageousness, combined with having written the best non-fiction crime fiction novel ever, only we’ll never be sure just where fact and fiction diverge there. Yes, and there was the book they made into that nice movie with Audrey Hepburn and the cat that my sister has watched eight million times, but let’s get real here.

              What was Westlake’s brand? His early career was largely about figuring that out, I think. He wouldn’t have liked the word–I don’t blame him either–but it’s the right word, like it or not. His brand was mystery, crime, suspense, hard-boiled heists, comic capers. Fairly diverse, but still quite limited. When he strayed very far outside it, people got confused. All the more since he was writing under multiple names (maybe that’s one reason he stopped doing that for a while, to try and consolidate his brand, so people would know Westlake could write more than just Nephews and Dortmunders.

              It’s all brands, because we can’t read everything–we need some kind of assistance, guidelines, in order to know which books to invest our time and money in. We can always branch out, try new things, but how many books can you actually read in a lifetime? Say you’re a truly voracious reader–average a hundred books a year. A thousand a decade. You aren’t reading adult stuff until you’re in your teens. It’s not that much, is it? Not compared to what remains. I got a reading list for my graduate program in European history, that began with the words “There are too many books. There is not enough time.”

              Some brands are bigger than others. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not about which writer is better than some other writer–as if there was any objective standard by which you could decide that anyway–how can I prove Billie Holiday is a better singer than Beyonce? She is, she always will be, maybe even Beyonce would agree with me, but I can’t prove it. Nobody can. No, it’s about which brand appeals to the most people.

              And that’s frustrating for writers, like Evan Hunter, like Donald Westlake, who are at the same time ‘popular’ writers–in that they aren’t ‘important’ writers–but who know they’ve mastered the craft, and they’ve studied the problem of what their readers want, and they’ve done their level best to please their readership, and themselves–and they’ve succeeded. And then some schlub comes along with a badly written book about sexy vampires or scheming housewives or something, and blows them off the charts.

              And that’s life. But then comes time. The great leveler. Because there’s always more books coming out, and only so many from a given era–no matter how popular they once were–can be remembered once their authors and audiences have gone the way of all things. And we do want to know what people in past centuries wrote, and read. But in fact we are often reading books of past centuries that were greatly outsold by other books that we have forgotten, because they weren’t very good. And that’s when good writing begins to count–because bad writing can be enormously popular, but only for its own time period. Great writing is great because it has no time period. It is for all times.

              And is Humans such a book? Probably not. But some of Westlake’s books are. And I think that’s because he was never content to just inhabit a brand. He had to keep expanding it. He had to make it more than it was supposed to be. And if he didn’t have a great book to write, he wrote a book anyway. Because his brand wasn’t ‘important writer’ or ‘best-selling writer’ or even ‘reliably entertaining writer’. His brand was just ‘writer.’

              • rinaldo302

                There are only a handful of authors about whom I feel “I want to read everything they wrote.” (And I by myself am not enough to comprise a big loyal public that will guarantee sales no matter what, of course.) Westlake is one.

                Others? Larry McMurtry (until his heart operation in 1991, though I didn’t know at the time that that was the reason; but even he has admitted that a spark went out then). He had a pretty wide “brand,” admittedly mostly connected with the West (Texas in particular), but there’s still room for one about a DC antique scout (my own favorite, in fact) and some wide-ranging nonfiction.

                Dorothy Sayers, who wrote about this very problem: it was detective fiction that made her name and made it possible to give her day job in advertising. But as she had a character say, “If you start writing something other than what readers expect, your sales are apt to go down, and that’s the plain truth.” Her ventures into essays, religious plays, and translation (all of which I enjoy reading) were all money-losing indulgences possible because of her Peter Wimsey income.

              • It’s a common problem for writers–nobody can be equally well known for everything. And it’s gotten more pronounced over time. I mean, nobody called Robert Louis Stevenson a mystery writer. He was just a writer who told entertaining stories, and if he wanted to do a story about a man who drinks a potion to become an entirely different man, people shrugged and went with it. I suppose to some extent Melville got ‘typed’ as a writer of nautical adventures, but he wasn’t even making his living as a writer for much of his life. He was much more Bartleby than Ishmael.

                Maybe it’s a good thing, I dunno. Maybe it forces them to focus, to do more with less. Trying to write “The Great American Novel” or whatever is a waste of time (as Philip Roth once implied, in a novel that was supposed to be about baseball)–it’s too vague, too self-conscious. Writers often do their best work when they’re not really trying to do their best work. And not just writers, either.

