Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

John Milton

Here is a thing I’ve learned about the humans.  Everything they do is motivated by a crazy quilt of reasons.  Almost never do they perform an act merely because it’s the most sensible thing to do at that moment.  There are always political reasons as well, or social reasons, or emotional reasons, or religious reasons, or financial reasons, or reasons of prejudice.

Oh, who knows?  They wind up doing the wrong thing, usually, is the point, even though that small rational part inside them will briefly have shown the right road to take.  A human who can’t ignore common sense to leap firmly into the saddle of the wrong horse is a pretty poor example of the species, all in all.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

Did Westlake really believe he had a bestselling novel here?   That’s how he originally conceived of it, if Lawrence Block is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt him.  But that was before he’d written one word of it.  When the time came to actually tell the story, when his muse took over, when each character began to speak imploringly to him, when he’d done all that research into the horrors afflicting so many parts of the world–including his own–did he really type it out thinking “I’m gonna make a fortune off this one!”  I’ll answer that one–no.   He couldn’t dance on all those graves.  He hadn’t with Kahawa, and he wouldn’t this time either.  He’d write the book he had to write, and it would sell or it wouldn’t.

Originally, he possibly intended something a bit more cynical and lighthearted (sure you can make an end-of-the-world story lighthearted; Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did), and then his social conscience, always tugging at him, took control of the enterprise.  But now that he’s got a real message to get across, he’d still want it to reach a lot of people–would he expect it to?  I can’t answer that one, but I can surmise that what the book was originally supposed to be and what it ended up becoming were not totally in synch, which may explain some of the problems with it.

Donald Westlake was many things.  A romantic and a cynic.  A realist and a fantasist.  He loved people and despaired of them.  He valued individuality above all else, but was bitterly aware that even the most rugged individualists can never prevail long against machines–repressive state structures, multi-national corporations, organized crime.  Massed mediocrity wins out; a boot stamping on a human face forever.   But the individual does even worse in chaos, with no structure to rebel against or rely upon.  Who to root for here?  God, the Ultimate Authority Figure?   Or Satan, the Ultimate Anarchist?   Feathers or lead much?

There’s a conflict here, and he can’t resolve it–perhaps no one could.  Like Larry Slade, in The Iceman Cometh, he can always see the two sides of everything (and often more than two).

Why shouldn’t God destroy humanity, and the world along with it (just to prevent any possible repeats of the original failure)?  What have we done but waste every gift showered upon us?   We never learn from our mistakes.  We just make bigger and deadlier variations on them.  He had Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment say that man’s nature is violent because man is part-animal–but we have to learn to move beyond that, to evolve, to finish our journey towards civilization. The 60’s ended, and that project did not seem to be advancing much, if at all.

We always seem to be going back towards the animal, but animals with a capacity for evil and self-destruction no other ever had–it’s a bit harsh, I’ve long thought, God destroying all other life as well, but you could argue that the other species wouldn’t care–they achieved their potential–we didn’t.  And we’re destroying them all now, anyway.  So what difference does it make if they go a bit earlier?

Trapped between two modes of being–between Darwin and Jesus.  A built-in identity crisis.  What we want to have is always in conflict with who we yearn to be.

But one might say it’s the very complexity of humankind, our persistent flaws, our contrarily consistent contradictions, that attract the storyteller in Westlake.  Would you want to be a storyteller in a world of perfect people?   A storyteller best known for stories about criminals?  God the perfectionist wants us to achieve our potential–Satan the materialist just wants us to go on being what we’ve always been, because to a devil what could be more delightful than a being at perpetual war with itself?  That’s where all the interesting stories are.  God, seeking apotheosis, is bored by our repeated failures–Satan and his minions, seeking only gnosis (hence the apple),  can’t get enough of them.

And Westlake identifies with that perspective, perhaps more than he wants to, which is why the sections dealing with ‘X’, the demon assigned to prevent Armageddon, are in many ways the most entertaining parts of the book (and perhaps more what Westlake originally had in mind when he conceived of it).  “God, make me virtuous–but not yet.”  There’s a little Satan even in the saints.   There was no end of it in the man who created Parker and Dortmunder.

So he wavers between two sides of his own nature in writing this, and that’s a tough balancing act for a writer to pull off.   For a variety of reasons (perhaps including a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman that covered some of the same ground), he can’t balance the two sides out perfectly.  It’s much more about the angel than the devil.  Here and there, almost miraculously, he gets the tension just right–but more often it feels like he’s teetering precariously on the tightrope, striving for something that’s a bit too far out of his reach.  And producing some of the best writing of his career in the process–mingled in with much that’s just workmanlike.

A book has to know what it is, as much as a person does.  This book never seems quite sure of its identity.  But the questions it asks were worth asking then–and are worth revisiting now.   Even synopsizing, though I’m going to be less thorough than usual.  This book is much more about character than plot, and I have two characters left to describe.   One of whom can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s more Parker or Dortmunder, and ends up being neither.

Ananayel has already recruited three out of the five people whose decisions, made of their own free will, will bring about the destruction of all life on earth.

Grigor, a Russian fireman turned comedy writer–technically perhaps a Ukrainian, since we’re told he’s from Kiev (most of the world still thought of the two as being the same thing then, and of course there are many ethnic Russians still living there, hence the current troubles, but maybe Westlake just screwed up).  Now being treated for incurable cancer he got courtesy of Chernobyl, at an upstate New York hospital, courtesy of his new friend Susan Carrigan, the unwitting tool of Ananayel, who is keeping an increasingly covetous eye on her as well.

Kwan, a Chinese pro-democracy activist, sought by the authorities for his role in the Tianamen Square demonstrations, who escaped from China to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to a cruise ship, from the cruise ship to a detention center in Manhattan where he awaits extradition, but he escapes from there as well (with the help of Ananayel).  His throat seriously injured by a failed suicide attempt, his voice silenced, he now has basically no remaining hope of ever achieving his goals, or of being the hopeful, idealistic, amorous man he once was.

Maria Elena, a Brazilian woman of great courage and composure, once a promising singer, then a wife who lost both her husband and her chance at motherhood to the pollution from a foreign factory in her hometown, then a frustrated ineffectual environmental activist who Ananayel fills with the notion that she can only combat this evil by going to the source of it, namely America.  But her attempts there have failed as well, along with her second marriage to an American doctor, and she’s trapped in a foreign sterile world, without passion or love or friendship, or even the will to sing again.

Three exceptionally good humans with exceptionally tragic life stories–who all lack the needed skill set to break into a nuclear plant Ananayel has arranged to contain the seed of earth’s destruction.  For that he needs a professional thief.  Well, he’s working for the right God then, isn’t he?

