Monthly Archives: May 2017

Review: The Road to Ruin

At loose ends–well, he was always at loose ends these days–Hall went over to the treadmill, set it at a very leisurely pace indeed, far more languid than Flip would ever allow, and went for a little walk.

A little walk to nowhere, that’s what his life had come down to.  He could walk, he could walk all he wanted, but he couldn’t actually go anywhere.

Treadmill to Oblivion, 1954, Fred Allen’s grim-titled memoir of his life writing and starring in a weekly radio show.  Hall had a copy of it, of course, signed first edition with a dustjacket in almost perfect condition.  He’d been told it was a very good book.

He didn’t need to read those books.  He didn’t need to exercise on all these intimidating machines.  He didn’t need to drive all these cars.  He needed to have them, that’s all, have everything, have the complete set of everything ever made.  Then he’d be happy.

Dortmunder was never happy outside the five boroughs.  There was always something wrong with the rest of the world, some way it had figured out to make him more uncomfortable.  For instance, in the uncharted middle of Pennsylvania, he had to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Anne Marie said, “I remember that!  Wasn’t he the white-haired man that testified in front of congress?”

“Anne Marie,” Andy said, “every white-haired man in America that owns a suit has testified in front of congress.”

Before we start on this one, let me lay out the rest of the program for this revue of reviews that is now approaching its end.  There is nothing left to cover now but three Parker novels, four Dortmunder novels, ten Dortmunder stories (plus one alternate universe Dortmunder story), one Dortmunder novella, and Forever And A Death, which I’m not reviewing until it’s been available to the general public for a month or two.

When all of that is done, I may well find other things to talk about, but the primary mission statement of this blog will have been completed, much to my own amazement, since I never finish anything I start, unless it’s a glass of beer, or a crossword puzzle (I cheat).  First time for everything, I suppose, but we’re not there yet.

The three linked novels that inconclusively conclude the Parker saga stand out starkly from the rest of the work he did over the last five years of his life.  I want to review them as a set, so even though Nobody Runs Forever came out the same year as this book, I’m going to put it off until I’ve reviewed all the Dortmunders other than the last one, which I believe was written with the idea it would be the last.

By the time I’m through all that, it’ll be time to give Forever And A Death  the detailed scrutiny I have no reason to think any professional critic will have given it.  Then the final three Parker novels, one after the other.  My one-part reviews of Dirty Money and Get Real will be published within less than a minute of each other, because I don’t want to show favoritism.  We clear?  Let’s get this show on the road.  To ruin, naturally.

This is yet another book in which Dortmunder comes into conflict with a very rich and narcissistic man, though one who has already suffered his comeuppance.  One might start to come to the conclusion that Westlake didn’t care for the very wealthy. Though he spent so much time writing about them, one cannot deny there was a certain fascination there–what’s it like to have so much more in the way of material resources than anyone could possibly need?  What does that do to your sense of self?

Westlake seems to believe that too often it distorts, disengages, and ultimately destroys your sense of self.  But first it magnifies your sense of self-importance to absurd, almost Swiftian extremes.  Which can lead in its turn to rather edifying downfalls.  And the rest of us, torn between admiring, envying and disparaging the very wealthy, while being all too aware of the low regard they hold us in, can perhaps be forgiven for rejoicing in the fall of titans, who turned out to be not so big after all.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? was the first of the Dortmunder novels where the tantrum-prone tycoon had some identifiable models in real life.  Most notably the one who somehow got into the White House, and refuses to leave now (best check his pockets for silverware when he does, and maybe the launch codes).  But that character was a composite, and Westlake pretty carefully avoided getting too obvious about it, because his primary model was well known for his thin skin, and love of litigation.

As matters worked out, however, no lawsuits were filed (to notice you’ve been lampooned in a book requires that you occasionally read books), and Westlake may have felt emboldened when it came to choosing  his next victim.  Or rather, victims–another composite composed of figures ripped from the headlines, but all from the same company this time.  Most notably, people like Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the lesser known Andrew Fastow, and his wife, Lea.  You know.  Enron.  We still remember Enron, right?  A decade feels like an eon, nowadays.  You can bet there are still millions of people struggling through unexpectedly sparse retirements who remember them vividly.  And all the horrible yet richly deserved puns on the first guy’s name.

(With all due respect to Murdoch’s rag, this looks like a job for the Weekly Galaxy.)

Again, it’s not meant to be a direct portrait, but rather an extrapolation based on reading the news stories, the interviews, and imagining what such a creature might be like, what his life would be after his public disgrace, what stories might potentially be told about him; positing that he avoids prison while staying alive, something none of the Enron guys ultimately managed to do.  Which kind of undermines the premise, but what the hell.  A writer of satiric fiction, moved by current events, must nonetheless create his own characters, with their own unique fates.  And Westlake, writing this not long after the scandal broke, couldn’t wait for the courts to get around to sentencing these guys.  He couldn’t be sure he’d live that long.  Satirists are not required to be fair and balanced (neither are cable news channels).

And fairness is wasted on some people, if we’re going to be balanced about it.  It’s wasted because they have rejected the very concept of fairness, or compassion, except for themselves.  By degree they become isolated, not merely from the lower orders of society, but from society itself.  Narcissism devolves into solipsism, the black hole of identity.  That’s going to be one of the points of this book.  That a pitiable character is not the same thing as a sympathetic one.  But as always with a Dortmunder, the main point is to make us laugh–the better to keep us from crying over our lost pensions and portfolios, and the general unfairness of Life.

And who knows more about Life’s injustice than Our Hero, who we rejoin now, as he ponders the mysteries of local media.

Dortmunder sat in his living room to watch the local evening news, and had just about come to the conclusion that every multiple-dwelling residence in the state of New Jersey would eventually burn to the ground, three per news cycle, when the doorbell rang.  He looked up, surprised, not expecting anybody, and then became doubly surprised when he realized it had not been the familiar blatt of the hall doorbell right upstairs here, but the never-heard ing of the street-level bell, sounding in the kitchen.

Rising, he left the living room and stepped out to the hall, to see May looking down at him from the kitchen, her hands full of today’s gleanings from her job at Safeway as she said, “Who is it?”

“Not this bell,” he told her, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the hall door. “The street bell.”

“The street bell?”

Dortmunder clomped back to the kitchen, to the intercom on the wall there that had never worked, that the landlord had just repaired in a blatant ploy to raise the rent.  Not sure of the etiquette or operation of this piece of machinery, for so long on the inactive list, he leaned his lips closer to the mouthpiece and said, “Yar?”

“It’s Andy,” said a voice that sounded like Andy being imitated by a talking car.

“Andy?”

May said “Let him in, John.”

“Oh, yeah.” Dortmunder pressed the white bone button, and yet another unpleasant sound bounced around the kitchen.

(You will never know the restraint I had to employ to stop myself from typing out the entire first chapter of this book, which is probably illegal, but then so is most of what happens in the book, so there.  Our landlord, parenthetically, years ago replaced our old apartment number based intercom with one that requires visitors to punch in a secret code that rings the bell, and then you have only about twenty seconds to get to the button and buzz them in, before everybody has to start all over again.  Richer buildings in my nabe, by contrast, have security cameras at street level, little TV monitors up above, and you can look your would-be visitors in the face and tell them you don’t want to see them, even though you are, in fact, seeing them.  Think of all the fun Westlake could have had with that.)

There’s no pleasing that old grouch Dortmunder.  Normally Kelp never announces his impending presence, merely picks the locks and lets himself in, but this time he thought he’d respect their privacy by making them listen to New Music.  Anyway, Andy just wants to know if Dortmunder has a pending job he can horn in on, and if not, he’s got an idea about robbing the Speedshop big box store in New Jersey, where Dortmunder nearly got nabbed by the cops in the last book.  Dortmunder takes a pass on that.

Then the phone rings, Kelp starts in on his usual spiel about how he could put in all kinds of extensions, Dortmunder just has to say the word, and Dortmunder responds with his favorite word, which is no.  Then May comes back from the phone, and says it’s Anne Marie for Andy.  She wants him to know there’s this man sitting in their living room who says he’s an old friend, and he won’t leave, and he won’t give his name, and would Andy please come home now?  And then Dortmunder realizes he’s expected to go too.  And this is what comes of modern communications technology; intercoms, landlines, etc.  Well, that’s what Dortmunder thinks of as modern communications technology.  Please, nobody tell him about Twitter.  Though probably Kelp already has.

I can be grouchy too, and I have many problems with the final run of Dortmunders, but Westlake’s talent for observational humor never once flagged, to the very end.  He drags you in with the first paragraph, and you’re hooked.  But hooked to what, pray tell?  The ideas being used here would work fine for a short story, or even a short novel.  Thing is, most of the final Dortmunders run long.  The market wanted them long, to justify that  intimidating price on the inner dust jacket.

If there’s anything harder than writing comedies, it’s writing long comedies, with elaborate premises. This premise is decidedly elaborate.  The book is a lot better than I remembered–still a rambling, somewhat disjointed, and not entirely satisfying escapade, due partly to its excessive length and complexity.  And the same could be said of many a Dickens novel, to be sure.  But Dickens has tenure.  Westlake’s is still hung up in committee.  Anyway, what’s the premise here?

The guy waiting in Andy and Anne Marie’s apartment out to be an old friend of Andy’s, named Chester Fallon  He wouldn’t ID himself to Anne Marie, because for all he knows she’s the law, he’s seen cops as pretty as her, to which Dortmunder replies “Not enough of them,” so he does notice things like that.  Anne Marie is mainly irritated that he wouldn’t even give his first name–would have saved her a lot of worry, since nobody was ever scared of a guy named Chester.

Chester was a stunt driver in Hollywood, back before Hollywood replaced most stunt drivers and their deathproof cars with computer generated imagery.  Having become redundant in one career, he made use of his skills to drive getaway cars for heisters, which landed him in stir for a while.  Getting out early on good behavior, he landed a dream job as chauffeur for Monroe Hall, a mega-rich corporate executive, who owned a large assortment of rare and nifty old autos, worth about two million dollars on the collector’s market.  Aside from driving Hall and his wife, Chester was expected to tool around in all these cars regularly, to keep them in good working condition.  Great salary, great benefits, great rides–what’s not to like?

This.  Hall’s company was called Somnitech.  Note the past tense.  Somnitech dealt in energy, communications, manufacturing, etc–“It’s what they call horizontal diversification, which to me sounds like a whorehouse that caters to all tastes, but if that’s what they want to call it, fine.”  Somnitech paid Chester’s salary, benefits, retirement plan–it paid for basically everything and everybody Hall needed or wanted in his personal life, which was not 100% kosher, but he and others at the top of the Somnitech food chain did it anyway.  

And they got caught.  The company’s stock collapsed, and due to its very large size, this had a very bad effect on the personal fortunes of people from all different walks of life.  Calls of “Lock the rascals up!” were heard throughout the land, but they were not locked up.  Their lawyers saw to that.

They did have to make restitution, however, and although Monroe Hall remains fabulously wealthy, most of his funds are tucked away safely in offshore accounts where no greedy government or choleric creditor can lay covetous hands upon them.  How he spends his stateside cash is tightly controlled. His cars are now the property of a museum in Florida, but the terms of the  donation say he can have the use of them while he’s still alive, so they’re still on his estate in Pennsylvania.

And he can’t consort with known criminals, being one himself now (which seems a bit perverse), so guess who’s fired?  Chester hadn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket since his release, but he still lost his salary, benefits, retirement plan, and the little house on Hall’s estate he and his wife Grace were living in.  Hall did something literally millions of times worse than Chester ever did, and his punishment is to live like a rich man with his beautiful blonde wife in a well-appointed mansion on a lovely little piece of land that takes up most of the county it’s in.  I feel like Anatole France should have lived to comment on this, but I suppose he did in his way.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”

So everybody present is saddened to hear about Chester’s misfortune, but what does he want them to do about it?  Clearly something unlawful, because that’s the only thing people ever ask them to do.  John cuts to the heart of it–“What is it you want to steal?”  “His fucking cars,” Chester said, and nodded at Anne Marie.  “Excuse the French.”

(Sidebar: Not for the first or last time, Westlake’s often uncanny penchant for prognostication plays him false here.  Let it not be said life never improves on fiction.  Within a short time of this book being published, the central figures in the Enron debacle had been imprisoned, with the exception of Lay, who died shortly before that could happen.

Not even moats filled with man-eating lawyers, as Chester puts it, were able to protect them from the raucous public outcry for their incarceration that came–and this is key–from all segments of society.  If they’d only screwed over the hoi polloi, they’d have probably gotten a deal somewhat like Hall’s.  But a large segment of the gentry lost their shirts on Enron too.  And that’s the moral of the story, kids.  As Bernie Madoff could tell you.

Westlake does make it clear, later in the book, that it wasn’t only working stiffs who nursed a grudge, but he underestimated how the rules can change when you screw over the patricians along with the plebes.  Or, having seen boobs like Trump avoid justice so long, he figured any rich prick could do it.  Or maybe he just needed to keep Monroe Hall out of prison for the purposes of the story–and had his own unique form of punishment in mind.  There was much of W.S. Gilbert’s Mikado in Mr. Westlake, I often think.

Anyway, we can nitpick all we want, but Fastow only did a year.  Skilling gets out in 2018 (they lopped ten years off his sentence), and can look forward to a very comfortable retirement.  Want to see the dank stygian hellhole they stuck him in?

MON_lrg

Montgomery Federal Prison Camp.  Considered by many to be one of the four best lock-ups in the country to stay at, if you’re shopping around.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”  Excuse the French.)

Chapter 3 takes us over to Pennsylvania, to Monroe Hall, and his lovely wife Alicia, who we’re told loves the bum, but not without certain reservations.  She also worked at Somnitech, had a fair bit of culpability in its misdeeds, and being maybe the only person Hall gives half a shit about, he’d protected her.  So now she feels she has to share in what amounts to his house arrest, since he doesn’t dare go outside the grounds, for fear of encountering some among the very large number of people who want to do him bodily harm (there is reputedly one fellow toting a horsewhip in happy anticipation of the day he lays eyes on Mr. Hall).

