Review: Smoke

Except for Stella and the myth of Perseus (and the spoofery of W.S. Gilbert in his treatment of Old Peter), the usual moral is that an invisible man is bound to act without ethical constraint.  Plato in The Republic raises the question of why any man should behave ethically if he has the means to escape punishment for evil deeds, and he cites the myth of Gyges, who used a ring of invisibility to get away with regicide and so take over the kingship himself.

All such powers are the object of the same moralizing in Hollywood science fiction and horror films, in which a mad scientist always gets his just deserts by dying a horrible death.

Leon Stover, in his introduction to The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.

“But still,” said Kemp, “in England–today.  And the man was in his own house, and you were–well, robbing.”

“Robbing!  Confound it!  You’ll call me a thief next!  Surely, Kemp, you’re not fool enough to dance on the old strings.  Can’t you see my position?”

“And his too,” said Kemp.

The Invisible Man stood up sharply.  “What do you mean to say?”

H.G. Wells

Freddie was a liar.  Freddie was a thief.

D.E. Westlake

Donald Westlake didn’t write a lot of very long novels.  They weren’t really what he did best–his sweet spot generally lay somewhere between 150 and 300 pages, maybe under or over that sometimes, but not by much.  Enough room to get his points across, not so much that he’d have to belabor them to the point of tiresomeness.

It was a matter of the market he was writing for as well–mysteries tended to be on the short side when he started out.  You want to keep books in that genre fast-paced, don’t want to give the reader too much time to think about who’s dying or whodunnit, you want them to finish it quickly, then run off and buy another one.

As time went by, the market changed–the paperback original died off, hardcovers got a lot more expensive, and people wanted more kiss-kiss bang-bang for the buck, I suppose.  Ponderous tomes once more became de rigeur, and not just in the historical romance field–you might say the short pithy genre novel was gone with the wind.

It wasn’t all about the market by any means–sometimes Westlake just had so much to say with a given book, so much ground to cover, that he needed more room to run.  While these may never have been his most impeccably polished perfectly structured books, they all had their own virtues.  Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.  Of course, that was partly because he was mainly writing them as magazine serials.  Marathons are, of necessity, not so pretty as sprints.

Westlake’s first and fattest attempt at a really long novel (even the posthumously published Memory doesn’t quite qualify, at ‘only’ 365 pages) was Ex Officio, a bonafide airport novel, almost 500 pages of political thriller mixed in with social commentary and family conflicts, written under a single-use pseudonym (weirdly, this one is evailable, as some of Westlake’s shorter better books published under his own name are not).

Second-longest is probably Kahawa, a tale of foreign intrigue, adventure, and romance–with a bit of a heist angle thrown in, since that was not written under a pseudonym, and comic crime was expected of Westlake by that point, but the comedy was pretty thin on the ground in a story about African genocide, so that one was a hard sell.  Some people actually like it the best of all his novels, go figure.

He wrote one very long Dortmunder, Drowned Hopes, that is structured rather more like several short linked novels, but his longest novel ever in the crime/mystery genre has got to be this one, and it plays no structural games–you start with Chapter 1 and go on until you reach Chapter 57.  454 pages in my first edition–which is autographed.  Westlake was clearly doing a lot more signing events at bookstores than he used to.

So the signature doesn’t boost the book’s value much, but still a nice thing to see when you open it up, and it’s comforting for me to feel his presence here, as I try to figure out the twists and turns of this, the last of his epic-length novels, and in my opinion, the first of his signature works of the 90’s, though better were on the way by the time it was published.

A crime novel this certainly is, as the very first thing it tells us is that the hero of the piece is a liar and thief.  Seems like an oddly superfluous thing for this particular author, writing for this particular publisher, to feel the need to spell out right from the start.  Much quicker to list all the Westlake protagonists who were not liars and/or thieves.  What makes this book, this protagonist, any different from what we’ve already seen?

Mainly that he’s based on an H.G. Wells character–or is, to state it more aptly, a response to that character, to that novel (novella, really–it’s a much shorter book than Smoke).  I don’t need to tell you which novel I’m talking about, do I?  It had been a very long time since I’d read it, and I felt like I better renew the acquaintance.  And as it happens, the only copy we have here at the library is the edition quoted up top, heavily (I’m tempted to say excessively) annotated by Leon Stover (Ph.D),  perhaps the most painstakingly dedicated scholar of Wells’ literary output the world has ever seen.


And perhaps the most fanatically single-minded.  His one goal in dissecting this novel (as he’d already done for several other Wellsian tomes) is to convince us that Wells, without any irony at all, intends the reader to see Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man, a clownish thief and liar (ultimately freelance terrorist and murderer), as the hero of the piece, a proto-revolutionary, a worthy experiment in overturning the old world order that Wells spent his very busy life fulminating against.

