“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.
“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”
“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”
“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”
“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.
“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”
Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”
“Ourselves,” Kelp said.
“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”
“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.
From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.
I love John Dortmunder.
I mean, not that way. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here. Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here. And I’m hardly alone in this. My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.
Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved. Nor does he give a damn if he is or not. Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him. Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.
Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with? We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.
And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true? Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon. You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not. Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.
I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car. No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories. Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all. (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)
Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy. Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here. With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.
One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy. True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century. Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it. He must have known that. Nor was this such a new sensation. He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life. Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.
But there are compensations. To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them. You may even get an inkling of things yet to come. And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning. So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.
All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work. The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.
The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them. We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing. Must that always be true? I could not say.
But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.
So what’s different? This time they know about it. I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger. To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before. Self-awareness is one thing. Self-consciousness quite another.
And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched. Most of all when you’re playing to a camera. Playing yourself. Instead of just being yourself. Which was hard enough to begin with.
To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work. What you do shapes everything about you. He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.
Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs. If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere. (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.) But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.
And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that. Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it. Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins. The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself. Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it. To be is to be perceived.
This is normal for entertainers, of course. That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?) But how about a writer? Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.
Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore. B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either. I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed. Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.
If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.
Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it. He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower. Few can claim to be that focused.
Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him. Maybe not even then. In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be. To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.
To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?
I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting. As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool. They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies. They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.
Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars. Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him. That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.
So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system. As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.
Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it. (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)
Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing. He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete. He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff. I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same. Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work. There is no Jobs, no CEO. Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers. An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.
It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow. Creative anarchism. (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates). And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea. No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.
Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it. Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires. So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer. Here’s just one exchange from that process. (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years). Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.
“Wires,” decided Kelp.
They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”
Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “
Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”
His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.
Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”
“I got it.”
“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”
Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”
“Same as last time. Comere.”
They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”
“You got it.”
“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”
“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”
Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “
“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—
“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”
The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”
“Can’t you hear anything?”
“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”
Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes. Dortmunder accepts. Graciously, if a bit stiffly.
Why is this work so good to watch? Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment. This, in a nutshell, is fiction. (And life, or it ought to be.)
Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted. There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions. They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”
I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape. Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.
Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty). Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap. But we watch it. Because it’s fun! Vérité be damned, we crave variety.
(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon. Won’t even mention Keanu. Too obvious. Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity. The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)
The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject. They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.
And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros in their own field–and what’s their job? To make you look good doing your job. Which makes them look good at their jobs. One hand jacking off the other. Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.
The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell. This is not who they are. If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived. To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.
They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company). They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it. That’s how they get real.
They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all. It’s not what they do. Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know. To thine own self be true.
Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a huff, because really. Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.
The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’ You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it. There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars. Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.” Well, maybe if it’s a diner.
The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you. Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops. Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet. Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere? Andy? Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom. The internet is definitely not there.
But Doug is, and that’s even worse. He doesn’t belong in the real OJ. They shut the door in his face. But he persists. The corporate overlords love the new heist show. They want to go ahead with it. Please, please come back! They’re kind of meh about it. The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way? Doug says that’s not how reality works. John says “Why not? How real is reality anyway?” That is the question, all right.
But they come back. Because money. And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera. Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene. Very stiff. But that’s okay, they can carry him. They’re professionals. They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.
So they pull the job. The cash is there, just like they thought. So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that. Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it. Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.
To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen. This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway. I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.
There’s a ton of cash in there. Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is. The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home. The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again. They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.
So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was. They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left. Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it. $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.
“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.” He smiles. And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past? The Avalon Bank Tower heist. The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better? Because it’s repeatable. They can keep going back for more. As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.
Except they don’t work there anymore. Corporate moves in mysterious ways. Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals. They can’t be associated with crime!
(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again. Westlake was still thinking about Trump. Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.
Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building. TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real. And it’s TUI that cancels the show. I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016. Much as his insights may be missed.)
So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent. Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs. Everybody else is fired. The show is canceled. Shut it down.
Just in time, too. They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news. Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook. “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place. You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”
Like himself, but not himself. Just like the others. They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly. Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio. Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy? You can dish it out but you can’t take it!
Marcy is so happy. This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé. The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play. Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned. Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.
Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one. 10k a hood, I mean head. Plus they got some money upfront. Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud). Plus they got the money from the dishwasher. Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out. (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)
“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks. Already snapping back to his old self. You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it. It’s a living. We suppose.
Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate. Dortmunder feels bad for her. She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not. She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something. Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash. “There’s an idea,” says Kelp. He doesn’t stop walking. Disappears around the corner. Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.
