I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.
“Nobody has ever seen me,” she said. “Seen me. Neither of my husbands ever saw me; they both felt cheated whenever that trophy on the shelf acted as though it were an actual living creature. The last time my looks gave me pleasure I was probably nine years old. I can’t scar myself deliberately, that would be stupid. But this? Why not? No one can see me anyway, so why not be invisible? Make the rest of my life a phone-in? With pleasure.” That dazzling smile had something too shiny in it. “Let’s hope your invention is a success, Dr. Heimhocker,” she said.
I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr. Nobody.
’Tis he who always tears out books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr. Nobody.
Nobody admits to writing this.
In writing about an invisible man, Westlake was primarily influenced by the first and best-known book on that subject, reacting to it, revising it, as I detailed last week. But he could not possibly have failed to see the significance of a far more important book with virtually the same title, published when he was a teenager.
I don’t know when he first read it, but I would bet everything I own that he did. Invisible Man is the supreme 20th century novel of human identity. The fact that it’s specifically about the African American experience, black identity, does not in any way detract from its universality, any more than Shakespeare’s tendency to write ancient Romans, Danish princes, and medieval Scots as Elizabethan English people detracts from his universality.
We all know what it’s like to have people look at us and not really see us. And in that moment of empathy, we can see past our own parochial little worlds, and feel the pain of Ellison’s nameless narrator, down in his basement, see his point of view, see him–and see ourselves in him. And that is something only a great novelist can do. And regrettably, Ellison could only do it once. Tough act to follow. But it earned him a monument in my nabe, where he used to live. Want to see?
Westlake isn’t trying to compete with Ellison’s vision here, let alone revise it. That would be a fool’s errand. But it’s there in the subtext. H.G. Wells wasn’t really looking at identity in his novella about the abortive rebellion of Hawley Griffin, though it crops up here and there, tangentially–his story was about a failed one-man revolution that might pave the way for more successful future attempts. There’s at best the faintest suggestion that Griffin’s failure comes from his inability to know himself.
It was the very essence of Ellison’s book–a man who finds out that the revolution that really matters is the one going on inside–can’t change the world if you can’t change yourself first–and it’s central to this much less ambitious book as well. Westlake liked to put deeper messages into seemingly light stories. Spoonful of sugar, don’t you know.
See, if you are literally invisible, not just metaphorically, the question of identity changes. You can’t even see yourself in a mirror anymore. You can’t see your own hand in front of your face. The woman you love is starting to forget what your face looked like. So are you. So if identity is another term for self-image–what’s left? If nobody can see you, but you still get blamed for your actions, are you in fact Mr. Nobody? Or is somebody still there, all the same?
Perhaps the closest thing here to a direct reference to Ellison’s book comes in a brief episode where the two scientists who accidentally made Freddie Noon invisible try to do it on purpose. They have two volunteers recruited by the tobacco company that indirectly funds their research. One is a black man, George Clapp, who works as a limo driver for the company–he’s had a somewhat checkered past, and there are outstanding warrants out on him in other states. His fingerprints are on file. He’s one police stop away from getting arrested and extradited. Invisibility sounds just fine to him (he probably hasn’t read Ellison), and they’re promising lots of money.
The other is a woman, a brilliant young nuclear physicist and theoretical mathematician, who has been cursed with extraordinary physical beauty. Nobody can see past the way she looks. Nobody can ever take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job. In spite of her considerable intellectual gifts, she’s been forced to work as a statistician for a tobacco company. To her, invisibility would be like taking the veil. She can finally escape the ogling eyes of men, the envious eyes of women. She can finally just be herself.
So to these two very different people, invisibility is the answer to their prayers, or so they think, but they never get to find out, because the two experimental drugs that Freddie took in combination are unpredictable in their effects. George just becomes lighter-skinned (as Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘If you’re brown, stick around’). His scars vanish. His fingerprints are simplified to the point where they can no longer be identified. He looks years younger, says he feels like he did when he was nineteen.
