Review: Smoke, Part 2

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

From To A Louse, by Robert Burns

“The more I thought it over, Kemp, the more I realised what a helpless absurdity an Invisible Man was,–in a cold and dirty climate and crowded civilised city.  Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages.  That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.  I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable.  No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.  Ambition–what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?  What is the good of the love of woman when her name must needs be Delilah?  I have no taste for politics, for the blackguardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport. What was I to do?  And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!”

Slowly, stroke by stroke, the face began to appear.  It was like magic, or like a special effect in the movies.  Cheeks, nose, jaws, all emerging out of the air, the slightly woodsy tan color of Max Factor pancake makeup.  Freddie complicated matters by flinching away from the brush a lot, and even sneezing twice, but nevertheless, slowly and steadily, they progressed.

Partway along, with just the major areas roughed in, the forehead and on down, Peg reared back to study him, and said, “I don’t remember you like that.”

“Like what?”

“That that’s the way you look.  Freddie?  I think I’m beginning to forget what you look like.”

The parts of the face that now existed contrived to express surprise.  “You know what? he said. “Me too.  I was just thinking this morning, when I was shaving.  I’m not sure I really remember what I look like, either.  If I saw me on the street, I don’t know that I’d recognize me.”

According to Leon Stover, that indefatigable student of all things relating to Herbert George Wells, Hawley Griffin (H.G. get it?), The Invisible Man, was named after that winged mythological beast of yore, because the griffin/gryphon is the vengeful destroyer of greedy avaricious men, and furthermore preys on horses, symbols of the aristocratic ‘horsey set’ of England.

Nobody to my knowledge has ever devoted that kind of intense etymological scrutiny to this book, so I guess I’ll have to try.  Why is Frederick Urban Noon named so?  Well, Frederick could denote a conqueror, I suppose.  Frederick the Great.  But more likely, it’s just a name Westlake liked to use, and frequently did (Fred Fitch, for example).

The Urban thing is fairly self-explanatory, Freddie being a New York City boy, born and bred, from a good Catholic family in the Ozone Park section of Queens (no doubt that’s also significant).  His middle name is derived from one of eight different popes, so good luck trying to get any theological/historical/allegorical meaning out of that.  The second Urban famously started the Crusades, and a few of them were later made saints, and I can’t see any reference there to Frederick Urban at all.

Ah, but Noon.  Good Irish name, that, frequently ends with an ‘e.’  There a subtler meaning can be discerned.  Because Noon shares a common liturgical origin with None, referring originally to the prayers said at 3:00pm each day at meals. Which has the additional meaning of–well, you know that.  And I need hardly explain how it applies to our hero.  Hey, this subtextual scholarship isn’t so hard.  I might as well have finished my doctorate, but of higher degrees I as yet have noon.

Thing is, nobody ever paid much attention to Freddie or any other of the nine Noon offspring, all of them nobodies.  They grew up, we’re told at the very beginning of this story, next door to JFK Airport–

Throughout his childhood, the loud gray shadows of the wide-body jets swept across and across and across Freddie Noon and his brothers and his sisters and his house as though to wipe them clear of the table of life; but every shadow passed and they were still there.

But now Freddie Noon casts no shadow at all.  A burglary gone wrong led to his becoming the unwilling guinea pig of two madly gay (but not gaily mad) scientists working on a preventative treatment for melanoma on behalf of a company that makes and markets cancer sticks, of which we shall be hearing more anon.

The drug is supposed to reduce skin pigmentation, which would supposedly prevent skin cancer.  Through an unfortunate miscommunication, Freddie took both of the experimental drugs they were working on (prior to walking out of their nicely appointed townhouse with many of its appointments), which have now abolished all pigmentation from his body, leaving him imperceptible to the mortal eye, even the loving eyes of his girlfriend Peg.

He’s not sure how long this condition will last, and since you might as well make hay while the sunshine passes right through  you, we rejoin him and Peg as they make a foray into Manhattan’s famed Diamond District.  Freddie is invisible, not intangible, and items he picks up remain visible themselves, seeming to float in mid-air, so his native wit shall be sorely taxed in the course of pulling this heist.

