Category Archives: Brothers Keepers

Advance Publicity: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–back in print! (next year)

 

Got the word from Charles Ardai, just a few weeks ago–he read my piece on what a Westlake Library of America edition might look like, and this book was high on my list of criminally out of print Westlake crime.   It’s not being released until February 13th, 2018 (not a Friday, I’m disappointed to say), but Amazon already has a page up for it, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here.  Behold! Cover art!

Yes, of course I bitched and moaned to Ardai about how The Girl in this book is a blonde, but seems like the artist wanted a brunette, and I shall privately entertain my own dirty-minded suspicions as to why that was.  The spirit of Robert E. McGinnis lives on, as indeed does McGinnis himself, but this isn’t his handiwork.  This version of the not-too-maidenly Marian is suitably zaftig, and that’s what really matters, right?  That and getting one of Westlake’s best Nephew Books back in print–and not just as an ebook.  (Though the nice thing about ebooks is that once you’ve got something digitized, it tends to stick around.)

In early 2019, Hard Case is planning to come out with a new edition of Brothers Keepers, and there are subsequent reprints in the works.

I must say, it’s getting a bit spooky how as soon as we here express our desire for a particular Westlake book to be reprinted, Hard Case turns out to already be on the case.

(C’mon, Adios Scheherazade! Or is that too hard a case even for them?)

 

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Good Behavior

 

It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is a great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies and have a vague idea, because we have heard it, and because our faith tells us so, that we possess souls. As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or who dwells within them, or how precious they are — those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty. All our interest is centred in the rough setting of the diamond and in the outer wall of the castle – that is to say in these bodies of ours.

From The Interior Castle, by Saint Teresa of Ávila

Dear Sister Mary Grace,

Wonderful News! God has seen fit to put us in the way of being helpful to a man who has just the skills needed to effect your rescue.  He is a burglar by profession, which means he has studied the art of going in or out of difficult or locked places. (He came to us through our roof!)

Before we cast the first stone, my dear, we should remember St. Dismas, crucified with Our Lord, a common criminal who repented at the very end.  “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise,” Our Lord promised him.  So it was St. Dismas, the thief, who was Our Lord’s chosen companion on his first momentous journey back to His Heavenly Father after his earthly travail, not one of the Apostles or Disciples, a fact we would do well to remember.

In any event, it is our hope, and our constant prayer to the Almighty, that this association with us and rescue of your own self may be the beginning of the path of reclamation for this latter-day Dismas, whose name is John.  Even now he is studying the best way to reach you and bring you out of your imprisonment. If you happen to have any advice or suggestions you might want us to pass along to John, concerning the physical details of your incarceration, I am sure he would be most pleased.

Praying for your early release, long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory and the conversion of Godless Russia, I remain, as ever,

Mother Mary Forcible

Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena

The sixth of the Dortmunder novels, this marks a real turning point in the series, and maybe the last of any significance.  Westlake had been assembling this world, piece by piece, book by book, character by character and it would never be 100% finished, but neither would it ever get much more developed after this one. The wildly inventive experimentation of the first three books, the fumbling around for a way to go on in the next two–over and done with.   And another thing is over and done with–Dortmunder’s four book losing streak.

The Hot Rock ended with him at least half-victorious–he’d finally stolen that emerald that didn’t want to be stolen, and he got revenge against the employer who had tried to cheat him, and he was supposed to get a sort of finder’s fee for returning it to its original owners.

But in the next four outings, he somehow always ended up with the short end of the stick–to the point where the introduction in the next book of his true love May, with her supermarket clerk gig and her light-fingered penchant for (literally) bringing home the bacon, was the only explanation of how he hadn’t ended up going on relief.  It sometimes seemed like Dortmunder wasn’t so much an armed robber as a smalltime burglar who occasionally planned a heist for some deep-pocketed client, and was lucky to just avoid going back to prison.

The heist would always come off (because we the readers want to see stuff get stolen), but he never profited from it, at least not directly.  The god of his universe kept him on a much shorter moral leash than Stark kept Parker on. And he didn’t appreciate that one bit, but he bore his humiliations with a stoic wounded dignity.  He really is a master thief, a brilliant planner, just like Andy Kelp keeps telling him, but because he does not, like Parker, live in an amoral universe (with an amoral audience), his destiny is always to end up holding an empty bag.  Or is it?  Can he find a loophole somewhere?    Get time off for good behavior?

The first of the two images up top, beneath the book covers, is St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Teresa de Jesus.  The granddaughter of a Jewish converso in Spain, she was raised in a wealthy family, dreamed of going on a crusade to the Holy Land, joined the Carmelites as a novice, and being a beautiful girl with a passionate nature, may not have been strictly faithful to her vows of chastity and poverty for a time, something church and state often winked at, since noblemen found certain convents a good place to find willing partners.

Depressed by what she saw as her failure, she then experienced a true vocation, and vowed to create a new reformed Carmelite order, devoted to both worldly service and otherworldly contemplation, a goal she attained (with a little help from her friends), and it still exists today.   She also began having intense haunting religious visions.  She also wrote some truly great books.   She also nearly got burned by the Inquisition once or twice.  She lived her life.

Then she died, and was interred in such a way that when her body was dug up some time later, it was found in a state of preservation that was deemed miraculous (it probably wasn’t), and she was eventually declared a saint–not for what she’d achieved in life, but for not decomposing normally after death.   If she’d married some grandee’s son, as might well have been her fate, she would have had children, died, and been forgotten.  Her strange genius for self-understanding–for plumbing the depths of the human spirit–would have been lost to the world.   In losing herself, she found herself.

The second image is of St. Dismas, the penitent thief, who belongs entirely to the realm of myth.  His feast day on the church calendar is March 25, which this year happens to be Good Friday.  A whole host of extremely dubious stories have been told about him since he first popped up (without a name) in the Gospel of Luke. In art, he is usually depicted crucified with his hands pointing downwards, his arms sometimes hung backwards over the crosspiece of the crucifix, or else tied to it by his elbows, like so–

                                                                                            “Come here often?”

                                                                                            “Nah.  Just hanging out.”

Not a fellow professional whose career path John Dortmunder would wish to emulate.   And yet–looking at the picture of him up top–there is something oddly familiar about the world-weary expression on the larcenous saint’s face, and that diffident gesture he makes with his left hand as he shoulders his cross, isn’t there?  You can almost hear him asking–“Why me?”   Why anyone, pal?

Donald E. Westlake was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, schooled a Catholic, and for all I know he died a Catholic, but if you’re going to get persnickety about it, he was a lapsed Catholic for most of his life (two divorces is precisely two more than a practicing Catholic is ever allotted in life).

It meant something to him, but precisely what is never easy to discern.  The Roman Catholic Hierarchy is one of the world’s oldest and most stratified authority structures, and you know how he felt about those.  He wrote most sympathetically of monks and nuns, I’d say, because they were at the very bottom of that structure–holding the rest of it up.  And because in at least some cases, their primary mission statement is self-knowledge.

I would think he saw Catholicism as part of his identity, but identity is a house with many rooms, and he spent most of his time elsewhere in the manse.  But now and again, he’d stray back in and revisit that room–or observe with great interest those who had chosen to live there exclusively.  What did they know that he didn’t?   What could be learned from them?  What stories did they have to tell?

And why is it that there’s always this strange affinity between saints and sinners? Jesus himself is said to have spent much of his time in the company of morally questionable persons. The scum of the earth is how most upstanding citizens saw them–to him they were just people, like everyone else. His followers have often (granted, not often enough) chosen to emulate this odd behavior.