Re-reading the book, along with Stover’s many footnoted interpretive interpolations to it, I found many of his points very convincing–illuminating, even.  I began to see what he was getting at.  I read a lot of Wells growing up, but I didn’t know much of anything about him then.  I knew he was a socialist, but so many people were at the time, and most of them didn’t go around cheering a wraithlike thief and killer who didn’t have anything close to a realistic plan of achieving his ethereal objectives, and who mainly seemed to have gone off his nut.

Stover admits there is much ambiguity about the narrator’s true feelings towards the title character, but keeps hammering home a series of fine details embedded in the narrative, little bits of symbolism that do in fact seem to hint Wells saw Griffin as a sort of comi-tragic hero, a failed experiment, but one that might lead in time to a successful one–that is to say, in the total overthrow of bourgeois society, by any means necessary (Wells was partly inspired by the increasingly chaotic career of Sergei Nechayev, who also inspired Dostoevsky–imagine what he could have done if he were invisible), and the setting up of a one world state where all power would be in the hands of a scientific elite, and you know how Plato felt about Democracy, right?

That’s pretty much exactly how Wells felt about it.   Philosopher Kings don’t tend to like the common folk much.  They need a strong hand.  Don’t know what’s good for ’em.  (And who ever does, pray tell?   A counter-revolutionary question, I know.)

Does the late Dr. Stover (he died a bit less than two years before Westlake) overstress his points at times?   I thought so.  I think Wells wrote the book, to a certain extent, in a state of confusion, trapped between two modes of being, between who he was and who he thought he should be, identifying with and loathing both Griffin and his confidante/nemesis Kemp, who speaks for the existing order of things, for law and order and morals and good old English fair play and not hitting random passersby over the head with something heavy just because they annoy you (cathartic as that would unquestionably be, which is why the story in all its myriad forms has always been very popular).

(I must say, Stover does go overboard at times, working his way through an entertaining little genre novel, finding all these buried meanings in it, sifting through every paragraph for clues, acting as if he and he alone can plumb the inner mysteries of the author’s mind, and–hum.  Why does that remind me of someone?  Can’t quite seem to place who.  Well, it’ll come to me.)

Westlake couldn’t have read Stover’s edition, since it came out in 1998, but something must have impelled him to reread Wells’ book in some form.  Maybe he stayed up late one night and watched the brilliant funny little movie James Whale made of it, where as he did with Mary Shelley’s monster, he is once again making it all about his own closeted homosexuality and not telling anyone that’s what he’s doing (Wells probably didn’t even notice that, but he was reportedly deeply upset that Hawley was portrayed as a madman, to which Whale roguishly replied that only a madman would want to make himself invisible in the first place–now that’s a meeting of minds I’d have liked to see).

It’s not at all hard to imagine Westlake thinking to himself, “An invisible thief would be interesting to write about.”  And easy to pitch to a publisher, what’s more.  Ad copy writes itself.

So he went back to the source, viewing it with more insight perhaps than when he first read it, and he wouldn’t have had the same level of context as Stover–but he would have seen beneath the surface of the narrative, as he always did, would have known something of Wells’ beliefs, and what lay behind them (I find, as a general rule, the educated reader is well-advised to assume Westlake is at least as knowledgeable as him/her, and probably much more).  He would probably have known, for example, that Wells was heavily influenced in his thinking by Thomas Carlyle (Stover talks a lot about that).

Westlake’s attitude towards that scribbling Scot was made pretty clear in the opening quote for Up Your Banners.  Carlyle was an elitist, someone who felt the common people, and particularly those of certain types–blacks, Irish–needed to be kept down, put in their place and kept there, maintained in perpetual slavery or serfdom–for their own good, as well as society’s.  Well really, for the good of people like Carlyle, but it sounds so petty when you put it that way.

Wells had a very different set of prejudices and politics than Carlyle, and many other influences, people like Comte and Saint Simon–people who wanted to remake the world in their own image, impose their reality, their identity really, on everyone else, for the sake of universal order and well-being.  Westlake most definitely had a revolutionary thinker lurking around in him–nobody who disliked the rich as much as he could be otherwise–but you only have to read Anarchaos to know that he didn’t think you could ever succeed in making a good world by imposing ideas on people, by leaving everything behind and starting fresh.

He was more of in the Edmund Burke school in that regard.  He disliked change for the sake of change.  You need to shake things up, but you also need some things to stay the same.  More evolutionary than revolutionary.  And close enough to his working class roots to feel a strong irritation towards those who see the proles as mere pawns (as Marx certainly did).