He wants to throw a big party for all their friends.  She informs him sadly he doesn’t have any friends now.  Most of their former social circle will never forgive him for fleecing them.  He and his fellow conspirators at Somnitech are expressly forbidden to see each other.  She says they should all feel very lucky they’re not in prison.  He sulks that he might as well be.  She suggests he is perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself, and says they can go for a drive.  He doesn’t want to.  She says she’s going for a drive anyway.  In the Healey-Silverstone.  One of her favorites in Monroe’s collection.  If you want to see why–

Healey-Silverstone-1949-1950-by-B

(She looks good in it, we’re told.  “With the beautiful long-haired blonde at the wheel, flashing through the lush green Pennsylvania countryside on the first day of June, it was a sight to make you glad there’s evolution.”)

Chapter 4 is Dortmunder walking into the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars are discussing global warming, air conditioners, and why all the holidays are on Monday except Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Rollo the bartender has a new electronic cash register, the functioning of which he explains to a skeptical Dortmunder, while the regulars begin pondering the weighty question of whatever happened to Armistice Day.  If you are a reader of these books, you are experiencing a warm inner glow right now, just thinking about it.

Dortmunder takes the usual array of beverages back to the back room, which he’s happy to see he’s the first to arrive at, so he can sit facing the door (no doubt thinking of poor Mr. Hickok).  Murch arrives, later than he’d hoped, complaining about bicycle lanes on the BQE, and monorails on the Van Wyck (there are not, to this day, any monorails in the five boroughs, unless you count the one in the Bronx Zoo, but the word ‘monorail’ is just inherently funny, ask The Simpsons).

Kelp and Chester arrive, while Tiny lingers behind at the bar a short time, to explain to the regulars that he really does not care whether we ever celebrated Decoration Day in America.  The regulars should have learned by now not to confuse Tiny Bulcher, but maybe this is a new set of regulars, to replace past sets he was forced to chastise.  Chester looks at the Kong-like hand Tiny proffers to him, the knuckles damp, and asks if Tiny hurt himself.  “I don’t hurt myself,” is the rejoinder.

So Chester tells his story again, and Tiny expresses the opinion that this Monroe Hall person could do with a little chastisement, and at this point the reader is of the opinion that the world could use a lot more Tiny Bulchers in it.   Like one stationed right outside Mar-a-Lago would be good.

Basically, the idea is that they steal the six most valuable cars, and maybe pack them with a lot of smaller collectibles, like music boxes and cuckoo clocks, that Hall accumulates to himself like the world’s richest and least lovable pack rat.  But this rat has a large security staff (larger than ever, now that the whole country wants to dismember him), and is surrounded by an electrified fence that is also alarmed, so that if the current is broken, the rent-a-cops come running.  So everybody looks at Dortmunder, like they always do when they need a plan to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be and come back out again.  And he says they need to go see the place.

So then we meet Mac, Buddy, and Ace, three stout-hearted union members (not stout in heart only), parked outside the Hall estate, singing their union anthem:

“Who will always guide the way?
Give us comfort in the fray?
Gain us benefits and pay?
The A C W F F A!”

If you were wondering whatever happened to the American labor movement……well, let’s say it’s come a long way since Killy, and probably the wrong way.

They follow Alicia around the countryside, as they have done many times before, which is at least aesthetically pleasing, but brings them no closer to their goal of getting their hands on her husband, who screwed over them and their union siblings something fierce.  But in this instance, it brings them allies–of a sort. Remember what I said about how it wasn’t only the working class who have bones to pick with Monroe Hall?

These two gentlemen sidle up in their leased Lincoln Navigator, “the most carnivorous vehicle on the road, the Minotaur of motoring.”  As thin and natty as their bluecollar counterparts are pudgy and disheveled, they go by the names Mark Sterling and Osbourne Faulk.  Venture capitalists.  Relative small fry in the seas of commerce, but with the ambition of someday becoming full-fledged sharks.  Or rather, that was their ambition, before the blandishments of Monroe Hall & Co. induced them to invest heavily in Somnitech stock.  Uh-oh.  Every time Mark brings up what followed this investment, Osbourne (‘Os’ to his friends, Mister Os to his enemies), growls softly.

Buddy says they can relate–they lost everything too.

Surprised, Mark said, “You invested?”

“Everything,” Buddy told him.  “Life insurance.  Health insurance.  Pension plan.”

Oh, those things.  They hardly mattered in the grand scheme of existence, after all, but Mark could just see that Buddy and his friends might treasure them more than they were really worth.  Symbolic value, and so on.  Sympathy at full bore, he said, “So you see, we are in a similar situation.”

As the scorpion once said to the frog.  But Mark does have some valid points to make here–the three amigos don’t really have a workable plan.  They think if they can capture Monroe Hall, they can hold him for ransom, ten million dollars, to be distributed equally to all of their members–a bit over 3k apiece.  As Mark thought–symbolic value.  Though in his own cold way, he does find their altruism moving, if naive.

He lets them down gently–even if they could get Hall, even if Alicia agreed to pay, as she probably would (none of them believes Hall would pay ransom for her, or his own mother, were she unfortunate enough to be among the living now)–as soon as the money got stateside, the Feds would siphon it up.

No, the thing to do is to get Hall in their clutches, and then, fixed beneath the baleful gaze of Mister Os, who keeps saying things along the lines of “With our hands upon his throat,” they can gently persuade him to transfer the needed funds–ten million for the union,  millions more for Mark and Os to invest in a new business opportunity they believe will proceed more felicitously–from his numbered overseas bank accounts, via their laptop.  Do it all electronically. Don’t bother with such a greasy fungible as mere cash.  He doesn’t mention bitcoin, but how much you want to bet he would have had this book had come out a few years later?

So the bargain is struck.  They will work together as a team, and since they have mutually concluded Hall is never coming out, they will have to figure out a way to go in and get him.

And now we’re with Andy Kelp, called upon to provide a car for the gang to head over to Pennsylvania in, and still imbued with a deep faith in doctors–not their medical expertise so much as their good taste in cars, and he is pleased to have his faith borne out once more, as he finds a Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon, circa the Mid-90’s, complete with MD plates.  Seats nine, or in this instance, four plus Tiny.

This grand vehicle was a color not seen in nature, nor much of anywhere else except certain products of Detroit. It was a metallic shimmering kind of not-chartreuse, not-gold, not-silver, not-mauve, with just a hint of not-maroon.  It was in effect a rendering in enamel of a restaurant’s wine list descriptions.  But even better, from Kelp’s point of view, the Roadmaster was dust-free.

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As one auto-centric website describes it, “The last of its kind. An end of an era. The final chapter.”  In short, the ideal transport for the Dortmunder gang.  But far from ideal for Dortmunder, who ends up sitting in the auxiliary seat in the far back, that you have to enter via the tailgate, and which faces the rear of the vehicle, meaning that he has to put up with all kinds of disrespectful gestures from passing motorists and their bratty kids.  He bears it with his usual stalwart dignity and forebearance.  Tiny suggests they get some carpet tacks to fling under the tires of the offending motorists.  Dortmunder is grateful for the suggestion.

So they size up the security at the estate.  If only Somnitech had been this secure. Dortmunder quickly figures out there’s no way they can break in there undetected and get the goods out.  So it’s no go?  Not quite.

They had a lot of time to gab on the way there and while sizing up the terrain, and Chester has understandably had a lot to say about his former employer–and he lets it slip that nobody really wants to work for the guy anymore.  He’s pitifully understaffed.  And here is the point of vulnerability Dortmunder’s practiced eye always looks for.  “Monroe Hall needs staff,” Dortmunder said. “We hire on.”

So he declares at the end of Chapter 9, and now the premise of the book is is fully established.  Dortmunder & Co. will pretend to be the faithful employees of a faithless billionaire.  The union guys and the baby capitalists will pretend to be on the same side.  Monroe Hall will pretend to be a human being and Alicia will go on pretending to believe that he is one.  The ducks are lined up.  The stage is set.  The cast is assembled.  Part 1 is concluded.

Which leaves a whole lot of book left for Part 2.  Not quite four fifths of the book, to be precise.  But that four fifths includes a whole lot of extraneous material we can skirt past, which is the primary weakness of this novel–and at the same time, one of its undeniable pleasures.  As I like to say, reading the late Dortmunders is a bit like hanging out and chewing the fat with old friends.  It may not always be as productive or enlightening as one might hope.  But if there’s a more pleasant method for frittering away one’s spare time betwixt the cradle and the grave, I’ve yet to find it.

PS: The title of this book had been used several times before–in several different genres and artistic medias.

So which of these might have inspired the erudite Mr. Westlake to choose that title?  I’m guessing the first.  But hell, let’s say all of them.  Why not?  It’s the road we’re all on, after all. These gents will vouch for that.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

 

‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.

Lord Byron

In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader.  That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it.  Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.

And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print).  All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels.  Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there.  The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there.  Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers.  (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)

The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition.  His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly.  Ex Officio.  Dancing Aztecs.  Kahawa.  Smoke.  You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.

Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor.  You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)

And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace.  Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.

So I can’t really complain that  his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit.  You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.

But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough.  Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades.  And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form.  I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet.  I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.

I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America.  Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death.  But nothing came of them.  And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–

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Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago?   I could make some guesses, but guess what?  I don’t care why.  There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.

Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?

 

Maybe not.  Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point).  And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest.  But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).

(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman?  Most people still don’t understand how great she was.  I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)

My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will.  They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).

 

I truly admire David Goodis.  I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him).  He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake.  Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis.  I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him.  (Psst! They like Westlake too!)

Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers.  Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!).  George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is.  You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart).  I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying.  Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days.  I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!

One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun.  One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy,  which I find LOL-worthy), you start seeing things like this–

 

(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)

So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection.  But that being said, what would such a collection look like?  I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.

If Leonard got three books, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system.  I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy).  Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way.  But here’s how I’d do it.

Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984

The Spy in the Ointment
Adios, Scheherazade
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Brothers Keepers
A Likely Story

Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997

361
The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us  (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out).  It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe.  A net positive, I think.

I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now.  Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical.  Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms.  And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now.  People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.

Just dreaming out loud.  Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him.  Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar.  Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.)  Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.

I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.

I’m just putting it out there.

And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Review: Money For Nothing, Part 2

Robbie was a good listener, watching Josh’s face intently, almost never blinking.  When Josh finished, Robbie let a little silence go by and then said, “That’s crazy, you know.  That’s completely crazy, all that story.”

“Getting a thousand dollars a month for seven years with no explanation isn’t crazy?”

“I wouldn’t plot it this way,” Robbie told him.  “You have to at least make a stab at believability.”

Mr. Nimrin’s attempt to scoff lacked a certain conviction.  “Disappear?  How do you expect to do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Robbie said.  “Josh probably wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so he’s dead meat–”

“Hey.”

“–but I’m an actor.  I could be somebody else in twenty minutes, stand right in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was me.”

“Oh, fine,” Josh said.  “Now I’ve got two masters of disguise.”

“Not disguise,” Robbie corrected him.  “Disguise is for amateurs.  What I do is character.”

Mr. Nimrin clearly hadn’t liked the amateur crack.  “If you could disappear so readily,” he said, sounding miffed, “why haven’t you done so?”

Robbie spread his hands.  “What–and give up show business?”

Although this is one of my least favorite Westlake novels to read, it’s turning out to be even more of a pain to review.  On the surface, it’s a fairly diverting story, Westlake’s prose is ever a pleasure to peruse, and it’s one of our last chances to enjoy his reverently irreverent take on New York City and its environs.  But the deeper I get into it, the more my head hurts and my spirit flags.  I don’t want to review this book.  Why are you making me?  Oh right.  Another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

“A Novel By the Author of The Ax” says the paperback reprint from Grand Central Publishing (Mr. Westlake’s final redoubt) with its predictably trite artwork.  From one of the finest crime novels of the 20th century (one of the finest novels, period) to this, in just a few short years.  O tempore.  O mores.

That is the precise edition I’ve been using here, incidentally.  I have never purchased a copy of this book.  Last time, I read the hardcover first edition from Mysterious Press, borrowed from the stacks up above my desk.  But visiting with my mom in her gated retirement community in the sunny south, a short spell back, I had occasion to accompany her to the community center, where there is a sort of book exchange.  Basically, people donate unwanted books, and residents can just come in and take them, without even checking them out, returning them at their leisure, or never at all. Mainly mainstream middlebrow pop lit.  You know.  ‘Good reads.’

There were maybe half a dozen or so Westlakes there, including this (no Starks at all, I’m oddly happy to report).  I needed to start on it.  So I took it.  For nothing.  Seemed appropriate.  My mom said it was fine.  Are you saying my mother is dishonest?  By the way, they had fifty-three James Patterson novels–just in the trade paperback section.  It would have taken too long to run a complete tally in all formats.  I already said the o tempore o mores thing, right?

So where we left things last time was that Mr. Nimrin had informed Josh that one of his fellow sleeper agents, when woken up, had professed a desire to go back to sleep, and Mr. Levrin & Co. complied with his request in a most permanent fashion.  Josh, being depressed by this news, retaliates by informing Nimrin that he’s figured out what the target of this operation is–the dictatorial leader of a former Soviet satellite, who is attending a ceremony honoring his country’s sole Olympic medalist at Yankee Stadium.

The dictator is a thoroughly unpleasant and sporadically murderous fellow, as persons in his walk of life tend to be, but the agents will also be shooting quite a few relatively innocent bystanders standing around him (the better to confuse the issue of why this happened and who did it).  They’ll pretend to be among the wounded themselves (fake blood packets, like in the movies), then kill the EMT workers trying to revive them, and disappear without a trace.  Josh responds with a conditional third-person variant on the sort of indignant expostulation you’d normally expect from somebody a different kind of Westlake protagonist was robbing at gunpoint.

They’d never get away with it.,” Josh said.

“Oh, come now.” Mr. Nimrin was insulted.  Glowering at Lincoln Center, he said, “Of course they’ll get away with it.  These are not some religious fanatics, determined to kill themselves and sail off to some matinee heaven.  These are professionals.  Do you think this is the first assassination I’ve been connected with, in thirty years of service?