John, stop. Wait. Come back, John. Please come back. You can’t leave us. We love you. John?
Just like the man who first made him real. I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right? He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.
But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once. The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage. There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits. And that’s us, get it? We’re the fairies. Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.
Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality. Transcendent reality. And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again. (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).
Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming. I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way. The best way is to read the books. Over and over. Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it? Which is what I re-read Get Real on. Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind. And share it with someone who loves you. Then you’ll be real too.
Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what? No more? Well then. Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself. I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my job. It’s been real. You know? Open bar at the OJ. Bourbon’s on me. Tell Rollo Fred sent you.
PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words. Uploaded it to YouTube. You can view it here.
You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)
26 responses to “Review: Get Real, Part Last”
And yes, the Get Real quote that opens this entry is exactly the quote I expected you to open with. Hardly a feat of precognition, given the themes contained in the passage. A final identity puzzle from an author who was preoccupied with them for decades. Dortmunder, just like his uncle Parker, is a man who knows who he is. The lure of make-believe is no lure at all, and yet… the siren song of the TV camera has lured stronger men than he to their doom. It’s a relief to see him shake all of that off at the end, continuing on his way, just out of our view.
Dortmunder is less pure than Parker, more corruptible. Parker simply would have refused to do the TV job in the first place (you’ll recall, it was his refusing to steal the same gem over and over that led to Dortmunder’s birth). But even if he’d been forced to be in a show about himself, to act out scenes, and then to watch them replayed, it wouldn’t have affected him. He’d have just filtered it out. Irrelevant to him, so ignored.
Dortmunder came to us, I think, from the same strange primal place as Parker, but by a different route, so he’s more of a halfling. There’s a lot of humanity in him. He’s less corruptible than us, but still at times susceptible to the blandishments of the media, to the little vanities that distract us. He’s not pure.
And you know what? Purity isn’t lovable. It’s his sharing our weaknesses–while seeing them so clearly for what they are, showing them to us–that makes him our champion. That makes us love him so damn much.
Though I had some of the ideas for how I’d finish this one from some ways back (the Velveteen Rabbit motif came to me almost at the last moment) I was still misting up, writing those last passages. Not when I wrote the end of my Dirty Money review. Dry-eyed and bushy-tailed. A strange chill in my heart.
How remarkable, to be able to play both of those chords–and so many others, for so long. It’s still the case that most of the time, my favorite Westlake is the one I’m reading. But not if it’s Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, or Money For Nothing. Everybody hits a wrong note sometimes. Perfect authors aren’t lovable either. 😉
One last time: Can you fix my tagging?
Oh, I hope not for the very last time.
And if you ever do that Barney Miller blog, you can always fix mine.
It’s been a whiplashy night:
First night of Hanukah, and both of my (half-Jewish, on my side) kids insisted on lighting candles and saying prayers.
The last Westlake book . For real the last, this time.
The child molester is not going to the Senate (barring some funny business which he’s entirely capable of, but let’s not go there tonight.)
So, let’s hold onto something semi-real: What the hell is up with Andy Kelp?He’s known for sharp features, not a sharp tongue, and we’ve never heard a cross word out of him, much less a scream, much less at his best friend in the world. This puzzled me the first time I read this book, but now it seems to be of a piece with his having upped his game so much as a lock man and being such a skinflint with Marcy. He’s desperate for the score, for the reason our host has explained: highly desirable, high-class, high-maintenance girlfriend, very capable of attracting a successful lawyer or businessman if Kelp spends too long in a lull. It’s hard out there for a crook.
Much as I applaud the focus of this novel, it would have been good to have had a bit more May, a bit more J.C., even a bit more Anne Marie. Which is to say, a bit more context about the home lives of our heroes. It’s impossible to say how the latter two relationships are going at all. And yet we are made to know that they are still going.
We’ve never seen Tiny and Josie’s home life. We’ve mainly seen Andy and Anne Marie’s when they’re about to bed down together. I’m not sure in my own mind whether her motives are entirely mercenary–maybe it’s just a sexy role playing thing, where he’s the dangerous criminal and she’s the lusty moll. It’s a fun ride for her, and the question is, what would happen if it stopped being fun–May is loyal unto death (so’s Claire, over in the other universe–perhaps more of a model for Anne Marie), but a girl does have to look after her own interests sometimes.