Frank Hillfen:

“Property of Alcatraz.” Frank saw a teenager in Tokyo, walking down a crowded street, wearing a sweatshirt that says Property of Alcatraz.  Doesn’t speak ten words of English.  Was the kid somebody’s property in Alcatraz, wouldn’t last a day.  People wearing the words, don’t know what they say.  Don’t know what they mean.

“The global village,” Mary Ann Kelleny said.

“Yeah,” Frank said.  “But do they get it?  I don’t think so.”

“Does it matter?  As long as they’re happy?”

“Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll bite.  Are they happy?”

She glanced at him as she drove, curious and amused.  “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Because they don’t know who they are,” he said.  “They don’t know who anybody is.  They mostly sound bewildered.”

A rocky hill arising from a hopeless mire–yeah, I think that’s the point of the name.  Frank is a proficient but strictly smalltime burglar, not remotely ‘in the heavy,’ (he never carried guns on the job)  who was caught carrying a wall safe out of a rich man’s house.  He went to prison.  It wasn’t fun.  Now he’s out again, walking down a highway, and Ananayel picks him up in the form of a woman named Mary Ann Kelleny, who fills his  head with the notion that he needs to stop doing a lot of small burglaries, and concentrate on One Big Score so he can retire, at least for a while.

On reflection, I’d say he’s a Westlake heister living uneasily in the world of Richard Stark.  There’s nothing cute or quirky about his life or his associates, that’s for sure.  He gets dragooned by an acquaintance in East St. Louis into robbing a mob courier, and the guy ends up dead, and Frank’s partner too after he tries to murder Frank, who fortuitously finds a .38 revolver in the dead courier’s pocket just in time to blow the doublecrosser’s head off (Ananayel informs us he didn’t intervene there, Frank did it all himself).

So Frank gets the whole score, $57,830–which is good.  But he’s a killer now.  Not so good.  And it’s the 1990’s, so that’s not a score a guy can retire permanently on.  So he keeps the gun.  Just in case.  He’s not the man he used to be either.

Fearing the retribution of both the law and the mob, he heads for New York, where a man like him can disappear.  And before long he meets up with–

Pami Njorage:

I wonder why I killed the Danish man, she thought.  I wonder what I wanted.  All I really want is to go to sleep, not go through this shit any more.  Not any of this shit.  Not all these johns that look like the Danish man, not this shitty building where you got to nail yourself in, not this sickness I got in my blood. What happens when the sores start to show?  Nobody gonna give me twenty shillings then.  Nobody fuck me for free then.  What did I want that time?  What do I want?

The last piece in the puzzle Ananayel is arranging is a Kenyan prostitute, a member of the Luo tribe, which has become better known around the world since this book was published. Westlake died a few weeks after the son of a more fortunate (if still tragic) Luo was elected President–I’d give a great deal to know his reactions to that.  (I’d also like to know if he consciously patterned Pami after the prostitute in Adios Scheherazade, and where he got the idea for that character).

If Grigor is the heroic comedian and philosopher, Kwan the quixotic fighter for love and liberty, Maria Elena the long-suffering Earth Mother, and Frank the ill-starred rebel without a cause, Pami represents not those who tried their chances and lost, but rather those who were never given a chance to begin with.  That very large segment of the world’s population we try very hard not to think about most of the time.  The hopeless of the earth–but somehow, she has not given up hope.

Ananayel poses as a customer, a Danish tourist, provokes her into murdering his confabulated human body, and taking the large amount of money in his suitcase.  After she has sex with him, and he finds that experience–intriguing–sex, then death.  These humans have intense existences, brief though they are.

She’s got AIDS, or ‘slim’ as they call it on the streets of Nairobi.   It isn’t full-blown yet, but the day’s not far off, and she knows it, and yet she still somehow wants to find a better life than the one she has, and in the guise of a fellow prostitute he gives her the plan–to go to New York, with the money she believes fate has provided her (and in a way it has).

She’s on the plane, feeling happy and excited and scared and against all odds hopeful, and Ananayel is sitting there next to her in yet another guise, which is fortuitous (or maybe not), because this is where X introduces himself into the plot.

He doesn’t understand how this woman, whose soul has belonged to his master for a long time now, could be of any use to God and his plan of world annihilation, but he figures he’ll just kill her and everybody else on the plane–he’s possessed the bodies of some hapless terrorists, who will do nicely for the purpose at hand.   But Ananayel, who can call upon his own master for all the power he needs, proves too strong for him, and he’s forced to flee his hosts, and live to fight another day.

(Sidebar: The various supernatural contests between Ananayel and X, that no mortal eyes can fully perceive, are ingenious and gripping, and although Ananayel clearly has the edge, the outcome is sometimes in doubt.   And the main point of them is to establish the fact that if X is to win their game, it can’t be by strength alone, but by cunning.  And to make the reader feel this is more than a really weird sociological tract, of course.)

So Pami, her money quickly used up in New York, ends up hooking there as well, and her pimp, a terrifying man named Rush (not that one, no), either was possessed by X from the start, or after he took up with Pami.   The scenes with them in a derelict building in lower Manhattan are just as sordid and disheartening as the equivalent scenes in Nairobi–maybe more so.

Pami now knows there is no escaping the life she was born to, no matter where she goes, and she’s starting to develop the sores that mean her time has nearly run out, and is confronted again by Ananayel, this time in the form of a hard-bitten police detective right out of an 87th Precinct novel (not that she’s ever read any), who is then set on fire by X. She flees the burning building, and runs into Frank Hillfen.  Who for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, lets her come with him.  And then they pick up Kwan, still unable to speak, or even eat solid food, and failing fast.  And then they run into Maria Elena with a conveniently flat tire Frank changes for her.

And in her car is Grigor, who Ananayel arranged for her to meet, and because she identifies so much with his pain, she’s taken him out of the hospital he’s dying in, because that’s no place for a man to die.  Earth Mother to the last, she invites them all to her house.   Just a short distance from the nuclear plant where they are all going to destroy the world.

It’s not always clear how much of this dramatic coincidence is really Ananayel’s work, though a lot of it is.  He tells us he’s amazed at how little he has to do, once he sets the wheels in motion–they’re doing most of the heavy lifting for him.   He picked his pawns well, and they are not his only playing pieces, of course.

He’s also been manipulating a variety of powerful people to arrange for a brilliant but somewhat tunnel-visioned scientist trying to harness strange matter as an unlimited energy source to have a new lab for him set up at the nuclear plant–because, you see, he kept blowing up his lab at the university he was at.   Ananayel’s wonderment at how easily he can trick these educated people, politicians and administrators and PR flacks, into doing something utterly insane on the face of it is reflected in the middle quote up top.  But as we’ve seen in recent months, you don’t have to be an angel to pull that off.