And of course the company stiffs him out of his money, since they can’t use him as a spy, but he doesn’t care. As far as he’s concerned, these are the best doctors in the world. Free at last.
And the woman–Michael Prendergast–well, we can’t all be so lucky.
She was no longer the lushly healthy California-style beauty Mordon had met on Tuesday. Her skin was pale and pink now, almost translucent. A kind of ethereal glow surrounded her, as though she were an angel, or one of the lost maidens mourned by Poe. She looked fragile, unworldly, un-carnal, and absolutely stunning. She was ten times the beauty she had been before.
“Ms. Prendergast,” Mordon stammered, poleaxed. “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!”
She burst into tears
Later, George tells his two saviors that Ms. Prendergast (also cheated out of the money she’d been promised for participating in the test) resigned from her position, taking a job working on the nuclear program of some middle eastern country (Iran, Iraq, George isn’t sure which), where she can hide behind a chador. And there was some talk of her wanting to blow up the world, but I’m sure she got over that eventually.
There are basically two major antagonists in this story. One is NAABOR, which stands for National American Allied Brands Of Raleigh–it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say they make cigarettes. And they devote an enormous amount of money towards the growing problem of people increasingly associating cigarettes with life-threatening illnesses, for some strange reason.
They were funding the Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis’ work on melanoma cures mainly to say “Look, we’re against cancer too and after all, cigarettes don’t cause all cancer, do they? There’d be cancer anyway! So light one up, where’s the harm?” But when the good doctors report the strange case of Freddie Noon to Mordon Leethe, a lawyer who works for NAABOR, and he reports in turn to his employers, they seem to think that now they own Freddie Noon, or his newfound ability, anyway . And it could come in handy for spying on people, couldn’t it?
Mordon relates the details of Freddie’s very literal disappearance to Jack Fullerton the Fourth, who inherited the title of CEO from his uncle (who died of heart disease because he smoked), who in turn inherited it from his cousin (who got lung cancer because he smoked), and etc. Jack is himself dying of emphysema. Well, I suppose that’s one way to get rid of capitalist overlords, except they keep reproducing–there’s always a nephew somewhere.
Jack IV, whose voice is described as sounding like ‘the wind in the upper reaches of a deconsecrated cathedral, possibly one where the nuns had all been raped and murdered and raped,’ goes around all the time with two medical attendants and an oxygen tank, a tube jutting from his nose.
Some users wear that tube as though it’s a great unfair weight, pressing them down, down into the cold earth, long before their time; on others it becomes a ludicrous mustache, imitation Hitler, forcing the victim to poke fun at himself in addition to being sick as a dog, but on Jack the Fourth, with his heavy shoulders and glowering eyes and broad forehead and dissatisfied thick mouth and pugnacious stance, the translucent line of plastic bringing oxygen to his emphysema-clenched lungs was borne like a military decoration, perhaps awarded by the French: Prix de Nez, First Class.
Charming fellow. Anyway, he mainly just wants Freddie so he can spy on his doctors, who he is convinced are lying to him about his health, and apparently they were, because he dies a little over halfway through the book. (His funeral is compared to that of famed Columbia Pictures exec Harry Cohn, and if you don’t know that joke, I’ll just let you discover it for yourself). He is succeeded by (ta-dah!) his nephew, Merrill Fullerton, who does not smoke, and fully intends to keep as many other people on this planet smoking as he possibly can.
And now that he’s privy to the existence of Freddie Noon, he wants to use him for a much more Machiavellian end than spying on a few demurely diplomatic doctors who were just trying to keep a mean old bastard happy. He wants Freddie to spy on elected officials, congressional subcommittees, that kind of thing. And he wants Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis to devote themselves to a different kind of cancer research.