I’d explain it thus–Kelp usually isn’t in charge during a heist. This time, because he’s the lock man, he’s briefly in the driver’s seat, it all comes down to him and his skills, and you know, power corrupts. Even the most affable of men can lose his temper when the pressure is on. It does feel like an off note, but I found it interesting.
There are still depths to that relationship to be plumbed. He’s normally let Dortmunder act like he’s in charge, but that’s always been an illusion. He sees himself as the manager, the agent, and Dortmunder is the talent that has to be praised, coddled, and prodded into action–for Kelp to get his percentage. Westlake had relationships like that in his professional life. Most successful writers do.
Kelp is hard to predict in this one, which is good. He’s talking like he’s not going to go anywhere near Doug Fairkeep, then he’s helping Dortmunder break into the guy’s apartment–we have to infer that what he found on Google intrigued him so much, he had to cut himself in He’s getting involved with a barstool debate at the OJ. He’s flexing his muscles in the gang, more than we’ve seen him do before. God is not finished with him yet.
As to Marcy, that was in character. Why would he want to help a civilian? When has he ever? He only got involved with helping the nun because there was a good score–true of John as well, but he and John aren’t the same–Dortmunder has a sort of functioning conscience, a Jiminy Cricket he can never quite squish (which you know is what happened in the original story). Because, again, he’s closer to Westlake than Parker. Westlake sometimes wished he didn’t give a damn, but he did anyway.
Marcy is the most interesting supporting character here. I think the point of her is that she’s got the stuff to be a real writer. And look where she is. Not even allowed to call herself that. Slaving away for some soulless corporation, in hopes that someday she could have a screen credit or two. There but for the grace of God…..
So yes, we feel for her, but what’s the point of giving her some cash? I mean, she’s going to get unemployment, and there’s no reason to think she doesn’t have family and friends to help her out.
That’s not what she needs–she needs to figure out who she is, what she wants, how to be a storyteller on her own terms, while she’s still young enough to do that. It’s always devastating to lose your job, even a job that sucks (as most of them do), but it happens to everyone. She’s not imprisoned by an evil father in a tower. And she doesn’t have a true vocation–yet. So I’d call that Kelp reminding Dortmunder who he is, and who he’s not–he’s no saint. Well, maybe he’s St. Dismas, just a bit. But he’s no St. Francis of the Sissies. (A regular at the OJ insisted that’s the guy’s name, and I took him at his word.)
I think Westlake knew this was probably the last book. There’s never a definitely, even if the doc tells you you’ve got six months. There’s a decidedly eulogic feel to it. Ethan Iverson was right on the money there. But it was a feeling he had–nothing certain. I mean, would his family have let him go to Mexico if he was on death’s door? Well, I don’t know they could have stopped him. But he must have been well enough to Travel. Yeah, I had to capitalize that.
Rituals are good. Whether they go back thousands of years, or you just made them up yourself. Last night, I lay on the futon, watching the election returns with our friend’s dog Aries, who we’ve known since he was a pup–he and Max were buddies from way back. Big black lab, unsnipped. His lady is in the hospital, we’ll bring him home this evening. I will describe his character to this extent–if the Dortmunder gang had a dog in it, this would be the dog. He’s somewhere between Kelp and Tiny. (Max was more of a Dortmunder.)
When Max was alive, I started doing this thing where I’d ask him to use his dog powers to fix an election. 2008. 2012. That was Max. 2016, I asked him one last time–he slept beside me as the nightmare unfolded, and I could see he was fighting something awful in his dreams. But he didn’t give up. He soldiered on through. He triumphed over the demons.
I forgot to explain to him about the electoral college. My bad. Not his. He’s gone now. You will get a sense of my capacity for superstition when I tell you that I find myself thinking he wore himself out trying to comply with my request. My last dog died because I broke a bottle of olive oil, and let a black cat cross our paths on a walk.
But we had Aries last night, and there’s no electoral college in state elections. Victory. Savor each one. Der Fucker was right (for once) in that tweet. It never ends. But he will. When we wake up and remember who we are.
I would have been just like your kids, if I’d been raised half-Jewish. I didn’t want that tree up and decorated until Christmas Eve, and the baby Jesus couldn’t go in the manger until midnight. I walk past a creche every day to work lately, and the baby Jesus has been there for a week now, and it vexes me sore. Well, what do you expect from Jesuits?
Chag Urim Sameach, pal.
Godspeed, Max. Thanks for fighting the good fight. I hope Aries is gearing up for 2018.