And of course one nuclear plant can’t destroy the world.  Could strange matter?   Well, nobody knows, really.  And God is master of everything we don’t know, which when you get right down to it, is almost everything.  And what follows is Westlake at his quirkiest, or should I say quarkiest?

Because, as he argues with fiendish Jesuitical glee, since we don’t know what strange matter might do, since we don’t even know if it really exists, if it turned out that it would destroy everything, that wouldn’t be a miracle.  God isn’t breaking the rules of the game if the rules have not yet been written.  And neither is Westlake breaking the rules of the genre he’s informally working with here, though he does so earlier in the book when he has a scientist tell us there are black holes just a few light years away from earth–there better not be.

There is one thing not even God can account for though–the way of a man with a maid.  Ananayel needed Grigor to sink into utter despondency, and the presence of a beautiful young woman who was possibly just a touch in love with him was detrimental to this goal. So he created another human guise–Andy Harbinger (X sourly remarks this is just what an angel would consider funny).

And he made Susan fall in love with him, which, knowing there’s nothing she could really do for Grigor, and Maria Elena being there, and still having her whole life ahead of her (or so she thinks), she was more than ready to do, because Andy is a hunk–Ananayel having the luxury of taking as pleasing a form as he so pleases, and he doesn’t even have to go to the gym.  Disgusting, isn’t it?

But here’s the sticking point.  He didn’t realize it was a two-way conduit, this love thing.  He wasn’t prepared for the feelings he’d inspired in her to reflect themselves back at him.  He has parried every demonic attack from X, but he has no defense against this.  His other human forms were held only briefly, but because of Susan he has to be Andy over an extended period of time, and it’s infecting him.  As they lie in each other’s arms after the first bout of intercourse, he tells her (and, in more detail, us)–“I didn’t know about this.”

I like being Andy Harbinger. I have made him healthy and attractive and reasonably strong.  (I’ve tried a number of human types by now, and prefer comfort.)  And he is human.  I constructed him from molecules of myself, so he is both me and human, and I am learning from him all the time, but I didn’t know about this.

The experience of being with Susan was unlike anything I could have imagined.  Not like that business with Pami at all, that brutal calisthenics. This was…this was like the best of the empyrean, distilled.  How can humans spend their time doing anything else?

Of course, it was even more powerful for me, since I was in some general contact with Susan’s feelings and reactions as well.  Andy’s and Susan’s emotions, sensations, all mixing together in my semi-human brain; what an explosive cocktail!

I’m so happy I’ve had this chance to get to know and learn about humans, before the end.

Sex, even great sex, is not enough to sway his resolve.  But he is starting to have doubts.  Humans are more than the sum of their flaws.  But God wants them gone.  But wouldn’t God, who made them, and has watched them since their earliest inception, have known something like this might happen if one of his unearthly servants took earthly form long enough?

Still, the momentum now established is getting hard to derail.  Ananayel is somewhat perturbed that now his five pawns are together, their shared understanding of life’s cruelty, the camaraderie of a war each has fought in his/her own way, has actually cheered them up.  They’ve lost everything, at least two are fatally ill (Kwan could probably be saved, but not without medical care that would expose him to extradition back to China), and they’re almost happy. Somehow, humans do better together.  The ones that are not evil, at least–and even Pami, who has knowingly infected men with AIDS, doesn’t really fall into that category.

Frank and Maria Elena are now lovers as well, and Frank is anything but hopeless–he’s still looking for the One Big Score, and when they’re all watching TV, he sees it–the nuclear plant, surrounded by protesters who are angry about the lab-destroying scientist having a lab there (he was on Nightline, talking to Ted Koppel about it).  They have to bus the workers in past the picket lines, and because of the confusion, the security is a joke.  He can get in there and hold the place up for ransom–he just needs a string.  Guess who volunteers?   That’s right.

Grigor, from hard experience, knows a lot about nuclear plants, and doesn’t have much in the way of tender feelings about them.  Kwan has the math skills, and finally sees a way of giving the Ancient Murderers one in the eye.  Maria Elena has grown to love these people, the only friends she has in the world now, so she’s in–anyway, the people who own the plant are one with the people who poisoned her town with chemicals.   And they have to take Pami, because where else can she go?

X is increasingly desperate–the only thing that held him back from killing all five, once he’d found them together (Pami had been the only one he knew about up to then) was that he couldn’t figure out Susan’s place in the scheme–because she doesn’t have one, Ananayel is just finding excuses to be with her, something X can’t understand (sex yes, love no).

In the ensuing battle Ananayel fought with X and his lesser spirits of the air, he came very close to being turned into a tree (while his physical form sat in a Manhattan theater with Susan, watching Night Fall [sic]), but he fought his way out and hurt X so badly that the latter now knows direct confrontation is pointless.

Still, once he sees that the five have taken over the plant, he knows this must be it–but he still doesn’t know how this desperate gambit achieves the destruction of earth.   (“I have come to save the world, only to find that truckling toady is content to destroy New York State?”) So he calls again upon his spies, and learns the terrible truth we’ve already learned from Ananayel.

As God has now written the formerly unwritten law governing such things, if just one drop of strange matter falls to the ground, it will sink down to the earth’s core, and transmute all matter it touches into strange matter–and since strange matter is impossibly dense and stable, far more so than the vibrant shifting stuff we’re made of, the planet will end up as nothing more than a smooth featureless lifeless marble, a shiny ball bearing several miles in diameter, spinning pointlessly about the sun forevermore, looking in vain for an arcade game to inhabit.

And nothing makes you like this infernal creature more than his reaction to this sanctimonious final solution to the Problem of Life–

Stable matter?  Stable matter!  Stabat Mater, what a vicious idea!  So is that what the experiment in that plant is all about, the search for what the instable humans call strange matter (as though they weren’t sufficiently strange themselves).

By Unholy Lucifer, he means to stabilize the earth!

No, no, no.  I have to get in there.  I have to stop this, and at once.

And that’s a pearl, that was my planet?  No.

In his own diabolic way, he too has been infected by earthly life–or perhaps it was those such as he who infected it to start with?–but hard as he tries, he can’t get in there.  The plant, now under the control of the fatal five, is in total lockdown.  There’s no danger of a meltdown, nobody wants that.   But as Ananayel knew would be the case, the authorities would rather risk a meltdown than take responsiblity for paying the requested ransom.  So they’ll just wait them out.