Reading Wells’ book, seeing the confused thought processes of his title character, I was reminded of Dan Tynebourne, the tragically misguided young academic in Don’t Lie to Me, who gets sucked into a subversive scheme by a self-centered mentor who is only using his naive proteges to line his own pockets.  Mitch Tobin, casing Dan’s apartment for clues, sees many signs that Dan is someone with a split in his identity, torn between then and now, wanting to be something he’s not.  He’s wavering between two worlds, like a Walter Scott hero.  He’s not really the revolutionary type, but he thinks he ought to be.  And so many young people go through this phase.  I did.  Westlake probably did too.  Some never really come out of it.  (And some, to be sure, really are revolutionaries by nature, and they can be useful in some situations, enormously destructive in others.)

And might this be what Wells himself was expressing in The Invisible Man? Stover certainly knew him better than me, and his biography of Wells is still unpublished, but it’s possible he missed something that Westlake picked up on–Wells believed in being a revolutionary–yet he visited the Soviet Union, which certainly filled many of the conditions he’d laid out years before for a revolution–and he washed his hands of it, said it would never work out (and of course it didn’t).

He didn’t mind so much Lenin and Stalin killing all those people; that thing Lenin said about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs surely resonated with him.  But it just wasn’t quite right.  Would it ever have been?  Do people who imagine revolutions in their heads ever find precisely what they’re looking for in real life?  They either have to settle for a flawed revolution, or wait for perfection to come, and it never does.  Both approaches have shortcomings.  By the end of his life, Lenin saw his revolution had become Stalin’s, it was all going wrong, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  And of all things, as he faded from existence, his life’s work in ruins, he upbraided Stalin for insulting his wife, Krupskaya. How very bourgeois of him.  Trotsky no doubt had a good laugh about that, before the icepick.

Wells has his unseen protagonist declare against romantic love of any kind, say that he met a girl who had once meant a great deal to him just before turning himself invisible, and she was really nothing special at all–the idea expressed by Nechayev that the true revolutionary has no love, no friends, no attachments of any kind, no compassion for individuals, because this gets in the way of what needs be done.  But Wells himself had a great superfluity of women in his life, two marriages, many affairs, many friends.  And no doubt he sometimes felt this is why all he ever really accomplished in life was writing some very entertaining books.  Tolstoy was much the same way.  Geniuses can be awfully perverse sometimes.

He wanted to destroy the middle class, yet he remained very firmly a part of it all his life, sharing many of its attitudes, and pretty nearly all its prejudices.  His novella savagely satirizes English small town petit-bourgeois life–but that’s the precise life he was born into, the very people he’d come from.  I’d put him in that very large category of British social thinkers who dreamed of changing everything, and yet drew away in horror when actual change seemed to be on the horizon.  “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!”  And one way to deal with that, of course, is to write about revolutionary change happening in the far distant future, which Wells increasingly did over time. (I’d personally say Olaf Stapledon did it better, more insightfully and compassionately and believably, but nobody ever makes movies out of his books, somehow).

(Oh, and not to be picky or anything, but Wells was a pretty nasty anti-semite, which comes out rather obviously in The Invisible Man.  That’s not hard to spot at all.   Oh certainly there are some decent ones, but really the Jews should just assimilate, don’t you think, give up their collective identity–if they don’t–well–you know that thing about the omelette.  In his defense, Wells felt rather badly about some things he’d said and written, after certain events in Europe became clear shortly before his death in 1946.  He meant well.  We all do, right?)

So it’s Wells’ own identity crisis being laid out in the pages of that short novel, and Westlake would have seen that like a shot.  Why does Hawley Griffin fail? Because he doesn’t know who he is.   He can’t see himself, any more than anyone else can.  He becomes visible after his death (which even on the basis of the dubious fictive science that created him, makes no sense) because death has resolved his identity crisis, as it ultimately resolves everyone’s.

Seeing all of this and more, Donald Westlake resolved to write a book that would pattern itself after The Invisible Man, borrowing many of Wells’ ideas (as Wells had borrowed from still-earlier stories), elaborating on them, revisiting them in very different (and oddly similar) settings, fleshing them out quite a bit (there’s no market for a novella in the Mid-90’s), and utterly subverting this highly subversive book.  Because his invisible man won’t be a failure.  He won’t be alone.  And if you called him a thief, he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin, not that you’d see him do it.   He knows who he is.  His main identity crisis was over before the story began.