                But a genre writer has an audience that likes that genre, so when s(he) strays outside the fold, much of the readership will refuse to stray along with him/her. And all the people who weren’t devoted readers will be like “who does (s)he think (s)he is, an important writer or something?” So they get hit from both ends.

                You get hung up on a writer when you start feeling like you know him/her–when you get really tuned in on that bandwidth, that particular frequency, and you need to get the entire transmission. Some writers transmit on a really broad wavelength–others much more narrow, personal–you’re more likely to focus in on a writer you feel a special connection to. A signal not everybody can pick up on. That challenges you as the reader–makes you more than just a passive receptor. A good receiver is just as sophisticated a piece of equipment as a good transmitter. And the latter means nothing without the former.

                Sometimes writers you’d think would be on a really narrow wavelength–like Tolkien–turn out to reach a huge audience over time, but how many of those people really understand Tolkien? I think he was increasingly ill-tempered later in life, because there were all these strange young people coming up to him who didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about, what he was interested in, what he’d devoted his life to getting across. He had a massive readership that loved him without understanding him at all (nor he them), and what IS writing–seriously, what’s it for?–if not a quest to make oneself fully and perfectly understood? Success can be failure, and failure can be success. So in the end, all that really matters is to say what you wanted, and (hopefully) not starve to death while doing it. 🙂

              • Melville was typed as a writer of sea stories, and a very popular one. The reason he didn’t write for much of his life is that Moby Dick was so far from what people expected that it killed his career.

          • I love Pratchett; I recently finished reading the Discworld books (only forty-odd of them, less than half as many as Wodehouse.) I’m going to link to a short story which I think shows off his strengths perfectly. A warning: the formatting is going to hurt your eyes and possibly induce nausea. I strongly recommend ctrl-A to select all the text, ctrl-C to make a copy, and ctrl-V into your favorite editor. This story used to be more available; I suspect that the publisher sent takedown notices to all the sites that showed it, and this one didn’t respond because it hasn’t been maintained since 1996.

            And here it is.

            • Thanks–we’ve got over twenty Pratchett novels here at my workplace–mainly Discworld stuff. He’s going to endure, I have no doubt. His large and prospering cult will transmit their enthusiasm to generation after generation.

              But somehow, as of the present time, I am not receiving what he’s transmitting. I didn’t like Douglas Adams either–as a novelist. I loved the original TV adaptation of Hitchhiker’s, and I even loved his episodes of Dr. Who, but without actors and special effects his words just lay there on the page and did nothing for me. I love his sense of humor, his take on life the universe and everything. I just don’t like his prose. I think I probably would have been into both of them if I’d discovered them when I was younger.

              I mean, I never read crime fiction when I was young. Unless you count Poe and Doyle and like that. And I mainly don’t count that as crime fiction. My tastes have changed. Doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my love of things I read when I was young. But I didn’t read Pratchett then, is the problem.

              And no, I’m not saying he’s just for kids. Clearly not. But for whatever reason, he’s not writing what I want to read at the point in my life I’m at now. His brand is not for me. Not now, anyway.

              People in my family typically make it to their 80’s and beyond. There’s time. If my brain doesn’t conk out on me. My dad is 85 now, and he just told me he’d been to the opening of the Olympics in Rio. He was in the hospital when this happened (he’s okay, relative to being 85 and all). He said the hospital had a boat and they all went there and saw the Olympics. (Why don’t I ever have dreams like this?) He seems to have recovered his equilibrium since then, and we’re back to talking about politics, which is a much more depressing topic.

              Point is, I’ve got maybe thirty years to catch up on my reading. Assuming Trump doesn’t become President. I didn’t dream that, did I? That seems harder to believe than the hospital boat to Rio thing. :\

  4. Anthony

    Two thoughts

    ONE Good Omens is funny as hell. It has as many laugh out loud passages as pretty much anything I have ever read. Is it a good story? Absolutely. Is it a well done parody? You bet. But is it a good novel? I don’t think so. As a novel, I’d go so far as to say it stinks.* Too disjointed, with too many digressions and jarring changes of tone. It is, in fact, a book written by a committee – in this case a committee of two. And it shows. And it never for a moment pretended to be anything else.

    With the exception of Comfort Station and various short stories and personal communications, I am not aware of Westlake indulging in parody. He was, as he once said, a novelist with a minor in screen-writing. Humans is a novel. And on the basis of the structural integrity of what comprises a novel it is vastly superior to Good Omens. Just a minor quibble about the merits of comparing the two.

