Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 2

(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.

You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change.  It’s almost a requirement of the form.  I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack.  They can’t possibly do the missionary, right?  Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces.  A body like that you don’t want to damage.  I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story.  An eloquent silence, let’s call it.

Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves.  Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.

As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me.  I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right?  Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up.  But we still try.)

 

Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment.  God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts.  He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey.  But yeah, old.  Him and the whiskey both.

The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.

Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth.  The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit.  He reached for a second glass on the table.

“Drink?”

“No.  Thank you.”

“I’ll pour you one anyway.  You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.

“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?”  Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him.  If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time.  Of course, He had eternity.

God’s face got serious.  “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John.  Understanding you, and the others.  What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two.  It was never easy.  I got it wrong sometimes.  But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you.  To hear your prayers.  I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.”  His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.

Dortmunder noted the past tense.  “You retiring or something?”

“After a fashion.  I won’t be telling any more stories.  You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t.  Moving on.”

“To what?”

God spread His hands.  “I’m not that omniscient.  It is what it is.  I’ve got an author too.  Maybe He’s got one as well.  Or She.  I’d prefer a She.  Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”

This was going nowhere.  “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own.  Best as I can tell, I always was.  I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”

“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit.  Call it an homage.”

“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”

“I’m sure you can.  Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary.  You or the Other Guy.  Words were never going to be your thing.”

“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“The one I made damn sure you never met.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.  I protected you more than I ever did him.  I gave you better scores.  A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies.  A more reliable string.  You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John.  You surprised me.  That’s the best thing a creator can hope for.  C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”

Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank.  It was good.  Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey.  That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.

“Remember that, do you?  Not one of my better efforts.”  Lips pursed, in self-disapproval.  “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle.  Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”

“Get out of my head!”

“You’re always in mine.  You and a host of others.  Tormenting me with all your potential.  That most of you never came close to using.  But that’s free will for you.  I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not.  You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”

Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.

“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole.  How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him?  But I had to look into that abyss…..”

God was starting to ramble.  An occupational hazard, perhaps.

“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.”  Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.

“Be a little more specific.  I mean, there was so much…..”

“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”

“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”

You invented parimutuel betting!”

“That was Joe Oller.  A higher deity than myself.  Anyway, it was always going to be something.  You had fun spending it, right?”

“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs.  I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat.  This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”

“Yeah?  Meet anybody that day?”  Looking much too pleased with Himself.

A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes.  The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.

“You’re welcome.  See?  Give and take.  Can’t have one without the other.  If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist.  It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session.  Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.

“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”

“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate.  What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis.  You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department.  But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand.  Might as well be playing a video game.”

“So you’re saying I was lucky.”

“I’m saying it could have been worse.  You had friends.  You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you.  You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness.  They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin.  So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”

“Max Fairbanks.”

“Yeah.  Him.”  A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.

“Why?”

“That’s not on me.  I told you, most people make bad choices.  They had all the information they needed to make good ones.  I can’t do everything for you people.  You need to take responsibility for your mistakes.  But I have to say–that was a doozy.”

“I didn’t vote for him.”

“You never vote.”

“Nobody I know voted for him.”

“Most of them don’t vote either.  Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”

“You made Max Fairbanks!”

“I made a lot of people.  If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”

“Fair.”

God was pissed now.  He proceeded to wax wroth.

You want life to be fair?  You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir.  I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf.  If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”

“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”

“I served five.  You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six.  It felt like a lifetime.  I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time.  But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”

“I felt it anyway.  You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again.  You kept changing the rules.  It wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful.  Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game.  While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”

He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.

“You’re not supposed to swear.”  Dortmunder looked more subdued now.

“I didn’t take my own name in vain.”  God looked embarrassed at having lost his temper.  “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”

“What’s that mean?”

“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before.  You could do it again.  I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”

All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”

“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you.  But no.  If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine.  That’s really all anyone should have to do.  That’s all I did, most of the time.  I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though.  Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know,  à chacun son goût.  

(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo?  But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)

God seemed to be wrapping up now.  “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled.  But it’s time I was out of here.  Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you.  You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview.  You should be proud.”

“I’m overcome by the honor.”  Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.

God was delighted.  “Sarcasm!  See, I never could manage that with the Other Guy!  Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.