And now the five are trapped–three of them dying, Frank going back to prison for the rest of his life when captured, Maria Elena losing the last emotional connection to anyone she has left.  They need more leverage–and then Ananayel arranges for them to know where to find it.  In the laboratory.   With Dr. Philpott (heh).   Who has just this very moment succeeded in creating strange matter.

Philpott isn’t evil, either–he’s been warned by other scientists that this stuff could be dangerous, but it’s just his nature to need to know things.  He has himself been one of God’s tools, much as it might offend him to know it.  At first, he’s rather contemptuous of these people who have forced themselves in–not without sympathy for their plight, but still unmoved by their anger at the Way Things Are.  He’s above such things.  His goal is to improve civilization by supplying it with free unlimited energy.

“Civilization,” the exotic woman spat, and her scorn was no affectation.

Philpott looked at her.  “I can see that civilization has harmed you,” he said.  “It does that.  I can’t feel your pain, of course, but I still believe human civilization is worth the price we pay.”

“The price you pay, or the price I pay?”

He’s just the right man to remind these people of the sheer intractibility of human civilization–which by its very nature, seems to always need to have somebody down at the bottom, getting shat on by everybody further up the ladder.  Now they really believe there is no hope left.  Not even when they’re threatening the entire world will the world find the will to change.  So maybe it needs to stop being just a threat.

Grigor calls it–why not just break the containment bottle the strange matter is in, and see what happens next?

The Russian man said, “We could test the theory for you, Doctor.”  To the armed man he said, “We just go knock that table over.”

Philpott could hardly breathe.  He hadn’t known it was possible to be this afraid.  In a choked hoarse voice he said, “Man, why would you do that?”

The Russian’s eyes were sunk into his head, as though  his brain looked directly out from the center of his skull.  “I’m leaving very soon, Doctor. I don’t mind the idea of taking everybody with me.  I like that idea.  The best joke I ever thought of.”  He turned that fleshless head.  “Pami?  Should we bring them all with us when we go?”

“Yes!” You wouldn’t have guessed the woman could speak so forcefully, or that she could rise up so powerfully, onto one knee, one foot on the floor, before she had to reach out and clutch at the other woman’s leg for support.

The Russian shrugged.  “And we know how Kwan votes.”

They couldn’t all feel that way.  But the exotic woman, holding the black woman’s wrist with one hand, took the armed man’s free hand with her other and said, “There’s nothing for us here, nothing anywhere.  We can’t win.  Why should it be their world?”

“I’m not going back, that’s all I know.”  The armed man showed that chilling smile to Philpott again.  “It’s a crapshoot, right?  Fifty-fifty.  Either nothing happens, and we’ll figure out what to do next, or our troubles are over.  Even money, right?”

“Please,” Philpott whispered.  “Please don’t.”

“Fuck you,” the armed man said, “and the horse you rode in on.”

And then the phone rings.   It’s Mary Ann Kelleny.  Well, of course it isn’t.   It’s Ananayel, reaching out to Frank.   Because, as he tells us, he’s realized he just can’t do it–can’t let humanity extinguish itself–

It is not only Susan.  It is the whole existence of which she is a part, the existence that makes it possible for two humans to be so selflessly bound together, to elevate their mutual caring so far beyond their petty selves, for each of them to attain such an intensity of altruism toward one other person that all of eternity does exist in the space of one shared thought.

He should have sent someone with more experience of the humans, someone who had already grown as bored with them as He.  I tried to remain aloof, but I could not.  What at first seemed to me human squalor has become human vibrancy.  The cumbersomeness I first thought of as pathetically comic, I now see as endearing; and with what ingenuity they struggle to overcome their physical helplessness.  And the violence of their emotions, once repugnant to me, is now elixir to my pallid soul.

S(he) talks Frank down from the ledge, and the others, already remembering that there are people out there who showed them kindness, who have not earned such a grim fate, are persuaded to come down with him.  All except one.

Pami has known no kindness from anyone except these people, all of whom she believes to be as doomed as her.  She has also never known a single taste of real power in her life–and Power Incarnate waits for her on that table.  She makes her move, too quickly and savagely for anyone to stop her, but before she can reach her objective, she has this spasm like something out of The Exorcist, her body just gives out entirely, and she falls to the floor lifeless.

She was very ill, but this seems a bit too much of a coincidence.  And of course, like nearly everything else in this book, it wasn’t.  She was the only one of the five X had established a connection with, dominion over.   She was his way in.   Look who the hero of the story turned out to be.



Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  I have saved you my darlings, come into my arms, let us dance!

How we’ll dance.

It’s a bit like one of Sauron’s Nazgûl, acting under his orders, forced Gollum to grab the Ring and fall into the fires of Mount Doom (spoiler alert), and this is how Evil wins, by saving the world it lives to torment from destruction.

And just like with Gollum, you kind of feel like Pami was badly used by everyone, including the author.  Westlake knew enough about people who have experienced that degree of privation and degradation to know that for many of them, there is no way back.   She wants to destroy the world, and looking at the life the world gave her–why shouldn’t she?  Why shouldn’t she?  

But here is my biggest problem with the book–that it recreates in its conclusion that very inequity it denounces.  Ananayel arranges for Frank and Maria Elena to get away, and live a nice life together (life insurance, resulting from her estranged husband being shot by his deranged mistress)–she’s singing again as they escape.

But there is no escape for the others, who will all die, not even knowing that their choosing life, even when their own lives were nearly over, gave earth another chance (nor will anyone else ever know).  They were protagonists–now they’re just redshirts.   If Ananayel can still perform such miracles, couldn’t he have healed Grigor and Kwan, and helped them escape too?  That’s what Jesus would have done (still not 100% sure if we’re supposed to believe he was an angel or a mortal in the context of this universe).

Why does only Frank get this favor–and a passionate Brazilian songstress to go with it?  Old habits die hard, for Gods and Authors (same thing).  And of course, Westlake was writing this for people who would expect the hardbitten heister in in the book to get away clean.  And it would feel like a cheat for them all to live. And maybe there wasn’t a fully satisfactory ending he could come up with for these characters.  But it could have been a lot better.

Ananayel, trapped in the mortal body of Andy Harbinger until his now-inevitable death as his punishment for disobeying, his angelic powers and vision stripped from him, will of course marry The Girl–he was the Nephew in this story all along.  Originally ‘Andy’  hadn’t even been a complete human body, but he’d earlier decided to fix that, and give his surrogate a complete dossier, with a social security number, and a job as an assistant sociology professor (hah!) at Columbia University.  Figuring that even Columbia couldn’t survive the end of the world (if you lived in New York, you might have some doubts about that), he didn’t bother to give himself tenure.  Too late now.

