Pastiche : Mysterious Ways, Part 3–Strained Interlude



(Disclaimer–I really thought I was done with this travesty, but seems like it’s not done with me yet.  Or at least something isn’t.  All these august personages belong to the Westlake Estate, wherever it be, yet somehow they belong to all humankind, a most ingenious paradox indeed.  Perhaps this will shake me from my torpor.  Or deeper into it.  One way to find out…..come on and Zoom Zoom Zoom a Zoom…..)

IN A DARKENED ROOM, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK, a digital screen flickered to life–emblazoned upon it was the narrow-nosed visage of Andrew Kelp, looking even more pleased with himself than usual.  He spoke as though he addressed the multitude, having just supplied it with loaves and fishes, presumably not half-baked or raw.

“Hey guys!  Can you all see me?  It’s time we started the meet.  Since we’ve never done this before, I’m gonna call the roll, make sure we’re up to speed.  Remember to keep your mikes turned off until it’s your turn to speak.  John?  You there?”

Nothing happened.  Kelp waited as long as courtesy required, then changed tack–“Okay, John will be with us soon, I’m sure.  Stan?”

As though invoked through arcane incantations, there appeared the cheerful face of Stan Murch.  His hands were gripping a steering wheel, and his eyes were switching back and forth, as if his attention was divided.  A light hum that could be interpreted as a running engine was audible in the background. Kelp, his face taking up half of the now-split screen, asked the logical follow-up.

“Stan, are you driving now?”

“Just nicked this brand-new Enorma with superfast connectivity and a high-def display.  I’m on the way to Max’s.  If I get there before the meeting’s over, I can idle in the parking lot before going in.  I may watch an online movie release before I hand over the keys.  This screen is huge!  I think there’s a popcorn machine in here somewhere.”

Now returned to full screen status, with a dubious expression, Andy tried to regain control of the online colloquy.  “Stan, I don’t know as you should be working the same time you’re attending our meet.  We have important planning to do here, right John?”

The screen buzzed and fizzled a moment, as if someone was trying to contribute something, but hadn’t quite figured out how, what, or possibly why.  Then silence once more.

“John, we’ll come back to you in a jiff.  Maybe ask May to help you out there.  So Stan, I respect your enterprise and all, but I think you should chime in once you’re parked somewhere.  You wouldn’t want to have an accident and the cops show up.  They are not in a good mood lately.  By the way–does it have MD plates?”

“Yep!  Vanity plate says “I Doctor” so opthalmologist, I guess–I see what you mean, Andy–super comfortable.  I may steal one of these every time we have a meeting.”

“I’m happy you found a nice score, but I still think…..”

“I can multi-task here, no problem at all–better than a home office.  And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get around now.  Nobody on the roads! Every creampuff in the city just sitting there waiting for me!  This eye doc won’t notice his ride is gone for weeks, and I can make it across town faster than you could walk to the corner store and back.  I won’t even tell you what route I’m taking, because it doesn’t matter anymore!  Clear sailing everywhere!  It’s The Golden Age of New York Driving.  I’m blessed to have lived to see it.”

Stan’s eyes grew misty, contemplating the limitless vistas of near-empty asphalt ahead, like a movie cowpoke surveying the open prairie from his trusty cayuse, while yodeling softly to himself.  Fenced in no longer under starry skies above.

Great, but just to be safe, turn off your mike until you’re parked, and focus on the road.  You are present, let’s move on.  Tiny?”

The monitor flickered once more, and a head roughly the size and shape of a now-defunct rock formation that once served as a pretext for tourism in New Hampshire, loomed across it, albeit incompletely.  Only Cinerama could have encompassed both the face and the ominous black mask covering much of it. Zorro crossed with Pantagruel, only without a trace of rakish good humor.

A voice sounding much like the ill-fated rockslide that put an end to the Old Man (Not to worry, New Hampshire, you still have autumn foliage and maple syrup–although those are under siege as well) rumbled through, muffled somewhat by the mask.  “Why am I seeing your nude face, Kelp?  Do I have to chastise you as well?”