I’m not sure Aries will make it to 2018–he’s aging faster than Max did. Around twelve now, looks older. You know how Edna St. Vincent Millay said her candle burned at both ends? I think he figured out a way to burn his at three. But oh his friends, and ah his foes, it gives a lovely light.
I left one out: rushing up the ladder like a madman without even giving the damn kid a change to come down. Have you ever seen Kelp hurry, much less be frantic? Something is definitely up with that guy.
First time we see Andy in this book, he seems to be doing his usual thing. There’s this fly-by-night pop-up discount store in Brooklyn that he wants to sell stolen TV’s to, but the store gets closed down, as has happened many times before, and by the time it’s started up somewhere else, the TV’s won’t be available. He doesn’t seem upset, or worried–these things happen–but he’s disappointed. Maybe a tad pensive. And then Dortmunder calls him with a proposition weirder than any of the schemes he used to come to Dortmunder with. Major role reversal there.
We don’t have to read more into this than what Murch’s mom said–their profession, as they practice it, is getting hard to work at. Sure, lots of people steal, but they usually get caught and sent up. Mobsters can do the off the back of a truck thing with impunity most of the time, but they’ve got an organization behind them. It’s hard out there for an independent thief. And Kelp, early adopter that he is, isn’t the type for cyber-crime, or at least he hasn’t gotten there yet.
We don’t really hear anything about him and Anne Marie, other than that she’s still around. Wouldn’t have been that hard to write a little scene between him and her, even though this book is really not focusing on any of their non-professional relationships.
I see what you’re talking about, now that you’re pointing it out. I don’t quite know what to make of it.
Well, probably we’ll find out what’s eating him in the next……. 😦
The kid’s looking at all those chairs could be an hommage to Ilf & Petrov (and maybe even to Mel Brooks after them). Not that he’s very close to Ostap Bender, except alphabetically, but. . . .
There could be a million obscure references in there. I feel like I’ve gotten maybe 10% of them, but I’m probably just flattering myself.
Well, then, you have a motivation for doing nine more rounds of reviews!
I may do some re-reviews (have one in mind for the near future), but probably not of anything I did a three part review of. I mean, geez, enough already.
I do look back at some of my earlier pieces and see that I missed things–not just references, but influences. And those influences–writers for whom Mr. Westlake had a peculiar affinity–might be worth looking at in their own right.
I think TWR has a future. A limited future, to be sure, but what doesn’t?
I need to read a lot more books. Without the pressure of having to reread a Westlake two more times a month, I can get more context, with which I can understand his books better. And, you know, other things. Life, even. Why not?
Life? “There’s an idea.”
Of course, this *is* part of life — most especially for you, but for us your readers too. I’d like to see more . . . but maybe I’m just taking the optimistic-Kelp’s view also expressed by Mel Brooks.
Much as I identify with this joyous fatalism, you must remember I was reared in a different franchise. 😐
No argument here — IMO, these are mostly different ways of looking at and saying much the same thing. :]
Well, my oriental philosophy prof used to say there was a ‘daemonism’ behind all the great world religions. Brooksians, Pythonists, Westlakers. We all worship the same divine personage. His name is Gelos. One of his names, anyway. 😉
I think it can be done. It’s just hasn’t been done correctly yet.
You’re absolutely right that what the gang is doing in this novel (stealing in front of an audience) is exactly what they’ve been doing all along. It’s just the first time they’re aware of it. The Observer Effect in action. Makes me wonder what the gang is up to when we’re not watching them. Good thing I’m always near the internet.
It is possible for certain characters, of course, to know the audience is there, and for that not to impact them in any deleterious manner. Chaplin’s Tramp, for example–he’s always seeing us out of the corner of his eye, making little bows in our direction. Some of Shakespeare’s people also seem to know we’re there, and there is a long tradition of addressing the audience directly in theater.
Getting rid of the fourth wall works very well for certain types of comedy–but it wouldn’t work for Dortmunder. He’s got to play it straight, right down the line.
I’ve long suspected Grofield knows he’s got an audience, but he’s an actor. He would imagine an audience, even if there wasn’t any. I don’t get that sense from the Grofield in the Dortmunders, though. Who is, to be honest, not all that interesting. It’s just interesting that he’s there. Savoring his escape from the rigors of the Stark Lands.