Frederick Urban Noon was the fourth of nine children born to a working class family in Ozone Park, Queens.  Most of his siblings were honest folks like his parents, but in that large a family, there’s always going to be a black sheep or two.  His sanitation worker father’s salary couldn’t buy him everything he wanted, so he took to stealing, took a few falls, took to drugs, stole even more to support his habit, and finally got sent away for two whole years.  And since an improbable coalition of Muslim and Born Again inmates made damn sure no drugs got into that prison, he had to get himself straight, and when he did, he made an odd discovery–

And here Freddie met a new self.  He hadn’t made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he’d become.  He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him.  He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong.  He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way.  He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back.  It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs.  He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way.  He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn’t stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together.  And Freddie went back to being a thief.  Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

(So that’s twice in three paragraphs we’re told Freddie is foxy, and between Parker the wolf and Dortmunder the coyote, we’ve got a matched set of cunning canids in human form now.  In the last Dortmunder, Westlake had referred to Kelp as fox-like, so no doubt something of Kelp went into Freddie, and something of their creator into both of them.  As the saying goes, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows One Big Thing.”  Westlake was a fox.  Wells perhaps falls into the same category Isaiah Berlin put Tolstoy into–a fox who believes in being a hedgehog.  But I digress.  Foxes always do.  No need to get all prickly about it.)

Some time has clearly passed since Freddie got out of prison, so he’s nearing thirty years of age–which I really shouldn’t need to mention by now is the age Donald Westlake thought people become true adults, and their mature identities emerge–for better or worse.  Hawley Griffin’s disastrous rebellion begins and ends at that very age, same age as his fellow student and mortal enemy, Dr. Kemp, so maybe Wells agreed with that.

A character every bit as significant to the story as Freddie himself is introduced in that quote, also somewhere in her mid/late 20’s, but we don’t actually meet her right away.  First, Freddie has to do his fade, and not being a scientist himself, let alone an albino (as people tend to forget Hawley Griffin was, prior to his disappearing act), he’s got to meet up with some scientists before that happens.  Not mad scientists, by any means.  Though they are a tad–unconventional.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers.  They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research.  Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople’s testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded.  (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.)  David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world.  Their coming together strengthened both.  They’d been inseparable ever since.

I believe these two are the last of Westlake’s really significant gay characters, and he may spend more time on them in this very long book than he did any previous pairings of that persuasion (his most interesting same sex coupling will be making a rather grim return in the near future).

They’re not the villains of the piece, nor are they heroes-they have both sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects to their characters, and you like them without necessarily admiring them. I find they have much in common with the gay couple dabbling in art smuggling, from High Adventure, that Westlake never had time to develop much.  Like that duo, they have a lawyer friend, also gay, who proves to be smarter and and more professional than either of them, and tries to keep them out of trouble (a motif that goes all the way back to A Jade In Aries).

Their main problem is that they are corporate servitors, much as they delude themselves about it, though it becomes increasingly clear to them as the story winds on, just what kind of a devil they’ve made a Faustian deal with.  It’s not the central identity conflict of the story, but it’s important, all the same.  And that kind of conflict, as we all know, is very far from being a gay thing.

They are, in essence, a plot device to explain how Freddie turns invisible, it being important for Westlake’s purposes that this not happen by Freddie’s own choice, as it did with Griffin.  I rather think he agreed with James Whale that only a crazy person would want to make himself invisible, and he figured the romantic days of heroic proto-scientists experimenting on themselves were long gone, necessitating a guinea pig.

And I suspect Westlake made Messrs. Loomis and Heimhocker gay as a backhanded reference to Mr. Whale’s (and Claude Rains’) own sub-textual cinematic take on Wells’ story.  Wells’ dour and sexless Mr. Griffin, we can be sure, was never going to skip happily down the lane in borrowed trousers, singing to himself–he had more important things to do.  More’s the pity.  At least Whale’s Griffin has some fun along the way.

So Freddie breaks into their townhouse/laboratory, hoping to find some valuable stuff he can sell, and as mentioned above, there’s an expensive silent alarm system that alerts them to the break-in at dinner.  Peter, the stronger of the two, insists on going down there with a gun and apprehending the burglar.  He’s got an idea.

Westlake is going with Wells’ idea (adapted in turn from Charles H. Hinton’s Stella, a largely forgotten novel about a girl made invisible by her father to make a rather obscure left-wing political point), that if you could remove all pigmentation from a living creature, and reduce its refractive properties to zero, it would then be imperceptible (Wells knew this would also render the invisible creature’s own sense of sight unusable, and for the purposes of his story, he didn’t care).  But in this case, invisibility is an unforeseen complication resulting from a badly done experiment.

David and Peter are trying to find a way to prevent skin cancer.  They figure reducing the skin’s capacity to absorb sunlight might do the trick.  They’ve already got several translucent felines roaming about the house (a reference to Hawley Griffin first experimenting on a neighbor’s most unwilling cat in Wells’ story).   They have two experimental drugs, one in the form of an injection, and the other is taken orally, in the form of what looks like an after-dinner mint.