“Tiny, you don’t mask at a video chat.  That’s the point of a video chat.  Nobody catches anything from anybody.  That’s why I went to the trouble of setting this up.”  Kelp  looked more hurt than intimidated, though he was both.

Even behind the dark mask, Tiny’s darkening scowl was made manifest.

“You think I’m scared of your germs, Kelp?  They wouldn’t last two minutes in here.  It’s a matter of principle.  If I have to wear one, so does everyone else.  It’s just good manners.  I’m out walking yesterday, Upper West, this guy goes right past me, inches away, mask hanging down around his neck, gabbing away on his phone, his droplets spewing all over.”  Tiny’s voice dropped dramatically–“You want to guess where that phone is now, Kelp?”

“I get it, Tiny.”  Andy’s tone was notably meeker, but he still had a rebuttal.  “Obviously he should have been wearing it out there on the street, but we’re not on–”

“Oh that reminds me, this other guy, at the OJ, who was ahead of me to pick-up  takeout–”

“–The OJ is doing takeout?–”

“Are you interrupting me now, Kelp?  Like I was saying, he was there ahead of me, chatting up this broad ahead of him, and he had no mask on at all, not even around his skinny neck.  I asked him, very courteous-like, to please get it out, and he says he forgot it, big deal, what business was it of mine anyhow, we should let the virus run free, survival of the fittest, and then we’ll all have horde inanity, something like that.”

“I have a hard time imagining anyone saying that to you, Tiny.”

“He was caught up in the dame, who I will say was cute, even behind her mask, so he didn’t look back to see whom he was talking back to.”


“You get the picture.”  Tiny allowed a pregnant pause, before continuing.  “So the long short of it is, I found a way to solve his problem.  You’ve heard of the wedgie, right?  Regular and atomic?”

“You mean…..”

“That’s right,” Tiny concluded, with grim satisfaction.  “Even though he didn’t think he had a mask, he did anyway.  Lucky for him he wasn’t going commando.  The skirt looked relieved he’d stopped chatting her up.  Pretty sure I saw her wink at me.”

Kelp had been fumbling around for something, and all of a sudden there was a camo-patterned mask on his face–the type with valves on it.  Made him look like something out of an old war movie, with gas, barbed-wire, trenches, etc.

The masked marauder was not propitiated.  “You know those valve things only protect you, right Kelp?  I think that may be ruder than not wearing one at all…..”

“I did not know that, Tiny.  This was a freebie from MyUncle, after I dropped off some flatscreens there.  I’ll get one without valves. ASAP.  As soon as the meet is over.  We good?”

A noncommittal grunt being his only response, Andy felt at liberty to unmask and proceed.  “Herman?  How’s tricks?”

There then appeared the suave sentient silhoutte of Herman X (he had brought back the ‘X’ due to popular demand), their lockman on the job they were perhaps someday going to get around to discussing.  “Yo, Andy.  Been a while.”

“You look good, Herman.  We appreciate you coming in on this–it kind of links up to your other thing, anyway.”

“Oh, you might say that, Andy.”  In what might be considered an implicit pun, Herman had dropped into an exaggerated Amos&Andy drawl only he could have gotten away with at the present time.  “Massa Fairbanks and me, we just don’t see eye to eye, sho-nuff.”  (He smiled in a way that would have made the erstwhile progenitors of Amos&Andy look for the nearest available exit, hoping their feet would not fail them now.)

“How’s all that going, anyway?  You’re with that BLT gang, or whatever?”

“Close enough.  Like the song says, Everything Old is New Again.  I came out of retirement to give these kids the benefit of experience.  And trust me, they need it.  Oh, they have some good ideas, don’t get me wrong.  Great spirit, can’t fault them for that.  They just need to learn how to know how to tell the good ideas from the stupidass ones.”

“Oh yeah?  How so?”  Noting the failure of their string leader to materialize thus far, Andy figured he’d stall for time.  Anyway, he always liked hearing what Herman had to say.