    TWO While I enjoy that Westlake set the book up so that we would root for X (i.e., root for the non-destruction of the human race), this experiment failed. These things always do. The only story to effectively end with the destruction of everything was Dr. Strangelove, and in that case we’d been laughing so hard that we hadn’t been rooting for anybody along the way. The first 90% of this book is okay, maybe even good. Fun in a different way. The ending is tripe. I had been guessing that the world would end, and Westlake would soften the impact by pulling some kind of Angel takes the girl back with him to convince God to reconsider storyline. God then reverses time and all ends well. Which I know also would have been tripe, but maybe less so. Bottom line, if Westlake truly wanted this book to be different, the world would have ended. And it just wasn’t in him. Even the darkest Stark ends up with Parker still alive.

    *as the cabbie said to (the original) Fred Fitch after he bicycled into Central Park Lake.

    • Great capsule review, Anthony, and I had some similar feelings about the ending–but also quite different. I’ll have to talk about that next time. Sticking the landing, in an ambitious book like this, is probably the hardest thing any writer sets out to do, and how many ever do it? Even Dickens often failed in that regard, but this ain’t Dickens, is it?

      I was really with this book until the last few chapters. Actually, it’s a rather atypical ending for Westlake. Ananayel tells us what happened to him, what happened to the other characters, how it all worked out in the end, and there’s a great big ‘if’ dangling in the future, but there always is, right? Westlake tended to specialize in abrupt endings, dangling plot threads, unanswered questions–not here. Just the one question that never gets answered–when does it all end? Because when that question gets answered, there’s nobody left to hear it.

      If people love the story, they forgive so-so writing. If people love the writing, maybe they’ll forgive a story that doesn’t quite work for them (much less common).

      Can Dr. Strangelove really be the only story to end with the destruction of everything? I know Octavia Butler wrote a series of novels that began with the destruction of everything, but that’s another story. Stories about the end of the world are not rare. And they are, if anything, getting more common. Hmmmmm…….

      • Anthony

        Well, my point about Dr. Strangelove is that the story EFFECTIVELY ended with the destruction of the planet. I can’t say there are others that don’t end with a kaboom (and the story is all the better for it), but am willing to be educated if there are.

        I admire Westlake for the attempt, and there is, as always, much great writing in this one, and I do of course forgive him for a story that doesn’t quite work for me. I’m trying to figure out if there is some narrative equivalent of the Sopranos ending for this book. Something that would have royally pissed people off and had them crying foul at first, but then coming around over time. If anybody could have done it, it would be Westlake. The romantic in him, or an editor, prevented us from finding out.

        • Name the film this closing line (from a previously absent but necessarily introduced offscreen narrator) came from:

          “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”

          After Strangelove, to be sure–but not making a joke out of it. And anyway, in both movies, the planet is still there, and there’s probably still bacteria and insect life. Give Westlake’s Almighty points for thoroughness.

          And remember how many untold tens of thousands of science fiction/horror novels and stories have been written. In that genre, you literally can’t know who did what first–you’ll always find an antecedent. Mary Shelley wrote a novel about the last survivors of a plague, which ends with the very last human on earth stranded on an island, waiting for death, and apparently that was a critical and commercial dud at the time, so this is a tricky genre to nail, no question.

          Why didn’t Westlake do what you think he should have done, and perhaps he really should have?

          Because he couldn’t. And you know that already. It wasn’t in him. To him, as we’ve seen, suicide was an unforgivable sin–because he was raised Catholic? I doubt it. There’s a reason he never published Memory, and it wasn’t just because he couldn’t find a publisher for it. If you gaze at the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you…..

          • Anthony

            Hmm, yes, forgot about Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Not much of a fan of the series so only saw it once, millions of years ago.

            When you get right down to it, there’s no way to kill (but not really) the good guys without cheating. J K Rowling spent six and nine/tenths books setting things up so that Harry Potter must die for the story to work. Then she gets past the dead hero would be a bummer trap by having him die but not really. It’s a variation on the sorta dead/mostly dead whimsy of The Princess Bride. There’re probably thousands of other examples (The Sting even).

            Possible outcomes for Humans:

            1. The way it is written
            2. The world is destroyed
            3. Some type of Harry Potter-ish sleight of hand in which the world is destroyed but not really.

            If there’s another possibility, I don’t know it.

            I noted in a previous comment that event Richard Stark wouldn’t destroy the world. Westlake either. I just hoped that the writer who came up with the life and times of Art Dodge could have (should have?) found a pithier way of ending this one.

            There! Dead horse beaten. Over and out.

