Monthly Archives: September 2021

First Read: Call Me A Cab

So let’s lay out the ground rules.  The absolute very last ever in all the aeons to come (we really mean it this time!) unpublished Donald E. Westlake novel (until the next one) hasn’t been published yet.  It’s coming out next year. 

I have a copy.  To be specific, I have a stack of loose pages I printed out from a digital copy, and I made my way through them all last Friday.  I have read the entire book.  And this is not a review of it.  The review will come in the weeks and possibly months after the book is available to all.  It will be long, detailed, discursive, and quote-filled.  I mean, by my standards.  But this ain’t that.  I never review a novel before I’ve read it at least twice.  And the second read will be either a real book or an ebook.  

I mean, you want a blurb?  I can do a blurb.  “Boy meets girl, while driving a cab in New York.  Boy drives girl clear across the continental United States, to Los Angeles, while she tries to figure out whether she wants to marry another boy who is a plastic surgeon over there.  Hilarity ensues.”  Also biology, philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, geography, topography, and even some botany–the girl designs public spaces for a living, decides where the trees go and such, is superbly good at it.  And the cabbie is good at his job too, but obviously there is some class inequity there.  

The odd bit of asperity ensues as well, because  (as you expect from the get go) they end up liking each other more than either considers advisable.  But will boy get girl?  Will girl get any boy at all?  Will the plastic surgeon end up being played by Ralph Bellamy?  (A bit long in the tooth for the part when this was written, but there are Ralph Bellamys born into each generation of thespians.) 

The answer to the questions above depends a bit on which draft you get a hold of, because the author spent some time trying to figure out how this roadshow romcom should play out, and as you’ll find out in the afterward, considered more than one possible terminus along the way. It may well be that his lack of satisfaction with any ending he could arrive at was one reason he didn’t try harder to get it published in book form.  Landings are the hardest part of any routine, as Ms. Biles could tell you.  

It was left to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime to meld the disparate versions into a seamless whole, and as you’d expect, he did a fine job of it, and of course we’d still like to read the alternate takes, but that’s going to have to wait until the Library of America edition, which I’m sure will be along any century now. 

I think it would be fair to say the author thought the journey was of more interest than its destination.  And really, aren’t all journeys more interesting than their destinations?  He literally begins the book with a well-chosen quote insisting that is the case.   (This would tie into the philosophy department.) 

We go through life imagining we have all these important decisions to make, looming before us like highway exit ramps, but Life itself–that’s what happens when you’re making other plans, and may throw all of your carefully contrived conclusions into the proverbial cocked hat without so much as a by your leave.   No road maps for Life, no Garmins, no Waze (though plenty of means).  And if you want to enjoy the journey that is Life, you better start figuring out how to enjoy the unexpected curves in the road it’s going to throw at you.  You might also want to pay more attention to your surroundings. 

Now as to that last part–when did Westlake write this?  1977-78, Wikipedia helpfully informs us.  (The editor who recently added this to the bibliography is not identified, and is not me–Dr. Tulonen, I presume?  Or some stalwart at Hard Case?)  But in any event, that is clearly correct.  He couldn’t have done the bulk of the writing after ’78, since it got published in Reader Digested form in Redbook in ’79.  Alimentary, my dear Watson. 

As for our nations’ bicentennial year, we know he was busy around then with his comedic magnum opus.  The one with all the Aztec priests dancing about.  And what was the subject of that book?  New York City and its environs.  The large cast of desperate disparate desperados, thrown together by a shameless plot device, forced by their shared love of hustling to come to terms with the unrivaled complexity of the greater Metropolitan area they live in.  It’s not about who finds the golden statue.  It’s about who finds themselves by discovering the city they live in is a world unto itself, populated with beings of every possible hue and hubris, and therefore a place of unsurpassed richness, if you are a lover of the passing parade, as Westlake was. 

And what is the primary setting of this one?  Middle America.  Anyone who reads snooty Gotham magazines can see this gag coming a continent away.


(Yes, this is precisely the view from 9th Avenue, and I would know, since I used to live right off  it.  Hell’s Kitchen has some very nice restaurants, in case you’re ever in the nabe.)

Now we must ask–did Westlake know the states lying between 9th Avenue and Wilshire Blvd. (the penultimate destination of his two intrepid travelers) nearly so well as he knew New York City and its environs? Not hardly. He traveled through his own country quite a bit, often on book junkets, and given a chance to focus on this or that part of it, usually did an admirable job summing it up. But we who are his avid readership know that the settings he always did best with were the city he was born in, the burbs around it, and the frostbit upstate realm he was raised in. Westlake Country. And Iowa (where some memorable incidents transpire in this book) sure ain’t that.

So that’s a challenge right there–something new for him to try. Instead of staying in one place, getting the feel of it, and showing us a wide swath of characters rooted in that place, he gives us two people, both New Yorkers, forced to discover America while constantly on the go; liking some parts very much, others not at all, and mainly dumbfounded by the sheer vastness of The Big Empty. As New Yorkers invariably see it. But seeing it from a plane is one thing. Having to navigate it yourself, on the ground–quite another.

So yes, this book is, among other things, his attempt to turn Dancing Aztecs on its head. Instead of one city, a long succession of states, peppered with small towns (and what Non-Gothamites insist on referring to as cities, much to Dortmunder’s disgust). Instead of exploring the oddities of a calamitous cast of clowns, just two–one of whom is the first person narrator, but as I mentioned in the previous piece, not necessarily the hero of the piece. In a sense, he really is a cab–hers–a vehicle for her journey of self-enlightenment and liberation. It’s her journey he’s witnessing for us, her awakening, and I guess if any feminist critics ever notice this book, they might call it Mansplaining–except he also has to explain himself.