As to the other thing–I don’t know. Could something good be made of the Dortmunders? Sure. The Hot Rock isn’t awful. With such talent on both sides of the camera, it should be amazing, but it’s not awful. The only other Dortmunder adaptations I’ve seen are Bank Shot and What’s The Worst That Could Happen? I don’t want to see any more. Please don’t make me see any more. 😮
I could imagine something far better. Very easy to imagine something more faithful to the source, since none of them seem to even be trying to be faithful to the source. (And before you say “That’s Hollywood,” please recall all the other books that have been adapted with slavish fidelity–with varying results–when Westlake said a movie probably shouldn’t be the book it’s adapted from, bear in mind–he never saw what such a movie would look like, at least as far as his stuff was concerned).
So yes, we can hope for something better. But would it be Dortmunder? I like the Connery Bond better than the Fleming Bond–while recognizing that they are two different animals. Nobody ever came close to capturing Fleming’s Bond on screen, and given certain societal changes I would hope we all approve of (even though I know better), seems unlikely anyone ever will. It’s just that in that instance, I don’t really care.
I think, like Parker, Dortmunder will always get away from anyone who tries to capture him on film. TV? Maybe. As long as it’s not a reality show.
By the way, I’d like to extend my congratulations to you. You’ve accomplished the task you set for yourself back in March of 2014, reviewing every book Donald Westlake ever wrote. (Because you can.) Kudos to you, sir. Many kudos indeed!
In all seriousness, it’s been a genuine pleasure coming back to this blog week after week, reading your thoughtful analyses and participating in this very well mannered comments section. Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. Thank you for hosting.
And thank you, Greg, for coming. And arguing. And teaching. And getting the better of me, often as not. You and Mike and Ray and a few others made this far more than I ever could have done alone. I never wanted a bunch of people ‘liking’ my posts, and telling me how clever I was (like I didn’t know). I wanted a goddam conversation! I got it.
I hope to have more, before I’m done. But as far as the primary mission statement goes, I am done.
(Though there are always the sleazes.)
Fred should extend the blog by working his way through the rest of this list: http://www.donaldwestlake.com/bibliography/
(At least cover the Westlake/Block collaborations, which are fascinating exercises in creative one-upmanship.)
Well, that’s a quandary, though I did just jokingly reference it.
See, I don’t believe he’d have wanted those reviewed. I don’t think he even necessarily hoped they’d stay in print (that was all Mr. Block, who has no sense of shame, bless his heart). I could be wrong, and he could have been of two minds about it. He had a lot of conflicts there.
I did indirectly talk about all this in my review of Adios Scheherazade. A gem of a short novel that is shamefully still out of print–a pearl created by many grains of sand in the oyster of the author’s soul. He hated writing those sleazes. Maybe not so much at first, but over time, it wore on him.
The other thing is, the best Westlake sleazes I’ve read are not the ones that are evailable. I read them in transit–from ebay to me to Ray Garraty (ebay sellers are wary of Russian addresses–I was the beard). So I read the books, but I don’t currently have the books. And you know, they’re expensive.
So yeah, I could do (for example, and not in a lewd sense) A Girl Called Honey (which I have talked about en passant). And what am I going to say? “It’s an attempt to cross Tess of the D’urbervilles with Butterfield 8, and the co-authors are fighting over a girl who doesn’t exist.” There, I reviewed it.
My main interest, with regards to the sleaze era, is that I now know that there are sleazes credited to pen names other than Mr. Westlake’s that contain references to Parker. If I could find a few of those, my reputation as a lit scholar without portfolio (or salary) would be made! I’d be to Westlake what Richard Ellmann is to Joyce and Yeats! Wouldn’t that be Wilde?
I have some other projects to attend to–revisiting several more substantial works–reassessing past assessments–talking about writers who might have influenced him. And, you know, there might be some good short stories of his that aren’t in any of the anthologies.
But if you’re waiting for my three part analysis of So Willing–I’m so not.
The other thing is, you know–Block wrote his own intro to those books he and Westlake did together. He explained how it happened, and how much fun it was for each to hammer out a chapter that would undo what the other had done in the previous chapter, and drive that poor sweet hooker mad in the process. I’m pretty sure that qualifies as workplace harassment, you know.
So what exactly am I doing with a book like that, other than restating the obvious? I mean, that’s not a hard code to break, is it now?
There’s not enough there there. I could see myself doing a sort of omnibus review, covering sleazes the way I typically cover his short stories, because there’s rarely more than a short story’s worth of plot in any of them.
Interesting? Yes. Titillating. God knows. Worth more than a few paragraphs apiece? Not really. But I will take it under advisement. I mean, if you want to send me a whole lot of bawdy vintage paperbacks with semi-explicit covers, entirely at your own expense, I suppose I would be morally obligated to read them. But I would do so only under protest. 😐