“It’s my first,” Josh said, “and I don’t want it.”

“Though it isn’t mine, is it?” Mr. Nimrin said.  “They’re keeping me out of the loop on this, aren’t they?”  Then he offered a bitter laugh an said, “Oh, yes, we say ‘out of the loop,’ too.  Everyone does now, though many have no idea what it means.  Part of the Americanization we all so bravely struggle against is the Americanization of slang.  It started many years ago with OK, which seemed to be all right, since OK didn’t mean anything in English, either.  But it was the thin end of the wedge.  See?  There’s another.”

“Mr. Nimrin,” Josh said, “I don’t want to talk about slang with you.  I want to talk about how I get out of this mess.”

(I’d much rather talk about slang, but since Mr. Westlake has chosen to assign his deep fascination with linguistic peculiarities to a curmudgeonly Non-POV character he is going to deal with rather summarily later on, I’ll just refer you to this article from the OED, OK?  Wouldn’t want you to be out of the loop.)

The mention of terrorist matinee heavens seems to indicate that Westlake wrote this book after 9/11, though perhaps he conceived of it beforehand.  But this is the only reference to terrorism in the book, meaning that as far as the characters are concerned, that date has no special significance. So it’s a Post-9/11 novel written from a Pre-9/11 perspective.  Westlake hasn’t figured out yet as a writer what to make of that day, that had a particularly shattering effect on the psyches of all New Yorkers.  He hasn’t fully processed it yet, and once he does, it’s going to be as Stark, and his main takeaway is going to be that it’s made his job a lot harder.  And that he still prefers freedom to security, given a choice.

Westlake is here once again displaying his conviction that at the end of the day, professionals are more dangerous than amateurs (though amateurs may triumph if they find their inner pro), and has created a situation where conventional terror would be unlikely to achieve the desired end.  In this case, I’m not so sure he’s right–if your only goal is chaos and fear, professionalism might prove more of an impediment than an asset.  I guess if we were talking about hackers in the employ of certain governments, trying to overthrow Democracy, he’d have a point, but that would make a very boring book.  In any event, this is not a book about terrorism.

Josh returns home to find Eve waiting for him.  She’s seen Tina Pausto’s slinky Mata Hari gear in his closet, and there follows a domestic scene, at the end of which he shows her the AK-47’s and uniforms she totally missed, because one-track-mind.  Eve is, quite honestly, not much of a character, because she doesn’t need to be, because she’s not The Girl, she’s The Wife.  Westlake could write interesting wives when he wanted to, but not here, for whatever reason.

She’s very attractive (we’re given to understand this, though there is basically no physical description of her in the book), and a good mother, and a loving passionate partner who Josh rightly adores, and very occasionally the source of some pragmatic suggestions.  But mainly she and their offspring are there as an incentive to heroism.

So once she’s been convinced Tina isn’t a threat to her marriage and Josh wasn’t lying (just not telling the whole truth), and he tells her about the need to find the third sleeper before Levrin and his cohorts get to him, she mentions that one of their summer neighbors in Fire Island works for an insurance agency, and has access to amazing databases.  He gives her the name–Mitchell Robbie–and in two shakes of a hound’s tail, she’s got the address.  856A East 2nd St.  The Lower East Side.  He lives in his own theater.  He’s an actor.  No, he’s not Alan Grofield living and working under a false name, but wouldn’t that have been fun? We’ll have to settle for a sort of roadshow Grofield, and another urban sociology treatise.

Alphabet City, it’s called, and as a neighborhood, it could not be more mixed.  The remnants of the waves of immigration can still be seen, fused with newer arrivals.  Parts of the area have become more valuable, but it still contains plenty of pockets of poverty.

Poverty and art have always been more than nodding acquaintances, so another part of life in Alphabet City has a certain La Boheme atmosphere, with coffee shops and performance artists and poetry bars and the most minor of publications and the most marginal of theaters.  Good Rep fit right in.  It was in a corner building, six stories high, the tallest you can erect a building without an elevator in New York City, with a crumbling stone outdoor staircase leading up to a wide entranceway that looked as though it had been gnawed for many years by giant rats, which was probably true.  To the left of the stairs, toward the corner, was a bodega crowded with inexpensive food in very bright packaging, and to the right of the stairs, with a marquee the size of a Honda hood, was Good Rep.

Good Rep is currently hosting a revival of Arms and the Man, which is certainly convenient.  Venturing inside the establishment, Josh quickly encounters a short dark-haired narrow-faced gentleman he quickly divines is Mitchell Robbie, who is understandably 1)Suspicious of Josh’s motives and 2)Unwilling to admit he made a mistake cashing those checks from United States Agent, which he probably thought of as a sort of informal artist’s subsidy.  A poor man’s MacArthur Grant.

Robbie’s skepticism collapses under the weight of Josh’s conviction, and is replaced with deep concern–he hates guns.  Even as props.  He won’t do any Mamet plays (a shot across the bow of the playwright’s cranky public assertions that all gun control is evil, and that the more guns there are, the safer we all are, and it would have been so nice if he’d been right).

And now, as Mr. Shaw might say, a dramatic coincidence–Levrin shows up to activate Robbie.   Josh hides in Robbie’s apartment behind the stage, while Robbie rather admirably improvises a character for himself who might credibly have accepted the job of foreign sleeper agent.  Perhaps a few too many British-isms, and he overplays it a bit, but Levrin is used to odd personalities in his line of work, and leaves, shaking his head, after instructing Robbie to rent a car.  Oh, and he gives Robbie the bank book for the 40k account in the Caymans that comes with activation.  Another grant.  Robbie’s so pleased, until Josh tells him about the impending massacre at Yankee Stadium.

(Sidebar: Would this be a better book if Robbie was the protagonist?  I think it would, yeah. Westlake probably thought it would too, or at least that it would be easier to write. He knew exactly how to do characters like this, freewheeling independents, practical cowards who turn out to be brilliant in the clutch, and of course he loved writing actor-protagonists, while perversely refusing to ever actually show any of them doing their jobs, except in that one book where the main subject of the book is acting.

Robbie first appears on page 106 in my edition, and he takes over the story without half trying.  It wouldn’t have been too hard to reverse the roles, and do the book from Robbie’s perspective, with the opening scene being Josh coming to warn him, and take it from there.  I would assume Westlake at least considered that.

All the previous Nephews–even Jay Fisher, the hapless second string network correspondent from I Gave At the Office, had some exceptional aspect to them, some splash of color in their lives.  And here he’s made his hero an ad agency hack with a wife and a kid and an expense account.  Because he’s trying to break the mold here.  Because he wants to take an organization man, well settled into his mediocre life, and turn him into something better.

That, for him, is the raison d’etre of the story, which is not about espionage, any more than it’s about terrorism.  How a chocolate soldier becomes a real one, under the pressure of severe exigencies. The same story he told in The Spy in the Ointment, only with a hero who has no higher ambition than to work a steady job, go home to his pretty wife, and watch his son grow up.

But to make that work, you have to believe in the person Josh was before all this happened, and speaking for myself, I don’t.  Robbie, with all his eccentricities and impressions [he’s doing spot-on send-ups of Levrin and Nimrin a short time after meeting them], is more believable within five minutes of our meeting him than Josh ever becomes, and he is by no means one of Westlake’s best characters in this vein.  He still gets to steal every scene he and Josh share in this book.  Well, of course he does, he’s trained for that.

Robbie says Josh can’t think outside the box because he lives in the box, and likes it there.  Well, a lot of people do, maybe most people.  But unless you can understand that type of personality, like him on his own terms, you’re not going to do a very good job writing a book about him.  Sidebar concluded.  I am not making this a three parter, even if that means skipping over two thirds of the plot.  Just so you know.)

Let me telescope things a bit.  Okay, a lot.  Nimrin meets Robbie, and is not encouraged, and they have a rather interesting discussion about whether actors or spies are better at disguising themselves as other people.  Robbie arguably wins the point by having Nimrin walk right past him (in character) without recognizing him, but Nimrin scores a point in return, later on, when Robbie follows him to Port Washington, Long Island, then loses him when Nimrin does one of his quick changes.

Josh has now decided that even though Nimrin insists his only chance of survival is to go along with the plot, he can’t do that.  He can’t be a party to all those murdered innocents.  So they have to find some way to steal a march on Levrin & Co., and Nimrin clearly won’t help them with that.   They need to find the safe house, and that’s in Port Washington, where Nimrin is posing as a confused old rich lady’s butler.  (Shades of the next book in the queue, which means they were both written around the same time.)

Robbie is doing all the heavy lifting at this point, using his acting skills right and left to get them the information they need, some of it from one of those helpful cab drivers you somehow never find outside of crime fiction.  She informs them that Mrs. Rheingold is the last in a long line of old moneyed people, the family having ‘daughtered out.’  She married some ne’er do well who turned out to be a real estate developer, and of course she broke it off when she found out how he made his living, because really.

His feelings hurt, he got the rights to half the family estate in court, and built a lot of little tract houses on it.  She retaliated by erecting a huge wall around the family manse, and going into seclusion.  And somehow, her house ended up being a headquarters for Ukrainian spies, but she has no idea about any of that.  I can’t wait to stop typing this synopsis, you know.

(There really are Russian and maybe even Ukrainian spies in New York City and its environs, needless to say.  Up to all kinds of mischief.  But they don’t work like this.  I’m pretty sure.  Well, as sure as anyone can be in this day and age.  Seriously, the main problem with this book now is that Westlake makes them work too hard.  Their safe house now would probably be the big white one on Pennsylvania Ave.)

There’s also some kind of corporate retreat thing on one side, ‘Christian Capitalists’ (oxymoron don’t half say it) and they go around in orange hats on golf carts.  It doesn’t get developed much (hardly anything in this book does), but it’s a plot point later on, so I should mention it.

So they know a lot now, but what good does it do them?  Much as I don’t agree with the narrative’s assumption that going to the authorities is impossible, with that assumption firmly in place, because there’s no story without it, all they’ve learned is the likely setting of their torture and execution, once Levrin finds out they’re ringers.  The thing to do is to stop the assassination, so the spies will go home and leave them alone–but how?  Robbie has an idea only an actor would have–steal the uniforms.  The Kamastan army uniforms hanging in Josh’s closet.  Without the proper costumes, to establish character, allow them to blend into the ranks of the dictator’s honor guard, they won’t be able to put on the play.  They won’t have time to replace them before their target is back home, out of their reach.

Nimrin catches them spying in Port Washington, and is rather hypocritically shocked by their behavior (this is a constant leitmotif with the character–he doesn’t like it when people don’t live down to his expectations,  don’t continue to behave in in the stupid predictable unimaginative manner that gives people like him an edge over the rest of the world).

They need to get him on their side, so they try to bribe him with the 80k in their Cayman bank accounts.  He’s not happy about it, but he comes from a culture where it’s almost rude not to accept a bribe, so he conditionally agrees.  Very conditionally, as it turns out.

Here and there in this disappointing book, there lies the occasional gem–Nimrin has not been happy living as a butler to a crazy old heiress (like Grey Gardens, only no daughter, more money, better clothes, fewer cats), but he had thought he could at least embezzle a little something from the housekeeping money.  He thought wrong.

“An enterprising independent local grocer, for instance,” Mr. Nimrin explained, “I could deal with, pad the account a bit here, a bit there, split the difference.  But the Grand Union!” he snorted, with an angry dismissive wave at the grocery sacks beside them.  “They’re all employees.  Cowards to a man–and woman–and they wouldn’t get the profit anyway, it would go to their corporate masters.  Oh why couldn’t Marx have been right?

Robbie, sounding honestly bewildered, said, “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Socialism, for a clever man,” Mr. Nimrin told him, “is a license to steal.  Capitalism is a license for capitalists to steal.  As the name suggests, you first need capital.”

(Or you could just have a name that suggests capital.  I’m going to keep beating this horse until it drops dead, you know.  Or until I do.)

As I have mentioned already, there is a huge problem with the notion that Josh and Robbie can’t go to the cops, the Feds, somebody.  It’s the 21st century, or nearly.  Obviously Levrin’s surveillance can’t be that great, or they’d both be dead already, and probably Nimrin too.  They have a lot of very solid intel now.  But they also have hostages to fortune–Josh’s wife and child, Robbie’s aged mother in Hartford.

And that goes from a theoretical possibility to a stark reality, when Josh gets home and finds Levrin there, and Tina, and a few hulking well-armed operatives, and is informed that Eve and Jeremy have, shall we say, been taken into protective custody.  Just to make sure Josh knows there’s no back door.  Well, now there isn’t.  He talks to her briefly over the phone.  She’s very scared, but holding it together somehow, for Jeremy’s sake.  They hang up.  Levrin suggests ordering pizza.  Tina is mildly sympathetic, but this isn’t her first rodeo, you know?

He gets to talk to Eve again, later, and this time she lets it slip there’s this amazing old antique cradle, and he knows–they’re being held at the Rheingold estate.

The plan with regard to the uniforms is to slip Tina some sleeping pills in her drink before Robbie comes in and steals the uniforms (which he covets in their own right, since good costumes cost money, and lots of good plays involve foreign soldiers).   That’s the plan, but that’s not what happens.  Tina and Robbie meet, are immediately taken with each other–she loves his Levrin impression.

And when she mentions she has trouble sleeping, Robbie slyly says Josh must have some sleeping pills handy, which she takes gladly.  Robbie and some of his cast mates from Arms and the Man (their names are literally Tom, Dick, and Harry, cue Ann Miller), come in later and take the uniforms.  Tina never notices.  (Or does she?  She’s a bit of a cipher. But not, I’m sorry to say, a very interesting one.  Too much of a Bond Girl, and that’s probably being unfair to Fleming, but much I care.  Though she may be the only Bond Girl who snores.)

Robbie insisted, for reasons having nothing to do with any of their plans, that Josh bring Tina to the opening of his play, and she is delighted to attend, goes shopping for very expensive clothes, and creates a minor sensation at the theater, wearing one of those little black dresses that never go out of fashion, nor should they.