“Just to name one particular–this ‘Karen’ thing–it’s getting out of hand.  Karen this, Karen that–it started as a way to tell off snooty white chicks–don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick a man’s name, since that’s where most of the really bad shit comes from–and now basically anybody on the fence about this or that plan of action– say there’s some folks questioning the wisdom of pulling down statues of the half-dozen or so white people from the 19th century who weren’t racist–as a protest against racism–Karens!”

“That does sound a bit random…..”

“It’s become a catch-all, and the thing about catch-alls is that they get repurposed. They like it as a way of shutting folks up, so they can go on doing what they like–like some bored brother is setting off M-80’s in the middle of the night because why not, some Dominican nurse yells from the fourth floor she has to work tomorrow–in a ward full of sick people–Karen!”

“But if it’s about privilege why would he call her…”

“Translation–“My life sucks, so I don’t have to care about your problems.” Works pretty much the same way as all the shit folks call us, though I suppose a genuine Karen wouldn’t use that word–just think it.  While calling the cops on her cell.  Cops don’t need to call anyone names to get their points across.”

“Why did they pick ‘Karen’?”  Kelp was fascinated.  There was a growing danger of him forgetting what they were virtually gathered to discuss, which the renewed buzzing and fizzling from the screen might have been trying to get across to him, but he ignored it in favor of becoming still more woke.

“The etymology is obscure, which is pretty much always the way. The basic idea is sound–make whitey finally feel what it’s like to have an effective slur directed at him.  One with teeth, since ‘honky’ never worked.  Not over-specific, like ‘guinea,’ ‘kike’, ‘taig’–at this point, we’re all so assimilated, melanin content is all anyone sees, unless you’ve got some kind of religious garb on.

“And that would mainly be the people you don’t want to piss off.”

“You got it.  We need something relating to content of character, but still strictly for the ofays. However, since ‘Karen’ is really more about hating on women, the execution is half-assed, all the more since misogynists like using it as well–possible that’s where it started, which would be ironic.  Well, we’ve had so much less practice than you with this shit. We’ll catch up.  My question is, why not try ‘Fairbanks’?  Unisex, and that sure has teeth now.  Nobody wants to be a goddam Fairbanks.  Except him, naturally.”

Deeply moved by Herman sharing all this with him, Kelp felt an expression of professional solidarity was called for.  “The cops have been pretty tough on you guys lately.”

Herman’s shrug was eloquent.  “Sure. They’re cops.”

There being nothing to say to that, Andy opted to move on in the queue.  Dortmunder had still not made his entrance.  Time to call in tech support.

“Wally?  We can’t seem to get John.  Could you maybe look into that?”

As a djinn from a bottle emerged the plump bearded countenance of Wally Knurr, whose informal position within the gang was roughly homonymous with his surname.

“Already on it, Andy!  I think there’s a problem with the…” (technobabble ensued, which Kelp pretended to follow–interested as he invariably was in gadgets of all kinds, he never worried overmuch about terminology).

“Great, Wally!  I’m sure you’ll have John up to speed in no time.  There were bound to be a few hiccups the first time, right John?  (Buzzing.  Fizzling.  It didn’t sound happy, but then, how could it?)

Kelp made a valiant attempt at condolence, not normally his strong suit.  “Wally, how’s Myrtle doing?  I heard about her mom…..”

“Still pretty sad, Andy, thanks for asking.  I proposed marriage, and somehow that didn’t cheer her up, but I got a hug, anyway.”  Wally looked pensive a moment, then went back to pecking at his laptop.  A sconce later–“There!  That ought to do it.  John, could you try again?”

The display changed once more, and this time it was indeed the saturnine sad sack visage all had been awaiting.  Andy Kelp cried out, in unparalleled delight, “John!  At last!  Welcome to the Digital Age!”

John Dortmunder gazed upon all virtually assembled, with a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and incredulity.  “What is any of this crap supposed to accomplish?”

A question he was not alone in asking, but the answers to these and other questions would have to wait a while longer.




Filed under Donald Westlake, John Dortmunder

16 responses to “Pastiche : Mysterious Ways, Part 3–Strained Interlude

  1. Greg Tulonen

    I’m happy to see the return of Herman X. It’s been too long.