“What did he have to say when you braced him?”

“What did I just tell you? I didn’t.  I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit.  Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally?  He knows me by a different name.  I’ve got a lot of them.  You might say my name is Legion.”

God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.

“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected.  “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”

The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look.  “Say–that’s right!  I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things.  I’m the narrator.  Nothing gets narrated without me!  What gives?  Stop, thief!  I still have copyright!”

He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself.  “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time.  All the hallmarks of an amateur.  I just hope it’s not a script treatment.  Too wordy.”

“A what?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.  They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”

What did you call me?”

“Who do you think wove that basket you came in?  Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”

Dortmunder did not like the sound of that.  “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while.  Meet the gang.”

“I made the gang.  But you were always my fair-haired boy.  Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood.  But lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon.  My Own Brand, you know.”

“Wait—”

He was gone.

*************************

Dortmunder blinked.  He looked at the bottle.  Still there.  Still more than half full.  He sipped.  Still much too good to be from the OJ.  Something had happened.  But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.

He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar.  He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale.  That’s what it sounded like, anyway.

Cries of “DUDE!  Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch.  (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)

And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.

“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from.  He was holding a tray with more glasses.

“There was somebody else here.  Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out.  He left us some good stuff.  Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy?   You too, J.C.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door.  “The day I’ve had, I could use it.  So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets.  Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country?  That guy owes me money!  Who else wants some of this?”

Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.

“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded.  “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore.  I might as well indulge.  Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.”  (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)

“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.

They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business.  “There’s two things to discuss.  First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh.  John and me had a look, seems like a possible.  Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”

“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.

“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly.  “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”

“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.

“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score.  He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash.  Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.

“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”

Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab.  The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books.  This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor”  Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.

“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused.  “What did he say about this information he wants us to get?  It’s about the election?”

“Connected with that, yeah.  Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it.  They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing.  It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a  strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”

“Pass,” Tiny decided.

“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.

“John?” Kelp inquired.

“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.

As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity.  “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor.  “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”

Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed.  “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”

“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.

“We don’t have a back door.”

“He made one.”

As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.

“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.

“I’ll walk.  Need to clear my head.”

“Tiny?”

“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”

“Stan?  You got a car nearby?”

“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste.  “Sure, why not?  Just drop me at the A train.”

“Great, I’ll get an Uber.  Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”

Uber?  Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation.  Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb.  A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”

“You all know about congestion pricing, right?”  It was Gladys Murch.

“Mom!  Not you too?!  This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”

“Got to get with the times, Stanley.  Cash or credit?  It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”

Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.

*************************

He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all.  What was he supposed to do?  Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks?  Not likely.

But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks.  That had all been settled in Vegas.  If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune.  Nothing to do with him.

He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee.  That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.

He got to the shop.   He stopped.  His jaw dropped.

It was boarded up.  Covered by a wood scaffolding.  Along with everything else on the block.  They were out of business.  For real.  Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone.  No more store.  No more score.

He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility.  Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure.  Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises.  Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries.  Oh shit.

Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.  

Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.

He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now.  And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon.  Because its author had left the building.  By the back door.  That sly bastard.

“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward.  “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”

And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively.  Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn.  Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.

A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier.  She dutifully relayed it onwards.  It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it.  And a note saying only “You win.”

Max was enraptured when he got it.  Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself.  It fit like it was made to order.  This really was going to be his year.

And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY  YOU.”  Happy New Year.  I mean, why not, right?

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 2

  1. Yeah, I’m done with the sacrilege now.

    Be merciless. I’m not doing this for my health. And I wouldn’t have started on it if I were the thin-skinned type. My favorite exchange in all of western drama is from The Misanthrope, when Oronte insists Alceste hear his love poem. I may by chance have written something just as shoddy, but then I went and showed it to everybody.

    I was recently reading up on how Sergio Leone got sued for plagiarizing Yojimbo to make A Fistful of Dollars. Which he self-evidently did, though he always denied it.

    They still had to pony up many a fistful of lira to Sensei Kurosawa, who was rather gracious, under the circumstances. “Mr. Leone has made a very fine film, but it is my film.” Just so. A shot for shot remake, with Leone sticking so close to the original script most of the time, translating it to the western venue, that it can be jarring when he gets an idea of his own and runs with it.