He’s been reading about this Human Genome Project (I get the distinct feeling Mr. Westlake did not approve). Soon we’ll be able to identify faulty disease-producing genes in advance, and abort imperfect infants (they’re already selectively aborting girls in some parts of the world, not that you need the genome project for that). We’ll be able to tell which of our impending offspring meet our exacting standards of perfection (that we have never lived up to ourselves) and stop them before they happen.
(Merrill brings up the gene for homosexuality in this exchange, which you might imagine is not a comforting thought to the two gay scientists he’s basically inducted into his cause, but also shows Mr. Westlake now subscribes to the Born That Way view of sexual persuasion. Mr. Westlake, as we now know, was a sickly infant, born with an inability to digest his mother’s milk. He only survived because of an experimental soybean-based formula just developed. His sympathy for the oddballs in life is well known–and well-founded. Only Life itself can test your worthiness. Genes are merely a roadmap–not the destination.)
But how, you may ask, would any of this assist an industry known primarily for producing self-administered carcinogen delivery systems?
Merrill leaned forward, his eyes now hot ice. This was the gist, at last. “I want the code for lung cancer,” he told them. “I want the code for emphysema. I want the code for congestive heart failure. I want the codes that tobacco taps into. And then I want a reeducation program, aimed directly at our consumers, not just here, but around the world. Abort the lung cancer cases. Abort the emphysema cases! Never let the little bastards see the light of day!”
David and Peter both blinked. Merrill sat back, as though after an orgasm, and smiled. “We’ve spent the last forty years,” he said, “trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race and we failed. We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!”
Oh brave new world, that has such people in it. And believe you me, it does.
Since NAABOR clearly can’t make more invisible operatives, their desire to find and recruit Freddie Noon–forcibly if need be–takes on a new urgency. Mordon Leethe had already enlisted the services of possibly the most cheerfully corrupt and brutal New York City cop Westlake ever created, which is saying something. And a restaurateur to boot. Also our other major antagonist.
A restaurant can be a very satisfying business. Barney Beuler found that so, certainly. It had so many advantages. For instance, it always gave you a place to go if you wanted meal, but you it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It gave you, as well, a loyal–or at least fearful–kitchen staff of illegals, always available for some extra little chore like repainting the apartment or standing in line at the Motor Vehicle or breaking some fucking wisenheimer’s leg. It also made a nice supplement to your NYPD sergeant’s salary (acting lieutenant, Organized Crime Detail) in your piece of the legit profit, of course, but more importantly in the skim. And it helped to make your personal and financial affairs so complex and fuzzy that the shooflys could never get enough of a handle on you to drag you before the corruption board.
The downside was that, in the six years Barney Beuler had been a minor partner–one of five–in Comaldo Ristorante on West Fifty-sixth Street, he’d gained eighty-five pounds, all of it cholesterol. It was true he’d die happy; it was also true it would be soon.
To say his personal and financial affairs are complicated is somewhat understating things–“A man with three ex-wives, a current wife, a current girlfriend, a very small drug habit (strictly strictly recreational), two bloodsuckers he’s paying off to keep their mouths shut and himself out of jail, a condo on St. Thomas, a house and a boat on the north shore of Long Island, and a six-room apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson from eleven stories up needs these little extra sources of income to make ends meet, as any sensible person realizes.”
So Barney is quite open to collecting a fat finder’s fee for fetching Freddie. His off-the-books employers don’t consider it necessary for him to know why they want to talk to this small-time burglar, but Barney’s a man who likes to play all the angles, and he fully intends to find out anyway. Little extra sources of income, you know?
His first ploy–a fake lottery notice, claiming Freddie won over 200 grand, gets sent to his parents’ house, and one of his brothers gets the word to him, but Freddie’s too wily a bird to fall for that old game. All that means is that the law is after him, which is what triggers his and Peg’s exodus to the Hudson Valley.