            • Yes, but Art Dodge is only spiritually dead. That was Westlake’s way of getting around the “How do you kill a first-person narrator?” problem. Jim Thompson’s was the old reliable Exit Interview In Hell. Some crime writers went with having the narrative being something the protagonist was writing down before they led him off to the gas chamber or whatever. This is mainly a third person narrative, but it was always going to end with a chapter in the first person.

              In this case, of course, he’s got an easy out–Ananayel isn’t supposed to die. He can be telling us this story from heaven–except who’s he telling it to? It’s quite clear he and X both are addressing the collective consciousness of Humanity. Heaven wouldn’t give a shit either way. Hell would just be pissed to have lost its favorite theme park.

              Man, I missed an important point–no afterlife! Not that the angels know about, anyway. Ananayel doesn’t expect any life beyond the one he chose for himself, with Susan. And if Westlake truly believed This Is It, that would make writing a novel about the End of Everything even harder for him.

              Belief in God = One Thing.

              Belief in the Afterlife = Something Else Entirely.

              Anyway, I’m most satisfied with this preliminary discussion–I appreciate everybody chiming in–once I’ve gotten the rest of the review done, we can cover the rest. Assuming I wake up at the end of my colonoscopy, later this week, or early next. And that seems a fairly safe bet. But ya never know….

      • Heinlein’s The Year of the Jackpot ends with the sun going nova.

        • I remember that one–I read it in an anthology of stories about the end of the world.

          Ray Bradbury wrote a beautiful short story about how everybody in the world wakes up and realizes they all had the same dream, telling them the world was going to end. They all just quietly accept it, and go to bed, knowing none of them will wake up again.

          “We haven’t been too bad, have we?”

          “No, nor enormously good. I suppose that’s the trouble. We haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.”

          There was a Canadian film on a similar note–Last Night–everybody knows exactly when the end is coming (it’s never explained how, but the implication is there’s an asteroid), and everybody has his or her own personal way of dealing with it. One woman is running her own personal marathon, one guy is using it to get all the women he ever fantasized about to sleep with him, and etc. Mainly just a series of vignettes. I suppose it’s not as cinematically powerful as Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, but the latter lives up to its name rather a bit much for my tastes.

          Oooh, they’re all coming back to me now–Miracle Mile–overlooked film–Anthony Edwards plays an ordinary guy who accidentally finds out there may be a nuclear strike coming, and he’s in love with Mare Winningham (as anyone would be), so he goes to get her and make a run for some safe haven, and you just do not know from one minute to the next what’s going to happen, or even if the world really is ending.

          I should not forget to mention that in the comic book The Legion of Superheroes (which takes place in the distant future), the heroes try and fail to prevent the destruction of earth, but of course they’re superheroes, and it’s the future, so they just get into spaceships and leave.

          But to me, Humans isn’t like any of these. It’s not a story about the end of the world. It’s a story about bad decisions. It’s a story about how we make our own Armageddons, every day, and asks if there’s a way we could stop doing that. And of course it’s just a book so it can’t answer that question definitively. Only we can do that.

          • Very 1950s. A couple who still clearly have a lot of affection for each other go to bed together for the last time, and don’t have anything to do but sleep. Exactly like the Dick van Dyke show where nightmares about the horror movie with Danny Thomas and the alien walnuts wakes Rob and Laura up in the middle of the night, and they stay in their separate beds and do calisthenics.

            • Yeah, today’s Esquire might find that a bit tame. I think it ends just right–there’s maybe the faintest implication in that last ‘darling’ that they might make love one final time, but that’s not really the kind of story it is. It’s about coming to rest.

              Harlan Ellison wrote quite a different story–about a shy man who never had a woman having a psychic vision of nuclear war, and he knows there’s nothing he can do–but he wants to have that experience. He tries to approach women, make a connection, but he doesn’t know how–not enough time to learn. He thinks about rape–but he can’t do that, it’s not what he wants. Then at the last possible moment he finds a hooker, and gives her all the money he has, far more than her usual fee, and he’s lying there happy and relieved afterwards, while she counts the money thinking this idiot doesn’t know what really matters, and the missiles are falling…..

              Childhood’s End was the bleakest end of the world story I ever read (leaving aside the fact that humanity hasn’t died but rather mutated into something unrecognizable and soulless–components in a galactic machine–Clarke seemed to think this was okay)–until I read James Tiptree Jr., who made a sort of sub-speciality out of creating unique and heart-rending apocalypses, of many different kinds. The Screwfly Solution was one (written as Raccoona Sheldon) but maybe her best was Slow Music. I’ll never get the final image out of my head.

              And her own life ended much like one of her stories. Well, it began like one too, so that works.