And since he’s no longer hooked into the heavenly hen party, he’ll get no scuttlebutt about God’s next attempt to make humanity off itself.  He hopes that what happened will have revived God’s interest in this world, make Him reconsider His decision.  But if not, he knows that some other angel is recruiting yet another string of malcontents, and God only knows what doomsday scenario they’ll be dragooned into, or how they’ll choose when the moment comes. I guess even God doesn’t know that last part.  Well, nobody’s perfect.

But mortal lives go quickly, while Divine Plans take time to formulate, and he’s happy.   He’s no longer some seraphim servitor, floating aimlessly about the aether until given some scut job or other.   He’s got his own identity now, mundane though it be, and true love, and New York, and he’s better off than most humans.

And it’s not fair, the way the people you’d expect to live happily ever after end up doing more or less exactly that, but what ever is?   The only thing that would have been completely fair would have been Pami knocking over that table.  And we don’t want that.  Not really.  Not most of the time.  Not if the polls are right. The polls damn well better be right.  Hmm.  It’s been about a quarter century since God’s last attempt, far as we know.  They seem to be marked by extraordinary events and extreme poor judgment.  You don’t suppose……?

Here’s to all the poor examples of our species–the ones who don’t leap eagerly onto the wrong horse.  As long as there’s enough of them, there’s still hope.  And where there’s hope, there’s life.  But while there are so many without hope, we must be prepared to abide the end.  We don’t really need God to make that happen, you know.

And I’m done!   I finished this review in just two parts, after some persons here doubted me!  HA!  HA HA HA HAAAAAAA!!!   I told you I’d save you from a four parter!  Come into my arms!   Come into my arms!   How we’ll dance.  And a New York Dance it shall be, as we come to the eighth Dortmunder novel.   Anyone got a bone to pick with that?  I thought not.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

23 responses to “Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

  1. Richard

    Well, I’ll dance with you, but don’t be surprised if I step on your toes. And you’ll probably notice that I’m a little downcast.

    While you’ve done another terrific job, I’ve come to expect (and enjoy) the four-part reviews. I like it best when you take your time, expand on things, offer points and suggestions I’ve never considered before. It makes it even more fun when I reread the book you’ve reviewed. HUMANS was certainly worthy of such an effort.

    Maybe you can hold off on DANCING AZTECS (pure genius!) and share just a few more thoughts…?

    • I am crestfallen that you are downcast, Richard. But I always expect the comments section to express the things I couldn’t find room for in the review. That’s just how we roll here at TWR.

      First off, I only ever did one four-part review, for Drowned Hopes. And that was not planned in advance. I just kept running into things I hadn’t noticed before in that book, and I realized the only way I could do them all justice would be to review each of the book’s four parts separately. I’ve done three-part reviews for Butcher’s Moon and Good Behavior (books I consider to some extent to be mirror images of each other), and all others were one or two parts long.

      I’ve done one-part reviews for books I truly love, such as Two Much–in fact, many of my absolute favorite Westlakes (and Starks, and Coes) got only one article. Because I found I could say what I needed to say about them in one go. My one-parters are, in many cases, the reviews I’m proudest of. And I hope to do many more of them before I’m done.

      I had actually thought I might give Humans just one installment–I even announced I was going to do that when I started, but then realized it wouldn’t work. And I don’t think three parts would have worked either. Four would have been ridiculous. I mean, if I was going to go that long, I might as well do five parts, one for each of Ananayel’s human pawns. There just isn’t enough about them in the book to justify that. It’s not that long a book. I suppose three was viable, since the books is divided into three sections–but in this case, I don’t consider the structure of the book that interesting–I get the point he was making with Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis–it works–but it’s not really worth dwelling on. It pretty much explains itself.

      Even Kahawa and Dancing Aztecs (which I’ve already reviewed, next up is Don’t Ask, and please don’t ask me how long that’s going to go) only got two-parters. Ex Officio, longer than any of them, with a huge cast of characters, got one part–and I like that book very much–but contrary to what some might think, it’s never my goal to just recap the entire book. It’s my goal to understand it, and how detailed my synopsis is depends mainly on how detailed I think it needs to be in order for me to reach that level of understanding I seek.

      And as I remarked, there aren’t enough cover images for this novel–I only found three, and one of them was helpfully provided for me by a reader. This may not be a blog heavily devoted to the visual, but I just don’t feel right about posting the same cover twice in one review. I wrote over 11,000 words about Humans (okay, I didn’t write all the quotes from this and other books I stuck in there, but I typed them out). That’s a damned long review, any way you parse it.

      I have any number of unshared thoughts about this book–but why don’t you start off by telling me yours. And I’ll see what I can come up with in reaction to that. Best part of the review, far as I’m concerned, is always the discussion afterwards, so I’m really not serving myself very well if I don’t leave some things out.

  2. Anthony

    The Westlake Review has given to me a better appreciation of Westlake’s titles. I’ve long thought of them as largely throwaways. “Bank Shot” – well, it’s about a bank, duh. “Comeback” – well, Parker’s back, get it?. “Drowned Hopes” Well, there’s this reservoir, see?” Let’s all give a quick acknowledgement of the author’s wink and just move on to reading the thing.

    You, however, have pointed out that there is often a little bit more to his selection of titles. For example, I thought Good Behavior was a throwaway title until you pointed out what a study in all types of human behavior the story is. And here you have noted at least once that the book is called Humans and we should pay attention to that. Westlake did not call it “Angels and Demons” – THAT he left for a much lesser writer. For all his centrality to the narrative, Annanayel is not the point. Theology is not the point. Good vs. Evil – Not. It’s about Humans. Which makes the ultimate disappointing treatment of Grigor and Kwan (basically ignored at the end) Westlake’s true missed opportunity in this book. Not the failure to have the guts to end the world, as I alluded to endlessly in my comments on the first part of your review.

    Well Done Mr. Fitch.

    • Maybe somebody had to die, for the story to mean something–but for them to just be discarded like that–Kwan in particular, who isn’t even there for the crucial moment–it’s baffling. Westlake usually had better instincts. What went wrong there?

      I would have happily read an entire book about Grigor, about Kwan. Kwan in particular struck me as a missed opportunity. And we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Intriguing supporting characters who never quite get fleshed out to our full satisfaction, and who just disappear from the story entirely after a while. Handy McKay. Herman X. Salsa–damn, I knew I forgot to mention something–I’ll mention it now.

      Kwan’s trip to the States via that ocean liner is clearly based in part on the backstory for Salsa. Adventurer/Gigolo, taking advantage of the fact that pleasure cruisers are an excellent place to find pleasure-seeking women. Making his way from his native Spain to America, by way of many a shipboard romance. And then abruptly killed in his third appearance in the Parker novels–but that at least was a powerful and meaningful death, and he wasn’t reduced to a mere shell of himself.