Pope Francis (long life to him, seriously) visits prisons, washes the feet of inmates.   Maybe the point is that there’s really not such a huge difference.  The current pontiff says he might have been a criminal himself, had things gone differently–and has pointed out that many clergymen have themselves committed horrible crimes.  The line between saint and sinner is a fine one indeed.  By their works shall ye know them.   I think that’s enough sermonizing, don’t you?   Time for synopsizing.

Dortmunder is pulling yet another ill-fated burglary–this time on behalf of a food wholesaler named Chepkoff, who wants him to steal some high-end delectables from an importer in Tribeca.  Oh yeah, about that–

This building was on the corner of two streets in a southwestern area of Manhattan recently rechristened Tribeca, which means “The Triangle Below Canal Street,” and whenever any section of New York get a cute new name–SoHo for South of Houston Street, Clinton to replace the honorable old name Hell’s Kitchen, even NoHo for North of Houston Street–it means the real estate developers and gentrifiers and condominiumizers have become thick as locusts.  It means the old handbag factories and sheet metal shops and moving companies are being replaced by high-ticket housing.  And it also means there’s a long transition period of years or even decades when the plumbing supply places and the divorced advertising executives coexist, uneasy neighbors, neither entirely approving of the other.

And so it remains to this day, in neighborhoods most people never even knew existed until the real estate people started touting them as the next big thing. Gowanus, anyone?  Say this much though, they’re not doing the cute hybrid names so much anymore–“It’s a neighborhood built around a toxic canal, you wanna buy or rent?”   I think Westlake would approve.  Then again, I would have sworn he’d have disapproved of a word like ‘condominiumizer,’ so what do I know?

So Dortmunder is doing this job with a guy named O’Hara, and any hopes the latter had of joining the regular cast vanish when an alarm goes off, and the cops start closing in.  O’Hara gets nabbed below, the cops ascend, and Dortmunder is off and away over the rooftops, looking for a way out.  Any port in a storm, right? No atheists in foxholes.

So he winds up dropping in to visit a local convent (and I don’t have to say literally, do I?)  He is discovered clinging to the chapel rafters by its denizens, the Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena, which I presume to be as fictional as the Crispinite Monastic Order invented for Brothers Keepers, and perhaps even more eccentric–the sisters have taken a vow of silence, which they can only break on Thursdays, and it’s not Thursday.  So what follows is a lively game of charades, and everybody’s having fun, until Dortmunder asks them why they can’t just write notes, at which point they look a bit embarrassed.   Killjoy.

(Parenthetically–hence the parentheses–if you read that Wikipedia article I linked to, you’ll see that St. Filumena has turned out to be something of a fiction herself, or at least of rather questionable historical veracity, and her sainthood was more or less revoked, quietly, in 1961–and you can bet Westlake knew that. But he didn’t like it.  No takesie-backsies, Vatican!)

So he’s wondering why they haven’t called the cops.  Obviously it never occurs to him to take a hostage and bluff his way out.  Leaving aside his badly sprained ankle, Dortmunder is still somewhat intimidated by memories of having been raised as an orphan (abandoned at three minutes of age, which is more data than we had before) by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  His memories of them are not fond (they swung a mean ruler), but he was well-programmed to do whatever nuns tell him, at least when they’re looking right at him.  Force of habit, you might say.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

So then Sister Mary Serene, who first discovered him, has a duel of notes with Mother Mary Forcible, over how this fugitive felon might be the answer to their prayers (again it seems redundant to say literally); a solution to the problem of Sister Mary Grace (they can’t sing either, so no Rodgers & Hammerstein sextet, more’s the pity).  By the bye, there’s also a Sister Mary Chaste, a Sister Mary Lucid, a Sister Mary Amity, etc. and so forth.  They don’t make nun names like that no more. 

And the problem of Sister Mary Grace is this–she’s a prisoner.  In a tower.  How medieval.  (Seriously, it is.  We’ll get to that.)  Her birth name was Elaine Ritter. She had come to them as a novice, their first new recruit in ages, and her youth and spirit had won their hearts, you’ve seen the movies (so many movies).

But then her ogre of a super-rich father, a godless despot who controls the lives of all his children (and aspires to control much more) had her grabbed by his goons, and she’s being held on the top floor of his office tower, where a guy who deprograms cult members is working on her.  Hendrickson is his name.  He’s a minor character, and he walks out well before the story is over, but he’s there for a reason–to inform us that Elaine Ritter didn’t become Sister Mary Grace on a whim.  Some people might join a cult or religious order to give up their identity, and those are the people Hendrickson can reach.   She’s not one of those people.

The fact is, Elaine Ritter was not at all the sort of person he usually contended with.  His clients were almost always vague and confused, with very poor self-image and only a scattering of half-remembered education.  Generally, they had left their homes and gone off with Swami This or Guru That mostly because they were looking for a parent other than the parents they’d left, feeling some need for a parent who was more strict, or less demanding, or more attentive, or less cloying.  Different, that was the point.  Different parents, a different tribe, the growth of a different self who would be so much more satisfactory than the miserable original.  Religion and philosophy had little to do with those kids’ actions and decisions, and Hendrickson’s task, really, was not much more than to wake them up to the world around them and hold a mirror to their potential for selfhood.  Easy.

Elaine Ritter was something else.  No self-image problems for her, and religion and philosophy had everything to do with her decision to renounce the world and join that convent down in Tribeca.  On the religious side, she firmly believed in God and the Catholic Church.  Philosophically, she just as firmly renounced the world that men like her father had made.  Vocation was a fabulous beast as far as Hendrickson was concerned, but if the beast ever did live, it was in this girl.  She knew her own mind, and she would take no shit from Walter Hendrickson.

Too bad.  Shit was all he had for her.

(And as Hendrickson takes his leave, later in the story, having conceded failure, he warns her that her father is conceding nothing–he’s hired a different type of deprogrammer.  One who made his living in the Eastern Bloc nations, whose methods are somewhat more–intrusive. He’s broken Cardinals.  He’ll break her. Unless someone breaks her out.)

Frank Ritter is very influential, has more lawyers than Disney, and can block any legal action the Sisterhood may take indefinitely.  They know there isn’t much time for them to act, if they want their Sister back in one piece, mentally speaking.  Possibly not just mentally speaking.

They can communicate with her through Enriqueta Tomayo, the Guatemalan housekeeper (Westlake still remembering downtrodden Guatemala from his last book), who loves the little sister, is furious about the way she’s being treated, and will happily smuggle letters on her behalf.  But the security on that floor is tighter than hell (which is about how Sister Mary Grace sees it).   Which is why they need a professional.  Like Dortmunder.

So he says he’ll help them, and he goes home to May, and tells her what happened, and he has no intention of risking his neck for some nun he’s never met.  Dortmunder’s not a bad guy, but he’s never cherished any heroic fantasies. It’s not who he is.  This is high-risk, low-reward. He has enough troubles with jobs that are low-risk high-reward.

Kelp comes over, Dortmunder tells him about it, and Kelp laughs.  What suckers, these nuns, letting him go with nothing more than a pledge they can’t enforce, because they don’t even know his name.  Then Kelp looks at May, whose face is very stern and set.   “Now you see the problem,” Dortmunder says.

Here and there in the Parker novels, Claire Carroll would try to serve as Parker’s conscience, steer him to use his powers for good, and Parker would humor her, and do just as he pleased with his powers.   That’s how it works in the Stark Realms.  In the Duchy of Dortmunder, women have a lot more power (in part because more women are following Dortmunder than Parker.  At least that’s what the publishers think).