Held at gunpoint, Freddie reluctantly agrees to sign a release and allow himself to be injected with the first drug, in exchange for them not calling the cops on him.  They lock him up in a room, after getting his promise to stick around a while for them to monitor the results–but maybe they should have considered the fact that he’s a professional thief.  Not to mention a liar.

(There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word.  I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes; like you’re a straight guy with a nice voice and you want to sing This Heart of Mine, a great little number, and you get to the part where you dream of gay amours, and good thing Fred Astaire got to that one before the transition was complete, or Lucille Bremer would have gotten the wrong idea.)

So they come back from a reheated dinner (David is most upset, dammit he worked hard on that meal), only to find Freddie Noon is gone, having taken the door off its hinges.  And believing, due to a misunderstanding of his they did nothing to discourage, that the after-dinner mint is the antidote to the drug he was given (being an ex-con, he’s well familiar with the potential drawbacks to being a test subject), he’s eaten it.   And left the premises.  With a whole lot of valuable office equipment.  Like that’s their main worry now.  Because those two drugs were never meant to be taken in tandem, and as they compare notes, they realize, to their horror–well, let’s cut to the fade.

Freddie returns to the apartment he shares with Peg, she wakes up after a bad dream about oral hygiene, to find his hand on her breast, and I mean they’re in love and in their 20’s, obviously–

“Mmm, nice,” she whispered, feeling that gentle pressure, feeling him find his way home.  Her left hand reached out in the darkness, toward the bedside table.  “Oh, let me see you,” she whispered, and her fingers found the pull chain.  She pulled, and the light came on, and she SCREAMED.


Her eyes snapped shut.  She thought, Take me back to the dream!  Back into the mouths, anywhere, anywhere but here!

Thrashing on top of her. “Whasa matter?”

She opened her eyes, wide, and stared at the ceiling.  “There’s nobody there!” she screamed, “Oh, my God, I’m going crazy!”

“What?  Whadayou–Holy shit!”

Indeed.  After a few more supplemental expostulations, a story follows, Peg is brought up to speed, and since there’s nothing else they can do right now, they become the first couple in history to have half-visible coitus.  Peg, we are made to understand right away, is no ordinary woman herself.

This isn’t really one of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ stories, since Freddie has already found both himself and The Girl, and merely has to avoid losing them in the wake of this disturbing new development in his life, but Margaret ‘Peg’ Briscoe (the family name of a famed Dublin-Jewish political family, as Westlake surely knew), blonde, very attractive in a practical non-ostentatious sort of way, good-humored, level-headed, flexibly ethical when it comes to such matters as larceny,  and gutsy as all outdoors, may in fact be the only other among Westlake’s numberless young female love interests to be ranked with Chloe Shapiro, that heroic hard-driving hippie chick from his very first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. She’s that great.

And this time through the book, I finally managed to head-cast her.  Shouldn’t have been that hard, really.  Peg is a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  For most of the story, she’s struggling with her feelings for this shameless reprobate, knowing he’s a thief and a liar, knowing she’s enabling his life of crime, and now he’s fuckin’ invisible?   The actress I have in mind was out of her 20’s by the time this book came out, but she’d already played a rather similar character in a little indie crime film. And a while later, she played an older, more prosperous, and rather more tragic version of the same character on The Sopranos.

But Peg is no tragedian, and Freddie proves himself worthy of her in the end.  Ms. Falco could have had a lot of fun with Ms. Briscoe, exercised comedy chops she’s rarely been given a chance to flex in her career.  It’s kind of a tragedy that never happened.

Peg is increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s appearance, or lack thereof.  He manages to hide from her a while the fact that for about two hours after he eats, the masticated food is visible in his gut, before absorbed and somehow rendered invisible as well (another idea that comes from Wells, and neither writer seems much inclined to dwell on the subject of whether it becomes visible again upon excretion, best not to ask).  But if he’s naked in the house, she feels like she can’t know if he’s looking at her, which is creepy.  If he’s dressed, there’s all these gaps where hands and head and such ought to be, which is creepier.

She goes out and gets a collection of Halloween masks for him to wear–Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (it was marked down).  And he’s got to wear rubber gloves.  And he’s got to go out for a walk sometimes, totally naked, and call her so she knows he’s gone out, just so she can feel she’s got some privacy.  (Hawley Griffin inexplicably chose to make himself invisible during an English winter–Westlake, more compassionate and practical-minded, has given Freddie this cross to bear at the start of a New York summer).