              In a way, so did Westlake’s life end like a Westlake story–abruptly–but he was of the Dylan Thomas school, and for him death was something you had to fight to the last possible moment, knowing all the while you couldn’t win. And for whatever reason, it was merciful to him. He went out as himself. That’s all you can ask for.

  5. rinaldo302

    Can Dr. Strangelove really be the only story to end with the destruction of everything?

    Just sticking to movies, I immediately think of Beneath the Planet of the Apes from 1970. That one stood out because it wasn’t at all inherent in the story: they seemed to be planning for a long series (which indeed they did, but after this one they had to go back in time). Fighting for the survival of the planet in the last scene (and of course we figure humanity will survive because it always does in these sorts of stories), then Charlton Heston has a to-hell-with-you-all-moment and hits the button, and we see the planet explode and hear narration that it really did happen.

    • Ah, responded to Anthony before I read this–Jinx, buy me a coke! 😀

      • rinaldo302

        YOU owe ME a Coke! 🙂 — I said it first!!

        • But I said ‘jinx’ first. According to the ancient laws of Jinx, the one who says Jinx first gets the coke. You’re not even supposed to be talking now, but I’ll allow it. Anyway, this is The Westlake Review, and we prefer straight bourbon here. 😐

          What do we even mean by ‘the end of the world’, anyway? Usually the end of humanity (such an egocentric species we are), but sometimes just civilization as we know it, as if there’s no world unless we still have cable TV and takeout Chinese food. There’s a whole genre of ‘post-apocalyptic’ fiction, which strikes me as a contradiction in terms. If there was an apocalypse, where does the ‘post’ come in? There was a significant economic downturn, is all.

          And of course if you’re Karen Carpenter, it’s the end of the world if a guy you like says goodbye, but her world ended later, and that was sad, but people still listen to that song. Still waiting for that bourbon, btw. 😉

          • rinaldo302

            My problem is that I was raised without learning proper rules for Jinx and a bunch of other social interactions that I found out about at a later age. I dunno, maybe my school system or suburb was weird that way.

            One teeny little thing that caught my editor’s eye that I didn’t feel like bringing up till now: how do you feel about saying that Kwan is his “given name” rather than “first name”? I know what you meant, of course, but I get itchy about saying that something that comes first isn’t first. All these decades of teaching undergraduates have their effect sometimes….

            • Hey, I only know about Jinx because I used to watch The Office. I’d buy Jenna Fischer a coke any day. 😉

              Technically, both your first and last names are given names, aren’t they? Your last name is your surname, but since we have no indication he’s a convert (or even religious) we can hardly say Kwan is his Christian name.

              I’ll see what I can do.

              • rinaldo302

                I never say Christian name (though the Brits do, quite automatically, no matter a person’s religion). And sure, technically we’re “given” all our names, and it gets especially dicey these days when people hyphenate or otherwise create a new overall name for their next generation. Nevertheless, to deal with the variable-ordering issue (Hungarian usage too is the opposite of what we expect), I’m used to (and advise students to use) the given name / family name distinction.

            • I just pared down the sentence, and that’s almost always the right thing for me to do.

  6. Jason

    FYI, Spotted the Italian version (‘Umani’) on Google Images and the cover of that one’s pretty terrific.

    • Huh–I tried searching ‘Westlake, Umani’ on Amazon Italia, and didn’t find anything. The Google search works fine, though–and led me to a page packed with Italian Westlake covers, which will stand me in good stead in future.

      Paul Westlake has done a fine job on the cover galleries at the Official Blog, but many of the later books are poorly represented so far. It can be hard finding a book if you don’t know the title, strangely enough.

      And yes, that’s a very nice cover–the first I’ve seen to depict actual humans, if perhaps a bit formally attired for the occasion (well, Italy, that tracks). Somebody got it, anyway.

      It’s very common, in fact, for the best Westlake covers to come from overseas. He himself was an avid collector of such editions, even though he couldn’t read any language but English. I’ve often wondered if he ever had much in the way of intercourse (you know what I mean) with any of the artists who came up with the images to sum up his books.

  7. rinaldo302

    I just finished my rereading last night. Dammit, you may have brought me around to your way of thinking. Closer to it, anyway.

    • Reading over your responses thus far, I’m still not quite sure whether you like this book or not. And I’m not so sure whether I like it or not. It’s that kind of book. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The point of a book like this shouldn’t be “I really enjoyed it.” It should be “I need to think about it.” We all do. About what the book says, much more than the book itself.