Dortmunder may not want to be a hero, but he’s got to at least put in a good faith effort here, or May will walk out on him–the sisters kept him from going back to prison for the rest of his life, he made a promise to them, he has to keep it.   His relationship with May is the only thing in Dortmunder’s life that doesn’t seem like an endless practical joke being played on him.  And he can’t live without her tuna casserole.  So he and Kelp start scoping out the job.  What the hell.  How bad can it be?

Bad.  The most advanced locks and alarm systems money can buy.  Hosts of armed security men.  They can’t even find the private elevator that goes up to that floor.   Now on the good side, there’s a lot of rich targets they could hit in that building–dealers in jewelry, antiques, and (to Kelp’s delight) a magic shop. If they could figure out a way to get into those places, and get the swag out undetected, they could maybe get some of their colleagues interested.  This is definitely not a two-man job.

But Dortmunder just doesn’t have enough information about the security, and May’s research at the library makes this Ritter sound pretty intimidating–the guy effectively owns whole countries in Latin America (Dortmunder doesn’t understand how that’s possible, and May has to explain about national debts and stuff).  He’s nobody you want to piss off.  And as matters stand, if Dortmunder gets picked up for so much as jaywalking, he’s going away for life as a repeat offender.

May doesn’t like it, but she’s ready to concede that it’s not looking like a good idea to pull this nun-heist, promise or no promise.  She doesn’t want to visit John in the joint for the rest of eternity.  She’s grown accustomed his face (such as it is).

But see, while Dortmunder may be more hen-pecked than Parker, he shares one very key aspect with him–once he actually starts working on a job, he has a hard time letting go of it.  A dog with a bone.  He’s proud of his larcenous skill set.  “I don’t like to believe there’s a place I can’t get in and back out again,” he tells her.  And something in you sings a little bit when he says it. He’s our guy.

But he’s May’s guy too, and she reluctantly says she’ll go with him to the convent, and explain his dereliction of duty to the Silent Sisters (on Thursday, so they won’t have to do the charades thing).  May wasn’t raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, so she’s not so intimidated by nuns.

Now as Dortmunder and May enter the convent to break the sad news–you see that letter Mother Mary Forcible sent Sister Mary Grace up top–where she mentioned that maybe there was some information about the place of her confinement that she could share with the latterday Dismas?  Sister Mary Grace is no wilting violet–she’s a rose with many thorns.   She figured out the internal security code that gets her past some of the doors in her fairly capacious cell.

She still can’t escape, but she can go places she’s not supposed to go, and she got her hands on something she’s not supposed to have–the security manuals for the entire building.  Specs and schematics for all the alarm systems.   A list of all the tenants–including the businesses Dortmunder & Kelp have it in their minds to rob, and how much security each has opted to pay for.  Everything he could possibly have asked for and more.  The Idiot’s Guide to Heisting The Avalon State Bank Tower.  Is what gets dropped right in his lap, before he can say a word about quitting.

And his eyes shining, the path before him now clear, his vocation fully engaged, Dortmunder says to Mother Mary Forcible, “Let us prey.”  He’s not passing her a note, so she doesn’t have to know how he’s mentally spelling it.

So that’s how Part One ends.  Entitled Genesis.  Part Two is Numbers.  Yes, it’s a theme.

And this is a very short Part 1 (for me), but it seems like a good spot for a break (Part 2 will be arranged somewhat differently), and I wanted to get this kicked off before The Feast of St. Dismas concludes.  I did not plan to reach this book around the time of that feast day, let alone Good Friday, in case you were wondering.   Call it divine intervention.   And now comes the divine intermission.

Happy Easter, all.  Praying for the early completion of Part 2, long life to the Pope (if Benedict hadn’t resigned, I’d be more lukewarm about that), forgiveness of the Souls who go see that Batman v. Superman movie (my idea of purgatory), and the conversion of godless Ray Garraty, I remain, as ever.

Fred Fitch

Brotherhood of the Mock-clever Review Segue.

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Good Behavior, novel, Uncategorized

Review: Brothers Keepers, Part 2

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Now, here was a question about Travel to be considered.  Our attention in the monstery had been devoted almost exclusively to the sacred uses of Travel, but might there not be distinctions as well between various forms of Mundane Travel?  If a person limits himself to Travel by car or no Travel at all, can there be any virtue in his staying home?  If enslavement to the automobile is a simple habit, a tick, isn’t the choice of life-style–living where it is necessary to drive to work, or to school, or to the supermarket–a part of that habit as well?  A person who chooses a place to live which makes it necessary for him constantly to Travel by automobile might be said to be undergoing Travel even when inside his own house.  His existence then is Transitory, consisting of Latent Travel (at home) and Kinetic Travel (on the road again).  If Travel is too profound to be undertaken lightly–as we firmly believe it is–such a person could be said to be a Travel Junkie, as unquestioningly tied to his habit as any drug addict, and surely feeling many of the same debilitating effects.

It feels strange to talk about our community in a religious sense.  We’re a religious brotherhood, but we don’t carry on about it.  Similarly, we all of us dwell in a world ruled by the law of gravity, and every day of our lives we make one or more decisions based on the law of gravity, but how often do we talk about or think about gravity?  It is simply a given, a basic postulate of our lives, and there’d be something foolish and self-conscious in an extended dissertation on the subject.

Newgate Callendar’s rather negative capsule review of Two Much for the New York Times, that I referenced in my review of that book, was published on May 18th, 1975.  The even briefer and more dismissive Times review of Brothers Keepers had no byline, and was published on October 5th of that same year, but it was mentioned even earlier in a list of recently published books that appeared in August 30th.  So really, Two Much and Brothers Keepers must have come out no more than a few months apart, possibly just a few weeks apart–from the same publisher–both credited to Westlake.  The only book he ever published at M. Evans under a pseudonym was Ex Officio, his first for them.

This kind of thing goes a long way towards explaining why Westlake once wrote to the then-imprisoned Al Nussbaum that since he started writing for M. Evans he was so happy “I skip and dance and go tra-la-la all day.”   He’s being funny about it, but I think he means it–he’s finally able to write basically whatever he wants, whenever he wants.   He doesn’t have to write a murder mystery into it.  He doesn’t have to write a bank robbery into it.  He doesn’t have to write a euphemistic sex scene into it (but he can if he wants to).

He doesn’t have to pretend he’s two different authors to get the books published around the same time.  His protagonist can be a bastard philanderer who writes smutty greeting cards for a living while dating twins, or a somewhat anal and naive monk who is forced to engage the outside world and falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the man who wants his monastery razed to the ground.

He gets an idea for some book nobody’s ever written before; he pitches it, they say “Sure,” he works on it, maybe an editor there gives him some helpful input, maybe not, he finishes the book, they print it and send it to the bookstores.  It probably wasn’t quite that simple, but it must have come close to that at times, and if that isn’t every aspiring author’s dream, I don’t know what is.  Well, leaving out the part about bestseller lists and mainstream critical acclaim, and famed literary prizes, and brilliant hit movies based on your books, but that’s all after the fact.   The important thing is to say what you had to say, the precise way you wanted to say it, and then have people read it.  It couldn’t last–not just the way he had it at M. Evans in the 70’s–but it must have been lovely while it lasted.

But he’s still got to think about what readers and critics expect from him, the creator of Parker and Dortmunder, which is probably why when he started writing this one, it was going to be about a monastery of reformed crooks, who pull a heist to keep the monastery going, and it would be called The Felonious Monks–a sly modern jazz reference that just barely made it into the finished work, but still beat a whole lot of people to the pun.