But as Hawley Griffin discovered before him, perhaps the greatest challenge to an invisible man involves walking down a crowded city street.

All those bodies in motion formed a constantly changing woven fabric, a six-foot-high blanket of rolling humanity, and now it was Freddie’s job to weave himself horizontally through this fabric, slipping through the weft and warp without any of the textile becoming aware of his existence; to be, in short, the ultimate flea.  To do all of that, and to do it successfully, would require every bit of his concentration, leaving nothing for the careful self-protective study of this dubious sidewalk that the surface really deserved.  Freddie knew his bare feet were just going to have to get along as best they could.

Freddie took one tentative step away from the van, and here came hurtling two hooky-playing kids in big sneakers, waving cigarettes and laughing at each other’s dumb jokes.  Freddie dodged them, but then almost ran into a guy carrying a roll of tarpaper on his shoulder, coming out of the roofing-company truck.  A rollout in the other direction put Freddie in the path of three middle-aged Japanese women, marching arm in arm, cameras dangling down their fronts, forming a phalanx as impenetrable as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.

Improvising his way past these and many other obstacles, Freddie gets inside one of the diamond merchant establishments, and uses a self-absorbed woman shopping for jewels to cover his exit with the loot.  Without a visible accomplice he can rely on, however (something the self-absorbed Hawley Griffin repeatedly failed to obtain), unlikely he’d be able to pull any of this off.  He’s so excited by his achievement, he tells Peg he’s going back for more.  As a thief, Invisible Freddie is a smashing success.

Freddie pulls two other scores in the book–a furrier’s warehouse in Queens gets burgled after-hours, but his only real problem there is that the place is heavily refrigerated, and he’s naked, so he ends up beckoning Peg in with the van so they can load it up with pelts while he’s wearing a fur coat and nothing else over his own invisible pelt, which freaks her out more than she let’s on.  Peg is just not adjusting well to Freddie’s condition at all.

In crafting the chapters involving heists, Westlake is, you might say, offering his professional criticism of Wells’ invisible protagonist, and his own attempts at thievery.  Griffin, who refuses to admit he even is a thief (because that would be so lower-class), is nonetheless constantly stealing from others, rationalizing to beat the band about how he has no other choice, he’s a revolutionary and all–but his actual technique leaves much to be desired.   He’s clumsy, careless, and often unnecessarily violent.  He doesn’t really ever think it through, and often has to abandon his loot, because he has no way of transporting it.  When he tries to get an accomplice, an indigent drunk, to hold the loot for him, the accomplice simply walks away with it (and at the end is hoarding a copy of Griffin’s scientific notes, while enjoying the expropriated fruits of Griffin’s larceny).

The most obvious point of comparison relates to Griffin trying to rob ‘Omniums,’ a London superstore, containing every imaginable item someone could want.  “A huge meandering collection of shops rather than a shop.”  Omniums is fictional, but the department store was already in its formative stages, in Britain and elsewhere, and Wells clearly found it an interesting capitalist development. Later, Griffin robs a much humbler establishment, representative of a dying form of commerce (that has actually taken a damned long time to die, since Westlake depicts a similar rundown shop in The Sour Lemon Score.)

Griffin gets in while Omniums is open, wanders around unseen  until it’s closed, and then helps himself to whatever he needs.  He intends to get food, clothing, and money, and then set himself up in an apartment, but having laid himself down to sleep on some quilts, clothed against the cold, he’s quickly discovered by the returning employees at dawn, and has to leave with nothing.  Though he does toy with the idea of mailing himself a parcel of goodies from the warehouse–he can’t figure out how.  He knows how to make someone invisible, but until he actually was, it never occurred to him how much work and thought was involved in making practical use of such an attribute, and thieving turns out to be much harder work than he’d imagined.

And what would the one writer most known for stories about thieves have said to all that?  “Amateur.”  And then he might say, “What would be the 1990’s equivalent of the department store?”