      For us not even to be with these two at the end–to just have their deaths perfunctorily mentioned by Ananayel as more or less an afterthought–a tidying up of loose threads–no. That was wrong. There’s no excuse for it, and it mars what had been (and still is) a powerful piece of work.

      Donald Westlake went out of his way to write about all kinds of people, black, white, brown, foreign and domestic, male and female, straight and gay–but at the end of the day, he would retreat back to the position he knew best. His own. Well, that’s true of most people, when you get right down to it. It’s true of most writers, even most of the ones we call great. But not all. It is possible to go further. So in this regard, at least, I must find fault. Because he had the potential to go further here, and for whatever reason, he didn’t follow through. You don’t play it safe with a book like this. You go all out, or what’s the point?

  3. Heading out soon for my colonoscopy, and as I sit here, having emptied myself in more than just the Buddhist sense of the term, I have a question–is Humans the book Westlake wanted to write?

    Thanks to Greg Tulonen’s review of Fall of the City (informed in turn by a helpful James Bond enthusiast), we know that in a few years he’s going to try and write another novel set partly in the Chinese-speaking world, dealing with what you might call an apocalypse in miniature. And after strong resistance from his agent, and some others, he just abandoned the book, put it aside. The poor sales for Humans, I would assume, would have been part of the reason the fight went out of him. But was there a fight about this book also?

    The deal Westlake seemed to have at The Mysterious Press is that he could alternate between the books people expected of him (at this point in his career, mainly Dortmunder novels, and always mysteries) and offbeat harder-to-pigeonhole books.

    A Likely Story (satire of the publishing industry, published by Penzler Books, an imprint started especially for this novel, which then went on to publish other books by well-known mystery authors who wanted to stray outside their genre, and how come Westlake never got published there again?)

    High Adventure (Latin American intrigue mixed with romance).

    Good Behavior (Dortmunder)

    Trust Me On This (satire of tabloid journalism, mixed with romance and mystery–this was actually a commercial success, hence the later sequel).

    Sacred Monster (satire of Hollywood, mixed with a murder mystery, sort of).

    Drowned Hopes (Dortmunder).

    Humans (Honestly, I just reviewed it, and I’m not sure how to categorize it. Apocalyptic supernatural satire mingled with romance, heist, and political commentary?).

    That’s seven novels for one publisher in eight years, and only three would have been strong sellers. After that came another Dortmunder, and after that a sequel to Trust Me On This–the only one of his unconventional books that had done well, both critically and commercially–because both Joslyn books stick pretty close to the mystery format, even while ranging further afield in the process.

    And honestly, after that, nothing that doesn’t fit the profile pretty tightly. Smoke is satire, sure–and it’s got an invisible man in it–but he’s an invisible burglar, working in and around New York City. And the tobacco industry was a pretty easy target by the Mid-90’s. His next foreign intrigue novel, again in Latin America, would be published under a new single-use pseudonym, in 2002, and not by The Mysterious Press.

    He tried one more time, after Humans–perhaps figuring that a story based on his mainly-rejected idea for a James Bond movie had to be commercial, because what’s more commercial than 007?–and then gave up. People were not going to accept him outside his appointed role, outside his expected settings. Much as he wanted to write about foreign affairs, it wasn’t what people wanted from him. And then came The Ax, and the return of Parker, and his rebellion was largely forgotten.

    Writers don’t work in a vacuum. They push to be known for more than one thing, and the market pushes back–meaning so does the publisher, because the publisher is at the mercy of the market, and can’t afford to take too many chances. Westlake would have been in a back and forth with his agent, his editor, and with Otto Penzler, about what final form Humans should take. And it’s possible–not necessarily true, but possible–that this affected some of his decisions as a storyteller. Perhaps for the better, perhaps not.

    But I find it hard to believe this is exactly the book he would have written if he had not had to think about whether or not it would sell. He did think it could be a best-seller, at least at first. That was its original purpose. But its final purpose, sadly, was to start reining him in. Or, if you want to look at it more positively, to get him focused once more on what he could do within his genre cell to stretch himself, and the genre itself.

    After so many previous disappointments, he would have gotten at least some push-back on this one. It really says something for his relationship with The Mysterious Press that they went ahead and put this one out there. Again, I don’t know why it wouldn’t be released via the Penzler Books imprint. This is off-brand for TMP, to say the least–even though you can make a case for it being in the mystery/crime genre. But was Westlake trying a bit too hard to make it fit that pigeonhole? To stick in some more palatable elements for a mass audience (like not one but two love stories?).

    What would this book have been if he’d written it for no one but himself?

  4. Anthony

    What I cannot wrap my mind around is how Westlake ever figured that this was an INTENTIONAL best seller. To me, there’s virtually nothing about the book that screams best-seller. If I were to pick the one work specifically written for that goal it would be Kahawa. Kahawa has action, lots of sex (written without euphemism), and some relevance to then current events. There is an argument to be made that it’s the most “formula” of all his works.

    Seems to me that historically there have been two major formulas for writing “best-sellers.” The first formula is schlock. Sleazy schlock would be, say, Airport. Then there’s another type of schlock characterized by focus on the staunch, church-going Midwestern hearty stock folk – the Jonathan Living Seagulls and Mitford series books of the world. The second formula is the illogical-premise page turner – the Da Vinci Codes and John Grisham lawyers and similar crap.

    Every once in a while something out of the blue – A Harry Potter if you will – breaks the formula. But if you want to write a formula best seller your choices are schlock or illogical premise page turner. Humans is neither. It has nothing to do with any formula. Zip.

    Wait, you might say, it HAS an illogical premise. Maybe, but it ain’t no page-turner. A page turner has extremely short chapters, EACH of which ends with a cliff-hanger (“Sparkles reached into the safe, but froze when she heard the click of a handgun cocking.”).

    The desire to break some kind of mold is obvious in Humans. But a bald-faced attempt to write a best seller? I don’t get it. Maybe he wanted to tap into the audience of the Exorcist, but if so, he missed the boat so much he missed a second boat too.

    Interesting man, our Donald.

    • Books about angels and demons have been best-sellers. The way Westlake wrote them, probably not.

      You’re selling a fantasy with a best-seller. It may be a very formulaic predictable kind of fantasy, or it may be something more original, but you’re taking people to a place they wish they were instead of the place they are now. Even if bad stuff is happening there, it’s exciting, and the people going through it are important. Harry Potter is The Chosen One, who will Save Everything, surrounded by wonderful friends who love and admire him. How many variations on that have we seen making their way from page to screen? It’s about feeling special, in a world that seems determined sometimes to beat you down to nothing. Not all books that do this become best-sellers, because our fantasies are very individual things, so you have to look for something appealing to a wide variety of readers.