I have to find things to interest me in this book that mainly doesn’t, and one of them is the third person narrator’s synopsis of a play I have never actually seen performed, though I went to a lot of top flight Shaw productions, back in the day.  It really shouldn’t surprise me that Mr. Westlake is a fellow Shavian, but how is he just now revealing this to us after so many novels?  I guess because the play is a metaphor for the novel.  Or an inversion of it.  I’m not quite sure.

Arms and the Man is a comedy set in a small town in Bulgaria in 1885.  There’s a war going on, Bulgarians led by Austrian officers versus Serbs led by Russian officers.  In the first act, a Serb soldier, who later turns out to be Swiss for some reason (Bluntschli, played by Harry), hides from Bulgarian troops in the bedrom of Raina, the daughter of a Bulgarian major.  She finds him, but he and his pistol talk her into covering for him.  She gives him a coat of her father’s, who’s away at the war, and he leaves.

The next spring, out in the garden (an even more minimal set), there’s some rustic comedy of the rural-lout sort, including the servant Nicola (Dick, with smudged cheeks).  The father, Major Petkoff (Tom, with a pillow stomach), is back from the war, and so is his daughter’s betrothed, the war hero Sergius (Robbie, looking not like just any doorman, but the doorman at Trump Tower).  Sergius and Raina are both devotees of the higher emotions, full of melodramatic gestures and proud stances (a dig at romantic novels peers wanly out of the past).

Bluntschli, the Serb/Swiss, now that the war is over, shows up to return the coat.  It takes another act and a half for everybody to understand that Raina doesn’t really want to be a romantic ninny and that she belongs with the realist Bluntschli rather than the preening hero, Sergius.  A nice around of applause, and out to dinner.

(No, when you eat after the play, it’s supper.  Unless it’s a matinee, of course.  I’m surprised at you, Mr. Westlake.  But not a bad synopsis.  A mite brief, perhaps.  If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.)

Josh gets home from the opening night cast party, and wakes up at nine the next morning to Levrin calling him, to say they should meet where Josh keeps his Toyota Land Cruiser, because he needs a ride to Kennedy airport.  (Okay, it’s one thing to make a man participate in an assassination, store assault rifles in his apartment, force him to billet a gorgeous foreign spy without his wife’s knowledge, then kidnap said wife and their infant son to use as leverage–but to demand a ride to JFK at the last possible minute without so much as offering to pay for gas and tolls is really a bit much.  And people say us New Yorkers are pushy!)

It’s not just Levrin.  Also along for the ride are two of Levrin’s toughs, the one named Hugo, and one whose name doesn’t come up.  And when they get to the airport, Josh is instructed to drive to a little frequented area for longterm parking, and it’s a set-up.  They’re going to kill him.  Josh is cursing his own stupidity, when suddenly there’s a chance for him to grab the gun, so he does–and it’s loaded with blanks.  Because this isn’t where they kill him. This is where they get gunpowder residue on his hand, for later.

They are going to kill him–they were always going to kill him.  And Eve.  And Jeremy.  And make it look like he killed Eve and Jeremy prior to killing himself, and was personally responsible for the assassination, and there’s going to be a suicide note (which Josh later asks to read, surprising Levrin) and for the moment, at least, this is not an exercise in farce, because farce can’t accommodate the kinds of emotions Josh is feeling now.  (That a lot of us are feeling now.)

Meanwhile, those three stood beside the car, up near the front on his side, talking together, easy, calm in their manner and calm in their minds.  How could they do th is?  How could such people exist?  To murder an innocent inoffensive family, for some…what?

For some temporary geopolitical advantage, to somebody somewhere, which would probably, given the history of such things, not even accomplish anything.  If all the schemes and machinations of these realist political tough guys were any damn good, the world would be sorted out by now, woudln’t it?  For good or for ill, somebody would have won.

But they don’t care, they’re pragmatists, they ride roughshod over real human beings for ephemeral advantages in a contest that never ends.  They’ve traded in their humanity for something they think is better.  They don’t smell their own stink.

Do they always have to win?  Do they make their messes, and just move on, untouchable, full of their rotten expertise?  Was there nothing for him to do but play the part of mouse, among these cats?

(Understand, I’m not saying there is nothing whatsoever in this book that resonates with the times it was written in, and maybe even better now.  Though it perhaps might have made mention of the fact that there are real life Levrins and Nimrins much closer to home as well, and not always so professional.  As to Tina Paustos, I really couldn’t say, but that would be some compensation, at least.)

Josh’s question is answered, if not for all time, when Nimrin (who was supposed to be on Josh and Robbie’s side now, but 80k isn’t enough to retire on) arrives at the parking area in Mrs. Rheingold’s car, and runs at Josh, screaming “Where are the uniforms?”  And in fact, Josh doesn’t know where they are.  But they’ll torture him just the same, to try and find out.

And he’s past caring.  To bring up that final Yeats poem once more, “You that Mitchell’s prayer have heard….,” he’s fighting mad, and he’s not going to take it any more.  It’s a cold rage, and it stiffens his spine admirably.  No more the Chocolate Soldier, but the cool hardheaded pragmatist that Shaw’s hero concealed beneath the bonbons.

Nimrin, who is back on team Levrin now, talks to him in the car, hoping to get him to be reasonable (suicide is reasonable?), and when he loses his temper at Josh’s obduracy, tells him he should not think he is in the driver’s seat.  Josh looks at the steering wheel in front of him, and begs to differ.

And then Levrin has him beaten up, and locks him in a room.  And Josh breaks out of that room with Dortmunderian ingenuity, clubs the guard into a coma, takes the dying man’s gun, maneuvers his way through the house like James Freakin’ Bond, sees Tina being tortured by Levrin (with kitchen matches, shades of The Mourner), because she’s suspected of maybe having taken the uniforms herself, thinks about saving her, then thinks again, runs into Nimrin, ends up using him as a human shield against the terrifying Hugo, who much to his surprise ends up dead (Nimrin is just badly wounded), finds Eve and Jeremy, gets them outside, and there’s Levrin, waiting for them.  He did good.  Not good enough.

But then in comes Victoria’s Messenger Riding.  Only they’re riding in golf carts.  Wearing orange caps.  Christian Capitalists?  Not quite.  It’s Tom, Dick, Harry–and Robbie.  They probably never put on The Threepenny Opera, because money, but its 18th century forebear is public domain.  They have the four AK-47s.  And the element of surprise (because the right costume distracts and confuses, see, it works!)  And would you believe Harry was in the Army Rangers, before the acting bug bit?   Sure you would.

“The cast of Arms and the Man were very well-armed.”  (Oh you waited a long time for that pun, didn’t you, Mr. Westlake?)  They didn’t originally steal the guns, but Robbie called the team waiting at Josh’s apartment, and did his Levrin impersonation, telling them to stand down and run for the hills, the game is up.  He demonstrates to Levrin, who of course insists that doesn’t sound like him at all.  From an invincible villain to a comic one, in less time than it takes to tell about it.  It can happen.  Thankfully.

Levrin tries the standard bad guy shtik, thrown down your weapons or the woman and child die, but then Josh mentions all the explosives in the basement, and Robbie says he needs to get over his fear of guns, and trains his Kalashnikov in that direction.  Levrin screams in terror, while over above his head, Mrs. Rheingold, greatly enjoying the spectacle from an upstairs window, exhorts them to blow it all up (with her inside; dementia has its virtues, never doubt it).

Eve takes Levrin’s gun away from him, and then a somewhat singed Tina comes running out of the house, stark naked, all six feet three inches of enraged femme fatale, and beats her torturer within an inch of his life.  Then she orders Robbie to put down his gun, and drive her away in the golf cart.  He obeys with pleasure.  (And he still has that 40k in the Caymans, of course).  Chapter 56 ends with Dick saying “That’s something the Christian Capitalists don’t see every day.”

I think that’s where the book should have ended.  The classic Westlake abrupt ending, with lots of tantalizing loose ends, never to be tied up in a neat little bow.  But this book is the exception to almost the entire Westlake rule book, and not usually for the better.  There’s a very standard tying up loose ends chapter after that.

The Feds finally show up, and are forced to agree, grudgingly, that they can’t figure out what to charge Josh with, and they’re going to have to let him go.  Tina and Robbie have disappeared without a trace.  Nimrin is alive, but not very happy (well, he basically never is).

In spite of having spent over a day in the Rheingold house believing she and her son were going to be murdered there, Eve has taken a shine to the old place, and to Mrs. Rheingold, poor thing.  Can’t leave here alone there, without her faithful butler.  So they’ll just move in for a while, and Josh can commute via the Metro North, instead of the Fire Island ferry.  No, Josh is not going to quit his job.  And for whatever reason, nobody at his job has missed him while all this was going on.  Back into the box with him.

And then, at the very end, he gets a call from Robbie, that is a direct and self-conscious echo of the final paragraph of the very first Nephew, almost thirty years earlier.  Robbie and Tina are an item now.  She’s negotiating her surrender to the authorities, in exchange for all kinds of useful intel.  Once that’s done, he’s going to find her an agent, make her a star, with him her close personal friend and impresario.  Lots and lots of money.  Maybe even a little for Josh.  Probably for the movie rights to his story. “Money for nothing,” Josh thinks to himself.

Eve asks him who was calling.  Josh shuddered all over.  “The future, I think,” he said.  End of book.  At last.

This book wasn’t the future, of course.  It was an attempt to bring back something that belonged in the past, and it was the last attempt Westlake made to revive the subgenre (maybe more of a sub-sub-subgenre) he’d helped pioneer, which had given him his first big success, and led to him being thought of as primarily a comic writer by so many, not always to his benefit, but it had its compensations.

I doubt he had any trouble getting it in print, and that bothers me, when I think of the three novels he couldn’t publish in his lifetime, all of which were immeasurably more interesting and revealing than this one–but not what people expected from him.  Not hardboiled, like Stark–not funny, like Westlake.  Because sometimes he wanted both polarities at once.  And see, people who really know what’s funny also know what isn’t.  Mark Twain wasn’t always funny either.

Maybe the Nephews had already run out their string, years before.  Maybe they didn’t belong in the new century, at least not the way Westlake wrote about them.  But I think maybe the biggest problem was that Westlake himself didn’t really believe in them anymore, and was no longer up to the elaborate juggling act that went into writing about them.

They always seemed like the lightest of his books, the easiest, but that’s an illusion–like the way Astaire makes his painstakingly choreographed routines seem like improvised throwaways.  Tripping the light fantastic is always much harder than it looks, and as Westlake headed into his final years, he just didn’t have the chops for it anymore (neither did Wodehouse at the end, but he had no other options).  The comic persona began to fall away from him–with just one crucial exception.  But the only first-rate work left in him would be from the other persona–the core persona.

As he falters in these final furlongs, two tall somber dark-haired figures step forth, to catch him as he falls, and hoist him back to his feet, one at each arm.  They have nothing to say to each other, because they don’t live in the same world.  But they share the same father.  And to him, they say in unison, without unction, but with deep respect, “Don’t sweat it.  We’ve got this.”

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Money For Nothing

He’d been bemoaning his fate, on the basis that outrageous things did not happen to ordinary people, but now, focusing on those long narrow strips of yellowy light from the outside world below, bars of butter across the dark ceiling, he reminded himself that anything could happen to anybody, and that only science contains impossibilities: Time does not reverse, for instance, the apple does not fall up, the sun does not circle the earth.

He had been careless.  He had lived his life as though there were no consequences.  If he could forgive his seven-year-younger self for cashing the checks, back when he was footloose and single and broke, what excuse could he find for going on with it as his life had changed, as he had taken on responsibility and maturity?  It had just been passivity, from the very beginning.

This is the very last non-series novel Westlake published in his lifetime, five years before his death.  I believe it also constitutes the tenth and final ‘Nephew’ book, though with so many variations on the basic formula as to render it almost unrecognizable.  To some extent it is an attempt to blend elements from the two of his weakest books–his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and his first major attempt at satire, I Gave At The Office (the seventh Nephew)–among many other sources. I would rank it somewhere between the two.

It’s also revisiting the themes and ideas of The Spy in the Ointment, third of the Nephews, best of the first five (all of which simultaneously relied upon and subverted classic genre tropes).  This is a far less well-balanced narrative, because it’s trying to say more (and thus ends up saying far less), but that’s still what’s going on here.

It returns, one final time, to Westlake’s longstanding fascination with the acting profession he so briefly joined as a young man.  I had completely forgotten that it did that, prior to rereading it.  I had forgotten nearly all of it, to be honest.  That turned out to be both a bad and a good thing.

Its protagonist is an organization man–a copywriter for an ad agency, and not of the creatively tortured Mad Men variety–his primary role seems to be schmoozing disgruntled clients at fancy restaurants, one of which is plucked directly from the pages of I Gave At The Office–there is no firm indication by the end that he is going to quit his job and become an independent, but neither is he going to end up like that earlier book’s harassed lead, on the outs with his employer and stalked by a deranged FBI agent who has fallen for him.  This guy’s employer never seems to notice anything’s amiss, and there is a sexy agent here, but she’s only obsessed with designer clothes and cable TV.

He’s happily married, with a two year old kid, who is centrally involved in the story, which involves seriously imperiling the wee tot’s life.  His wife, unlike all previous love interests in Westlake’s books written in this vein, is not a well-developed or terribly interesting character, nor is she physically present most of the time.   This all marks a break not only with the Nephew books, but with nearly everything Westlake ever wrote in his life.

This protagonist is the sole POV character in the narrative–which is, unlike all the other books in this informal series besides The Busy Body (which it doesn’t resemble at all), written in the third person.  It would have been simplicity itself for Westlake to write this one in the first person, and there was no evident reason to bring in an omniscient narrator to tell us only what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing, when he could tell us that himself.  A distancing device, let us say.  Westlake couldn’t find it in himself to write directly from such a person’s perspective, but at the same time wanted to remain entirely focused upon it.  To see how it might change, develop, under the pressure of certain very frightening stimuli.  I think this would have worked better in the first person, but hey, it’s his book.