      • rinaldo302

        In my personal recall of this book over the years (I bought the hardback as soon as it appeared), it has always been in the “I like it” column. I’ve remembered its unique premise and construction among his oeuvre (I’m a sucker for unique structure), its way of gathering a web of characters one by one for a yet-unknown collaboration (akin to a Dortmunder string though for vastly different purpose), its occasional angelic narrator. (Contrary to what you’ve said earlier, I think this is one of the rare times the hellish character doesn’t run away with the story — we just don’t see X say or do anything that memorable.)

        So, all of that is fine. But in the end, the result doesn’t add up to enough, after the cosmic buildup. It’s inherent in their stories, I guess, that Kwan and Pami and Grigor fade out as we near their end; but it’s also unsatisfying. It means that we focus on the two straight couples (one of them pulled out of a hat at the last minute) and are supposed to care about them. And Ananayel deciding to rebel because… sex is fun, and the blonde chick is harmless, and human life is intense, or something… doesn’t feel like enough of a payoff.

        I’m about to take off for a family visit for a few days, and may not be in touch during that time.

        • Yeah, we are definitely in synch about the ending. I think there just wasn’t enough space to do these characters justice, but he didn’t want to write an epic. He wanted to write a bestseller–a meaningful one–but that was a target he never did figure out how to hit.

          I also liked it, and I also felt like it promised more than it delivered, but on the second reading I felt like it had delivered more than I’d realized. Deliveries I hadn’t signed for, you might say.

          X doesn’t run away with the book, but at times I feel like maybe he should have. And at other times I think that would be too predictable. He’s a necessary element–I mean, be fair. We owe him our lives. Come to his arms. 😉

          I should be done with Part 2 (and Humans) before you get back. Colonoscopy scheduled for Tuesday. Monday is The Purge. I’d rather not do any writing that day. Though that can be its own kind of purgative. I’d prefer not to combine the two. :\

          • rinaldo302

            I’m back on Monday, if everything goes as planned.

            • “If everything goes as planned.” Words I would have thought a Dortmunder reader could never type without wincing. 😉

              • rinaldo302

                In this case, the words come from bitter experience (otherwise, I would have just said confidently that I’ll be home Monday). My last two return flights from the family homestead were delayed — a year ago, by a day; just after Christmas, by 3 days (!). I figure I’m due some on-time traveling.

              • You figure? Well, hopefully that will serve the plot in some way.

  8. Ray Garraty

    I’ll save my general comments for the Part 2, as for this Grigor character:
    There is no such name as Grigor. This also goes to patronimic and last name. They sound close to real Russian names but completely made up.
    I can assume that the novel is set in the Peretroika, before the fall of the Soviet Union. That puts a strain on what’s happening with Grigor. He can’t work as a free agent. He can’t be a freelancing writer for a TV comedian. He should be part of the agency and part of the union. I’d say it’s totally unrealistic that ex-firefighter would be employed as a writer by any comedian (even though the novel is sort of fantasy details should be done right). He couldn’t just up and leave USSR because some American girl asked him to. I didn’t find his jokes funny at all. His jokes are the jokes that only American could write, no Soviet writer’d joke like that.
    I’d love to meet Grigor in the real life. As a character of a novel he’s not a very plausible invention.

    • The book came out in 1991, which just happened to be the year the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time. Westlake almost always sets his novels in the precise time frame they were composed in, or shortly before, or shortly afterwards. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, certainly before he wrote this–what didn’t seem possible after that? I remember that very well at the time–all the channels were showing it live. The end of the USSR was almost an anti-climax by comparison.

      If anything, he’s being too conservative in his imaginings, I’d say–he’s got this urbane KGB agent at that party, ‘requisitioning’ Grigor, acting like nothing has changed–but then again, who’s running Russia now?

      Remember, he’s a hero of Chernobyl. He’s dying. And there’s a goddam angel who can take any form he wants, manipulate even the most powerful humans into doing his bidding–if this were the Stalin era, he could still get Grigor out of there–only difference here is that he doesn’t have to arrange a defection. Bureaucrats are, if anything, easier to trick than the average human. No imagination.

      A bit of research shows that in fact some firemen at the Chernobyl disaster who were badly irradiated did manage to survive longterm. And absolutely first-rate medical treatment was available to them–the notion that Grigor would be better off in a New York hospital, no matter how advanced, is pretty obviously wrong–who had more experience with radiation sickness than the doctors at the special treatment center in Moscow? Some could be saved, some could not. Since Ananayel’s purpose is not to save Grigor, but to use him, this is neither here nor there. Grigor knows his case is hopeless, he wants to see some of the world before he dies, and the girl is very sweet.