Wednesday, July 5, the day after the long hot exhausting holiday weekend, was a quiet one at the Big S Superstore on U.S. Route 9, the main commercial roadway on the east side of the Hudson River.  A few retirees with nothing else to do wandered the cavernous interior of this warehouse-type store, the no-frills successor to the department store, where mountains of items were piled directly on the concrete floor or stuffed to overflowing on unpainted rough wooden shelves.  Once you became a “member” of their “club” (not a hard thing to do), you could buy everything in here from a television set (and the unpainted piece of furniture to hide it in) to a goldfish bowl (and the goldfish) to put on top of the set for those times when there’s absolutely nothing to watch on TV.  You could buy canned and frozen food, truck tires, toys, books, washing machines, flowers, tents (in case your house fills up), small tractors, bicycles, benches, lumber to make your own benches, double-hung windows, storm windows, snow tires, dresses with flowers on them, blue jeans, and baseball caps honoring the team of your choice.

Here in the Big S (“the Big Sore for Big Savings!”), in other words, you could get everything you used to be able to get in the Sears Roebuck catalog, except now you have to go to the warehouse and pick it up instead of phoning it in and having them send it to you.  People enjoy a new wrinkle, and the warehouse you go to instead of phoning it is a very successful new wrinkle indeed.  Even the day after the big Fourth of July weekend, there were people in the place; not many of them, but some.  And in among the retirees with nothing better to do was an attractive young woman talking to herself.

And we need hardly be told who she’s really talking to, or why they are there. Freddie needs a really big score.  There are no end of re-saleable items here, but how can he get them in large enough quantities to give him the return on his labors he seeks, when he can’t make the goods themselves invisible?  This is the problem that thwarted Invisible Man The First (as Griffin modestly dubbed himself), but Invisible Man the Westlake Heister is made of sterner stuff.  If you want to effectively steal from large-scale shopkeepers, you need to understand and penetrate their bureaucracy, something wild-eyed revolutionaries tend not to do very well, visible or not.

At the top, he found the second floor was mostly one large room with a vaguely underwater feel.  The industrial carpet was light green, the walls and ceiling cream, the fluorescent lighting vaguely greenish, the office furniture gray.  The could be on the Nautilus, and out beyond those venetian blinds could be the deep ocean itself, with giant octopi swimming through the submarine’s powerful searchlights.

Instead of which, of course, this was the command center of the Big S, a long, low-ceilinged air-conditioned humming space full of clerks, mostly women, with an enclosed office at the far end for the manager.  Freddie looked around and saw, positioned atop the desk nearest the stairs, a small TV monitor showing the space in front of the desk below.  The woman seated at that desk was entering an endless series of numbers into her computer terminal, reading from a two-inch-thick stack of pink vouchers.  While Freddie watched, an employee appeared in the monitor and pushed the button; the woman at the desk never looked away from the vouchers but just reached out, pressed a button in front of the monitor, and went on with her typing.

Routine is the death of security.

Yeah, tell us about it.

Having learned to his pleasure that the Big S does not employ any guard dogs, Freddie figures out how to use one of the computer terminals to arrange for a very large shipment of valuable items to be loaded onto a truck by the loading dock, which he can just drive away with.  He and Peg return later, and carry the plan off without any significant hitches–the hitch comes when he drops the goods off with his fence.

This book has a whole lot of sub-plots to it, and I can’t possibly cover them all in any great depth.   One involves Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence Freddie uses, who is basically a more repellent version of Arnie Albright from the Dortmunder books–and who knew that was even possible?  Arnie has a famously unappealing personality and really bad breath; his idea of interior decoration is to paper his walls with old calendars–but compared to Jersey Josh, he’s George Freakin’ Clooney.

His apartment, where he keeps all his stolen goods, is right over by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and those of you who are New Yorkers know what a terrible place that would be to live (it’s getting gentrified never), but somehow it just suits him.  Dingy, gaseous, and toxic.  That’s Josh.

Long story short, Freddie phones Josh to say he’s sick and is sending Peg over with the gems from his first invisible score, and upon viewing her womanly charms, Josh immediately decides to rape her.  I mean, he doesn’t think of it that way.  He’s just going to hit her over the head with something to quiet her, and have a quick date, nothing wrong with that, guy has to have a social life, doesn’t he?  And of course, appearances to the contrary, Peg isn’t really alone, and Josh gets hit over the head with something while he’s eagerly groping Peg–he can’t figure out how she did it.