I keep saying ‘protagonist’ because it’s an open question for most of the book whether this fellow is going to be the hero of his own story, and you can’t convince me Westlake, a lifelong devotee of Dickens, wasn’t thinking of David Copperfield as well.  But David Copperfield is, of course, the first person narrator of his life, even if Wilkins Micawber is the hero of it–because Dickens still identified more with Copperfield than with Micawber. Westlake has intentionally created a protagonist he will have a hard time identifying with.  (It’s never worked before, but maybe this time..?)

There’s a sort of Micawber here as well (no threat to the original, but fun) and that’s likewise intentional.   He’s rather reminiscent of a subsidiary character from the very first Nephew book, and similarly pops up at the end smelling like roses, with the second female lead.  Though his penchant for doing impressions probably comes, yet again, from the justly forgotten Sassi Manoon.

Which Westlake self-evidently never forgot, never stopped returning to, because when he knew he hadn’t gotten something right in a book, he kept coming back at it, tinkering away until he’d figured it out, at which point he could let it go if he wanted.  Here he is, at the tail-end of an exceptionally successful career, still trying to make his various ‘lozenge plays’ play out as intended.  But never again, after this.  And I don’t know if that’s because he decided he finally had made these ideas work, or if he just threw up  his hands and said the hell with them all, he had better things to do with his final years on earth.

There are few Westlake novels I enjoyed less than this one, when I first got to it, a few years ago, as I was finishing the last few books he wrote under his own name.  But it is true that you haven’t really read a book until you’ve reread it.  Having spent several years since my last reading micro-analyzing all the books that came before, I understand much better now what he was trying to do here.  And I still don’t think it’s much of a book (though the reviews were mainly on an approving note, and almost uniformly missed every single point being made, because that’s the history of Mr. Westlake and the critics in a nutshell).

I greatly enjoyed various bits and pieces of it, there are, as always, fascinating insights and brilliant bits of writing scattered hither and yon throughout it, but I don’t think it works, because it’s a bit of a Diddlebock.  Yes, I’ll explain.  (This is going to be a two-parter, by the bye.  I just decided that now.  I was resisting that conclusion, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it.  How much I like a book and how much I write about it–two different things.)

One of the most underappreciated geniuses of the silent film era is Harold Lloyd, though that’s been changing, gradually.  After struggling for years to find his own voice as a comedian, building a creative collective with himself at the center, by the 1920’s he was making one sidesplittingly original film after another, all centered around The Glasses Character, otherwise known as Harold, or ‘The Boy,’  a comically over-earnest striver, who is always trying to win both success and ‘The Girl,’ played successively by Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, and Jobyna Ralston.  (Lloyd had real-life romances with all three, the last of which was adulterous, since he’d married Mildred–ardent pursuit of The Girl can be a tough habit to kick for some Boys.)

Then came talkies.  Lloyd was still very popular (perhaps even more than Chaplin, at least in America), and he went on making basically the same films, only without the inter-titles.   The Lloyd talkies did good box office for a few years, more or less entirely on the strength of nostalgia and name recognition.   His string had run out by the late 30’s, and he retired to a life of amateur photography (that involved a slew of nubile nude models; see what I mean?).

Cut to the late 40’s–Preston Sturges, who appreciated the debt all practitioners of screwball comedy owed to Lloyd, wrote and directed a comeback vehicle for him, entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka Mad Wednesday). It is an attempt to basically revive the original Lloyd comedies for a later generation.  Like most such attempts at ‘reimagination,’ it was a colossal dud.  There are those who consider it a work of genius.  Auteurists, I suppose.

I’ve seen it in a theater.  An avid admirer of Lloyd and Sturges, I suppressed many a yawn throughout.  Though to be fair, it’s hard to actively dislike a movie where the hero goes around in a checked suit and a cowboy hat, with a real live lion on a leash, and there is one good joke at the beginning, about how Harold had romanced each of his intended’s older sisters, one after the other, and he kept getting older, but ‘The Girl’ stayed the same age.  A great comedian knows how to laugh at himself, above all things.

Artists get old, but great art stays young forever.  Take Lloyd’s best work from the 20’s, pack it in your time machine, show it to people living a thousand years from now (if you can find any).  The cultural references may baffle them, but they’ll still laugh until their bellies hurt, and root like hell for Harold to succeed, outwit his rivals, get The Girl, because those are eternal themes, that never lose their luster.

But you know what does?  Style.  Presentation. Weltanschauung.  What he did in the 20’s was fresh and new, and will remain so, because you can feel the excitement and innovation that went into it, bursting through the celluloid (or pixels, once the Lloyd family finally broke down and let their progenitor’s creations be released on DVD).  The spirit of an era bubbles and fizzes within those films, like homemade beer in poorly capped bottles, and thus it can speak to all eras.

But once The Glasses Character had outlived his specific era, he could never speak to us that way again in any new works–even if films had remained silent, I think.  Even if The Jazz Singer hadn’t happened.  The sin of Harold Diddlebock was his inability to accept that his time had passed–but how could he know that for sure if he didn’t pick himself up and give it the old college try?  A freshman to the end.

The analogy between Westlake and Lloyd is extremely strained, I’ll be the first to admit.  Writers age a lot better than movie stars, as a general rule.  Westlake had a thriving career that stretched across more than half a century.  He produced work of lasting merit throughout that time.  The Nephews were one small part of his legacy.  Never mind a second act; he had at least nine or ten of them.

And his work was not produced by a collective, though he certainly gave all due credit to his editors–it was still his work, sweated over in various small rooms, as he hammered away on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century.  I think Westlake might have envied Lloyd the nude models, but not much else.  (Okay, maybe Preston Sturges, but that collaboration probably wouldn’t have meshed either.)

All that being said, the Westlake Nephews are, in a very real way, his equivalent of The Glasses Character–who is most certainly a picaresque hero (another of Lloyd’s second act problems, once he was no longer young enough to play one).  Like the silents featuring that bespectacled battler, all the Nephews but one were published over a period of ten years, starting with The Fugitive Pigeon  in ’65, and ending with Brothers Keepers (maybe the best of the bunch) in ’75.

And this one’s the Diddlebock to round out the set.  And just like the Sturges film, it’s both a nostalgic look back at something that doesn’t quite track anymore, and a satiric commentary on it–an attempt to update it, comment on it, make it relevant again.  A fairly entertaining and even gripping attempt at points.  But ultimately, a failed attempt. You can’t go home again.  Or if you do, you end up sleeping on a futon in the basement.

I don’t know how well it sold, but if it had moved anywhere near as many copies as the earlier books, he had time for a few more.  Nothing but Dortmunder and Parker, for the rest of his life.  I think that tells the story.  He read between the politely phrased lines of the respectful reviews, and winced.  He rang the curtain down on the Nephews, and it never came up again. A closed chapter.

And yet Money For Nothing, I’m deeply irritated to say, is evailable, when The Spy in the Ointment, Adios Scheherazade, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Brothers Keepers, and A Likely Story are not. Neither are Who Stole Sassi Manoon? and I Gave At The Office, which may be nothing to mourn now, but it’s going to matter someday, when lit scholars finally start to take Westlake seriously, and can’t find the damn books without hitting an archive somewhere.  (Library of America, where are you when we need you?)

The only Nephew books you can actually buy new copies of, albeit in electronic form, are The Busy Body (bad movie adaptation), God Save the Mark (Edgar Award), Somebody Owes Me Money (recent Hard Case reprint), and this one (which came along late enough in the day as to be digitized right off the bat).  The five best Nephews (and I Gave At the Office, so it’s not deliberate irony at work here) are the ones you still have to scrounge around for old copies.  I’ll try not to let such a rank injustice prejudice me against this not too inaptly titled work, but no promises.  Enough prologue; let’s dissect this sucker.

Josh Redmont (I even hate the name) is about to catch the ferry to Fire Island, where he, his wife Eve (oh please), and their two year old son Jeremy (these are very WASPy people) are spending the summer.  Josh stays at their Manhattan apartment during the work week, rejoining his loved ones for the weekend, an arrangement that can also be seen in Two Much!, A Likely Story, and Mr. Westlake’s own personal life, though presumably he could just bring his typewriter with him on the ferry.  (The world famous gay scene there had to settle for Sacred Monster.)

Having moved to New York from Indiana as a young man just out of a short stint in the army (the last time Westlake made reference to his own brief and undistinguished military service), Josh rattled around doing temp jobs for a few years, before getting into advertising.  During that time, he started receiving checks for a thousand dollars, one every month, from something that called itself ‘United States Agent.’

When he changed abodes, the checks mysteriously followed him.  He could not, for the life of him, find out why they were coming, or the slightest trace of any organization by that name, but a thousand bucks is a lot of money to a temp (even in the late 90’s in New York), and he deposited them, and they cleared, and he never got any tax forms in relation to them, so he never reported them to the IRS.

And by the time he didn’t really need the money anymore, he’d just gotten used to it.  Accepted it as a fact of life.  So he went right on cashing the checks, and since Eve wasn’t interested in co-managing their finances, he never mentioned them to her, even though she noticed them in the mail, and never asked about them, and is anyone buying this?  This might be the single most unbelievable part of the book, and that’s saying something.

This is the central plot device, from which the title stems, and I’ve long wondered if some political commentary is intended, perhaps relating to entitlements, and I’m still not sure.  Westlake wrote a short story as a very young man in which Patrick Henry, sentenced to immortality by his having said “Give me liberty or give me death!” sickens because of the welfare state, and is finally done in by Medicare.

There was an ambiguously libertarian streak in Westlake, that Anarchaos seems to be at least a partial refutation of (we do need government and laws to protect us from rapacious corporations and our own nihilistic impulses), but in The Jugger, what does Joe Sheer in is retirement, brought on by his starting to receive Social Security checks under an alias he cooked up, which he thinks is a great joke on The System, but it turns out to be on him instead.

And what might have resurrected this deep skepticism of Mr. Westlake’s regarding checks that come in the mail for services never rendered?  Well, he presumably wrote this book right around the time he turned 70, or shortly before.  And as the SSA website (which I’m greatly relieved to see has not yet been taken down) helpfully informs us, that’s the very latest age at which you may accept Social Security payments.  Or give them back to the government, if you like.  Either way, you’re admitting you’re old now.   And the most important entitlement of old age is the entitlement to be grumpy about it.

Just before Josh gets on the ferry, he is accosted by a gentleman going by the name of Mr. Levrin, who says he works for the people who were sending Josh those checks, and that Josh is now ‘active.’  Josh doesn’t want to know what that means, but he’s going to find out anyway.

Levrin hands him a bank book, relating to an account in the Caymans, in which forty thousand dollars has been deposited in Josh’s name.  Josh is told that his former handler, Mr. Nimrin is now retired (which is not a euphemism for deceased, though in some cases it might be), and Josh has no idea who that is or that Nimrin is the name of an ancient town in Palestine that was depopulated in 1948, and I have no idea what either name is supposed to mean in this context, so don’t ask me.

Levrin says they just need to use Josh’s apartment in Manhattan for a few weeks.  For an unspecified operation that is going on now.  They’ll be there on weekends, when he’s at Fire Island.  They won’t even leave a trace of their presence.  And for this he’s going to be paid 40 grand, plus all the money he got already?  Something smells bad, but Josh is too stunned to notice that.  Yet.  He hands over the keys, numbly, and barely catches the boat.

Still processing what just happened, he spends the weekend valiantly trying to enjoy marital intercourse with Eve, who meets him at the dock wearing a red bikini and an expectant look, and he does his best to keep up his end, so to speak, but is a mite distracted, and she notices (a mite sketchily developed, but no dummy).

Later, he plays with Jeremy, and there’s a faint echo of an earlier Nephew there.  And of Mr. Westlake’s experiences with his own sons, perhaps.

On Saturday, at the beach, he and Jeremy spent a few hours playing the game they seemed to have invented, in which first they made a village, by upending pails of wet sand and shaping their tops to be the houses and poking fingerholes into their sides to be windows and doors, and then watching as a giant–Jeremy–with many a “Ho ho ho,” and “Har har har,” tromped through the peaceful village, destroying it, and, presumably, all of its peaceful villagers.

Josh had never minded this game before, had known that other little boys up and down the beach were also taking the opportunity of summer in the sun to improve their skills as homicidal maniacs, but today, after United States Agent had made him “active,” he found himself regretting that it was too late to train Jeremy in the ways of pacifism.

(Possibly several million years too late, but why dwell on the recent past?   And speaking of time, when is all this taking place?  At no time is September 11th directly referenced, though terrorism is.  What’s going on here isn’t terrorism but rather Post-Soviet Ukrainian espionage disguised as terrorism, and I’m not convinced that’s a thing, though obviously Ukraine has real-life spies, who, like the spies in this book, used to work for the USSR, and got very confused when there was no such thing anymore, which is one of the reasons Josh is having these problems now.

There are cellphones, but Josh rather oddly doesn’t have one, and there are times when he could really use one.  There’s an internet with highly sophisticated search capacities, but it only comes into play on two occasions, doesn’t seem to be a part of anyone’s daily life.  Well, it probably wasn’t ever part of the author’s daily life, is the thing.

That the smoking ruins of the WTC are never even indirectly referenced would tend to argue for this either being set before 2001, or in an alternate universe where 2001 does not have that grim signifier attached to it.  But all of this inevitably creates a rather unfortunate disconnect from its time that gets in the way of what the book is trying to say; assuming we ever figure out what exactly that is.)

Remembering the name Levrin had mentioned, he looks online (in an earlier book, he’d have been visiting a library to do research), and finds an article in the Washington Post, about an Ellois Nimrin who was tried for industrial espionage seven years earlier.  The prosecution was hampered by the fact that so much of the evidence against Nimrim was classified, and he got off.  That’s all he can find. Then Nimrim finds him.

They have a conversation in the waiting room of a psychiatrist of Nimrim’s acquaintance (she later explains he approached her in Europe, got her to pretend they were involved to evade some people pursuing him, and the pretense became real, though the relationship remained informal and open–you know, that might actually have been a better novel than this, but too late now).