Now I’d love to read that book, and so would you, but Westlake started writing it, and found that he couldn’t do it.  He was liking these monks too much, respecting their values too deeply, to make them into thieves just for our entertainment.   He couldn’t make them heisters anymore than he could make Parker funny.  The characters spoke to him, and said “This is not who we are.”

He made just one of them a former thief–Brother Silas, who at one point relates that before coming to the Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, he briefly belonged to a monastic order devoted to St. Dismas (the penitent one of the two thieves reportedly crucified next to Jesus, who was given his name in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, yes I had to look that up).

And he says they were lousy monks–basically it was just a racket they came up with to avoid working when they got out of stir–and the monastery they built looked exactly like the prisons they’d spent much of their lives in–he only mentions this because Dimp (Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners), which is going to tear down the monastery and every building on their block to erect a huge ugly office tower, is proposing to relocate them there, now that the St. Dismas people have abandoned the facility.  And he never wants to see that place again.  He is a truly penitent thief.

But he still has the odd felonious urge now and again (all the Crispinite monks have past lives that impact their present-day behavior)–he suggests he could crack the safe at the Flattery home, and get a copy of their missing lease–but the plan is shot down by Brother Oliver.  They will not win with Satan’s methods.  They have to be true to themselves.  They are not felonious monks.  They are brothers devoted to praising God, and studying the effects of Travel upon the human soul.  Anyway, the lease probably would be in a safe deposit vault, not at the house.  Monks have to be pragmatic too, you know.

Westlake would make use of the Felonious Monk idea some time later, in one of my favorite Dortmunder novels, but even there he leaves the heisting to the secular professionals, while the religious personnel merely act as fingers on the job (in a good cause, naturally).  His attitude towards priests, on the whole, seems somewhat less friendly than his attitude towards monks and nuns (see Memory).  The authority thing again.  But also they’re just naturally more sympathetic, these humble foot soldiers of Christ.  Easier to root for.  And if there’s anything Westlake admired above all, it was loyalty to your fellows–and the desire to know yourself.  And who is more devoted to self-knowledge than a member of a cloistered religious order?  Oh well, back to the synopsis.

So Brother Oliver, the abbot, has finally decided that it’s time to tell all the brothers that they are in danger of losing their home.  Time is very short–it’s nearly Christmas, and Dimp can evict them on January 1st, if it wants–and given their stated intention to resist eviction to the bitter end, obviously Dimp is going to take a page from the Book of Moses (Robert Moses, that is) and have the bulldozers and wrecking balls there early in the New Year, before the monks can get any popular support on their side–a fait accompli.  Brother Clemence, the former hot shot Wall St. attorney, says they have to get their hands on a copy of the missing lease to know if they’ve got any chance of winning out.

And it’s the aged Brother Zebulon who comes up with the answer–there is a copy–Brother Urban, who was abbot many years before, had a hobby, like most of the Crispinites.   His was making illuminated manuscripts of almost any text he could lay his hands on.  And he made one of the lease.  And it’s up with most of the creative projects (some more successful than others) that the brothers have labored over across the generations, in the only place they have to store them all in.

The attic.  Because the roof slanted down on both sides, the only place where one could stand up straight was in the very middle, directly beneath the ridgepole.  And even then one could stand up straight only if one were less than five feet six inches tall.  And barefoot.

That taller central area had been left clear as a passageway, but the triangular spaces on both sides were filled with the most incredible array of artifacts.  Abbot Ardward’s matchstick mangers–and his three partly damaged matchstick cathedrals–made a sort of sprawling Lilliputian city all about, intermixed with ancient cracking leather suitcases, copses and groves of tarnished candelabra, tilting light-absorbing examples of Abbot Jacob’s art of the stained glass window, curling blow-up sheafs of Abbot Delfast’s photographic studies of the changing of the seasons in our courtyard, piles of clothing, cartons of shoes, small hills of broken coffeepots and cracked dinnerware, and who knows what else.  Over there leaned Abbot Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel based on the life of St. Jude the Obscure, now an apartment house for mice.  Old chairs, small tables, a log-slab bench and what I took to be a hitching post.  Kerosene lanterns hanging from nails in the old beams, bas-reliefs on religious subjects jammed in every which way, and a rolled-up carpet with no Cleopatra inside.  The wanderings of the Jews were recorded in mosaics of tiny tile glued to broad planks some of the glue had dried out and the tiles had fallen off, to be crunched distressingly underfoot. Old newspapers, old woodcuts of sailing vessels, old fedoras, old stereopticon sets, and old school ties.

You can really fill an attic in a hundred and ninety-eight years.

(Brother Oliver is a painter, and it’s tacitly understood that most of his work will end up there too, once he’s gone to meet his maker.  One wonders if in the 21st century, the Crispinites will take to storing their artistic efforts digitally in The Cloud, which seems rather appropriate, and a lot less dusty–but somehow I can’t see it.  Anyway, the mice are enjoying themselves.  No doubt reading missives at mouse mass in the matchstick cathedrals.  Well, the expression ‘poor as church mice’ had to come from somewhere, right?)

It requires a concerted group effort by the assembled monks, coughing and wheezing over the dust of centuries, but they locate the copy, and Brother Clemence painstakingly decodes the heavily stylized lettering–success!   The lease automatically renews itself!   They can’t be evicted without their consent.   Only trouble is, an illuminated manuscript copy is not binding in any court not situated somewhere in the Middle Ages.  And this brings them back to Brother Silas’ conjecture that maybe the lease was stolen, so that they could not assert their legal rights to the land the monastery is on.  And Benedict has a horrible thought–suppose it was one of the brothers who stole it?

Brothers Clemence and Dexter set about basically reverse-engineering the lease, relying on a legal precedent that through an array of secondary documents they do have relating to the lease, they can prove what it said, and stop the destruction.  And while that is going on, the monks have a visitor–Mr. Dwarfmann himself.   And this is what I meant when I said last time that Brother Oliver would meet a foeman worthy of his steel.  Dwarfmann has no intention of relenting on any point, but he is there because he was summoned.  He says his days are ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’–turns out he is very well-versed in scripture.  The battle is engaged.   This may be the best scene in the book.

There is a building on this site,” Brother Oliver said.

“Not for long.”

“Why not look at it?” Brother Oliver made hospitable gestures, urging our guest to come look the place over.  “Now that you’re here, why not see the place you intend to destroy?”

“Beauty is vain,” Dwarfmann said.  “Proverbs, thirty-one, thirty.”

Brother Oliver began to look somewhat put out.  He said “Wot ye not what the Scripture saith?  Romans, eleven.”

With that sudden thin smile again, Dwarfmann answered, “What saith the Scripture?  Galatians, four.”

“Pride goeth before destruction,” Brother Oliver told him, “and an haughty spirit before a fall.  Proverbs, sixteen.”

Dwarfmann shrugged, saying, “Let us do evil, that good may come.  Romans, three.”

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.  Isaiah, five.”

“Sin is not imputed where there is no law,” Dwarfmann insisted. “Romans, five.”

Brother Oliver shook his head.  “He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.”

“Money answereth all things,” Dwarfmann said, with a great deal of assurance.

“He heapeth up riches,” Brother Oliver said scornfully, “and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

“Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.” Dwarfmann permitted his own scornful expression to roam around our room, then finished, “But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”  Another quick look at his watch. “I think we’ve played enough,” he said, and turned toward the door.

Brother Oliver had two pink circles on his cheeks, and his pudgy hands were more or less closed into ineffective fists.  “The devil is come down unto you,” he announced, “having great wrath, because he knoweth he hath but a short time.”