But Jersey Josh is a persistent fellow, and when Peg shows up with the furs from the next heist, he’s ready to try again, and by this time Freddie & Peg have had quite enough, so Freddie arranges for Josh to get a friendly visit from the Doberman Pinschers who guard the business establishment downstairs, and feel about Josh pretty much the same way everybody else who ever met him does.  (I do believe Westlake is starting to warm up to dogs just a bite, I mean bit.)

So this has been an enjoyable enough running plot thread, but it’s getting a bit more serious as Freddie and Peg drive to the arranged meeting place in the old meatpacking district of Manhattan, where Josh and some vaguely mobbed-up associates are going to accept delivery of the goods and hand over the cash.  If they feel like it.  I mean, it’s not like Josh has any bad feelings about being hit over the head, nearly ripped to pieces by savage dogs, and not getting past first base with Peg.  That would be petty, right?

As we’ve seen him do before ( Castle In The Air, that aside about the Paris canal system, which has since gone on to become a tourist attraction), Westlake focuses in on a neglected piece of industrial-era infrastructure that will, in the 21st century, become one of New York’s most-visited amenities).

A long long time ago there was an actual slaughterhouse in Manhattan, way down below Greenwich Village, near the Hudson River.  In the nineteenth century, they had cattle drives to Fifth Avenue, bringing the cows to the slaughterhouse, but then they built a railroad line that was partly in a cut between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, which is still used by trains from the north coming down to Penn Station, in the West Thirties.  Going down from there, the old train line was elevated, at second-floor level, and ran all the way downtown, the trains that carried the doomed cows trundling south and south, as buildings were constructed all around the track, and neighborhoods grew up, until here and there the elevated train line was actually inside buildings along its route.

Then it all came to an end.  The slaughterhouse shut down and there was less and less manufacturing of other kinds in lower Manhattan, and fewer and fewer cargo ships from Europe that unloaded there, so there was no longer a need for a railroad line down through Manhattan south of Penn Station.  But that old elevated line had been constructed of iron, and built strong enough to carry many tons of train and beef, and it was not an easy thing to tear that big old monster down, so for the most part it was left standing.  Here and there, when new construction was under way, it made ense to remove a part of the old line, but most of it is still there.  It’s there today, just above your head, black old thick iron crossing the street, out of that old building and into that old building, an artifact from an earlier and more powerful time.

And now a place to idly stroll with your sweetheart and drink lattes, surrounded by bars and restaurants.  Westlake lived to see construction on the High Line begin–wonder what he made of that.

The meeting place is in a deserted factory in the West Village, near the elevated tracks.  Freddie’s stolen truck has just enough clearance to get underneath those tracks (I’ve seen big rigs get stuck that way).  This time Freddie is wearing his Dick Tracy mask, and maybe this is why Josh acts like one of those grotesque Dick Tracy villains (maybe Mumbles, since he speaks in words of mainly one syllable, and sometimes just one letter–he pronounces the word ‘yes’ as ‘S’).  Pretty much on a whim, he decides he’s going to take the truck and all that’s inside it, and give Freddie nothing in return.  A very real chance Peg gets thrown into the bargain.

We have by now seen many examples of how stupid it is to doublecross a Westlake heister–how much stupider would it be to doublecross an invisible Westlake heister?  Not that they know he’s invisible–which just makes their situation more hopeless.

“Peg,” Freddie said, “go around the block,” and he was already ripping off the head and gloves when he dove down and went rolling under the trailer.

The henchmen shouted as Peg accelerated, and Josh missed her wrist by a millimeter.  The van went tearing away down the block.  The henchmen ran around both ends of the truck.  Josh bent to peer under the trailer, seeing nothing, hauling out his own very old and well-used pistol, just in case Freddie decided to come rolling back.

The henchmen met at the far side, and stood over a pile of clothing on the sidewalk there.  “He’s naked,” one of them said.

“Duhhh,” the other one said, and fell down.

The first henchman stared.  It was a brick, is what it was, a big dirty brick, waving around in the air all on its own, and now it was coming after him.  He backed away, stumbling over Freddie’s clothes, dropping to one knee in his panic, and took a shot up at the damn brick, and the bullet zipped away up into the infrastructure of the railroad, binging and caroming off the metal up there for quite a while.