Nimrim explains to Josh how he got recruited–as part of a scam Nimrim cooked up to build himself a retirement nest egg.  Nimrim got himself the job of recruiting sleeper agents in New York.  He would get the names and contact info of some likely recruits, get them into the system, and then route their 12,000k per annum retainers to an account he’s set up.  Once he’d recruited enough phony sleepers and harvested their earnings for a decade or two, he’d have several million dollars, tax free, and would disappear to live out his life on some tropical island or other.

Josh finds out Nimrim was tending bar at an establishment Josh frequented as a single guy looking to pick up NYU coeds (Nimrim is a master of disguise, which he later explains simply involves making yourself look like the kind of person people tend not to pay close attention to).  Because he was young and foolish and trying to impress girls, he’d made some radical statements, that put him on Nimrim’s radar, made him a credible recruit.  So for two years, Nimrim was getting the checks made out to Josh, and everything was fine.

But then Nimrim got implicated in a case involving stolen computer tech, his name and picture were in the papers, and he was burned, as they say in spyland. His associates opted not to make him disappear, but they took his passports, kept a close eye on him, and ever since he’s been living a marginal lifestyle at the fringes of the organization, fuming over his lost millions.

Since nobody found out these sleepers never dreamed of being any such thing, the checks started getting mailed to them.  Most of Nimrim’s people did not cash the checks, so they were written off as bad bets–but Josh and two others cashed them like clockwork, and thus were assumed still ready to become ‘active.’ (Which means that if Josh had simply stopped taking the money once he didn’t need it anymore, he wouldn’t be having this conversation now.)

Nimrin tells Josh he should simply do what these people tell him to, and ask no questions, and maybe this way they both stay alive (they still don’t know about his little scam, and it would be bad for his health if they found out, as well as Josh’s.) Under no circumstances should Josh attempt to contact the authorities.

One authority he absolutely must inform, however–his wife.  She’s already noticed his distracted mental state, and suspects him of having an affair.  It’s a bit hard to tell whether she thinks the story he tells her is an improvement over the one she was imagining.  But she believes him.  He strategically neglects to tell her he was recruited before he ever met her because he was spouting a lot of guff in a bar in order to bed college girls, or that Levrin has told him that now they’re going to be storing ‘matériel’ in the apartment next.

Which turns out to be four AK-47’s under the bed, and four green-brown military uniforms with black and red ornamentation here and there, hanging in the bedroom closet.  This is all getting much too real, much too fast.  He goes back to the psychiatrist’s office, and asks her to contact Mr. Nimrim, tell him to get in touch.  She says it will take a while.  In the meantime, he figures out something even Nimrim doesn’t know–what the operation is going to be, and who the target is.

Seems there’s this little country called Kamastan (I believe this is Westlake’s final fictive nation, unless there’s one from one of the remaining Dortmunders I forgot).  It used to be part of the Soviet Union.  Now it’s ruled by an oppressive brutal dictator named Fyeddr Mihommed-Sinn, who is, wouldn’t you just know it, coming to New York next week on his first-ever state visit, because his country’s first and only Olympic athlete won a gold medal in the recent games, and he wants to be there for this special ceremony being held by the United Nations, at Yankee Stadium, to honor the victorious Olympians and give them even more medals to go with the ones they already have.  I don’t think this has ever happened, but okay, sure, why not?

Josh sees footage of Mihommed-Sinn reviewing his troops.  Guess what color uniforms they’re wearing?

Then another bombshell burts, this one of the female variety–Tina Pausto, six feet three inches of black-haired slinky Eastern European pulchritude, is making herself at home in Josh’s home.  Josh has to restrain himself from saying “I’m married” when she introduces herself.  She already knows that, obviously.  She thinks it’s cute he doesn’t try to sleep with her, like most married men do.  He just thinks about it.

Another thing he doesn’t want Eve to know about–he pointedly avoids mentioning it when he calls her on Fire Island, hears his son breaking a plate, and says something about how their damage deposit for the summer house is going to look like the far end of  a Ponzi scheme. (I only mention this because Westlake died the same year the Bernie Madoff story broke, and that’s when I first found out what the hell a Ponzi scheme was.)

So right after he meets Tina, he gets a call from Nimrim. On his home landline. That apparently is not bugged. Barnes and Noble (of course, of course). Broadway and Sixty-fifth. Author reading on the third floor at 7:00pm. Be there. If I could remember when that store was still there, it might be helpful in terms of dating this story.

Well, if Josh can find Nimrin’s trial–ah!  Here we are.  Closed in 2010.  Actually on 66th St, but it was a huge block-spanning store, so that’s not really an error. It was there for all of fourteen years.  So it opened around 1996.  So this story takes place after 1996 and before late 2001, because seriously, it makes no sense at all in a post-911 world.  (And seriously, does anything?  You tell me.)

But you know what does make sense to me?  Westsider Books is still there. Check it out if you’re ever in the area.  Great little used bookshop, very old school, a true anomaly now. Now that would have made a far more colorful and authentic setting for Josh’s meet with Nimrin, but much less conducive to social satire, which is what we’re about to see.  Mr. Westlake is going to engage in a little cross-genre snarkiness, at the expense of the present-day publishing industry, and perhaps an author whose name has since become something of a household word.

7 P.M.  July 26
Author David L. Fogware
reads from
ENCHANTRESS OF NYIN
Volume VII in the
Farbender Netherbender Series
3rd Floor 

Okay, that could be anyone.  But listen to the narrator’s description of the people Josh sees gathering on the third floor of the now-defunct book emporium.

Strange people.  There appeared to be some sixties flower children who’d been cryogenically stored for thirty years and then imperfectly thawed. Scruffy round-shouldered baggily dressed people of both sexes–or indeterminate sex–carried an unmistakable aura of homelessness about them.  Others looked like people who’d lost their luggage, but decided to come anyway.  And down in front were half a dozen burly guys in dark-toned T-shirts and light-toned windbreakers and ponytails and scraggly beards and bent eyeglasses in either tortoise-shell or black.  Josh originally assumed those guys must be a group, but then he saw nobody here knew anybody else, though most people, including the ponytails up front, were amiable about it.

Josh wonders if it will turn out this Farbender Whateverblender thing will turn out to be a sideline of Nimrin’s–which I think would have made a damned decent plot twist, and probably Westlake considered it–hence ‘Enchantress of Nyin’–then decided there wasn’t enough time.  And anyway, he had a larger target to shoot at–

Introduction finished, the spectacled store employee smilingly made his exist, and a fellow carrying a book came out to take his place at the lectern.  He was David L. Fogware, and he looked exactly like the half dozen fellows in the front row, who gave him the most enthusiastic applause of all, the rattle of hand-clapping that greeted his presence.  He, too, was a burly guy with specs and beard and ponytail and windbreaker over T-shirt over baggy jeans over L.L. Bean boots, and he accepted the acclaim with becoming modesty.

Josh hadn’t had occasion to notice this before, but there are in this world two kinds of burliness.  There’s the burliness of muscle and brawn and large bone, and there’s the burliness of beer.  These fellows, applauders and applaudee alike, represented the burliness of beer.

(Well, as long as it’s good beer…)

Mr. Fogware then gives a little introductory speech prior to his reading, in which he talks about how he’d originally thought the Rearender Foreveronabender series (snark is infectious, you knew that already) would be a mere trilogy, but then the richness of the worlds, the tapestry, the implications–he doesn’t mention the money, but that’s probably one of the implications.

Okay, I don’t know this is George R.R. Martin (to put my spellbook cards on the table), but consider the timing.  A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, followed by A Clash of Kings in ’99, and then A Storm of Swords in ’00.  A planned trilogy that turned into a much longer series (that just so happens to be set to end with the seventh book–if the now severely blocked Mr. Martin lives long enough to disgorge the two remaining tomes, and I hope that he may).

Mention is made of combining Arthurian romance with Buck Rogers, which is a pretty fair description of Martin’s niche as a writer (it’s actually a bit unfair, but again, satire).  He’d have been doing events much like this, in bookstores exactly like this, and Mr. Westlake would have been doing promotional events of his own, not to mention that he liked prowling through bookstores for the sake of prowling.

It’s easy to see him just happening across such an event, sitting inconspicuously in the back, and taking in the spectacle of the bespectacled.  He was bespectacled himself, and wouldn’t too obviously stick out among the regulars, few if any of whom would be readers of his.  And is it wrong of me to find all of this spoofery and speculation more interesting than the story I’m trying to synopsize here? Westlake was never funnier than when he was sending up his own profession.

Just to be clear, I find Mr. Martin’s books to be both majestically conceived and ineffably unreadable.  The brief selection from Enchantress of Nyin does sound a bit like his somewhat overworked prose, but overworked prose tends to sound alike, no matter who’s typing it.

It wasn’t long after this highly readable but not so well-conceived book we’re looking at now came out that a certain development deal was struck with a certain cable network, and now I live for those few weeks of the year when I may gaze upon the dark designs of the the variously decent and devious denizens of Westeros and Essos, and I think if Mr. Westlake knew the ultimate fate of Mr. Martin, if Martin was indeed his target here–to have his magnum opus completed on television by other writers, long before he could complete it in print–he’d have been a bit less snarky, and a lot more sympathetic.  But satire must needs be pitiless as Littlefinger and bloody-minded as The Hound. Back to the spy crap.

Nimrin is not, in fact, David L. Fogware.  He’s a fat old woman with a walker. Disguise yourself as people other people don’t want to look at, and you’ll never be recognized.  He’s got news for Josh, and much to his consternation, Josh has some news for him.

Nimrin’s news first–one of the three sleeper agents he recruited who took the money without knowing who sent it has turned up dead–an apparent suicide, but in reality, Nimrin informs a suitably horrified Josh, he was eliminated by Mr. Levrin, for refusing to participate in the upcoming operation.  If the remaining sleeper, who has yet to be activated, should prove similarly intractable, the organization will realize something’s amiss, and Nimrim will be the only possible culprit.  So Josh and the remaining United States Agent have to be cooperative–if not, they’ll be killed, and so will Ellois Nimrim.  Only Nimrin can’t find the third man to warn him.

If Josh goes to the authorities, as Nimrin knows he desperately wants to do, he’ll be spotted, stopped before he gets through the door–and even if he got through to somebody–who’d believe him?  What proof does he have?   He’s been taking a foreign government’s money for nine years.  Best case scenario, he goes to jail. Worst case scenario, he ends up another apparent suicide.

And here I must cavil yet again–there have to be confidential tip lines and emails.  Apart from the main FBI field office in Manhattan, there are also a number of satellite offices scattered about the greater New York City area, and Levrin’s people can’t possibly watch them all.  He’s got canceled checks,  names of two enemy agents, a bank account in the Caymans he hasn’t touched, and a fairly convincing story of how he got recruited without his knowledge.

And once Nimrin accepts that Josh has correctly guessed the target of the operation is Mohammed-Sinn (which somehow he didn’t figure out himself, even though the impending state visit was all over the news and he’s supposed to be really good at this kind of thing?), he quickly deduces that their plan is to use the four uniforms to blend into the Kamastani troops assigned to Yankee Stadium (whose AK-47’s will be loaded with blanks for an honorary fusillade), and kill not only the dictator, but a very large number of innocent people standing around him.  Meaning that Josh has to consider the fact that it’s not just his and Eve’s and Jeremy’s lives at stake here.  (Nimrin’s pretty much exclusively concerned with his own neck, which is going to be a plot point later on.)

Yes, it would be risky to inform the authorities, but much less so than what is to follow, and this wouldn’t be a serious problem if the book wasn’t trying to dabble in dark modernity and realism, while still remaining a madcap criminal farce–updating this kind of story for a new era can be very challenging, even for a younger writer.

The Spy in the Ointment still works, and beautifully so, precisely because it deals with a fictive American intelligence agency contacting the radical pacifist hero who has been mistaken for a different type of radical, recruiting him as a double agent, and then very predictably screwing up their surveillance of him, after first giving him enough training for him to haphazardly triumph over some very unprofessional menaces to society.  That story still makes sense on its own terms. This one, Diddlebock that it is, is shot full of some pretty gaping plot holes.

But as John Ford once said, when asked why the Indians didn’t just shoot the horses in Stagecoach, “Well, that would be the end of the movie, wouldn’t it?”

And this, I think, is the end of Part 1.  Finally.  Sorry for the delay.  I’ve been a bit of a sleeper myself, the past two weeks.  Pretty sure I’ll be back well before Game of Thrones premieres.  But I’m increasingly of the opinion that David L. Fogware shall never emerge from the  Nevereverender series.  Last one.  I promise.  Okay, maybe a few more in the comments section.  Feel free to come up with a few of your own.  Ho ho ho.  Har har har.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Scared Stiff

In the meantime, I had of course started another book.  It was not a departure, like The Ax, nor was it exactly like the several books I’d earlier published in the nineties.  It was a little comic insurance fraud novel, closest in spirit to books I’d written in the seventies.  I finished it, and gave it to my editor and my agent, and the gloom could be heard to descend. (It sounds like a grounded blimp losing air.)

Gently I was told that this could not possibly be the book that would follow The Ax, nor could it be the book that followed the return of Richard Stark.  I did see that.

Unfortunately, I did.  I saw what they meant, and I had to agree.  I had a certain responsibility now.  The book I published after The Ax and Stark redux could not just be any book.  I had newer readers now, who would come to that book with a certain level of expectation.  They wouldn’t necessarily need The Ax again, they could certainly understand that I also had my comic moments, but there was a level of emotional truth that really should be present in whatever book was published next.  Later, in the future, I might return sometimes to my more frivolous ways.

Donald E. Westlake, from an unpublished article found in his files; now collected in The Getaway Car

Early in the morning, before I snuck out of the Inter-Nación to climb back aboard my Vespa, we had a conversation we’d had before and was the basis of our life together.

“I’ll be here,” I said.

And she said, “Of course you will, you’re the net.”

“And you’re the net,” I said.

“You know I am.”

We smiled at each other.  I said, “We’re out there alone, nobody to be sure of in the whole world except you and me.  I’m your net and you’re my net. The only net we’ve got.”