Barney has a meeting with Mordon at a parking garage (don’t ask me which one is Deep Throat), and tells him that Freddie’s been fingered–he left prints at his heists at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Mordon muses this is because he couldn’t wear gloves. Barney’s really intrigued now, and using the world-class intimidation tactics his career in law enforcement has equipped him with, he pressures the scared shyster into giving him the fully skinny on Freddie Noon. (And as the plot progresses, he begins to think he could use Freddie’s talents himself–make him murder those blackmailing leeches clinging to him–hire him out to to the mob as a hit man. Never mind if that’s in Freddie’s nature or not).
A game of fat cat and invisible mouse follows, which ends with Barney tailing Peg to a train station in Rhinecliff, through the use of a tracking device. Whereupon Freddie and Peg turn the tables on Barney, and he not only loses them at the station, but gets four slashed tires into the bargain. And now it’s personal. Barney gets maybe a bit too involved in the case for his own good. “The thing about anger is, it tends to overwhelm one’s sense of self-preservation, even if that one is such a one as Barney Beuler, whose sense of self-preservation had been honed for years on the whetstone of the New York City Police Department.” He had to take a fucking Amtrak train home. Vengeance shall be his.
And by all right, this actor should have been his, but he died in 1989, and there was no movie anyway.
(But if things had arranged themselves differently, then Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of Planet Giedi Prime would be only the second scariest sumbitch Kenneth McMillan ever played.)
The hunt goes on throughout the long summer, through private detectives, and taps placed on Peg’s phone in her Brooklyn apartment. But for some strange reason, an invisible man can be hard to trace. He even arranges a meeting with Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis, figuring (correctly) that sooner or later, an invisible man will want to make himself visible again, and who else would he turn to? That meeting could have gone better.
Barney and the doctors were meeting for the first time, of course, and it was interesting to Mordon to see how immediate and instinctive the loathing was on both sides. The body language alone was enough to set off seismographs in the neighborhood, if there were any. Mordon was watching two herbivores meet a carnivore on the herbivore’s own ground, and the rolling of eyes and curling of lips and stamping of hooves was thunderous.
Mordon, as though nothing at all were wrong, made the introductions. “Dr. Peter Heimhocker, Dr. David Loomis, I’d like you to meet Detective Barney Beuler of the New York City Police.”
“Harya,” Barney snarled.
Loomis remained wide-eyes and mute, but Heimhocker looked Barney up and down, raised an eyebrow at Mordon, and said, in a you-rogue-you manner, “Oh, really.”
Yes, really. And as the two doctors become increasingly aware that NAABOR is trying to get its hooks into their former test subject, they become correspondingly determined to get him under their own control–not to use him for espionage, but to study him, and figure out where they went wrong–or right–whichever. David and Peter’s feelings towards Freddie are complex–a mixture of guilt, responsibility, and a sort of proprietary professional interest. Plus there’s one little thing they need to tell him about his, urm, condition.
“It’s a one-way street,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “Freddie Noon’s invisibility is irreversible.”
“Think of albinos,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “That’s a loss of pigmentation in a different way,” and Loomis said, “Not as thorough, not as severe,” and Heimhocker said, “But just as irreparable,” and Loomis said “You can’t paint an albino and expect it to stick,” and Heimhocker said, “And the same is true, forever, of Freddie Noon.”
“In the movies,” Barney said, “once the guy is dead, you can see him again.”
Heimhocker curled a lip. “I have no idea what the scientific basis for that would be,” he said.
(Another little side-reference to the H.G. Wells novel, since Hawley Griffin was born an albino, and he does famously become visible once more after his death, and there’s really no science in these stories at all, you know.)
The final crisis is triggered by an announcement from Peg that has been brewing for some time now. Being the Invisible Man’s Girlfriend has had its moments, but on the whole, she finds the role limiting, and more than a little unsettling. She figures he’s got plenty of cash now from all the heists (of which she asks no split for herself, even though her role in each operation was vital). She says she loves him–that hasn’t changed–but she wants to go back to Brooklyn, work as a dental technician again, and maybe they can see each other later, um, awkwardly phrased. And she doesn’t really mean it, anyway. She’s letting go of him.