Dwarfmann’s hand was on our doorknob.  He looked back at Brother Oliver, flashed that thin smile again as though to say he was glad we all understood one another now, and with another quick glance around the room said, “He shall return no more to this house, neither shall his place know him any more.  Job, chapter seven, verse ten.”  And he left.

And Brother Benedict finishes with a quote from The Merchant of Venice.  “The Devil can quote scripture for his purpose.” Which might seem oddly anti-semitic for Westlake (most of whose best friends were Jewish) but I don’t think so–the world is full of Shylocks, and most of them aren’t members of The Tribe.  By the way, you might recognize that verse Dwarfmann cited towards the end of the exchange–Matthew 25:29–the basis for Billie Holiday’s and the very Jewish Arthur Herzog Jr’s God Bless The Child.  I never knew which part of the bible they were citing before.  Clearly Westlake did.

Brothers Clemence and Dexter are making progress in their forensic reconstruction of the lease, when suddenly a man disguised as a monk sneaks in and destroys all their work, including the vital secondary documents that would have served as evidence of what the lease had said.  Benedict realizes what’s happening and calls on Brother Mallory, the ex-prizefighter to smite the intruder, but his long years of pacifism have dulled his reflexes, and he’s knocked to the ground.  Before the man gets away, Benedict recognizes him–Frank Flattery.  Eileen’s brother.  Dan’s son.

Now it’s all very clear, though impossible to prove, since Frank got away.  Dan Flattery, the building contractor, wants the money from the land sale to Dwarfmann, and will quite certainly get a hefty construction contract for the office project into the bargain.  They found out that the lease made this impossible, so they stole the lease.  But how did they know about the plan to reconstruct the lease from secondary documents?  Only one of the brothers could have told them.  The monastery lapses into despair.   Their fellowship has been betrayed from within.  Their trust in each other has been murdered.

But then Benedict turns detective–has a flash of insight, that he later explains by referring to The Sign of The Four.   Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It simply is not possible any of his brothers could be a traitor.  Nor is it possible the Flatterys could have known what Brothers Clemence and Dexter were up to without somebody at the monastery telling them.  So what is possible, however improbable?   That somebody told them without knowing it.

He goes into Brother Oliver’s office–he finds a bug.  That’s how they knew.  He runs outside the monastery, where a florist’s van has been parked with suspicious frequency in recent weeks.  Inside is Alfred Broyle, the young man he saw Eileen with at the Flattery home.  And again, the malefactor makes good his escape after knocking Benedict down.  Monks are not the best possible heroes in a two-fisted detective story.

But for all that, the cloud has been lifted–the brothers were true to each other, and that means there’s still hope.  Benedict asks Brother Oliver for permission to Travel–he’s found out Eileen (who said she knew how to stop her father from foreclosing on the Crispinites) is in Puerto Rico.  Brother Oliver has his reservations–he knows Benedict is in love with Eileen–her charms are considerable–the temptation to forsake the monastic life shall be great.  He could forbid Benedict to leave, and Benedict would obey–would even be relieved.

But there’s no other way, and in any event, Benedict has to to be free to choose his own path for those choices to mean anything.  If he wants to leave, he should. A monastery is not a prison.  Even if the rooms are technically referred to as cells.

Benedict’s journey is described in great detail–all the brothers assist him in preparing for it.  True to the Crispinite code of minimalist Travel, he uses a combination of mass transit and his feet, rather than take a cab to the airport, and two cops stop him as he’s walking the last stretch to JFK, because who the hell does a fool thing like that?  He’s philosophizing all the way, as you see up top–there are no inconsequential journeys to a Crispinite monk.

But his deepest insight comes on the plane, as he sits with a Puerto Rican family, the Razas (Spanish for ‘race’) going home for the Christmas holiday, very respectful and warm-hearted to a Catholic monk–and many other such families as well, all as happy and at ease with themselves as those Whos down in Whoville–and he has a revelation.   It’s not Travel that is the destroyer of identity–it’s lonely Travel.

In some bewildering fashion, this rigid plastic environment with its three-seat pews and its narrow aisle had been turned into a front stoop, a series of front stoops, and December had been turned into spring.  Enveloped in this atmosphere, full of chicken and beer and friendliness, soothed by the clamor all around me, I sat back at last in my little corner, my head resting on my pillow, and my thoughts turned again to Travel and its myriad manifestations.

It seemed to me the Razas were somehow the opposite of the automobile people, those who were in a state of Latent Travel even when at home and who finished their lives wandering from trailer court to trailer court, dragging a simulacrum of home behind them.  The Razas, on the other hand, had such a strong self-identification, such vital ties to one another and to their heritage, that without conscious effort they defeated Travel, they swept away its qualities of isolation and disruption and disconnection.  Where those others were Traveling when when at home, the Razas were at home even when Traveling.  Their self-created environment overpowered the external environment.  They had found an answer to the question of Travel that I didn’t think had ever been dreamed of by anyone in our community.  When I got back, I told myself drowsily, I would have a lot to tell the others about my adventures.  So thinking, I dropped gently away into sleep.

Apologies for me rewriting this (formerly parenthetical) passage, but I just found the quote I was looking for, in the obvious place–The Getaway Car–what follows below was written by Abby Westlake:

Westlake has four [children], by various spouses, and I have three.  Not satisfied with the status quo–his four scattered with their mothers from Binghamton, New York, to Los Angeles, California (I have branches in all principal cities,” he is wont to say) and mine living with me in New York City–he ups and gathers everybody, with all their typewriters, baseball cards, Legos, musical instruments, movie books, and stuffed animals, and brings us all to London for a year.  Then, not content with London, he rents buses and takes this traveling circus all over Great Britain, including Scotland in January (snow) and Cornwall and Wales in February (rain).  Still not content, he drives us through the Continent in April for a sort of Grand Tour: Holland, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg and France in three weeks.  Because, like Brother Benedict again, he is obsessed with Travel.

So Westlake practiced what Benedict preached–but I suspect the original inspiration was, in fact, seeing Puerto Rican families on the plane, when Westlake was going there on vacation.  And he shared this inspiration with us via one of his protagonists.  Viva La Raza.

When Benedict finds Eileen, he’s exhausted and in the early stages of the flu–he insisted on walking all the way to the vacation house along the coast she’s staying at with friends, and it was raining part of the way.  But he recovers quickly, and just as quickly, he and Eileen become lovers.  It’s a matter of mutual need, and not just physical need–she’s lost, entirely.  Not happy with the family and society she was born with, but unable to abandon them.  She leaves her Long Island Irish circle, then returns, over and over.  She doesn’t know her place in the world, and she allows herself to hope Benedict can be that place for her.

This part of the book features a fair bit of satire concerning what used to be called ‘Lace Curtain Irish’.  The Paddies that made it, formed their own aristocracy, with its own odd cultural byways, as they somehow continued to consider themselves Irish without knowing anything about Ireland, or Catholic without being terribly religious.  You know, like the Kennedys? They all have names like Flattery, Cadaver, Latteral, Foney, and McGadgett, and Westlake is playing fair–these are mainly real names you can find in the phone book (rare as some of them might be), and might theoretically belong to a person of Irish descent.

It’s a very cloistered world in its own right, with its own unwritten rules–don’t marry outside the group (frequently broken, of course), never speak well of an absent friend (ah, the Irish penchant for backbiting), and never allow a glass to stay empty for long.  Westlake would have known people like this at school, but they aren’t quite his people, you understand–he belonged to the Paddies who didn’t make it.  Not by conventional means, anyway.