During one of these walks, Freddie steals some businessman’s cellphone to call Peg, and with no way to conceal it, ends up being chased by a mob until he throws it away.   Another scene out of Wells’ story, the difference being that Griffin uses it to fuel his growing ressentiment towards all humankind, and justify his bloody crusade.  Freddie just thinks to himself that people are weird, and goes back about his business.

Which is stealing.   It’s actually Peg who brings his attention to the fact that whatever personal drawbacks there may be to invisibility, it’s the precise opposite of a professional disadvantage to him.  He starts devoting some thought to how he can make use of it.  True, he can’t be seen, but anything he picks up still can be.  He can still be felt if someone brushes up against him.  And bare feet on a New York City sidewalk (in summer!) are never a good idea.  But fox that he is, he can usually figure out an angle, given a bit of time.

Before Hawley Griffin takes to murdering people, his primary activity as an invisible man is theft–in fact, before he was invisible, he stole from his own father to buy the materials he needed to fund his experiment, which led to Griffin Sr.’s disgrace and suicide, since the money his son took from him was not his.  He’s stealing all through the book, feeling no guilt over it, but not really owning his actions, or processing the rather obvious fact that those who steal are, by definition, thieves.  He’s a respectable English gentleman, educated, industrious, with a great destiny to achieve.  To each according to his needs and all that, don’t you know.

So as with a funhouse mirror, we’re going to go on viewing Wells’ strangely amoral morality play, Westlake style, played out in a whole new light, with a protagonist who probably couldn’t murder anybody (this being a comic caper), but who could never deceive himself about who he is, or cling to any class delusions, or cherish any revolutionary fever dreams.

And that adamantine sense of self, combined with the love of a good woman, is all he has to anchor himself against a sea of troubles.  And a slew of enemies.  And we’ll see how he does that in Part 2.  And possibly 3.  We’ll see about that too.  But nobody will ever see Freddie Noon again.  See you next week?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)



Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

26 responses to “Review: Smoke

  1. I’ll have more to say about Smoke next week, but I also wanted to mention that it’s worth seeking H.F. Saint’s (only) novel, “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” another take on Wells’ classic. Never mind the movie, the 1987 novel is funny and ingenious and thoughtful, and it’s strange to me that Saint never published another word. As for FUN, I also thought he was very much a Kelp, wandering in from the Dortmunder universe to a stand-alone science fiction story. Kelp would be fascinated, no?

    • Never read that one. And did not have time prior to reviewing this–in both cases, the authors are reacting to and revising H.G. Wells. Westlake’s bete noire is corporate America, whereas Saint seems more into the “Don’t trust the government” angle. I feel like we’ve had something of a surfeit of that lately, but in the 80’s it was a bit fresher.

      • Saint was satirizing Wall Street a bit too. (His hero is a stockbroker who uses his invisibility to make a killing.) And yes, it’s very much a product of the ’80s, and extremely well written. So much so that I’ve often wondered if a more established author used a one-and-done pseudonym, though H.F. Saint does appear to be a real person, albeit one with a very low profile.

    • Martin

      Arrived here late again. Life’s been too busy, as of late.

      According to Wikipedia, there’s a reason why Saint never published another novel. He intended to do so until he was offered $2.5 million for movie rights to ‘Memoir’. Accepting the offer, he retired, instead.

      • And that turned out to be a romantic comedy vehicle for Chevy Chase and Darryl Hannah, directed by that comic master, John Carpenter (William Goldman had a hand in the screenplay, but unfortunately there were other hands). It’s currently 22% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, and grossed a bit over 14 million bucks on a budget of 40 million.

        And they paid him 2.5mil for the rights.

        No wonder he never wrote another book.

        After a score like that, I’d spend the rest of my life laughing.

  2. rinaldo302

    There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word. I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes

    It really doesn’t. Honestly, when was the last time you needed to sing “This Heart of Mine”? Anybody sophisticated enough to be reading a book can make the adjustment that words acquire different meaning in different eras. On the first day of my History of Musicals course, I mention several words and phrases, including this one, that mean something different before about 1960, and my undergraduates adjust immediately. (And by the way, of those terms “making love” is a much bigger problem because it actively suggests a wrong interpretation. Try the typical Victorian-novel sentence “He made love to me upon several occasions, but there was nothing improper in our intercourse.”) Anyway.

    I agree that Westlake never got over it, and this passage is one of the rare occasions where I get seriously annoyed with him. I mean, I’m old enough now to understand the cumulative irritation over many decades of being told that a formerly correct usage is now offensive and will have to be dropped in favor of a new one again, so I don’t even fault him for being reactionary in that way — no doubt at some point I’ll grumble similarly in another context. But in this case he let it affect his work. Because that’s his attitude, not Freddie’s. Freddie, being the age he is at the date of the story, would have heard no other meaning for “gay,” even if it wasn’t the term he’d grown up using. That transition had happened in the 1970s (not that everyone adopted it instantly, but the older meaning dropped from current usage). Westlake usually doesn’t compromise his characters to air his own grievances like that.