With a moan, the henchman dropped his pistol, swung about, and tried to escape on all fours, which meant he didn’t have far to drop, when he dropped.

Josh had a whole lot of money there–for Freddie and for his two associates.   Freddie gets all of it–a hundred grand.  Josh gets to explain the loss of the money to his associates, after they all wake up (Josh doesn’t get knocked out–he faints dead away).  And that’s the last we see of Jersey Josh Kuskiosko.   But an invisible man with well over a hundred grand is still an invisible man.  Peg is about to tell Freddie that he’s lost something worth a whole lot more.

Yeah, I’m really skipping around, aren’t I?   My main interest here in Part 2 is showing how Westlake was riffing on the H.G. Wells novella, updating it.  I’d guess Jersey Josh is Westlake’s riff on Mr. Marvel, Hawley Griffin’s unreliable partner in crime.   But maybe the best riff of all occurred much further back in the book, Chapter 19, when Freddie and Peg, fleeing the city because they’ve become aware there’s people after them (more on that next time), are looking for a summer rental to hide out in, and have a brief stay at a quaint little Bed & Breakfast establishment in the Hudson Valley, just outside Rhinebeck.

See, probably nothing in the Wells novella is more fun than the humorous early chapters, where the people of the quaint little English village of Iping ,which really exists (as indeed does Rhinebeck) have to deal with a stranger who will not let them see his face (because he doesn’t have one anymore).  Wells used these chapters to mock the simple people of Iping, who remain unaware for a rather long time that there’s an invisible man in their midst, staying at a local inn maintained by a respectable older woman, who is rightly horrified by Griffin’s rude behavior.

So what would be the American late 20th century equivalent of Janny Hall, the late 19th century proprietress of the Coach and Horses Inn, catering mainly to urban tourists who want to experience the rural England they’ve read about in books; friendly, sociable, but an inveterate busybody who wants to know everybody’s business?

City people, they think they know it all.  Mrs. Krutchfield, a buxom motherly woman rather beyond a certain age, was sorry, but she just couldn’t help it, New Yorkers rubbed her the wrong way, they always had.    They were never impressed by anything.  You can take your tourist families from faraway places like Osaka, Japan, and Ionia, Iowa, and Urbino, Italy, and Uyini, Bolivia–and Mrs. Krutchfield could show you all of them in her visitors’ book with their very excellent comments–and you could show them your wonders of the Hudson River valley, and you could just happen to mention that this lovely old pre-Revolution farmhouse, now The Sewing Kit bed-and-breakfast outside Rhinebeck, was known to be haunted by a British cavalry officer slain under this very roof in 1778, and those people are, in two words, im pressed.

But not New Yorkers.  It was such a pity, then, since The Sewing Kit was a mere 100 miles straight north of Manhattan, into the most scenic countryside, that New Yorkers were so much more important to her operation than all the Osakians and Ionians and Urbinos and Uyunis put together.  Mrs. Krutchfield just bit her lip and kept her own counsel and tried not to look at the “wives” ring fingers, and did her level best to treat the New Yorkers just like everybody else.

(Including the ‘Briscoe snip’ as Mrs. Krutchfield’s privately thinks of our Peg, who gets checked into the General Burgoyne room, is blithely unaware of Mrs. Krutchfield’s opinion of her, and probably couldn’t care less.  Because seriously, rest of the world, we Gothamites don’t need to care what you all think of us, and I’m not saying that’s fair, but it’s reality.   We just don’t care.   And you know you’re going to come see us in your millions anyhow, so let’s  move on, shall we?)

As she heads up to her room, Peg, who has been regaled about the resident ghost, is informed that yes, there’s literature in every room, telling about him, and she sighs resolutely, saying “Well, we can only hope for the best.”  Well, we the readers certainly can.  Freddie Noon has had one hell of a practical joke played on him just recently.  Only fair that he shares the wealth.

That evening, the current guests are settled down in the parlor, watching television with Mrs. Krutchfield.  She’s got a satellite dish.  She controls the remote.  Or so she thinks.