“The only net we need, Barry,” she said.

Okay.  First of all.  This is a book about a guy who fakes his own death in a fictional country in South America, to defraud an insurance company.  A white Volkswagen Beetle is involved, as is a (literally) breathtaking river gorge.  Look at the covers up top.  How hard was that to figure out?  Japan, take a bow.  Your artist was the only one who got it, best as I can tell.  Anata no hādowāku o arigatō.

But there’s much about this book that is mysterious: for example, why did Westlake think he could get away with publishing it under a pseudonym? The country in question is named Guerrera, and it had a head of state named General Luis Pozos, after whom a highway has been named (which doesn’t necessarily mean the fat egotist is dead, but we can only hope).

Westlake had been writing about variant versions of this country and its ubiquitous dictator since the 1960’s.  Originally in some of the Grofield novels, most notably the first, where it shared a border with Mexico (not in this one). When Stark was writing the book, it would be called Guerrero.  When it popped up in a Westlake novel (as in the Dortmunder novel, Good Behavior), it would be Guerrera.   (I would never have had the nerve to inquire of the great man if this meant Westlake represented his feminine side.)  The name Pozos never changed, though Guerrera seems to have shifted its geographic position much closer to the equator than its Starkian equivalent, migrating across the map in response to the narrative’s needs, just as Monequois kept showing up in different parts of upstate New York.

Guerrero, Guerrera, Pozos, Pozos, he never called the whole thing off–but he almost did when he was told by just about everybody with any influence over his professional life not to publish this book right after The Ax.  We know now that he took such warnings seriously, which is why we’re just now getting to read Forever And A Death.  But this one he finally did publish, in 2003.  Under the name Judson Jack Carmichael.  The ultimate nom de plume for a writer who possessed an inordinately large number of them.

As you can see, that alias did not hold up in subsequent editions.  Well, how could it?   This is so obviously a Westlake, he might as well have credited it to one of his porn pseudonyms (who, for all I know, might have written about Guerrero/a as well; Westlake and his fast-typing poker buddies could keep injokes like that going for decades).  The dust jacket informs us it’s the pseudonym of a best-selling author (arguably true after The Ax), and that was clearly intended to gin up interest.

Best guess: Westlake still wanted to publish the book.  His agent still thought it would somehow damage his ‘brand.’  Otto Penzler agreed to act as the go-between to Carroll & Graf (it’s stated to be an Otto Penzler Book), and they would tantalize potential readers by saying this was a famous writer going incognito (Penzler’s name would narrow the list of suspects some).  I can see no indication there were any reviewers who twigged to it being Westlake, and the New York Times didn’t even review it.  Later editions were credited to Westlake, including the foreign editions.  I don’t know if Westlake was disappointed by this or not.

It neither damaged nor expanded his brand. Because there’s nothing much new here–it’s just time-tested material arranged somewhat differently. His enduring fascination with Latin America. His interest in large extended families, and how they can work together and/or be at cross purposes–most prominently featured in Ex Officio and Dancing Aztecs.  His love of befuddled and increasingly terrified first-person narrators in jeopardy, comic criminal picaresques, sometimes referred to as Nephew Books–but the classic Nephew is either in his 20’s or just around 30, and just about to choose his path in life.  This one is 35, married for 14 years, and he’s made his major life choices already, good and bad–now he has to find a way to live with them.  Or not.

I’d call it more of a Cousins Book.  A bit of a throwback to what he wrote in the 60’s and 70’s, but a variation on all themes, most of all in the way it deals with Latin America, which is much more than just a scenic backdrop for misadventure here.  This time the half-fluent hero is going to have to try the total immersion route.  His identity is going to be so thoroughly erased by his schemes (he goes to his own funeral), that his sense of self, his past choices, including his choice of mate, will all be tested to their limits.  An experiment, and an interesting one–hardly a complete departure from what came before.

I honestly don’t know what the problem was with publishing it, but I’m not in publishing.  I’m more into synopsizing, but I’ll be atypically brief here, since I don’t feel like doing a two-parter for this.  Which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like it, but of Mr. Westlake’s south of the border sagas, I think this definitely takes a back seat to High Adventure.  Let’s appreciate it for what it has to offer.

Barry Lee is a Long Islander by birth, classic American mutt with a hefty dose of black Irish in him, giving him a decidedly Latin look when he’s working on his tan.  Perhaps that helped him win Lola Tobón, a Latin beauty of the first water, who immigrated from Guerrera, seeking her fortune, and finding Barry instead. They found each other, let’s say–knowing from the first that they were far more together than they could ever be apart.  But the fortune-seeking thing never did pay off.

The problem is, the world keeps changing. It just keeps changing all the time, too fast for a simple little couple like us to keep up, much less to succeed. Today it’s VCR, tomorrow it’s DVD.  Today it’s day-trading, tomorrow it’s Chapter 11.  Today it’s dot com, tomorrow it’s dot bomb, and we managed to get burned, one way or another, on every one of those.  But through it all, through it all, Lola and I just kept hustling.  What else was there for us to do?

And it’s caught up with them.  Mired in debt, the walls closing in fast, unable even to borrow on their life insurance.  It’s not that kind of policy, but it is the kind that pays double-indemnity for accidental death.  Lola wakes Barry up one night with a brainstorm–if they go back to her country, as they do periodically, to see her family, Barry can fake his death, and she can collect the insurance–a full 600k.

Her family, properly induced (and loving Lola very much, Barry perhaps bit less but if he makes her happy…), will help him create a new identity (the old Westlake dodge of using a dead child’s birth certificate to apply for a driver’s license, and build a new identity from there).  He’ll pose as her brother, join her in the States, and they’ll live incestuously ever after.  That’s the plan.   And whatever Lola wants–oh please, you knew that was coming.

With the help of Lola’s good-natured older brother, Arturo (a man of many talents, but a cab driver by trade), his new name will be Felicio Tobón de Lozano, but he can’t assume that identity while he’s hiding out in Guerrera, because people will know he’s not Lola’s brother.   For one thing he speaks very poor Spanish (the Guerraran dialect is quite distinctive).  So he needs an interim self, Ernesto Lopez, a deaf-mute from Ecuador who is an old friend of Cousin Carlos, whose house Barry is staying in.  Barry is not thrilled to learn that his unfortunate disability stems from a bad case of syphilis, but he’s not going to be romancing the local girls, right?  Well, si y no.

As fate would have it, Carlos is married to an intimidatingly beautiful Argentinian sculptress, named María, who likes to swim in the pool a lot (Carlos is quite prosperous by Guerreran standards, and he doesn’t like to talk much about how he makes his living).  Barry isn’t sure if he’s being seduced or tested here.  Possibly neither.

But a more serious temptation manifests itself in Carlos’ niece, Luz Garrigues, who Barry already knows by reputation.  Half the ribald stories in Lola’s large interesting family originate with her, and it would be hard to say if they’re apologizing or bragging when they tell them.  Possibly both.

My first thought was: I don’t want this woman to think I have syphilis.  She was a beauty, probably in her mid-twenties, black-haired, chisel-cheeked, with a generous red mouth and large dark fiery eyes.  Her body was hard and tightly curved, as though it had been constructed to contain electricity.  She looked like Lola crossed with a panther, and I thought, Oh, my!

Half the fun in an insurance fraud story is how you fake your death.  Westlake had done this before, of course.  In the short story, The Sweetest Man in the World, which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1967, and subsequently appeared in a few anthologies (I gave it a very brief once-over in my review of The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

As is the case here, the ersatz dead man is in league with his spouse, assumes a false identity, and is the first-person narrator, and that’s really all you need to know–there he disarms the claims investigator by a rather unlikely (but not wholly implausible) ruse.  Also, there’s a very real dead body, which requires some explaining.

This is an entire novel about insurance fraud and death-faking, so the reader has more time to nitpick, and the investigator is unlikely to be so easily bamboozled.  Barry’s got to make it look really good–it helps that Guerrera is not known for its efficient record-keeping.  It helps that officials there are notoriously easy to bribe.  And most of all it helps that dead bodies nobody wants to claim are not exactly thin on the ground.

So he and Lola have rented a white Volkswagen Beetle.  They’ve driven to a very scenic restaurant, cantilevered over a river gorge, to the point where every meal you have there might be your last.   They have acted out a truly horrific marital spat, at the close of which Barry storms out in high style, and heads for the parking lot, which can’t be seen from inside the restaurant.  He opens the driver’s side door, starts the engine running, but in fact the driver’s seat is already occupado–by the aforementioned corpse, decked out in a shirt of royal blue that matches Barry’s.

This unclaimed body has been provided by a professional yet pliable undertaker, who will also serve as coroner, because that’s how things are done in the Guerreran countryside, which is admirably efficient when you think about it.  Barry experiences a moment of doubt, when he notices how surprisingly well-groomed his doppelgänger is, but it’s too late to turn back now.  Arturo, good brother-in-law that he is, rams his Impala into the Beetle, which is parked at the very edge of the aforementioned gorge.

Out it arched, into all that light above the river, a white descending balloon. No. A white descending refrigerator.

Arturo slammed on the brakes, and the Impala stopped just before the drop. He backed around in a tight circle, and I turned away from the dramatic instance of my death.  As I ran for the Impala and jumped into the backseat, I heard the screams start inside the restaurant.

I could pick out Lola’s scream.  It was the loudest one of all.

When next I saw her, Lola described for me the scene after my departure from the Scarlet Toucan.  Into the at-last-calm atmosphere of the restaurant, the shiny white Beetle made a sudden dramatic appearance in the middle of the air, hung there like a surrealist painting, then crashed with a great geyser of foam and spray and auto parts.

Not only satisfactory from the standpoint of convincing the insurance company, but highly artistic as well.  Lola is inconsolable, and all the more rapturously beautiful in her feigned grief.  The police who show up belatedly at the scene are fighting over who gets to console her.

The ranking officer, Inspector Rafael Rafez, insists on accompanying her back in her cab, and in-between telling her how he thinks he’d make an excellent addition to the NYPD because of his multi-lingualism and general crime-solving prowess, forces his sincere and well-meant condolences upon her to such an extent that she has to sock him hard in the mouth, and she worries he’ll never get the blood out of his suit, which suits Barry just fine, once he hears about it.  (But they have not heard the last of Inspector Rafez!)

So then it’s back to his interim pseudonym of Ernesto, trying very hard to think about his eventual reunion with Lola while María swims in the pool, trying to stay on Carlos’ good side, and trying to be convincing as their chauffeur, suit and all, though I think the fact that we’re told he’s chauffeuring them in a late model Buick Riviera (possibly the very last model) would make that challenging, since all Rivieras were coupes, unless I missed something, and yet we’re told this one is a four-door.  Perhaps one of Mr. Westlake’s intentional errors, made to avoid angering the gods.

Carlos doesn’t want Barry to miss his own funeral, which may be his sense of well-hidden sense of humor at work, or perhaps his way of reminding the man spending so much time with Carlos’ lovely wife of his own mortality.  Either way, Barry finds the experience fascinating, and particularly what a ravishing widow Lola makes, but he’s also got some fairly trenchant social observations to relate to us.

Both of Lola’s parents come from large families, well scattered around Guerrera and the neighboring nations and also well scattered through the economic classes.  Some of her cousins were schoolteachers and administrators, and some were day laborers and mild farmers, poor as squirrels.  Carlos was a cousin with money and influence, but there were other cousins, illiterate and unpropertied, who barely existed in the modern world.  We don’t get that kind of diversity in the States because our society is more settled, so the ranges of class within a family are usually not very broad.

(Oh, I don’t know.  Give us a few more years with the current POTUS…)

Between María and Luz, Barry needs himself a little Lola-time, so a brief rendezvous is arranged at a hotel, before she flies back to America to commit felony fraud (which amazingly, as is pointed out several times in the book, Barry himself has not committed, since faking your death isn’t strictly illegal, though certainly frowned upon).  That’s where the passionate conversation up-top takes place.

Shortly afterwards, while driving María to the airport, she mentions that she was wondering if he was going to be ‘difficult’, as in make a pass at her, as men must be doing constantly, but never when her very dangerous husband is around.  She would have refused, and is not at all displeased he never made any such tiresome attempt, but she is, all the same, curious about the source of this restraint–it surely does not come from his deep sense of morality.  She says something about how faithful husbands are rare in this tropic clime of hers.

“I think that’s true everywhere,” I said.  “But Lola and me…it isn’t that I’m being faithful to her. It’s that I don’t have any other way to live.  To go do something else would be like breaking a bone.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, and switched to look at the back of my head again, speculatively.  “It seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t,” she decided.  “You aren’t the faithful type, actually, you’re a rogue.”

“Thank you–I think,” I said.

“Oh, I know you like being a rogue,” she assured me. “What the English call a chancer. You’re unfaithful to the entire world, so why are you faithful to your wife?”

“Maybe that’s why,” I said, and met her eyes in the mirror.  “Maybe I need one little island in a sea of untrustworthy water. And so does Lola.”

“You’re each other’s island.”

“We are the island,” I said, “and I need to be with her again.”

“Poor Barry,” she said, which was the first time she’d used my former name, and without the usual mockery.

I didn’t think I could stand sympathy.  Smiling back at her, I said “Poor Felicio, in fact.”

That made her laugh and restored our relationship. “You aren’t a man,” she said, “You’re an anthology!”

Soon to be expanded into further editions, but we’ll get to that.  After they have an unpleasant encounter with Inspector Rafez (while Barry prays not to be recognized–he’s grown a heavy mustache, but still), it comes out that there is bad blood between Carlos and the the Inspector–the first an honest crook, the latter a dishonest cop, obviously their paths must cross at times–María is thrilled to hear of Lola’s bloodying the man’s white linen suit.  They part as friends, but with María out of the country on art-related business, Barry’s situation has become more tenuous, and this is thanks to Luz.  Who is going to assail Barry’s roguish fidelity as María never could.