    I’m doubtful about David and Peter deriving from Whale in any way, though I always am a skeptic about such relationships, so who knows — it may be my own blind spot and you may be right. But it seemed to me upon all my readings of this book that this was a matter of good construction and characterization: Westlake needed a pair of scientists for the story, and this was a concise way to have them live and work together, and to generate some legitimate comedic tension in their parts of the book. As you say, he’d written similar couples before. (And I always enjoy them.)

    • A reasonable counter-explanation, that doesn’t really conflict with mine–Westlake certainly knew about Whale being gay (lots of people knew while Whale was still alive). He obviously enjoyed writing about same sex couples, and how they have the same kinds of domestic tensions and personality conflicts that straight couples have, while adding a few things to the mix.

      I don’t blame you for being irritated by the rather caustic reference there to ‘gay’, and it really doesn’t do anything at all for the story–it’s a false note. Should have been edited out–it’s not fair, or true, to say most gay people aren’t even that cheerful, but in the 90’s, it might have seemed so, with all the gender identity politics coming into play. Old men get cranky about change, you know that (or you will). Westlake probably thought the gay people he knew in the 60’s were a lot more fun–because in the 60’s, the only openly gay people tended to be more fun. Now the stockbroker/lawyer/CEO types were coming out. Paradigm shift. He’d known they were there before, of course. But now they’re everywhere. Peter Thiel is more or less running Trump’s campaign. Gay can mean a whole lot of things now.

      However, the fact remains that a lot of great old poems and songs and books use that word in an entirely different way (among other things, ‘gay’ used to refer to risque heterosexual goings-on around the turn of the century, which would have inevitably intersected with other out-there forms of sexuality, which is probably how the word ended up meaning what it means now). If your stock in trade is words, it limits your options. Intercourse isn’t really the same thing, since the two meanings have managed to peaceably co-exist (the sexual meaning as a subcategory of the overall meaning).

      Not in this case. The new meaning has basically eradicated the old, which exists now only as a ghost of its former self. And as for those who happen to have that word for a first or last name……something tells me that family name is going to die out in a generation or so. As so many have before. I keep a list of funny-sounding names that didn’t use to sound funny at my desk. Did you know there are people whose last name is Batman? Well, there were, put it that way. Not joking.

      Anyway, here have been some fine compensations for those of us who are into puns–and a song I like just as much as This Heart of Mine. And FYI, I sing This Heart of Mine divinely. Just not where anyone can hear me. 😐

  3. Freddie was a liar. Freddie was a thief.

    One the one hand, there’s no reason to connect this to an ethnic slur. On the other hand, Westlake was far too skilled with words for the similarity to be accidental.

    • A quick google search showed up a number of different Freddies of several different ethnicities who are alleged thieves and liars, so you’ll have to be more specific. Those two words have gone together for a very long time now.

      • rinaldo302

        Of course, Mike.

        If I take your meaning correctly, you’re referring to the clear paraphrase of the nursery rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief” that jumps out of that opening sentence. I would say that Westlake rephrased that famous line specifically to remove the ethnic slur.

        • I never heard that rhyme before in my life (seriously, just looked it up)–and it’s not like there’s ever been much in the way of anti-Welsh prejudice in this country, except perhaps in gambling circles (and that term may in fact have nothing to do with wearers of the leek). But Westlake was well-familiar with this kind of thing, and he was, after all, writing in response to a book written by an Englishman who was not himself without the odd few ethnic prejudices (none against Welshmen that I know of). So yeah, Mike’s right, that was probably in his mind, but it’s not a slur the way he employs it. It’s a statement of fact.

          The things people teach their children to sing. Honestly.

        • rinaldo302

          Ah, if you were as old as I am, you would have seen Bullwinkle enact “Taffy” on Poetry Corner, with the assistance of Boris Badenov. (Though I tend to think I had read it somewhere before that….)

          Ah, here it is:

          • Bullwinkle! How could you! 😮

            I’ve seen all of them, but there were so many, impossible to retain them (though I shall never forget the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayam–she was yar).

            Also, probably when I first saw it, I thought it was weird that sticky candy I never liked was being accused of larceny. Anyway, this particular Taffy is a Pottsylvanian, and it happens they are all liars and thieves. Bwah-ha-ha-heh! 😉

  4. Foxes always do. No need to get all prickly about it.

    Born and bred in the briar patch!