    • Westake created him at the tail-end of our last spat of racial unrest, and the potential for him was huge–but I suspect the response to him from many of Westlake’s readers–and Dortmunder readers at that–was less enthused. Parker had an African American following, but Dortmunder probably much less (even though he would eventually also be played by a black actor).

      Westlake kept bringing him back, but excising the bisexuality, the domestic terrorism (hey, the IRA robbed banks too), and even the Galloping Gourmet shtik. Making him just a black heister with a bit of attitude. Of course, since the cast of characters kept growing, it was impossible to fit everybody in–and the racial tension eased (at least for some of us). It wasn’t contemporaneous anymore. It sure is now. Welcome back, Herman. Your time has come once more. But do I dare bring up Rastus Sharif? I dared write this in the first place, and so far, you’re the only one who noticed……

  2. Greg Tulonen

    He’d chosen the name himself, of course.

    (Nice pastiche, by the way.)

    • I continue to marvel at how long you can slave away at a piece of fiction, for so little result. Normally, writing a review, I’m watching nervously to see how high the word count is getting. Am I over 6,000 yet? I struggled to get over 2,000 here. And then decided I’d reached a good point for a chapter break.

      If this is supposed to be a novel, obviously a large part of it is lost to posterity. Quite some time has passed since Max Fairbanks put The One Ring on his finger. And wow, that thing really works! Bit of a delayed effect, but I figured that might be the case. Maybe he sent it to the jeweler to get refitted?

      Anyway, the Zoom meet isn’t finished yet. And not all the participants have decloaked. This is very much drawn from recent personal experience, you know. Yes, of course you know.

  3. Anthony

    B+. Which is amazing given the challenge. Well done. It actually felt like the real deal here and there.

    A+ for having the balls to even attempt it.

    Most overt Westlakian joke, executed perfectly – BLT

    Honorable mention – herd inanity

    Most covert Westlakian joke, nicely done – Enorma.

    Westlakian joke that went over my head – the Wally Knurr hononymous one.

    Overall impression – commentary about Karen and statue removal and mask issues and such are all in the Westlake wheelhouse, but he would have been in and out so quickly you might not catch it until the 2nd or 3rd reading.

    Kelp – B+. There’s no way he’d be so concerned about Murch’s safety he’d mention it 3 times. Even once is a stretch. Just saying.
    Murch – B-. I think he’d STILL talk about the route, probably just to comment how much quicker you get across Manhattan not worrying about one way streets, for example.
    Tiny – A+ with a gold star (not being fully honest here, but what would YOU give him?). Extra points on the description of Tiny – the mighty Westlake himself must have puzzled how to come up with a new one.
    Herman X – A, but too much exposition. And, as Greg said, nice of him to stop by.
    Wally – eh
    Dortmunder – to be continued… Good start though

    • Huh–when did this become the Fred Fitch Review? But this was in fact the kind of feedback I desired.

      B+ is far too kind. But my testicles appreciate the easy A.

      I thought BLT was a bit obvious myself, but you never really know which gags are going to hit–that’s why you need an audience. Complete with hecklers. I thought about saving ‘herd inanity’ for the OJ regulars, but it just seemed to fit there. (And Tiny is only doing what I’d like to do to the unmasked marauders.)

      Knurr/Nerd. Get it? I bet Westlake did. I have always assumed the ‘K’ was silent, but works either way.

      Good point about Kelp, but I think his primary concern is that the cops not show up post-accident, and maybe find out about the heist meet–you know Zoom meetings leave a record. And much good Stan’s going to do them if he’s in stir.

      The route thing is me being lazy, since I have gone to great pains to avoid negotiating the highways and byways here–if there’s driving to be done, leave it to someone else. And if I did it now, I’d be using GPS.

      I was proud of the New Hampshire diss, not that I have anything against New England in general. Except maybe Vermont, and that will pass.

      Herman–you know that story about the man who says “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one?” I relate so much, I can’t even tell you. Westlake knew the truth of that so well.