Her cousins.  She didn’t know they would be so stupid.  Which cousins, Barry wants to know, and stupid how?  The cousins from Tapitepe, she responds–Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro.  She was never told directly what Barry and Lola were doing, she was supposed to believe the cover story, but she’s not stupid, just impulsive, and she figured part of it out, listened to vague family gossip, and supplied the rest from her imagination, just as fertile as the rest of her self-evidently is.  In her version of events, Barry and Lola are getting millions of dollars, and sharing it with the entire family, and all they have to do is keep the secret, or the insurance company won’t pay.

And then she told this to the cousins from Tapitepe, who responded to the joyous news in a way she, in her sublimely sexy innocence (I would assume all women in Eden were like her, which is why it was such a terrible punishment to be expelled from there), had not anticipated.

“So they say,” she went on, “if the family gets all this money if Barry Lee is dead, how come he’s alive?”

I looked at her.  “Say that again?”

“Why have the risk? she asked me.  “That’s what they say.   Why have the risk? If the insurance find out Barry Lee ain’t dead, nobody gets nothing.”

“Luz,” I said, they were never going to get anything.

“Millions,” she said

“Not millions,” I told her.  “Listen to me, Luz.  Not millions.  It isn’t millions.  Carlos is getting a couple hundred, and Arturo is getting some, and Mama and Papa are getting some, and that’s all.  The rest of the family isn’t getting anything.”

“Millions,” she said, blinking at me.

I would say both are having equal difficulty getting their points across (in Barry’s case, the problem is exacerbated by the way Luz’s breasts keep jumping out of her top), but Luz’s point is the more crucial one, because the cousins from Tapitepe are coming to make sure Barry Lee is dead for real.  They are honest men, and do not wish to commit fraud. Only murder.

Wouldn’t Carlos protect him?  Carlos was never 100% clear that Barry wasn’t sleeping with María when he was away, and now María is away, and he’s not going to get involved.  This seems a bit cold-blooded, since the cousins are also going to kill their housekeeper to make things look good, but Carlos may not realize this, and good help is not that hard to find in Guerrera, I guess.

Luz sneaks him out of town, over to her place in a nearby town, and they go dancing.  No, seriously.  People dance there.  Barry is a good dancer, which is no surprise to Luz, since Lola would never have married him otherwise.  She thinks Barry has been very good for Lola, who was always very snobbish and tiresome before.  She is certainly not trying to drive Barry insane with adulterous lust. That’s just a natural consequence of being around Luz Garrigues.

So now he’s being passed off as a truck driver she took up with, his fourth identity of the book to date, and of course that is never going to hold up, since he can’t even speak fluent standard Spanish.  But you can see him almost warming to the role–if he stayed there long enough, his Spanish would improve, he could come up with a better story, he could just blend into the scenery, illegal immigrant that he is, and they’d go dancing every night, and Luz would probably end up pregnant, but none of that happens because the cousins from Tapitepe show up there, and he has to jump in the filthy river next to her house (no modern plumbing there) so they don’t find him.  Afterwards she showers him off, which isn’t helping matters at all.

He gets Luz to phone Arturo, who shows up in the Impala, and it’s off to Lola’s parents’ house, where an insurance investigator named Kaplan then shows up, along with the indefatigable Inspector Rafez.  Barry has to spend some time with Madonna, the family pig, in her shed.  She tries to take it in good humor, but he smells so bad….

Arturo is disgusted with the stupid cousins from stupid Tapitepe (the word bufons is bruited about, no translation needed) but he wants Barry to understand something.  His little sister is not going to jail.  If the only way to prevent this is to make Barry Lee disappear, for good–well, let’s hope it never comes to that.  But the thing about countries like Guerrera is, people form broad-based social webs (and were doing so long before Facebook). Arturo knows somebody who might help.

An old girlfriend, in fact–Dulce.  Who is still quite sweet on him, even though he’s married to someone else.  And she manages a luxury resort for rich gringos. Can Barry play a rich gringo for a while?   Two, actually–Dulce will be told he’s a film producer hiding out from a vengeful wife he’s divorcing, and his name is Garry Brine (because he’s been salted away, nice pun Barry!)  But while he’s there, he’ll be going by the name Keith Emory, so the wife doesn’t find him.  So now his alias has an alias.  Caramba.

Barry’s feelings about Casa Montana Mohoka are mixed–it’s so–fake.  You’ll never get to know the country this way.  And yet he’s already gotten to know Guerrera so much better than he ever wanted to, and they have modern plumbing.  Also satellite TV.

What a place.  This was the kind of resort being built all over the world these days, in out-of-the-way locations where the costs are low and the regulations nonexistent.  Corporations use them for all kinds of conferences, and then the corporate executives come back and use them for their vacations.  They fly into some little country like Guerrera, go straight to the resort, spend their three days or their week, fly back out, and they’ve never been anywhere at all. Corporate people love that kind of place, because it comes with a guarantee of the removal of all doubt and danger.  A vacation with no surprises: what a concept!

And then–a dramatic coincidence!  Dulce is married to a local doctor (there is certainly nothing improper in her mildly flirtatious relationship with Arturo), who went to college in America, and an old school chum of his happens to be in the country, would ‘Keith’ like to meet him?  Charming fellow.  Works for an insurance company now.  Leon Kaplan.  Who doesn’t recognize Barry either. Man, a mustache can certainly hide many a sin (assuming you don’t think mustaches are a sin in themselves).

As they chat over dinner, Kaplan confirms all of Barry’s worst fears–he suspects the death was faked.  He can’t prove it yet, but he knows how–find out if there are any dead Guerreran children requesting drivers’ licenses of late.  Barry excuses himself from the table–he suddenly isn’t feeling well.

So he calls up Arturo and the Impala once more, and he’s got bad news for Arturo as well–it was Arturo’s wife, Ifigenia, who wrote the letter to the insurance company, darkly suggesting that Barry Lee’s death was not all it should be.  She has, as you might expect from the name alone, a somewhat dramatic temperament.  And if they don’t do something fast, this is going to be a Greek tragedy in no time.

First, Arturo has to explain things to his wife, with whom he enjoys a somewhat on and off relationship (he shows up every few years, and she has a kid, and sometimes she makes him a dessert before he goes) just what a horrible thing she’s done–most of all in trusting the Guerreran post office to get that letter to America before the intended crime had already been committed.  She is tearfully apologetic, and makes them both a dessert, which they spent the next few chapters fighting over, but we can’t get into that now.

Turns out Ifigenia writes for the fotonovelas Luz so adores (small country), and she also has a cousin, Carlita Camal who works in TV news (and is thus the only blonde in this book packed with sultry brunettes, because Spanish language TV). They figure she can get into the hall of records, make them a map of the place, and then they can sneak in there and heist the documents.  Barry says they can eat Ifigenia’s quesilla while they wait for the coast to be clear.  He’s actually looking forward to it.

Instead, she just lifts the license application herself, the only copy, and walks out with it, and gives it to them at the best Chinese restaurant in Guerrera (I can’t dwell on that either, and I really want to–Westlake would have made a fine food columnist if the novelist thing hadn’t worked out).  Now Kaplan can’t prove a damn thing.  Back to the resort.

Where, two days later, the cousins from Tapitepe show up.  Manfredo and Luis and the other Luis with the bad arm and Jose and Pedro and poco Pedro. Security is very tight there, but they found a way in, after finding out he was there, and to sum it up, the problem with a country where you can always find somebody to do something not strictly legal for you is that the people who don’t like you can always do the same.

This is the extreme peril part of the program, and we’ve been through enough Nephew books by now that I don’t feel the need to go into detail.  Off to Tapitepe in a beer truck, being hit over the head occasionally while in a sack.  Escaping the not-very-bright cousins once he gets to Tapitepe, stealing one of their trucks, causing them a few fairly serious injuries in the process, which causes Barry not the slightest guilt–though seeing the truly abject poverty they live in (by Guerreran standards), he can certainly understand why some gringo in-law’s life means nothing to them.  Understand, but not approve.  Bufons.

He runs out of gas.  Naturally.  Then he’s found by the police.  Obviously. Specifically by Inspector Rafael Rafez.  You were inspecting maybe Speedy Gonzalez?  (Referenced in this book, I should mention, he’s very popular down there.)

He looks at Barry’s very convincing fake ID–convincing because it’s real, just misleading.  In the true spirit of Westlake police detectives, the Inspector manages to jump to just about every wrong conclusion in the book but then a ray of light dawns–he remembers Lola Lee.  Well, how could he forget?

And then Barry tells him everything.  Between chapters, needless to say.  And without implicating any members of Lola’s family he still likes.  And it turns out that this makes Rafez like him, “because I was a rascal now, and he could control rascals.”   And you know what the best thing about corrupt cops is?  They’re corruptible.  Have Lola bring sixty thousand dollars from America, and they can call it even. He won’t even throw in the cleaning bill for his white linen suit.

So having been under Carlos’ protection from Rafez, he’s now under Rafez’ protection from Carlos (who probably was never going to do anything to him, but it’s good to be protected, and the Tapitepe cousins might still show up again). No more worries of being murdered for illusory millions.  Now he just has to worry about him and Lola actually getting their 600k, and Lola staying out of jail.

And here’s the thing–he talks to Lola on the phone.  Risky in itself, but she’s using pay phones (there are still pay phones in America?). Her passion for him has not abated, but she’s holding something back.  He can tell.  Something is wrong.  That she can’t talk about.  Even over a pay phone.

The days slip by.   The insurance check has still not arrived, even though the company has decided to pay up.  Rafez is expressing mild impatience over his 60k.  Barry tells Arturo he feels like he’s ‘nailed to the floor’ (which in itself should have been enough to out ‘Judson Jack Carmichael’ as an alias, in this novel of endless aliases).  Inspector Rafez may not have proven to be much of a detective, but that’s precisely the role Barry Lee has to play now–only he has to figure out what Lola’s problem is without her telling him in words.  (In that limited sense, I suppose you could say all men in long-term relationships have to play detective sometimes.)

The crisis comes when he learns Lola has turned her phone off.  To him, this is clearly a signal that somebody on the other side has something on Lola, and is threatening to turn her in.  And on his side, there’s only one thing he can do to counter that.

Arturo said, “Are you crazy?  Turn yourself in?”

“It’s the only way,” I said.  “If Lola’s in trouble somehow, it’s only because of the money.  If I say I’m alive, there won’t be any money, and she won’t be in trouble anymore.”

“And you don’t get the money.”

“But I get Lola,” I said.  “She and me, once we’re together, we’ll figure something else out. There’s always a scheme somewhere.”

He’ll say he faked his death because he was tired of the marriage (documented by the fight they faked in the restaurant), wanted to start a new life (documented by his living with Luz), and Lola knew nothing about it, filed the insurance claim in good faith.  He’ll call Leon Kaplan, who is back in the states by now.  Explain the whole thing, except not the parts that would put Lola behind bars.  Even if the insurance company wanted to try and go after him, it would be too much trouble and expense.

Just one problem.  Kaplan refuses to believe he’s Barry Lee–refuses to believe Barry Lee is alive.  Why would he refuse to believe that?  He just spent a lot of time trying to prove it.  Unless he had something to lose by Barry being alive? Oh wait…..

Change of plans.  Barry tells a dumbfounded Kaplan about that time they had dinner together, you know, at Casa Montana Mohoka?   Remember how they were in on the insurance fraud scheme together?  No?  He’ll remember it after Barry calls the police over there and tells them about it.  Which won’t happen if Barry very shortly gets a phone call from Lola, telling him she’s got her money, along with whatever evidence Kaplan was using to blackmail her.  Check.  Mate.

Everybody’s happy now, except Kaplan and the Tapitepe cousins, who deserve each other, far as I’m concerned.  Barry has Lola, Lola has Barry, and they both have six hundred thousand dollars (don’t even ask how much that is in Guerreran siapas), minus sixty thousand for the intrepid Inspector Rafez, who has proven to be more honest in his own way than his American counterpart, so maybe he’s better off staying where he is after all.  Those gringos can’t be trusted, Inspector.  Probably shouldn’t drink the water either, now that Trump is in charge of the EPA.

But Barry no longer counts as a gringo, because he is, and evermore shall be, Felicio Tobón, living happily ever after in America with his loving sister, “Hansel and Gretel out of the woods; or at least until the six hundred thousand dollars ran out.  But that’s another story.”  The End?  Far as we’re concerned, yeah.

Okay.  If I were compiling a list of Westlake’s fifty best novels, this would not be on it.  But it might just make my list of his fifty most oddly charming novels–the very bottom, perhaps.  It’s fun to read, and I would think it was even more fun to write, particularly right after The Ax, which must have been quite depressing and painful, and so full of death.

And so he wanted to write about Life, not necessarily at its most felicitous, but at its most vivid, vibrant, and vivacious, and what setting could be more conducive to that than Latin America, where government may at times be a work in progress (or its opposite, and that’s not just Latin America these days), but living is an art form in itself, at least when material circumstances even barely allow for its practice.  There is much gentle mockery here, intermingled with great admiration, and a willingness to understand–and obviously if you really want to understand Latin America, there are far more fluent authors you could check out.  Probably even some who write great mysteries, though I suspect most of those don’t get translated much.

I said it’s a Cousins Book, and by that I mean it’s saying we’re all cousins, parts of a huge far-flung maniacal clan, and wherever we may roam, we’re always staying with family, with all the good and the bad that comes with family, even poco Pedro.  And could there be anything more unpardonably rude than to build a wall to keep family out?  Could anything have filled Mr. Westlake with more inchoate rage than to even suggest such a thing?  Is it not cold enough up here already?  Or do we think we’d still be welcome down there, where so many of us love to venture, once we’ve shut the door on any impromptu return visits?   Rich relations give crust of bread and such...  The day might dawn when we’re the poor relations, you know.

I’m glad he got to see this one in print, and I believe it gave him great satisfaction to see the books, in spite of all the bafflingly misleading covers (and the one from Japan).  I also must note in passing that he wrote an awful lot about morally ambiguous yet oddly faithful rogues, as he must have sometimes liked to see himself, facing death down below the border–so often that it might mask a secret desire to meet with Death down there, if he had to die at all.  If so, he got his wish five years later.  But that is also another story.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels