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 produced 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 parsed patter 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
ENCHANTRESS OF NYIN
Volume VII in the
Farbender Netherbender Series
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.
*(Parenthetically updating, three of the five out of print books I mention above are now evailable, as well as The Fugitive Pigeon, which I had forgotten was likewise out of circulation. Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story remain dormant for now, and I remain dissatisfied.)
9 responses to “Review: Money For Nothing”
There was a very brief period in the late ’90s during which a pop culture shorthand for pretentious asshole was ownership of a cellphone. This was quickly scrapped after everybody had a cellphone, but there was a small window in which a cellphone was a pop-cultural signifier of a certain kind of person. You see it in movies and TV shows of the time, and then you don’t see it anymore. MFN seems to take place inside that window, even though I think it was published a little outside of it. So, when Robbie says, “I’m surprised you don’t carry a cellphone,” what he’s really saying is: “You seem like the kind of asshole who would carry a cellphone.”
But by the time the book came out, that period had passed–the resistance was over. And Josh works in advertising. I worked at an ad agency for a few years in the 90’s, and everybody at Josh’s level (and well below it) had them. And insisted on using them, all the damn time, whether they needed to or not. And if that is indeed Robbie’s point, let’s just say that he’s seriously understating it. I’m not sure Westlake, so long away from the daily grind of the workplace, could really imagine what a modern advertising agency is like. He makes very little attempt to do so here. And he makes no attempt to free his hero from the coils of Madison Avenue (not that ad agencies are mainly situated there anymore).
Westlake just hadn’t yet figured out how to write his kind of story in a world where you could call anybody and anybody could call you (or text you, or tweet at you, or send you a picture of their genitals), no matter where you were. He didn’t really submit to this reality until the very last Parker novel. And even then, it was a negotiated surrender. Parker might use a cellphone, the way he uses a gun–as a tool, that you get rid of as soon as you don’t need it anymore. Dortmunder, I’m assuming (three more books to reread) never submits. Kelp, of course, was always kind of an asshole, so it’s no problem for him. 😉
Wow. If i were asked to come up with 100 one-word summations of Kelp (glib, cynical, shifty, etc.), asshole would not be on the list. And especially not the use of asshole as in “pretentious” asshole. I believe you’ve given me the vapors and I now must find a place to sit down.
The word has never been all that well defined, you know. Except in as it refers to the human anal cavity, which is, after all, a most useful and necessary orifice, and hardly deserves to be compared to the human personality.
You know I love Kelp. But he is, at times, a bit of an ass, and that’s surely close enough for my joke to be tolerated, if not applauded. Here, have some smelling salts. Have you read this book, incidentally?
This one? No.
I think that’s the problem; why we’re not going to get the usual lively discussion. Not enough people read it. But there were multiple editions, in multiple languages. It’s evailable right now, when many of Westlake’s best books remain available only as (often very pricey) used books. Somebody must have read it. Or at least started to read it, like John.
Josh is not a good protagonist for Westlake. And yet the entire book is from Josh’s POV. And yet Josh never talks directly to the reader, makes his case in person–there’s a third person narrator between Josh and us, and he’s so incredibly bored with Josh, he actually goes out of his way to tell us the entire plot of a famous Bernard Shaw play, just to stop thinking about Josh for a while.
Josh Redmont is the entire raison d’etre of this book, and he’s not big enough to carry that weight on his shrugged shoulders.
The only thing I remember from this book is the wonderful satire of the fantasy-book industry. (In a previous online lifetime, we used to call this stuff EFP — Extruded Fantasy Product — because it was clearly manufactured rather than written.) . It didn’t occur to me that it was about GRRM, for a couple of reasons.
First, it seemed to be describing bog-standard Tolkien ripoffs, not the dark deconstruction of their tropes that made up A Song of Ice and Fire.
Second, in 2003 ASoIaF didn’t seem endless. The first three book had come out on schedule (’96, ’98, ’00), with the fourth at that point only a bit overdue. I think the announced plan at that point was six books, so we seemed to have half of it, with each book genuinely advancing the plot. (They correspond to the first 4 TV seasons.)
The fantasy author in MfN is clearly going to make a career of his fantasy setting, at least as long as the sales hold up. Other than that being true of the industry as a whole, the obvious targets seemed to be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which went to 11 books before he died and Brandon Sanderson took over for the last three, and Mercedes Lackey, who wrote roughly a million books set in the same world.
Okay. First of all. Mercedes Lackey? That is not a real name. That’s a name Westlake or some other snarky sumbitch would have dreamed up. You cannot seriously tell me there is an actual fantasy author named Mercedes Lackey. That is a way funnier name than David L. Fogware.
There’s just no point in writing satire anymore. I mean, the President is Donald Trump. Give it up, smartasses of the world. Satire is dead. Real Life killed it. Anyway, it was her ex-husband’s name, and now I guess she’s stuck with it for professional reasons. Seems like a very nice lady. Ball-jointed dolls, huh? Who am I to judge? (I used to be part of the filking community; a lot less dirty than it sounds, sadly.)
Let’s not assume Westlake was overly familiar with that aspect of genre. I don’t think he was reading any of these books. At most he picked up a copy of this or that at a bookstore and leafed through it at random. He was bemused by the superabundance of them, the sheer length of each individual book, the deep immersion in an utterly unreal world. Remember his issues with science fiction, which is basically S&S fantasy with robots a lot of the time (Martin was a science fiction writer, but found out fantasy pays better–swords beat rayguns, who knew?).
As with science fiction, really good character development is rare–to which I’d say Martin is only a partial exception. Again, his conception of the characters and the web of relationships between them is brilliant, masterful. But the way he writes them–I can’t see any instance where the TV writers didn’t improve him, if only by editing him (and I’m not sure Martin wrote that line about how nothing said before the word ‘but’ really counts, but it’s a good one, whoever wrote it). I suspect that as he got to be a name, he started dispensing with editors and their services at the precise time he needed them most.
You could be right, and I also noticed that the fictional world being described didn’t at all resemble that of the Fire & Ice novels, or the cable show that didn’t exist yet. Possibly because Westlake only knew about the surface stuff, the tropes–not the way Martin was breathing new life into them through his study of history. Possibly because he didn’t want to be that direct. Saying an author is portly and a bad dresser is not really much of a clue in this genre. Neither is saying he doesn’t know when to stop writing.
But in spite of his improvements to the form, Martin himself is highly spoof-ready, and has been spoofed half to death. (Seen this?)
Robert Jordan physically resembled Fogware’s description, but his style of dress, based on a quick search, was quite different. Martin is into windbreakers and visored caps. Jordan favored suit jackets and broad-brimmed felt hats–rather a dapper fellow. For a nerd, I mean. And I would know. The fact that they wouldn’t stop publishing the books, even after the author’s death–well, you know what Westlake would have thought about that. And he knew that happens in his genre too. Not to him, so far.
It’s such a quick little sketch, you can draw all kinds of conclusions from it, but the most likely explanation is that Westlake spent a lot of time in chain bookstores, and he saw a fantasy author doing a promotional thing, or several of them, and he took it from there. Did the composite thing. No personal animus involved. Just another float in the passing parade.
Her friends call her Misty. Seriously.