Peg was all that was anchoring Freddie, and without her, he starts to become unmoored. Stuck in the rental house, with nowhere to go, he phones the doctors at their townhouse–only to find they’re spending the weekend with friends–just a short distance from where he is. Peg has the van, but he borrows a bicycle, peddles naked down back country roads, and you can imagine how that works out, but he gets there. And spying on them, as they unburden themselves to a circle of equally gay friends and general hangers-on (they know he’s coming to see them, but they don’t know he’s already in the neighborhood)–he learns the truth.
See, they’re trying to persuade the other guests to help them restrain Freddie, so they can talk sense into him. They’re his only real option, otherwise he’ll end up in the clutches of NAABOR, or (even worse) Beuler. It’s just that they think he’ll be understandably upset when he finds out–
“When he finds out what?”
“That it’s permanent, of course,” Peter said, and then looked up and frowned at everybody, to see them all frowning at him. “Who said that” he asked.
They all went on looking at him.
“Oh, my God,” David whispered, “He’s here.”
“Impossible!” Peter cried.
“Peter,” David whispered. “Can he fly?”
“I’m never gonna get myself back?”
This is also the point in the story where Freddie finds out that his fingerprints are not invisible, and he’s wanted by the police in connection to jobs at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, ya know?
And so a merry chase ensues, with a very confused group of prosperous weekending gay men chasing a very agitated invisible man, who in his mental turmoil, drank a lot of (presumably excellent) champagne right in front of them, and it takes about two hours for food and drink to stop being visible inside of him, which is most upsetting to all, you can be sure. He runs outside, breaking a four hundred thousand dollar Ming vase as he goes. Peter and David are never getting invited back, you know. (Oh, and can I recommend a friend of mine for the repair job? Chinese ceramics are her specialty. I have her card here somewhere…)
They finally have him trapped in the swimming pool, the retractable cover closed over his head, and he’s getting cold, and when all hope seems lost, a gray van comes roaring in, like Victoria’s Messenger Riding. It’s Peg. She came back to the house, figured out where Freddie was from the map he’d left behind, and she could have just said it was none of her business now, but then she wouldn’t be Peg, would she now? Freddie slips through the edge of the pool cover in the confusion and jumps in the van, which departs, leaving the lawn and the gardens in some disarray (the poor delphiniums), and Peter and David are very definitely never getting invited back.
And her courage and loyalty notwithstanding, she’s still going back to Brooklyn without him. She’s gotten him a car–an AMC Hornet with tinted bulletproof windows. It’s green. Don’t say it. And yes, we saw another green Hornet (damn, now I’ve said it) in Drowned Hopes. This one at least won’t end up at the bottom of a reservoir. Peg and Freddie end up in the pool at their rented house, having sex, and Peg seems to be warming up to the idea of an invisible man in her life (among other things), but she still needs some time to herself.
And so Peg Briscoe returns to her native Brooklyn, only to find Barney Beuler and some well-dressed thugs who work for NAABOR waiting for her. Barney intimates, in his usual disarming way, that she’s either going to help him get Freddie, or he’s going to start cutting her fingers off and mailing them to Freddie, care of his family, I suppose. And would you believe she actually tries to con him?
She gives him the address of a part-time smalltown lawman, who she and Freddie had a run-in with earlier. Lots of subplots, I can’t do them all, sorry. Only he wasn’t wearing his lawman hat when they arrived, and Barney caught him off guard, again in his usual disarming way. Barney’s really not kidding about the finger thing, and so Peg reluctantly calls Freddie at the house, and clues him in. Figuring it’s his choice whether he comes to rescue her or not. Not entirely sure what choice she wants him to make. But his choice is never in doubt.