      And you could easily write the basic story of this book that way (focus on the growing friendship between the five), and maybe, with the right marketing, and a bit of luck–and probably a different publisher, because honestly, how many best-sellers did The Mysterious Press ever have? Genre publishers don’t generally make those lists.

      You know, it occurs to me that maybe he didn’t originally intend this one for The Mysterious Press. Maybe he had to change it a bit to fit their general format. Or maybe by the time he got to writing it, he knew he’d just been indulging one of his own fantasies. Obviously he had no more than a basic idea by the time he deplaned.

      I see two possible scenarios–it was going to be a lighter more accessible work, and as he wrote it, it got more serious–or it was going to be more serious to start with (An Important Book, and those do become best-sellers, if the critics will acclaim them as such), and he was persuaded to make it more accessible by sticking in a love story, a standard-issue Westlake heistman, and it got whittled down to a manageable size. Because to do all those characters justice required a much longer book than this is.

      The realist and the fantasist in perpetual warfare–inside the soul of one writer. Could they work out a truce of some kind? If they could, he might get at least close to that best-seller list, without selling his soul in the process.

      Oh, and it seems I survived. One polyp excised. Doc lets me know in a week if I have to come back in three years or five. Hey, that rhymes! 🙂

  5. Seems like we may be done talking about this one, but I have one last thing to add–a poem that this book reminded me of–you might call it counterpoint. I had a hell of a time finding it–it was published in The New Yorker in 1946, and apparently never since (except in a book I read once, that I don’t recall the title or author of). It’s in the online archives of The New Yorker, where I finally tracked it down, but they want too much money for it (why does it never occur to them to do a 99 cent pay-it-now deal?). Once I had the date, I obtained it via library microfilm.

    The poet, one W.W. Watt (perhaps not his/her real name?) wrote many a snarky ditty for Eustace Tilley, with titles like “Yon Cashier Hath a Lean and Hungry Look,” and is in this case responding to Eugene O’Neill, as the Nobel-winning playwright had declaimed in an interview that if the human race couldn’t figure out something as simple as The Golden Rule, maybe it was time to flush human civilization down the drain and let the ants have a chance (if you want the exact wording, it’s easy enough to look that up online).

    And I sympathize with the sentiment, and perhaps Watt did as well, but still wondered if The O’Neill had really thought that dictum through.

    I detect the influence of both e.e. cummings and Ogden Nash here–the latter so much that for many years I thought Nash had written it, and was thus perpetually frustrated in my searches. But here it is, published online for perhaps the first time ever (gratis, I mean). The lines of the poem are creatively spaced in its original format, but I can’t replicate that here, apologies.


    Are you sick of Homo Sapiens?
    Have you had enough of humans?
    And the Heavens
    Of the Bevins
    And the Stalins, and the Trumans?

    Let the ants
    Have a chance.

    Formica sanguinea steals the pupae of other ants and makes them slaves,
    And when they die, it buries them in special graves.
    The aged Stigmatomma pallipes worker creeps off to die alone
    To avoid being eaten alive when its social utility is gone.
    Lepthorax lives off the food of Myrmica, its neighbor;
    Some leaf-building ants employ child labor.
    Crematogaster, a small ant, has formed an alliance with large brown Camponotus,
    And they go foraging together for ant nectar and lotus.
    “Honey-pot” ants loll around like Romans
    While workers help them fill their fat abdomens.
    Atta raises fungus in gardens; Lasius americanus keeps cattle;
    But the Legionary Ant spends all its time in battle.
    Says Julian Huxley (“Ants” New York, Cape & Smith 1930 opposite p. 64):
    “Ants are among the very few organisms other than man which go to war.”

    Close the book of human folly
    On the last ignoble pages–
    Let the ants
    Have a chance!
    It’s a slogan for the ages!

    But as usual, the record
    Is checkered.

    And Watt, exercising poetic license, has neglected to mention that honeypot ants are being used as living storage tanks, hardly a privileged position, but the overall point remains valid. As does O’Neill’s. As does The Golden Rule. But ants will quite assuredly outlive all points ever made by humans, so they still win. I wonder if E. O. Wilson knows about this poem? I’m going to assume Westlake didn’t, but I think he’d have liked it, all the same. Ants, the supreme organization organisms, would hardly be his cup of formic acid.

  6. Ray Garraty

    Humans reminded me very much current bestselling novels which I deal with at job. They are uniformely structured as usual: grand scale plot, multinational assembly of characters, a bit of sentimentality thrown in, Good and Bad with capital letters. 90% of them are unreadable (at least they pay me for reading them), I’m afraid Humans is not much better.
    In pursuit of showing a big picture the author can’t stick with one character. They are usually types, psychologically thin, mere functions. I don’t mind an absence of plot (or ridiculous one), but please – it should be character-druven story then. Not the case here.
    Also: it is too long.

    • I can’t speak for those books, Ray (though I know exactly the kind of book you mean), but given how often you’ve hated Westlakes that I loved, I can’t take it as a given that we’d agree this isn’t a whole lot better.

      First of all, when a demon saves the planet from an angel, and God is trying to make humanity commit suicide, you can’t say it’s about Good and Bad. That’s not at all what it’s about. Who is the bad guy? There isn’t one. It’s about why people make bad choices, individually and collectively, and it’s about whether or not human life is worth saving–or living. And it gives a somewhat ambiguous answer to that question, but it certainly leans towards saying that it is. Life is better than Death. An imperfect messy existence is better than a perfectly symmetrical non-existence.

      You could argue Westlake was better sticking with one character, except how often did he ever do that? Not in the Parker novels, ever. It would be better if it was all from one perspective? More focused, maybe, but then it can’t tell the story it sets out to tell.

      I think it’s probably much too short. You can’t say “the characters are too thin” and then say they need less development. Maybe it would have been too ponderous if it was longer, maybe that would distract from the point being made. But I don’t think there’s any one thing you could change about it that would fix it. Like any work of art, it’s about finding the right balance of elements, and nobody gets it right every time. Absolutely nobody. I can’t help but think one reason you dislike it is that you don’t think Westlake should be writing this kind of story. Well, a lot of people thought that.

      It’s an interesting observation, and I think a good one, that you make to start with–this is an old format Westlake is following, that existed long before these books you’re forced to read now–I already mentioned Arthur Hailey–but again, that’s his usual pattern. Taking something lots of people have already done, and making it into something different. I think he only half-succeeded this time, but your explanations as to why that is don’t work for me.