      But yes, without divine intervention, this would almost certainly not be happening. Since the entire book is about divine intervention, this does not seem like a major problem to me. I can think of less probable things happening in Russian stories I’ve read. Would someone really accept voluntary imprisonment for fifteen years to win an argument (and a bet), then leave his prison just before the bet was won, because he no longer cares? If we in the rest of the world believe Russians are capable of anything, blame it on your authors. 😉

      As to the jokes, I certainly bow to your judgment on that, and I didn’t find the jokes laugh-worthy either–Westlake was fascinated by other cultures all his life, but the only one he understood perfectly was his own. He liked to write about comedians, but nothing translates worse than humor (and yet Westlake’s humor has apparently translated well enough for his comic novels to be published in almost every major language known to man, and that is a very rare achievement indeed).

      Russian humor derives heavily from living in Russia–Grigor, faxing jokes back to Moscow from the American hospital, thinks to himself that being away from Russia is making him lose his edge. I don’t know if Westlake ever even saw Russia. I think he admired Russian humor, precisely because it’s a rebellion against authority, the one thing he most admires. The sincerest form of flattery is not necessarily the most authentic.

      I googled ‘Grigor’ and got several pages worth of unwanted information about a Bulgarian tennis player. The name exists, and of course Russians don’t use the Latin alphabet in daily life, so spelling is always going to be something of an approximation, no?

      • Ray Garraty

        Grigoriy is the name. Something tells me that Westlake got it by ear, nobody spelled it out for him (as well as patronymic and the last name). I didn’t feel any connection with the character, probably that’s the reason I don’t find him plausible and see so many faults in his creation. It’s as if Westlake was in the need of a tragic character, who has an unusual past (and preferrably dying or close to death).
        It is Susan that you don’t find interesting struck me as the most lively character here, she reminded me of Claire (how should I put it – Parker’s girlfriend?). She has an American mind, and this is a mind Westlake knew and knew how to present it.
        Grigor just comes from a melodramatic Soviet pastiche, a la Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Red Square, only without muscles, with a sharp wit and straight from the Chernobyl plutonium hell fire.

        • I think you mean William Hurt? Really, I think Grigor deserves better than to be compared to Schwarzenegger. And it’s strange to me that you single out Susan for praise here by comparing her to Claire Carroll–a character you’ve never had anything good to say about ere now. Anyway, Susan can’t be Claire, because Claire is a brunette. I’ve made that very clear in my review of The Rare Coin Score. 😐

          Although Westlake certainly was on firmer ground writing about Americans, I just can’t agree he couldn’t write well about other nationalities as well. It’s good writing for the purposes at hand–after all, the book is not about any one nationality. It’s about humans, and like it or not, humans are all pretty much the same. It’s only their experiences that are somewhat different.

          One thing that each nationality has in common is a deep conviction that no other nationality is capable of truly understanding it. But if that were entirely true, we wouldn’t be reading each others’ books, would we now?

          (editing) I remember now, that evaluation of A Jade In Aries I posted an excerpt from in my review–a gay mystery reader saying that Westlake totally got the gay subculture wrong–the clothes in particular he’s upset about–but he grudgingly admits the book gets the emotions right.

          Any member of any culture, small or large, is going to nitpick the hell out of any outsider’s attempt to depict that culture. Then he or she will feel absolutely free to depict a culture he or she does not belong to, because that’s different.

          It’s not just nationalities–people from the American south will heap scorn on any Yankee actor’s attempt at a southern accent–which to be sure is often justified, but some southerners do actually talk like they’re in a Tennessee Williams play. If it’s a southerner from a different part of the south doing a very specific regional accent, that will get disparaged as well. The fact is, it’s called fiction for a reason. The only thing that really matters is getting the emotions right.

          Westlake was in his late 50’s when he wrote this–he understood better than any healthy young man what it’s like to know your life is slipping away from you, and there’s still so much left you want to do. I think he identified strongly with all of his non-American protagonists here, which is precisely why I criticize the book for treating them the way it does–but then again, Westlake might have felt like these characters represented the stark reality of life in a way the heister in this book–the kind of character he was known for–did not.

          And Ray, seriously–you think that in the early 90’s, a guy like Frank Hillfen, a career criminal who spent most of his life not using a gun–is realistic? Maybe such people existed, but they are hardly representative of the criminal subculture.

          Documentary-style realism was never the point here. Again, you don’t criticize a writer for not hitting a target he wasn’t aiming at.

          • Ray Garraty

            I’m not talking about realism in a fantasy novel. Still: there should be credibility to the most unbelievable things. I’m talking about credibility of the character. It’s not that Westlake got the facts wrong, and the character fell flat because of that. It’s the opposite: Westlake created a flat character and because of that all the mistakes in the character background stick out. I don’t see it as a particular failing in creating international character. The character could be burned firefighter from Arizona, he still wouldn’t be round enough to engage with him.

            • You’re maybe onto something there, but of course, the point of the characters who are not Americans is precisely that they’re not Americans–this is an international story–this is five people standing in for the entire human race. If it’s just Americans, there’s no point to the story. Of the five, only the African cuts a worse figure than the American–and with far better excuses. He’s made the Russian, the Chinese, and the Brazilian the most admirable people in the book. Which I suppose could be in part because he feels like he doesn’t know enough about those three countries (he knew Mexico and Belize fairly well–not Brazil).

              He’s imbuing all three with the individualistic authority-defying qualities he most admires, while still giving each his or her little human foibles. But I don’t think you can say he’s pretending to have said everything there is to say about any of these nationalities, including his own. In one sense they represent their countries, but at the end, they have to stand for themselves.

              Grigor isn’t just a dying hero–he’s a dying hero from a country that is trying to redefine its identity, as he has redefined his. From communism to capitalism, from fireman to comedian. And he’s wondering if either transition can really take hold. And if he’ll even live long enough to find out (and of course, he doesn’t).

              I think the general social observations in the chapters set in Russia work fine–as do the chapters in China, with Kwan. But it may be that Westlake, wanting to tell such a large story in such a small space, couldn’t put quite enough detail in to carry it off.

              He probably knew much less about modern Russia than he did about Latin America, or Africa, or even China. He was fine when it came to the enduring verities–which he could glean from the great Russian authors he undoubtedly read. And he would have been reading some good journalism about contemporary Russia (there was no end of it at the time, everybody was fascinated by the great change taking place there).

              Anyway, I don’t think you were even born when the events of this book were taking place? Did you never hear that the past is a foreign country? Even when it took place in your own country. Especially then.

  9. All these commenters, and all these comments on Bible-twisting science fiction that might have influenced this story, and nobody’s mentioned “Deathbird”?! Well, if you haven’t read it yet, go to your library and find the Harlan Ellison collection named after that story — or (if you don’t mind deleting an advertising pop-up or two, and taking a few guesses on text-scan errors) try this link:

    • I’ve known about The Deathbird for eons, and I’ve yet to seek it out. Based on what I’ve heard, I’m a bit scared of it.

      However, when I do get to it, it’ll be in a used edition I got via Amazon Marketplace or eBay, with great cover art. Thanks for the link.

      If you think that story did directly influence this book, by all means make free with the comparisons. I’m skilled at reading around spoilers, as indeed one should be if hanging around this blog.

      (editing) Broke down, read the Wikipedia synopsis, which is brief, and won’t ruin the story for me. And no, I don’t think Westlake was at all influenced in the writing of this novel by it. Still worth mentioning, but apocalypse stories were old hat in SF before Westlake and Ellison were born. Hell, Mary Shelley published one in 1826.

      What makes this book different is that it’s not really about God, not about Angels, not about Demons, not about anything, really, except–Humans. As seen through the eyes of an Angel and a Demon.

  10. Fugitive Pigeon

    A good contender for worst Westlake ever. Just think of the finale, seen and read a million times: the supernatural being giving up his eternal life to become human out of love. But the whole story is sucking, the plot hangs on a spit, the characters aren’t interesting at all and 350 pages are just too many.

    • Not to quibble (you just read this?), but he is forcibly made human by God because he refused to carry out his mission to destroy earth. Seems pretty clear that if he could have remained an angel, he would have. He made a choice, which he’d never done before–he was an immortal errand boy, with no will of his own, and now he’s got a finite life–but it’s his life. If you can’t figure that out, maybe you’re not smart enough to be a Westlake reader.

      It’s a very flawed piece of work, with a lot of great moments. Overall I can’t think of any other story in this vein that does it quite the same way, and of course there is no such thing as a completely original story. You’re always walking in somebody else’s footsteps, and the question is, how much of yourself do you put into the material you’ve borrowed? I know lots of stories where an angel falls in love with a human, but didn’t Cary Grant go back to heaven and leave Loretta Young with David Niven?

      Keep meaning to finish that review of a recent novel–not American–that is very clearly patterned after Humans to some extent. Only it’s not about an angel. And overall, I’d have to say it’s not as good. But it’s different. And so is this. And frankly, I’m guessing you’ve liked an awful lot of bad books.

      Care to name a few you really love? Maybe I’ve read them too. 🙂

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