Is this a problem with the book? I think so. We always know what Freddie is going to do. He’s one of Westlake’s most predictable heroes, and there’s a reason for that. Westlake was responding to H.G. Wells, and to a lesser extent, Ralph Ellison. Wells’ invisible man never really knew who he was, so invisibility breaks his already tenuous grip on sanity. Ellison’s nameless hero, invisible only to white people (and certain overly dogmatic black people), spends the entire book finding out who he is, and who he isn’t, losing the whole world, but gaining his immortal soul in the process.
But Westlake wanted to have as his starting point a man who had already gone through the long painful process of self-discovery before he became invisible–because he figured only such a person could survive invisibility, triumph over it. It challenged Freddie’s sense of identity, changed it–but he was coping very well, as long as he had Peg. Now somebody’s threatening to take her away from him forever. Bad idea.
But also, one might argue, a less than satisfactory protagonist–less interesting than Parker, than Dortmunder, than Tobin, than most of the Nephews. Because he was a finished product before we ever met him. That’s a weakness in the story–but its saving grace is that the normally obligatory romance angle you get in books like this becomes essential. Because like the song says, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You. Whatever her doubts about their future, Peg proved her love and loyalty to Freddie. Now it’s his turn to save her.
And he does. Spoiler alert. I see no reason to spoil it any further. True love wins out, aided by invisibility, low cunning, and an everpresent willingness to dissemble. Evil is punished, and the shooflies of Internal Affairs are getting Barney Beuler giftwrapped, all tied up in a nice bow. Mordon Leethe and our two madly gay scientists, having chosen their master unwisely, will be forced to serve him indefinitely, but the money’s good at least. Oh, and you’ll never guess where Merrill Fullerton’s apartment is!
And Peg pays a visit to Freddie’s mother’s far more humble abode in Ozone Park Queens, telling her that Freddie can’t come to see her right now, he’s been sick–but he’s okay, and they’re going to stay together now, he and Peg, because Peg realizes now they need each other. They’re going to take a plane somewhere, and be together, and it’ll be all right. There is one kind of glance that can pierce the veil of invisibility, after all. And hey, blind people fall in love all the time.
Freddie’s mother, who has no illusions about her son’s true nature, but doesn’t hold it against him (you have nine kids, you have to figure on some variety), and she fully approves of Peg. An easygoing girl, just right for her boy. She is worried about how vague Peg is being, and asks fearfully if he’s dead.
“I’m alive, Ma.”
Peg Briscoe smiled a slightly nervous smile, said, “He’s fine. Bye.” and pulled the door shut.
Did I hear that? What was it?
Elizabeth Louise opened the door and watched Peg Briscoe cross the sidewalk to a little old green car. As Peg opened the driver’s door, the passenger door opened by itself. She got in and shut the driver’s door and the passenger door shut by itself. She waved and smiled, and drove away, and another wide-body jet’s shadow crossed over Elizabeth Louise and the house.
This one she noticed. She looked up, as the shadow went by. One of those would be Freddie, with his nice girlfriend. From now on, it could be any one of them, going over. One of those shadows is Freddie.
It’s a big, teeming, funny, angry, intriguing, detail-heavy, and somewhat messy book, with a protagonist a bit too easy to figure out. I have a sense that Westlake put several different ideas for several different books he never wrote into it. But it’s a grand piece of work all the same, though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by a novel that followed fairly close on its heels; shorter, darker, bloodier, more focused, more angry by far, and we’ll be getting to that one very soon.
But we have another book to cover before that, and let me say something before we do–I don’t plan for these little coincidences of timing that happen now and again here. I didn’t plan for my review of Adios Scheherezade to come along around April Fool’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Brother’s Keepers to come along around St. Crispin’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Good Behavior to start right around both the Feast of St. Dismas and Good Friday. The world is not simple enough to understand. We all need to understand that. So I can only assure you all that it just happens that my review of the next book in the queue has come up just about a month before Election Day. Serendipity trumps all, you know. And maybe it even trumps–well. Let me conclude with a snatch of poetry.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all, and in Las Vegas blind him.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
It’ll be huuuuge. Believe me.