      I said this book was a failure, but it’s a good failure. An inspired failure. That’s what makes it different from the dull successes you’re talking about.

      • Ray Garraty

        The format is old: we see different point of views in Parker books. There, it’s just glimpses into their minds, sketches, nuances that explains the plot. Here, Westlake wanted a bigger picture, and failed at that. He can still write a good sentence, a good scene, it is the bigger picture that fails him. On the idea level the novel is hollow, not really fleshed out.
        I am always for a writer to diverse, try something new. It is painful to see that your favorite writer fails fo hard.

        • My reaction is different–he’s telling me things he normally wouldn’t about himself, about what he thinks about the world, the universe, God. And, I must add, I am philosophically sympathetic with much of what he says here (and elswhere–it’s one reason I took on this task, a sense that my mind works along parallel pathways to his much of the time, which may be my delusion, but I think not).

          I can see the book isn’t his best work, but if he just wrote the same thing over and over–that would be disappointing too. Lots of good writers have stuck to the same formula, the same characters–and sooner or later, they always run out of steam, the characters don’t sing to you anymore. Because something has died inside the writer. He’s just doing it because that’s all people want from him. He’s given up. Maybe it’s still entertaining enough, but it’s not special anymore.

          Westlake, I think, avoided this by stretching out. By pushing himself. Even if most of his experiments didn’t work out as he hoped, and even though that must have hurt, it kept him alive as a writer. It kept him from ossifying. And that’s why he could write 24 Parker novels, and none of them feel like they were written by committee, or under duress. That’s why this blog was worth doing. Because Westlake refused to stop growing. And growing comes with pain, with failure. Always.

          • This comment sounds like I feel about Terry Pratchett and Discworld. What started off as a pastiche of sword & sorcery developed characters, and they developed philosophies of life — and Death, particularly Death. Anyone who can have the Grim One standing in for the “Fat Man” at a winter-solstice holiday and coming out with lines like “THERE’S NO BETTER PRESENT THAN A FUTURE” — to pick one example out of many — is someone I read and re-read and try to get my friends and even acquaintances to read. As I also do with Westlake.

            • Well, perhaps they’re discussing those very complexities of their trade, now that the Grim One had his/her/its way with Pratchett as well. Only 66. And yet, as I type it, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate age, in purely numerological terms.

  7. rinaldo302

    Not particular to Humans, but specific to this past weekend, my favorite comic-strip-snarking blog reprinted a Mary Worth episode:

    Without which I would have missed a Westlake quote. Every Sunday, it seems that this long-running soap includes an “inspirational” quote in its first panel. And this time it was D.E.W. I rather suspect that a level of irony was missed.

  8. rinaldo302

    My vague thought was indeed Dancing Aztecs — Wally Knurr or whatever his name was. But I’m at work (fall semester begins tomorrow!) and can’t check.

    I’m always amazed to see which soapy strips are still going. Mary Worth certainly, but that wasn’t on my radar as a kid so it makes less impression now. I’m thinking of the likes of Rex Morgan MD and Judge Parker, both of which I ignored on the funny pages half a century ago and are still around. (For my money, not that anyone asked me, the best of all that genre was Mary Perkins: On Stage, which has been reprinted in book form. I wrote an appreciation of it for a friend’s blog.)

    • My own feeling is that when a strip’s creator dies, the strip dies with it, whether they continue it or not. And that’s not to say some creative work can’t be done by successors, but a strip is such a personal idiosyncratic expression, and even if the early posthumous strips turn out okay, over time what happens is that all the individuality gets sucked out of it, and it becomes a matter of keeping the gravy train rolling along–and, we should mention, boxing some new artist with a new strip idea out. There are exceptions, but not many.

      And I feel ten times as much this way about classic characters from non-illustrated fiction. Let it go. Make something new.

  9. Ah, just found this letter to the NY Times Book Review–better late than never–

    August 9, 1992
    God Is Not Anti-American

    To the Editor:

    Thank you for your review of my most recent novel, “Humans” (June 28). Not to be picky, but I feel I must defend one of my characters — that is, God — from a misunderstanding in the body of the review, which was unfortunately picked up in the headline: “When God Got Tired of Americans.”

    Certainly God has never been anti-American before, nor did I intend to suggest such an intellectually arid motivation for Him now. It isn’t Americans in particular I see Him as tired of; it’s the whole self-centered species. It is the world in toto that is to be packed away as one more childish thing, not merely these sunny 50 states. “He has,” as His angel points out in the book, “more ant farms than this.”

    There are those, of course, who feel that America is the world, but I had always thought The New York Times somewhat more sophisticated than that. Excuse me bringing this matter up, but of all the characters I’ve written about over the years, that’s the One I’d least like to annoy. DONALD E. WESTLAKE Ancram, N.Y.

  10. Anthony

    The shot of the bookshelf at the top of each of these web-pages fooled me. What I thought was Humans is actually the reprint of Kahawa. The combination of silly font and vertical positioning was enough. But it got me thinking…

    Thinking about the recent good book/good movie bad book/good movie (etc.) discussion a few weeks ago, Humans, it occurs to me, has the potential to be a better movie than it is a book. Unfortunately, the “competition,” as it were, will make even the best possible movie subject to complaints of copy-cat-ism. Good Omens sets a high bar for angel/demon character study, and even the sitcom The Good Place at least stir the pools of good versus evil in an admittedly fantastical setting.

    Still, while Humans is not a bad book, the highest praise it can be given is a noble if failed experiment. Good movies have been made from far worse starting points.

    This wouldn’t be a job for Spielberg or the corporate Superhero movie makers. Maybe Wes Anderson could make it work.

    • I see no shot of Humans ever being a movie, but the argument for making one would be that it’s a rare instance of Westlake creating a story with a lot of unrealized potential, particularly with regards to the cast–the range of characters is fascinating, but he didn’t have enough space to work with them all. (In Kahawa he had a lot more room to maneuver). Approached in the right spirit, you might actually improve upon the book, or at least find something new to say with it, while still remaining true to the spirit of the original–which is arguably the only case in which novels should be adapted, not that this has ever been the norm. Maybe a TV miniseries would be best. (And given the range of settings, very expensive to produce).

      In any event, it’s not the kind of story people expect from Westlake, so the odds of anyone in the film biz seizing upon it are pretty slim.

      I keep meaning to finish my review of a recent novel that is clearly an uncredited rewrite of Humans. Italian. If you’d believe it. It’s not as if nobody ever noticed this was a book worth stealing from. I really should get to that. But who am I supposed to be, God?

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