    (And sometimes it just doesn’t work–rifle vs. revolver is not a good equivalent for katana vs. revolver. Why couldn’t that poncho guy just sneak up on the baddies, if he’s worried about the range? Because you need that big dramatic entrance. With the dust clouds billowing.)

    Leone had never made anything good before. He was just a beginner, two films to his credit, both undistinguished. And yet, after he copied Kurosawa, not just the story ideas, but the technique–he improved by leaps and bounds, became a master in his own right. And he never, far as I know, plagiarized again. He needed to do it. Just that one time. I think Kurosawa understood that. But you’re not supposed to get rich and famous off that kind of thing, hence the lawsuit.

    I am neither rich nor famous, nor do I expect to be, but could be someday I’ll want to try writing a story or two of my own, without the borrowed props, and criticism here would be greatly appreciated.

    Fawning praise will be ignored.

    But if that were coming, it’d already be here.

    Hmmm.

    :\

  2. Ray Garraty

    That was fun. I think if the names were different, it could’ve been published by EQMM. Maybe not, if they are too picky these days. Now onto details.
    After the first half I thought I knew where it’d be coming to, yet I was wrong. Still, it was too self-conscious. I mean, I understand that it is a pastiche, a pastiche should be conscious of the Author and the Work, but if it crosses a certain line it is no more a work of fan fiction but a commentary on. In some places, I think, that line was crossed. Should anyone post it at a fan fic message board, most *simple* readers wouldn’t understand the point. They’d ask: where’s the action in this? Where, really? But the action here is in the concept, and at the level of concept it worked.
    Aside from being too ‘now and today’ and too ‘political’ (it just shows in too obvious ways what occupies the author’s mind), it just keeps the right balance of story and details in it. Too much details of everyday life, and it’d turn into a product placement or a bad Bret Easton Ellis imitation. Too few details, and it’d look like the author doesn’t know life.
    Since the last time I’ve read a Dortmunder story was a long time ago I had to guess all the Westlake stylistic gimmicks. On the other hand, I’ve become too familiar with the author’s stylistic tricks and turns. I believe I got them all to the last dot. Maybe next time the author’d hide them more carefully. Or, if it were too hard for him. he’d dare to write an original story where all the gimmicks would be his own.

    • A fiction review blog is not really the place for fiction. Perverse as that may sound. I wanted to do this, I had the rough conception for it going back a while now, and I needed to write it, just to get it out of my head–but I must disagree. This wouldn’t work as a standalone thing. Maybe it could be published in some reworked form (I have no idea), but look at all the crap that gets published. That being said–what market are you talking about? Who’s publishing short stories nowadays?

      As I remarked in my review of Thieves’ Dozen, the reason Westlake did his best work in the short form with Dortmunder is that the characters and their various tics are all established in advance, freeing him up to concentrate on story. He never wrote any Parker shorts, and I’d assume he at least thought about it. There’s something about Dortmunder that works especially well for this format. So I chose my battlefield well.

      Now I would argue that the best Dortmunder shorts are enjoyable to someone who has never read a Dortmunder novel, or any other Westlake–I know this, because a good friend of mine never read any Westlake but Too Many Crooks, and she loved it. I couldn’t say how she’d react to his novels, because she’s never gotten to any of them. But the essence of the character is there in miniature, and the story is quite enjoyable in its own right.

      Westlake was able to write the Dortmunder shorts in such a way as that there was a special added pleasure in them for those who had read the other stories, but they were still quite accessible to those who didn’t know from Dortmunder.

      That was the target I aimed for, and of course I fell short. I was going to miss the bullseye no matter what. It started off not too bad (I will do myself the favor of saying I’m a better than indifferent essayist, and Dortmunder stories generally start in essay form), but once I had to branch into the more arcane aspects of storytelling, my inexperience became ever more apparent.

      I saw opportunities here to further my investigations as a critic, somebody whose primary goal is not to tell stories, but rather evaluate them as a form of self-expression, to understand their creator, since I would say all fiction worth reading is a plea for understanding from those who write it. A testimony of individuality.

      So yes, it got very self-conscious, but so does Westlake at times. It’s the philosopher in him, which is part of what I like about him. The more you’re philosophizing, the less you’re telling a story. Well, telling a story is not the be-all and end-all of writing. It’s also something you really have to work at to get it right. I haven’t put in the time. He did.

      Westlake always liked to put some politics into his work, and as you say, the trick is to not overdo it. I could have let the commentary go on endlessly, and I forced myself to hold it in check, make it organic to the piece. I think I did that part of it okay.

      But my dialogue was mediocre. I’m increasingly convinced dialogue is the hardest part of prose fiction. To the point where fiction authors still can’t agree on how to do it. Quote marks? Dashes, as James Joyce and other Irish authors use? Just try to make it clear from context that this is someone speaking (I don’t think that works at all)?

      It’s the least natural part of prose fiction. It clashes with everything else. No wonder so many would rather write in screenplay format. Just make everything dialogue, interspersed with scene setting.

      It’s one hell of a juggling act, writing a story. So many balls in the air, and you don’t even have to drop one to flub it–if you just wobble a bit, you’ve lost the flow.

      For a journeyman effort, this wasn’t too awful. But writing in someone else’s style, with someone else’s characters–that’s the literary equivalent of training wheels.

      • Ray Garraty

        Aren’t those small online magazines that no one apart from the authors they print read still around? Your story can be then picked by New Yorker. That later can land you a publi$hing deal. Happened before.))
        You already spelled out what was not quite right with your story. It balanced between essay and a narrative story, and even though some experimental magazines like shit like that, it was neither here nor there. It had too many winks at the reader. It was, as somebody in a Parker novel’d say, too smart for its own good.
        Btw, the humour was good, though. The humour was your own, not Westlake’s.

        • My humor and Westake’s resonate together quite well. In some ways, I was writing like him before I ever heard of him. Maybe it’s an Irish thing. Or more specifically, a northeastern Irish American Catholic with links to both city and country who read a lot of genre stuff as a kid thing.

          But I couldn’t very well read almost everything he ever wrote without it impacting me.

          The thing about anything you write is, you tend to write it for a specific type of venue, and a specific type of audience–for example–if there hadn’t been a large market for hard-boiled bloody-minded sex-crazed paperback originals still around in the early 60’s, would The Hunter ever have been written?

          I knew I was writing it for this blog, and I knew I was writing it for people who read this blog, and who have already read most or all of the Dortmunder stories (and make no mistake, they form the single largest readership bloc I have–Parker is big, Dortmunder is bigger–I have the stats to prove it). And I was writing it as an extension of what I’d been doing all along here. A continuation of a critical journey.

          I remember reading Asimov’s SF magazine, quite some time back, and there was a piece I quite liked–it was a letter from John Carter (you know, of the Mars Carters) to a relation on earth. He was explaining all the seeming inconsistencies of his saga, like the fact that there’s definitely no complex humanoid life on Mars. See, there was, but that was a long time ago–when he was transported there, he was also transported back through time. When he comes back through the portal, or sends a letter through it, it’s coming back to modern times. An asteroid wiped out the oxygen factory that made Mars livable–from where Carter is now, it’s many centuries off yet, so he’s hopeful he won’t live that long, but seeing as he’s immortal…..

          It it a story, exactly? No, but if you read Edgar Rice Burroughs (I’ve mainly experienced ERB through movies and comics), you’d find it very exciting. There is a market for that, but it’s very dependent on a pre-existing audience of enthusiasts. Which as it turns out, was not nearly large enought to justify a big budget movie, even it it had been any good. You have to know your audience.

          I’ve contemplated writing a diary from the perspective of some detective (maybe an FBI man) who has been following Parker’s criminal career, is getting close to putting all the pieces together (could the Copper Canyon fire be linked to the robbery of a New York State airforce base?), and then he’d write he was going to meet this mysterious informant named (let’s say) Willis who he thinks could help him pierce the mystery…..the final entry. Followed by a note from a colleague about how his body was found dumped in the New Jersey wetlands. Something like that. I probably won’t do it (lots of detail work), but it’d be fun. If somebody else did it for me, I’d feel grateful to him/her for sparing me the effort. Also sparing me a possible lawsuit from the estate of Robert Bloch, but I’m sure that wouldn’t happen.)

          You’re right, of course. A real story has to stand completely on its own–as the best Dortmunder shorts always do. But you understand, the reason they do is that Donald Westlake was a master at what he did. All the different things he did. And if I’m a master at anything, it’s linking all those things together, to try and figure him out.

          • Ray Garraty

            As see it, there can be only two ways when one can write a new Parker novel and succeed. One is what you’ve described, postmodern/deconstruction piece with different styles, different perspectives, winks and gimmicks where you’re playing games with the whole Parker universe. Second is a straight up Parker pastiche, only leaner and tougher, kinda sorta Butcher’s Moon, only blown to the sky. It should be The Big Finale.

            • I not only wouldn’t write a Parker pastiche, I wouldn’t read one. That door has closed. Only Stark could write him, and Stark is gone.

              But that John Carter letter I described wouldn’t, for me, qualify as a John Carter pastiche. It’s more like a commentary on the stories, and a way for fans of them to reconnect with them (and to say “They could still be true, even though there’s probably not even microbes on Mars now). And that’s also a way to win new readers for old stories. (ERB’s style and sensibilities have not entirely dated well, is the thing–even though some of his characters refuse to go away).

              So if I wrote about somebody who is seeking Parker (or someone like him)–perhaps not even knowing the name, just seeing a pattern replicate itself across the years–that’s different. And there would certainly not be a novel’s worth of material in something like that. That piece in Asimov’s took maybe five minutes to read. Probably quite a lot longer to write. “Aunt Dejah sends her love.” Nice ending.

              And that would not be postmodernism or deconstruction, incidentally. There was none of that kind of thing in Asimov’s. He was the furthest possible thing from a crit-lit highbrow (in spite of his seemingly limitless knowledge of, basically, everything), and the magazine took its cues from him. Still does, I’d assume.

              It’s a genre thing, and Parker is genre, but it’s also literature of the highest order, to me. That’s the strange thing about it. The way it straddles boundaries–as much of Westlake’s best work does. And as I’d argue most of the best genre writing does.

              Dortmunder is more–approachable. And again, better suited to the short form–to vignettes. Can you imagine a Parker vignette? Where all the essential qualities of the character would somehow be made to present themselves in a few short pages?

              It would have been interesting to see Stark try it–but far as we know, Stark never did.

              PS: Don’t forget copyright. ERB is a gray area–they’ve managed to trademark some of his characters, now that copyright has expired–they weren’t going to give a sideways thing like that story I mentioned much attention. I would quite rightly get my ass sued by the Westlake estate if I used any of Westlake’s characters on a for-profit basis, even if it was just a tiny magazine. Copyright on Westlake’s work will outlive all of us. So I don’t have to worry about unlicensed pastiches ruining the characters for me–and I hope there are no licensed ones. As I hope I didn’t ruin Dortmunder & Co. for anyone with this metatextual homage.

              But as you say, I’m not adding to the existing corpus here, so much as commenting on it. And that was intentional. To be honest, I don’t have much time for fanfic–too much wish-fulfillment, not enough technique. But this was not fanfic in that sense. And even the traditional disclaimer was kinda meta, wasn’t it? 😉

              • Ray Garraty

                I don’t need to comment on this more because you’ve already written what’s right and what’s wrong with your ‘story’. You are your best critic as you’ve already proved in this story, at this blog and elsewhere. I’ve just spelled out the things you already knew since you, you yourself, know yourself better than anyone else.
                Now you just need to shake off those heavy chains of a critic and write fiction freely. I might sound like a self-help guru, but then someone has to kick you in the ass.

              • Thing is, it’s so much easier to critique fiction than to write it.

                If I didn’t know that before, I sure as hell do now.

                The kick is appreciated, and I’ve got ideas, but none of them involve comic capers. And stories published on a blog don’t count for anything–except as thought exercises, which is what this was, and what it should have been.

  3. (Yes, I am still rewriting this. Dialogue, mainly. That is so fucking hard to get right, and never more than when you’re writing it in the format of prose fiction.)

  4. If anyone’s wondering, I meant to put in a bit about Bitcoin–another of Kelp’s heist ideas–maybe bring in Wally Knurr to try and explain to Dortmunder what they were heisting–yes, it would have taken a long time. Too long a time. By the time they were finished explaining, there wouldn’t be anything to heist. Actually, there never was. That would have been the joke.

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