At first, everything was normal and serene.  Then, at just about four minutes past nine, as everybody was contentedly settling in to watch a program broadcast from some parallel universe in which, apparently, there was a small town where the mayor and the fire chief and the high school football coach spent all their time joshing with one another at a diner run by a woman suffering from, judging by her voice, throat cancer, all at once the TV set sucked that picture into itself, went click and spread across itself an image of three people moving on a bed, with no covers on.  With no clothing on!  Good gracious, what are those people doing?

Some horrible corner of the satellite village, some swamp beside the information highway, had suddenly thrust itself–oh, what an awful choice of words!–onto their TV screen.  Gasping and shaking and little cries of horror ran through the room as Mrs. Krutchfield grabbed frantically for the remote control, only to find it had somehow fallen to the floor under her chair.

The channel keeps changing, one disturbing program after another.  Finally a refuge of black and white calm–TCM, no doubt–a woman is walking along the edge of a cliff.  With her clothes on, regrettably, since it happens to be–

“Gene Tierney!” cried a midwestern gentleman who had not shut his eyes.

She wouldn’t do things like that!” cried a midwestern lady, whose eyes were still firmly sealed.

“It’s a movie!” cried another midwestern gentleman.

Eyes opened.  On-screen, the action had moved indoors, into an extremely cute cottage not unlike The Sewing Kit itself, though perhaps a bit more cramped.  In this setting a recognizable Rex Harrison marched and harrumphed, dressed like a pirate captain or something, and behaving in a rough-and-ready way that didn’t at all suit him.  Also, you could see through him, which was odd.

A midwestern gentleman said, “It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

A midwestern lady said, “I remember that series.  But it wasn’t Rex Harrison.”

“No, no, no,” said the gentleman.  “This is the original movie.”

“There was a movie?”

A Canadian, somewhat younger, said, “There was a television series?”

A midwestern lady gave out a sudden shriek.  “It’s the ghost!” she cried.

“And Mrs. Muir,” said her companion on the sofa.

“No!  The ghost!  Colonel Pardigrass!”

That shut them up.  For a minute or two everyone in the room just sat and gazed at Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, finding love–or something–across the centuries.  So much pleasanter to contemplate than those other people.

This is all a great surprise to Mrs. Krutchfield, since she just made up the ghost out of whole cloth, or ectoplasm, whatever.  The real estate agent told her there were stories about ghosts connected to the old farmhouse that is now The Sewing Kit, and he was probably making that up to sell her the place, but all the fine details came from a newspaper story she’d read about a British colonel who had been murdered long ago in the general vicinity, and it might as well have been her converted farmhouse as anyone else’s this happened at.  A nice conversation piece for her hostelry.  But he’d always been such a respectable phantasm before now.  What could have possibly gotten into the Colonel?  Can you find an exorcist in the Yellow Pages?

Hawley Griffin is in too distracted and self-centered a mental state to really enjoy being invisible, you see.  His creator is having fun with these people, but he’s not.  He more or less inadvertently horrifies Mrs. Hall and her other guests with his bumbling invisible antics, terrorizes the entire village of Iping as the story goes on, and a short time later they terrorize him, in the process of beating him to death.  There are potential consequences to scandalizing small town people, you know.

But Freddie knows himself, he knows his limitations, and he knows how to have fun, and that’s all he was having here.  He and Peg leave the next morning, and she tells him that wasn’t very funny, and he asks then why is she still laughing?  Same reason we are.  Donald Westlake was not the social prophet Wells was, but he was a much better writer of comic fiction.

There may be other points of direct comparison between The Invisible Man and Smoke, but I can’t think of any offhand, and there is much in this book that owes nothing whatsoever to Mr. Wells, so I think I’m going to call this Part 2, and devote Part 3 to those remaining thematic elements of Westlake’s book.  Which is decidedly not one of the more tightly structured of Westlake’s books.  And consequently, this is not one of my  more tightly structured reviews.  Assuming you think I’ve ever written any tightly structured reviews.

See, this book isn’t named Smoke because its hero is a wraithlike specter who vanishes into thin air.  It’s named Smoke because its primary satiric target is the tobacco industry and its servitors.  And we’ll be talking about them next time.

(And yes, I’m horribly late with this, but let’s just say there have been distractions.  Personal and Political.  I don’t really know which is worse.)