Benedict knows time for the monastery is running out, but he can’t seem to find the right moment to talk to Eileen, ask for her help. When he finally does, at the Yokahú Tower in the El Yunque Park (also featured in The Dame), which reminds him of home, she’s torn–her conflicts in this matter are now twofold–to save the Crispinites, she has to betray her family (who need the money from the sale, since the construction business has been failing of late), and lose perhaps the only man who ever loved her for herself.

Eileen, contrary to our expectations up to now, has no family secrets to impart–she didn’t know her father had stolen the lease, bugged the monastery–she doesn’t even know whether to believe Benedict when he told her.  But when she talks to her father on the phone, trying to ascertain the truth, we learn what she meant when she said she could save the monastery if she so chose–she knows her power very well, and is merely hesitant to employ it.

Because, you see, Dan Flattery, in his own gruff Irish father’s way, is as besotted with his proud willful daughter as Benedict. He can’t bear to have her think ill of him.  He tells Benedict that if he leaves Eileen alone, tells her he was making it all up, the monastery will be preserved–he’ll send them the lease, void the option with Dimp.  He’s got other business interests.   The Flattery family won’t starve, though they’ll maybe have to adjust their lifestyle a bit (and that might not do them a bit of harm, you can hear Westlake thinking–extreme wealth being the ultimate corrupter of identity).

Benedict has already decided that he and Eileen don’t work–she’s coming to the same conclusion herself.  He books a ticket home.  But he can’t save the monastery with a lie.  So heading back home, he feels certain the way of life he chose over the love of his life is doomed.  When he was Traveling to JFK days before, he’d met a drunken man in a Santa suit on the train.  Benedict sees Santa Claus as a fat red-suited pagan god of greed, corrupting the birthday of Our Lord–but ‘Santa’, in a giving vein, said Benedict could have whatever he wanted for Christmas.  He said he wanted his monastery.  Santa said ‘You got it.’  Well, it was just a drunk in a costume, anyway.

But a small miracle occurs on the way home–he makes a convert.   A fellow named Irwin Schumacher, gloomily consuming tiny bottles of Jack Daniels on the plane, as he laments his fate–he’s a Travel agent.  His family owns the business.  He’s expected to work there.  To do his job, he has to Travel, constantly, so that he can give informed advice to his customers.  He hates Travel.   It’s just pure hell for him.

Upon hearing Benedict’s account of the Crispinites, their monastery and their mission of exposing the dark side of Travel, Irwin (self-evidently Jewish, but so was the Crispinite Founder, you’ll recall) experiences a religious vocation, and insists on going with Benedict–he wants to join up.

Now given that he’s stone drunk on Jack Daniels, one might expect that he’d have second thoughts at some point, but not a bit of it.  They get to the monastery on December 31st (the bulldozers will probably arrive in the next week or so), and Irwin knows this is where he was always meant to be.  He’s married, and has grown children, but he hardly ever sees his wife as matters stand, and knowingly or not, he’s following in a long monastic tradition here.  People used to join monasteries and nunneries precisely to get the hell away from it all.  And no doubt many still do.

But the fact remains, the monastery is going to be destroyed.  Benedict’s mission was a failure.  The lease is presumably ensconced in a safe deposit box at the Flattery’s bank.  When Brother Silas is asked if he wants to advocate robbing the bank, he looks at his fellow monks and says “Not with this string.”

But Benedict won’t give up.  “Once more,” he says (into the breach, he might as well have added).  He’s going back to the Flatterys to try and work things out with Dan Flattery.  And this time, all the brothers want to come with him.  But how can they Travel as a group on such short notice?  Well, they have just inducted a Travel agent as a novice.  Irwin, as if by magic, conjures up a cozy tour bus.  And says that from now on, he wishes to be known as Brother Gideon.  After all those bibles he used to read in hotel rooms.

So this time the Crispinite Order will Travel together–as a family–like the Razas.  All the way to the wilds of Sayville, Long Island.  Benedict to settle accounts with Dan Flattery, but Brother Mallory also would like a return bout with Frank Flattery (though he keeps insisting he just wants to talk to him).  I could mention whether that rematch happens or not, but I hate to spoil everything.  In fact, why don’t I end the formal synopsis right here.

Westlake himself hated to give everything away–his endings are so often abrupt, loose ends flying all over the place, unanswered questions haunting us.  Did Brother Oliver and Roger Dwarfmann have a final match of their own, with more biblical quotations whizzing back and forth?  Did Irwin–I mean Brother Gideon’s wife show up looking for him, or did she fail to even notice he was gone, as he predicted would be the case?  Did Eileen find a way out of her self-destructive lifestyle, a place she could belong?  There’s a nunnery in an upcoming Dortmunder book she might have found sanctuary in (and her father might have accepted that, unlike another rich dad we’ll be meeting in that book).  Did Benedict eventually publish a book detailing his inner revelations regarding Travel?

For all the devil talk, there really are no villains in this book–everybody is doing what makes sense to him or her–Dwarfmann was doing what Dwarfmenn always do, no quarter given or taken, which is why we as a society have to make sure they don’t destroy everything old in their rush to ring in the new.  Dan Flattery was just trying to hang onto a family business–he can’t for the life of him understand what the Crispinites are doing on Park Avenue.  But at the end of the day, he’s still a Catholic School boy–no doubt an altar boy in his day–and he’s known all along that what he’s doing is wrong, that he’s selling out his core identity to maintain a peripheral one.  I know it’s an old-fashioned thing to say these days, but for some people, religion really does serve a useful purpose, however imperfectly.  An imperfect compass is better than none at all.

And for Benedict?  After telling us readers earlier that he believes God exists, that He rules this world, he tells Brother Oliver that he’s not so certain after all.  “I don’t know if I believe in God or just in peace and quiet.  All I know for sure is, whatever I believe in, it isn’t out here.  The only place I’ve ever found it is in that monastery.”   If all God really proved to be was our sense of ourselves, as individuals and as a community of living beings, would that really be so bad?

What would be bad would be if we threw out all the beauty and wisdom of so many thousands of years of belief created by all of our ancestors, in some misguided attempt to be perfectly rational and empirical and fact-based–something human beings can never be.  And if we were, there’d be no Shakespeare plays, no Billie Holiday songs, no Donald E. Westlake novels.  The religious impulse and the artistic impulse come from the same place within us, and to destroy one is to destroy the other.

We have to find a way to balance things out inside ourselves, and you can’t create balance with rampant destruction.  There are things that can’t be measured in this world that is not simple enough for us to understand.  That’s why we need faith, religious and otherwise.  To bridge the gaps in our understanding, and create a foundation for that most precious of possessions, identity.  Because where we don’t know, we can only believe.  And we’ll never know everything.

And what I don’t know right now is how in God’s name I’m going to review the next book in the queue.  One of Westlake’s longest and most complicated novels, with perhaps the largest cast of characters.  An comic-epic ode to a city that is a world unto itself, full of life, machinations, profanity, and the odd few racial epithets.  Urm yes, about that.  I think maybe I’d better do a short introduction to this one next week.  Just to get us all on the same page.  And hopefully keep this blog from getting banned on any college campuses.

Now will somebody please post a goddam comment?  I can’t be the only living person who read this one.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Brothers Keepers

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Why was everybody Traveling so much?  Where was the need?  Was it even remotely possible that so very many people had just discovered they were in the wrong place?  What if everyone in the world were just to call up everyone else in the world some morning and say, “Look, instead of you coming here and me going there why don’t I stay here and you stay there,” wouldn’t that be saner?  Not to speak of quieter.