      Wally–I figured he had to be involved in something this techie. And I wanted to make it clear he and Myrtle are still not knocking boots. And I felt mean killing Myrtle’s mom, but sign o’ the times. She had a full life. That may be the only character death that ever occurs in this pastiche. My hubris has its limits.

      I am, however, having a very dark notion of how to begin the next part. Partly as an explanation for why so much time has passed since last we saw your man.

      What’s the #1 thing anybody knows about Dortmunder? He’s unlucky. So far, I’ve been very very lucky. Now I shall knock wood yet again.

  4. Ray Garraty

    NYT op-ed masquerading as a Dortmunder pastiche? Enjoyed the jokes, though. Waiting for the second part.

    • Not sure NYT would have all those expletives in there–and they’d be a lot more PC and let’s-hear-both-sides.

      I’m all for hearing every side, but all sides are not created equal. One is usually more right than others–never completely, though. And being on a team doesn’t mean you have to believe every player on your side knows how to play.

      And being oppressed should make you more compassionate–not less. Doesn’t always work out that way. Because some people have better souls than others–and it’s the soul we should look at. Not the skin.

      • Ray Garraty

        Oh no, I’m not one of those ‘let’s hear both sides’ apologists. It’s deceiving and hypocritical position. But for me too much of this is straight from the headlines. I want something original.

        • So you dislike War and Peace for being ripped from the headlines of 1812? 😉

          A very bad analogy, to be sure. But my point is, fiction should respond to the events of the day, but in such a way as to make it eternal, timeless–did I do that? Of course not. I’m neither Westlake nor Tolstoy, and I was just doing this as an exercise. In a way, still just a review–since I’m imagining how Westlake might have reacted to current events, and of course if he did, he’d probably do it through Dortmunder–Stark does it too, but much more obliquely. Parker doesn’t give a damn about what’s going on around him, except to the extent it makes his job easier or harder. Dortmunder pretends not to care–but I suspect he does, anyway. Because he’s closer to the part of Westlake that despairs of humanity, but can’t quite kick the habit of liking it.

  5. Russell telfer

    So now we know what they’re up to, since in Donald’s absence, they have learned to think for themselves. Which is good. We shall hope to hear more about them.
    My time in New York was limited, so I don’t have the advantage some of you have. I would like to know where on Amsterdam Avenue the OJ Bar is. Is it on the corner with Broadway? That’s where I looked for it. Or is it further up? I would like to go there, or the next best. It must have been quite some pub.
    One other question. Stan is a know-all, it seems, and can get you there even quicker than a cabbie. But have his routes been checked out? If I was driving in New York I should like to be sure I was getting top advice. Or would you go with Kelp?

    • In Watch Your Back, it was identified as being at 96th and Amsterdam. It was always on Amsterdam, but in no other novel did Westlake get that specific, and I believe he never really decided its location before then. Working class bars are rare on the Upper West now–gentrification (a word Westlake would have loathed) began in the early 80’s. So possible it was further down Amsterdam originally, and gradually migrated north, fleeing the Yuppie hordes, but 96th is about as far as you can go and still be on the Upper West. When you get to that review, you’ll see another reason why he might have chosen that spot.

      Was there a real OJ Westlake went to, or was it a composite? I don’t think he’d use the name of the real bar, even if there was one. Everybody who read the books dreams of finding it, but somehow it’s never quite there–yet you always think “If I walk another block.” Just like you would hope to find the bar Jesse B. Semple held forth in, when you’re in Harlem. Mr. Dooley’s tavern is in Chicago (which is almost a city), and let me know if you ever find that.

      There is a bar at 96th & Amsterdam, where I have imbibed beer, and listened to offbeat conversations in the afternoon. It actually refers to itself as a “Dive” bar. One of a group of bars that go by that name. I’m not sure Westlake would have approved of a bar just coming out and admitting to that–less still of bragging about it–while charging very un-dive like prices for food and drink. But I will say they have a fine selection of beers and bourbons. Much better than Dortmunder’s OJ would have. This creates a conflict in my soul, because I love working class bars, but working class beers? Not so much. (Maybe working class beers in Belgium.)

      The OJ in my alternative Dortmunder-verse (that like the original, oddly mirrors events in our own) has been forced to update itself to some extent, while still remaining true to its fundamental Weltanschauung. And boy would I like to hear the regulars discuss that concept.

      There is nothing remotely canonical in anything I’ve written here. You know only what I imagine they might have been up to, because in my mind, they’re still around, and I love them too much to let them go. But really, the main point is–we need them now. More than ever.

      • Anthony

        “Ringo, what are you up to?”
        “Page 5”

        I too know that they, and Parker, are still out there, doing things. To me, it is always Kelp who comes to mind because he is innately curious and always notices little things that he brings to Dortmunder to figure out. I see Zillow ads and I just know Kelp notices them too. I observe the death of brick and mortar retail and know that Westlake would file that away upstairs – perhaps for years – until he recognized the storyline that offered. Is there a crime in Me Too that the gang could milk? Blackmail is the obvious one a lesser writer would pursue – but Westlake would throw Dortmunder et al into it in a completely unforeseen way.

        Yeah, they’re alive and well. And, yes, Tiny would not suffer non-mask wearers gladly.

        • That was maybe the easiest thing to figure out–Tiny’s obsession with small courtesies. Not so small in this case.

          Ray just shared something awful with me–in Moscow, he’s seeing what he calls “Covid Freeriders” on the trains there–people not wearing masks who still preferentially opt to sit next to people who are wearing them. They get protection, while giving none.

          Tiny’s not much of a mass transit guy–it wasn’t designed for his dimensions–but I could see him taking exception to that.

          You describe so very well one of the chief glories of the Dortmunder books –the way they minutely observe the changing functions and dysfunctions of daily life. And it never comes across as preachy or pedantic (as opposed to my ersatz version), because it’s all woven so carefully into the larger tapestry.

          And then, having absorbed the ethos of these books–you start seeing it too. You extrapolate. You philosophize. Your view of life enlarges. It’s a rare achievement for a series of books about a bunch of thieves.

  6. “And you’ll develop — you’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” Trump said. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen.”

    Along with a lot of would-be political satirists hanging themselves because how the hell do you top that? I was lucky to get out just a bit ahead of it. A worthy variation, herd mentality, doesn’t rhyme quite as well as mine. But I didn’t put it in Max Fairbanks’ mouth. (I really should write a chapter for him. You understand I’m afraid to finish this before the election. For reasons of superstition. And it’s not like that’s the only reason I might not finish it.)

    The question in my mind is, did Westlake really think he was exaggerating how crazy things could get among the ranks of the (purportedly) rich and (unfortunately) powerful? I think maybe he dialed it back a bit, for fear people would think he was overdoing it.

    Here’s hoping the herd’s mentality achieves some clarity vis a vis our Max Fairbanks, or we’re all going over a cliff with him. Moo. (Hurry the fuck up, John!)

  7. I shouldn’t gloat, but I will anyway.

    I ‘attended’ a Zoom union meeting yesterday–no mic on my Mac, no webcam, so I was an unobserved observer, though I did send a few inconsequential texts, like the OJ Regulars did in this story–that much I got from past Zoom union meetings. And I had seen our union rep attending these meets in his car, but said car was always safely parked.

    Not this time. Our union rep (whose name, I suppose not so improbably, is John) was driving while talking to us–and of course when you talk on Zoom with your mic on, you’re on. This was In a residential area, not on a highway, but I could see the houses and street signs going past as he expounded on our upcoming contract negotiations, his eyes switching between the webcam and the road, just as I envisioned.

    Later, he seemed to have found a way to limit perspective, so we couldn’t see if he was still rolling about. But I saw what I saw, and cannot unsee it. He was Zooming and driving. Well, he was going pretty slowly, obeying the speed limit, but you know what I mean.

    Yes, I am a prophet. A social visionary, if you will. You may all applaud now. Or just throw Bitcoins. Not that I’d know how to catch them, but it’s the thought that counts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s