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16 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

16 responses to “Review: Smoke, Part 2

  1. Adi

    A lil bit off topic:

    I guess, Parker stopped smoking when Westlake did. Only major figure to never quit smoking was May, wasn’t she?

    • No, May had definitively kicked the habit before the events of Drowned Hopes (not the craving, since nobody ever kicks that). I’ve often wondered if she tried vaping, once that became a thing. Somehow, I don’t see that working out for her.

  2. I’m curious what might have been going on with Westlake personally when he wrote Smoke. It sparks with his usual wit and inventiveness, of course, but there’s a hint of sourness that hangs over the proceedings, a caustic cynicism that’s a shade nastier than Westlake’s usual cheerful cynicism. It’s a matter of a few degrees, but some of the authorial asides, unattributable to a character’s POV, are just slightly uglier than I’m used to with Westlake.

    We saw this a bit in Don’t Ask too, but take (for example) Westlake’s mini-rant about the World Trade Center in that book (which I quoted in the comments as a classic bit of Westlakian crankiness) and compare it to this passage from Smoke:

    Bay Ridge is one of the more crime-free neighborhoods of Brooklyn, mostly because it is populated by so many hot-headed ethnics who take crime personally and who in any case like to beat up on people.

    Wait, what?

    Or how about this one:

    Still, it wasn’t often that Jersey Josh’s phone rang, so when it did on that Monday evening a little after six, while he was watching several children being burned alive in their tenement apartment on the local news (their mother had only left the place for a minute, to get milk, Cheerios, and crack), Josh turned a very suspicious head to glower at the telephone, daring it to repeat that noise.

    There’s some social commentary in that sentence, and it’s not directed at the government’s decades-long mishandling of the “war on drugs.” Its derision is directed at the crackhead mother who abandoned her children. (Although the mother’s race is not identified in the text, statistics regarding crack use as well as tenement apartment occupancy suggest she’s African American.) Compare that to Westlake’s depiction of Freddie’s recovery from addiction (a phrase Westlake wouldn’t use here), accomplished via outside forces acting against his will.

    It’s not overt, but there’s just a whiff of something, well, ugly here. At least to me. What do others think?

    • And, I messed up the blockquoting. Great.

    • I think it’s not nearly as bad here as it was in the previous book, but it’s been there for a while now, yeah. He’s not the same man he was in the 60’s and early 70’s. Well, was anybody?

      He’s angry, yes–and he’s not entirely sure where the anger should go–or really, where it shouldn’t. Partly age, partly the times (he’s just about to write his angriest book ever), and part of it is him just finding it hard to see anybody to root for.

      I’m reminded of the end of Romain Gary’s White Dog, written at the height of America’s late 60’s racial strife (far worse than today, whether we want to believe it or not), and he’s found racism everywhere, even among those who should know best what a trap it is. There’s this scene where he is talking to a young white Frenchwoman of exceptional character and grace, married to a young black American. She has risen above the hate, has given herself over to love entirely, and he thinks “It is so good, at long last, to respect someone.” Westlake was finding it hard to respect anybody. An individual here, an individual there, sure. There’s always people worth rooting for. But groups? That’s a lot harder. He’s angriest at the rich and powerful, but who’s making it so easy for them to stay that way?

      The hot-headed ethnics–well, sorry, that’s just real. Remember what happened to Michael Griffith at Howard Beach? (Griffith–Griffin? Maybe just coincidence. Then again, who are the real Invisible Men in these United States? And don’t a lot of them end up the same way Hawley Griffin did, for far less reason, or none at all?)

      Bensonhurst would be another example. I haven’t heard any stories about Bay Ridge, but I bet there are some. I’ve never spent much time there. It’s a schlep. And remember, please, some of those hot-headed ethnics would be Irish. Certainly in Bay Ridge. Maybe that’s why he singled it out. Anyway, that one didn’t bother me.

      The other–well, Neil Young felt the same way, right? (“There’s a woman in the night–with a baby in her hands–“) That song came out just a few years before this book. And look who had the fucking nerve to open his Presidential campaign with it. You know, it’s hard not to be sour in the Free World, sometimes, Greg.