Why is somebody as smart as this guy still driving a cab in his early 30’s (that crucial time in the human life cycle when Westlake believed all of us either achieve maturity–or choose not to). What’s his deal? Mainly that he dealt himself out, and she worms some of the reasons for that out of him as they go.

No omniscient narrator here. This truly shameless hack is a reader, a classic example of the Westlakeian autodidact–but an autodidact, by definition, is always learning, never a finished product. And in spite of her having achieved a successful career in landscape design, his peripatetic passenger, who gets to tell us all her story by telling it to him (what else are you going to do traveling thousands of miles in a cab with no radio other than a two-way?), is every bit the autodidact he is, and in her own way, still trying to figure out who she is, under all her acquired expertise and willful wariness of commitment. Work is not all. That was a lesson women as a group mainly learned long after men, having been barred from the joys of careerism for much of history.

(She also has a very interesting story to tell–about a short story she wrote in college. Yes, she’s the author here, if only an amateur. It’s a science fiction story to boot–remember what genre Westlake started out in? And you might say a bit of a Flitcraft. I’ll explain later, but Hammett aficionados will get my drift.)

So the book is about feminism. It’s about how men (even smart and not terribly chauvinistic men) react to feminism. It’s about how they both react to the country they have lived in all their lives without ever coming to grips with it, and how it reacts to them (what would you think if you saw a canary yellow New York City Checker Cab barreling down the highway in Montana?) It’s about how all Holiday Inn rooms look exactly the same. It’s about identity, like every story Westlake ever wrote. And it’s about 241 pages long. Not counting the afterward.

See, I can’t even keep a blurb short. This is probably why no one ever asks me to write one.

So what’s that cover image up top? Some forgotten Italian translation of this book that nobody ever heard about? No, it’s some forgotten Italian translation of an earlier taxi dance Westlake penned, namely Somebody Owes Me Money. One of his Nephew books, and one might argue this is another, but somehow I don’t think so. The Nephews are, in the main, criminal farce. There’s no crime in Call Me A Cab (unless you count speeding, and everybody does that on the highway). While there is much comedy within, it’s not played in the key of farce. Trust me, I have an ear.

This is not, as I see it, a Nephew book. But it is, like some other books in the canon, a sort of backhanded reaction to that informal series of piquant picaresques, where a first person narrator, just around 30, comes to some conclusions about the road he’s on, and makes a change–often partly in response to meeting a really interesting woman, who may be in the same process of self discovery as well. However, it’s always more about the Boy than the Girl in the Nephews. In this case, it’s really The Woman, who has found her life’s calling, trying to catch up with the other part of life–finding a partner. Or, perhaps, deciding she doesn’t need one.

Westlake wrote that comic mystery as his last book for Random House under his own name, back in the late 60’s. Going by the lack of American reprints before Hard Case brought it back, it was not a success (though it was published in a magazine, hmmm). Now, in the late 70’s, he seems to want to rewrite it as The Great American Travel Novel. (Well, every Yank scribbler tries for that once in a career. Ask Philip Roth. Yeah, I know he’s dead. Anyway, that was baseball.) See, whatever he really wanted to write about, he had to write about crime, because that was his genre. There had to be some kind of mystery to solve, because ditto. A McGuffin, if you will, to distract from the genuine subject, while illumining it at the same time. He’s decided to dispense with that element this time. See how it goes. It goes a bit more slowly, but it does arguably cover some ground a straight-up crime novel couldn’t. Even a funny one. Feeling as I do that a really good crime novel is often better than most ‘serious’ literature at examining the human condition, I still thought the trip was worthwhile. Your mileage may differ.

When Westlake felt like he hadn’t quite hit the bullseye with a concept, he tended to keep going back to it, trying to make it work. The big problem with the earlier taxi saga is that it hits a traffic jam in the middle–the hero gets his hair parted by a bullet, and has to convalesce a spell, while all the dramatis personae troop into the bedroom where he is failing to have sex with the blonde casino dealer who drives like she’s rehearsing for Le Mans. The Girl in this book we’re supposed to be looking at now has brown hair, a very respectable career, and isn’t a reckless driver–she basically doesn’t drive at all, since that’s what the narrator is for. And somehow it seems wrong to refer to her as ‘The Girl.’ But maturation, as we should all know by now, is a lifelong project, or ought to be.

One more observation–the other book he did around this time was Enough, just recently republished by Hard Case as Double Feature. The two stories in that mini-anthology are very sharp and cynical. And the women don’t come off well at all, not that the men are treated with kid gloves. Both are decidedly caustic on the man/woman thing. But Westlake himself was not.

And he might have wanted to write this as a corrective–while unhappy love affairs make for better stories (like unhappy families), there is yet another challenge a writer who still ardently believes in the potential of love might embrace–an unromantic romance, where two people of opposing gender who have no intention of getting together, and may well decide not to, still come away from their brief encounter better than before. Where trapped in a cab for around a week, they discover that men and women really do have things to teach each other, and it’s about time, wouldn’t you say? Before it’s too late and all? The best way to see your worst flaws is in somebody else’s eyes. I’ll show you yours if you show me mine.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. Five bucks on the meter (it’s the late 70’s). Tips accepted gratefully.


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