  5. Just finished the book and then found this review. Had already enjoyed the book, and now I have reappraised its seriousness a tiny bit

    • There’s always a lot more context to a Westlake story than you’d ever spot from the first read–more than you need to realize, otherwise it wouldn’t work. It’s just fine as a funny story about an invisible thief. But if that was all he was doing with it, he’d be bored. And if he were bored writing it, we’d be bored reading it.

      And whether one considers him as a ‘serious’ writer or not–one can never accuse him of being dull. (As many a serious writer is, but I name no names.)

  6. Recently I noticed that the hardcover edition of this book makes a cameo appearance in the film JACKIE BROWN (on one of the title character’s apartment shelves). I don’t think Tarantino has ever spoken publicly about Westlake’s work, but he’s clearly a fan.

    • He’s definitely mentioned Stark. In one interview about Reservoir Dogs, he’s asked if he was influenced by Boorman’s editing in Point Blank.

      QT changes the subject obliquely, saying he was influenced by that and other novels by Stark.

      Okay, Point Blank isn’t the novel, the novel is The Hunter (except for the editions that are trying to sell the book through the movie), but I know what he means. He does his own version of a Stark Rewind in that and other films of his. You go back and view the action from a different perspective, or show how a particular scene of mayhem came together in such a such way.

      He’d rather talk about that than Boorman’s editing (technically Henry Berman’s editing), because it’s cooler for him to have gotten an idea from some old crime paperbacks than from a bravura auteur masterpiece on the same general subject as his film. But I’ve no doubt that’s where he did get that idea.

      I don’t think the editing in Reservoir Dogs does resemble that in Point Blank all that much. Film interviewers are so wrapped up in how filmmakers influence other filmmakers, they tend not to know much about anything else. Their frame of reference is too small, because they think film is the whole world. They forget that writing is the foundation of it all.

      The reference to Smoke is interesting, though. I’ll have to look for that. Clearly he kept looking to Westlake for storytelling cues. As well as Leonard. And many others in that genre.

  7. Massimo Graziani

    Checking out your review BEFORE rereading Smoke (finished The Hook yesterday). Stopped dead at this sentence: “Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.”. Believe it or not, I am rereading for the n-th time David Copperfield right now (to accompany my wife who is reading it for the first time, as an audiobook) and I am just about in the middle of it (just finished Chapter 32), and I was thinking that I was coming across a few weak spots here and there. Like the last paragraph of Chapter 32, which intentionally repeats a paragraph of the previous page for added effect (it doesn’t work for me). Or the rather flat last sentence of Chapter 27. I was a little ashamed of being picky with such a masterpiece, but reading your Smoke-related comment on Dickens at this juncture made me feel less bad. Thanks!

    • Remember how Dickens (and many other novelists of the time) wrote novels–as serials for newspapers and magazines. David Copperfield was completed before serialization took place, and Dickens took more time with it than some of his books (certainly The Pickwick Papers), but he still wrote by what Westlake called the ‘Push’ Method. No outline, just forge ahead, let the muse take you where it will, then rewrite where you need to fix things.

      My main critique is the same as Orwell’s–he kills off the interesting girl for one of his ‘legless’ Victorian saints. He doesn’t allow David any real faults besides naivete. He’s writing David as a version of his own young self, which is certainly something novelists do a lot (Westlake not least among them), but he’s a bit self-conscious about it, and as a result, David isn’t that interesting a character–certainly not compared to Micawber, who ends up being the hero of David’s story. (Understand, when he writes that line about whether he’d be the hero or not, that’s Dickens genuinely wondering how the story will turn out).

      Like all very long rambling novels, it’s a bit of a jumble–but an inspired one.

      Westlake, I think, wanted to sometimes do long novels just to see what it was like to write like Dickens, a bit. He loved the guy. He knew his gift was more for shorter more focused narratives. But he did have multitudes living inside of him. It’s only in a long novel you can really stretch out, try obscure byways, create a whole population of characters, a sort of community within the covers of a book.

      I was just recently reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for the first time, and there’s a chapter in there directly influenced by the climax of David Copperfield, where a villainous plot is saved by an unlikely hero, in much the same way as Micawber saves David. (And again, the protagonist is in some ways based on Dostoevsky himself). But it all turns out very differently. Dostoevsky was no Dickens–he still revered him. Every writer did. And, I would hope, still does.

      There may be perfect novels, but there are no perfect long novels. The further you go into the routine, the harder it is to stick the landing. (And the more time the reader has to imagine his or her own perfect ending, which will never be the storyteller’s, and this is why people were always going to complain about the ending of Game of Thrones(which I thought ended beautifully), and they’ll complain about Martin’s ending too, which I suspect is why he’s never going to finish the books).

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