      It probably seems uglier because this is, in the main, a light-hearted comic romp. Nobody actually dies in it, I don’t believe. Not a single bullet wound. So it seems incongruous, jarring, in this comic caperesque context, and perhaps it’s supposed to be. Or perhaps he’s just sick to hell of writing comic capers.

  3. Nobody dies, but there are some pretty grim implied fates for many of he characters. This is something else Westlake specialized in — side characters whose lives are altered considerably for the worse as an incidental byproduct of the actions of Westlake’s protagonists. They’re not innocent bystanders exactly, because no one is truly innocent in Westlake’s universe. But they were sailing along pretty good there for awhile before being (often inadvertently) spun off into catastrophe by our “heroes.” (I’ll have more to say about this in Part 3, and again when we get to What’s the Worst That Could Happen? and The Ax and Comeback and Backflash and Flashfire and…)

    • I wouldn’t go as far as to say nobody is innocent in his books–no question, he does believe there are genuinely good people in this world, people who don’t deserve to have bad things happen to them. And being the God of his universe, he mainly arranges for them to get off relatively unscathed. One major exception, that turned out to be his best book.

      You want to talk about grim implied fates? The Hot Rock ends with the very strong implication that Major Iko is going to face deadly consequences when he returns to his country. In a later book, we’re told he might have been eaten.

      I’d say Westlake wanted to be a just God, but a just God, as he sees it, would also be a vengeful one. There are people who richly deserve punishment, and too often they get off scot-free. Not on his watch. His object all sublime…..

      But again, and always, the key is knowing yourself. As long as you truly know yourself, you can do no evil. You may do harm, but that’s somehow not the same thing.

      In trying to understand his authorial POV, I am not, of course, invariably agreeing with it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Depends on my mood. Right now, I most emphatically agree. There are those who need to be punished. And ya know, we all deserve to die. Even you, Mr. Tulonen, even I. 😐

  4. The 1927 Yankees had a pitcher named Urban Shocker. Probably irrelevant, but we know Westlake appreciated embarrassing names.

    This one’s wholly irrelevant: Judy-Lynn del Rey had a stuffed bull she called “Urban”, because he was a papal bull. Urban was best known as the functionary at Ballantine Books people were advised to write to to get the reunion scene from The Princess Bride.

    • I’m going to add that one to my collection. Urban Shocker. That goes on the list I’m keeping, right after Alfred Peter Poorman (it’s not alphabetized). OCLC (a database at the library that I use to look up weird names, though that is not remotely what it was designed for), has “Shocker Family”, “Allan D. Shocker,” and “Dan Shocker.” No Urban, so I guess he never wrote any books or articles. That’s a shock.

  5. Also, Freddie’s monogram is FUN.

    • Which is specifically referenced in the book (Westlake didn’t want anyone to miss the joke), and I just forgot to mention it here, because there’s way too many details in this book to keep in one’s mind, and I never take notes. 🙂

  6. impenetrable as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.

    I hate to say it, but that’s the wrong simile. Offensive lines try to be impenetrable; defensive lines try to penetrate.

    • This would be a great topic for the barflies at the OJ to opine upon.

      But they’d probably get hung up on what the word ‘opine’ means.

      • “You know how you can tell a yuppie? They talk weird. Like, when you say ‘possum’, they tell you it’s ‘o-possum’.”

        “Yeah, and instead of ‘pine’, they say ‘o-pine'”.

        “Where did yuppies all come from, anyway? I never seen any of them, and then one day suddenly New York is full of them.”

        “I think it’s like that movie where they grow in pods.”

        “You mean, ‘o-pods’.”

        • “Invasion of the Booty Snatchers.”

          “What?”

          “That’s the name of the movie with the pods.”

          “Is it about pirates?”

          “No, it’s about aliens.”

          “What do Mexicans have to do with any of this?”

          “Not that kind of alien.”

          “I got no problem with Mexicans, I like tacos.”

          “Or as Yuppies would call them, ‘o-tacos.'”

          “Is that your o-pine-ion?”

          “This conversation is getting to be more impenetrable than the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.”

          “Offensive line.”

          “What’s so offensive about it? I thought you were a Jets fan.”

          Your turn.

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