Like babes in a boiler factory, Brother Oliver and I huddled close to another as we set off, Traveling south along Park Avenue.  Scrupulously we obeyed the intersection signs that alternately said WALK and DON’T WALK, though no one else did.  Slowly we made progress.

Park Avenue stretched half a dozen blocks ahead of us, as far as Grand Central Station, with the hilt of the Pan Am Building sticking out of its back.  We would be taking a train eventually, but not from that terminal; the Long Island Railroad connects in Manhattan with Pennsylvania Station, quite some distance away.  Eighteen blocks south and four blocks west, slightly over a mile from the monastery, the farthest I had been in ten years.

We crossed 51st Street, jostled by hurrying louts, and I gestured to an impressive church structure on our left, saying, “Well, that’s reassuring, anyway.”

Brother Oliver gave me the tiniest of headshakes, then leaned his cowl close to mine so I could hear him over the surrounding din.  “That’s Saint Bartholomew,” he said.  “Not one of ours.”

“Oh?”  It looked like one of ours.

“Anglican,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said.  The sanctum simulacrum; that explained it.

There was a very large part of Donald Westlake that was, for want of a better word, curmudgeonly.  Resistant to change of any kind.  Desirous of quiet contemplation, eschewing noise and commotion and the common crowd.  And this is a very strange attitude for any New Yorker to have, but it may well be that the great majority of New Yorkers feel this way, at least some of the time.  Being surrounded by change, we want some things to stay the same.  “New York will be a great city when it’s finished” was an old joke when your great-grandparents were young, and of course it never will be.  That’s why we landmark buildings. To give us a tenuous sense of permanence in a state of constant flux.

One of the many little architectural dramas that unfolded in my city over the years involved the beautiful St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, mentioned in that quote up top.  St. Bart’s, as it is typically referred to, now nearing the 100th anniversary of its completion, was only about half a century old when it was given landmark status–a move its rector and parishioners vigorously objected to at the time, because they hoped to someday sell the air rights and part of their rather tiny plot of increasingly valuable real-estate to developers (leaving the church itself intact, but hopelessly overshadowed).   They had many socially admirable reasons for wanting this, I should hasten to add.  They tried to get around the landmark thing later on, and failed.  Take a look, and see if you think there was room for a huge skyscraper right next to that church, and what the overall environmental impact would have been.

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Episcopalians do tend towards this kind of thing here–the never-to-be-completed Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over near Columbia University, has a rather ugly pile of condos going up to its immediate left right now.  They had a fire a while back, which depleted their resources.   Land-rich, cash-poor.   I still like them, because they blessed my dog on the Feast of St. Francis.

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Westlake would have read about the early stages of the St. Bart’s controversy in the New York Times, that most stately of local edifices (we even call it the Grey Lady), which could probably do with some landmarking of its own (Westlake wouldn’t like that I turned landmark into a verb, but we’ll get to that).

And he would have felt a pang for poor St. Bart’s, whose own people wanted to sell their bailiwick for a mess of pottage, force this grand structure to rub elbows with some vulgar glass tower.  Yes, for good reasons.  It’s always for good reasons.  And look where it gets us.  Hemmed in on all sides.  Nowhere you can stop and take a breath.  Is there so much beauty and symmetry and space in the urban landscape that we can afford to lose any of it?   Chuck Jones’ favorite mutt had a point.  Self-serving though it might have been.

This book is about much more than architectural conservatism, though.  It’s about identity, naturally–the ‘Nephew’ this time has figured out who he is before we meet him, but then a crisis challenges him, forces him to reassess his choices, to reject or recommit to them.

And this is partly a religious crisis, because he’s a monk.   Brother Benedict, of the (wholly fictitious) Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, founded by a Half-Moorish/Half-Jewish converso named Israel Zapatero, who while fleeing Spain for the New World in the 18th century had a sincere conversion along the way, inspired by two martyred shoe-making brothers, Saints Crispin and Crispinian, whose Saint’s Day is October 25th.  Same day the Battle of Agincourt was fought, which is why Shakespeare’s Henry V made such a big deal about it.

Only wouldn’t you know, the Catholic Church took that Saint’s Day off the calendar after Vatican II, which would of course have only further endeared it to Westlake the Shakespeare buff and curmudgeon on general principle.  Yes, it’s a very involved backstory; with Catholicism I’m afraid there is no other kind.

How religious was Donald E. Westlake as an adult?  Not very, I think we’d have to agree.  Not in any conventional sense, for sure.  He was born and raised in a highly Catholic environment–Irish Catholic, to be specific (and yes, it makes a difference).   He went to a Catholic High School, the Vincentian Institute in Albany–his first published work was for their literary journal.  His confirmation name was Edmond (mine is Paul, not that you asked), which his mother insisted upon, so that her scheme of having his initials spell something not be thwarted.

He was too much of an independent thinker to ever feel comfortable within the confines of any organized faith.  And yet he seems to have left himself a lot of wriggle room with regards to the existence of some higher power.  He stated in no uncertain terms that the world is not simple enough to be understood, and that is a religious attitude.  Wherever we don’t know, we can only believe.   And we’ll never know everything.

It’s also debatable how Irish Westlake was–he talks about that in this book as well.  It’s part of his identity, and he cares about it, but somehow it’s hard to imagine him drinking green beer and singing Danny Boy on Paddy’s Day.  Of course, any Irish-American who does that has already become hopelessly alienated from his or her ethnic identity.   As indeed most of us are.  Part of the melting pot experience, but like so many others here, we resist assimilation, futile though it be.

One gets the impression that he sometimes felt like the cuckoo in the nest of his Irish family (361 in particular exudes this feeling). I would say, generally speaking, that Irish Americans are most Irish when they’re not trying to be Irish.  If that makes any sense at all. And if it doesn’t, that’s the Irish in me talking.

But please note–the protagonist in this book is not Irish at all.  He’s just hopelessly besotted with an Irish American girl.   As Westlake himself would have been, on more than one occasion.  They tend to have that effect on men of all ethnicities.

Westlake certainly would have noticed, in the mid to late 60’s, the attention generated by two very different books, seemingly written for very different audiences, by very different authors (in very different eras, but the author of the first had died suddenly in 1968, generating new interest).

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The exploration of inner space via deeply isolated, quiet, lonely contemplation–and the fight to avoid being overwhelmed and swept aside by change in the outside world, which invariably requires true and loyal friends to fight beside you.  They seem like incompatible narratives, but clearly Westlake didn’t think so.   His contribution would be to combine these two stories–one very real, the other a mere flight of fancy, and in so doing he created one of his finest novels, as well as possibly the hardest one to pigeonhole–though there is actually a murder mystery in it–the victim being trust within a sequestered community of spiritual seekers.   Who love each other more than they could ever possibly express.

And there is also a recurring theme of Travel–always capitalized in this book, as it shall be in this review, and I would hope we would all hold scruplously to this rule in the comments section–Israel Zapatero, when founding the Crispinite Order, made it their special mission to contemplate the effects of Traveling upon the soul–the good and the bad of it.  And Westlake, as we know, was constantly Traveling, for business and pleasure, and viewed it with a mixture of eagerness and disquiet–to be constantly on the move can be damaging to the identity.  How can one combat the spiritual consequences of Travel?  On the one hand, it broadens the mind, as my favorite Doctor used to say (before the Beeb ruined him–I’m something of a curmudgeon myself).   On the other, it can be a way of running from yourself.

So in this one book, Westlake tackles the changing urban landscape, religion, Irish America, the joys and trials of male bonding, and the deeper meaning of our shared modern obsession with Travel.  As well as his usual identity puzzles. Oh this will be a two-parter, bet on it.

As the book opens, Brother Benedict, our first person narrator, is making his confession to Father Banzolini, who comes by to unburden the monks of their sins twice weekly–and the worst sin he has to confess is that he stole an orange Flair pen from Brother Valerian, who did The Sunday Times crossword puzzle, which is supposed to be Brother Benedict’s purview.  Confession is one of those sacraments that plagues all Catholics, laity and clergy alike, because most of the time you have nothing terribly interesting or original to confess, and Father Banzolini is clearly bored to tears with these monks and their silly little sins.  By the time this book is over, he’ll learn that monks can have hidden depths.

Benedict informs us that his original name was Charles Rowbottom, and that he had only converted to Catholicism originally because he was engaged to a Catholic girl, who then left him for a Lebanese Muslim (he says Mohammadan, because he is given to a somewhat archaic mode of self-expression).   Having put so much work into becoming Catholic, it would be a sin to let it all go to waste, and he’d never much felt at home in the modern world, so he joined the Order.   He is currently thirty-four years of age–not quite a virgin, but not very experienced, either.  Of all the prior Nephews, he probably most resembles Fred Fitch, the hero of God Save The Mark.  But this time, it’s an entire monastery that’s being conned.

Benedict loves monastery life–Israel Zapatero built a delightfully eclectic and welcoming living space for his monks, on leased land, which has since had a huge bustling city grow up around it.  The monks rarely go anywhere (because this would be Travel), but Benedict takes a special pleasure in walking a short distance to a local newsstand, to pick up the Sunday Times for himself and the others to read.  Truth is, he experienced much less of the world before he joined the Order than most of his brother monks, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, all of which come into play in this story.

He settles down to read the Arts & Leisure section, and perusing the architecture column, he is stunned to learn that the monastery is going to be torn down to make room for an office building.  He assumes there must be some mistake, but he goes to see Brother Oliver, the abbott (Westlake making a slight gesture towards Oliver Abbott, the hero of Up Your Banners–he knew perfectly well these ‘Nephew’ books were of a piece, even if he didn’t refer to them as such).

Brother Oliver is likewise flabbergasted, and immediately convenes a meeting restricted to himself, Benedict, and three others whose skill-sets may prove helpful–Brother Clemence (a former Wall St. lawyer), Brother Dexter (scion of a prominent banking family) and Brother Hilarius, the monastery’s resident historian, whose name does not in any way reflect his personality.  Brother Oliver says he can’t find the lease for the land the monastery is on.  Because the lease goes back to the Revolutionary era, no copy was ever registered with the city.

He talked to Dan Flattery (Westlake has a lot of fun with Irish names in this one), the rich building contractor whose family has owned the land for some time now, and all he could learn was that the land has been optioned to something called Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners (otherwise known as Dimp).  It takes some explaining by Brothers Clemence and Dexter, but finally Brother Oliver is made to understand that the intent is to buy up the entire block the monastery is situated on–they need all the different plots in order to construct the proposed office building.

Brother Oliver is worth the price of admission all by himself–a mix of wordly and unworldly wisdom, mingled with quiet exasperation, and maybe the best father figure Westlake ever created for one of his protagonists.   If they had ever made this one into a film, I know just who should have played him (and he’s still alive, albeit eighty-five years of age at the present time).  I’m sure he must have played a monk at some point in his career, but I couldn’t find a photo of him in the appropriate garb, so–

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The great Philip Bosco.  I saw him in multiple Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.  Mainly Shaw plays.  His Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara put Robert Morley’s to shame.  But I digress.

Brother Oliver decides that the best approach would be to confront Dan Flattery directly, and so he will Travel to the Flattery home in Sayville Long Island–he needs a Traveling companion, and Benedict is elected.  He has very mixed emotions about this–Travel is exciting and frightening.   His ten years in the monastery, never going more than a block or so away, have allowed him to forget just how tumultous and confusing the outside world can be.

So they walk to Penn Station (the original beautiful version of which was demolished in 1963, to make room for one of the ugliest and most depressing train stations in the western world), and take the Long Island Railroad–and walk from the station.  It’s about two miles to the Flattery house, and there’s a cabbie offering to take them, but Crispinite Brothers never ride when they can walk, walking being the least disorienting form of Travel.  And along the way, a minor miracle happens–at least in the cynophobic world of Donald Westlake.

South of the business district we came on grander houses, set well back among lawns and old trees and curving driveways.  Occasional large loping dogs, dalmatians and Irish setters and suchlike, romped out to study us, and one German Shepherd trotted at our heels until Brother Oliver had to stop and tell him firmly that he should go home, that we were not prepared to accept responsibility for him.  He smiled at us, and went back.

If this were a Parker novel, the Shepherd would attack, and Parker would kill him.  If a Grofield, the dog would look yearningly at Grofield’s throat.  If a Dortmunder, the dog would be this comically intimidating presence, thwarting Dortmunder in some way.   And here he’s offering his companionship, his protection–which they can’t accept (though in light of later events, they probably should have).   Maybe he thought they were a different order of monk.  This is certainly a different order of book than what Westlake normally wrote.  He’s getting infected by his characters.  Perfect love casteth out all fear.

The visit to the Flatterys does not go well.   Dan Flattery, a large bluff man of a very pronounced Irish type (think Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man, only with a Long Island accent and fewer of the social graces), is clearly determined to go through with the sale.  But perhaps more disastrously, Benedict meets Dan’s daughter Eileen Flattery Bone; rebellious, unhappy, divorced, perhaps thirty, “with a black-haired delicate-boned slender beauty that would undoubtedly keep on improving until she was well into her forties.”  One of those.  Benedict’s a goner.

Eileen has a male companion, an undeserving, weak-chinned, mustached lout named Alfred Broyle (heh), and for somebody who has devoted himself to a celibate life (though he has taken no vow of chastity), Benedict seems awfully pleased when she quarrels with Alfred and he leaves abruptly.  Benedict and Eileen have a talk in the garden, and then Brother Oliver says it’s time to go home.  And though he’s been longing for the monastery ever since he left, he doesn’t entirely want to return.   He and Brother Oliver are both being corrupted by Travel.

The next day they walk to the Solinex Building in midtown, “one rectangle repeated seven million times.  In glass, in chrome, and in what might have been but probably was not stone.”  In front of it there’s a statue which “seemed to represent a one-winged aircraft with measles which had just missed its landing on an aircraft carrier and was diving nose-first into the ocean.”  This is the building where Dimp is headquartered.   Obviously.

Mr. Dwarfmann being unavailable, they are met by Elroy Snopes (a rather pointed reference to Faulkner’s fictional family of venal grasping social climbers in Yoknapatawpha County), who is all smiles and solicitousness and corporate Newspeak.  Benedict, something of a language maven, much like his creator, is in mental anguish listening to Mr. Snopes make free with the Bard’s mother tongue.

The man’s use of the English language, his apparent belief that any word could be turned into a verb by a simple effort of will, was starting to make me squint.  “Contact,” “schedule,” “garage,” and “complex” had all become verbs at his hands so far, and who knew what else he might say before we got safely out of his office and back to our monastery?

(Sorry to tell you, Benedict and Donald both, but except for maybe “complex,” the Snopes’ of the world won that war of words in the long run.  Back to the exchange.)

The other problem, aside from his form, was his content.  What in fact was he talking about?  Brother Oliver now asked this very question: “Exactly what are you talking about, Mr. Snopes?”

“Why, relocation, of course.”

Brother Oliver stiffened.  “Relocation?”

“Not that there’s any hurry,” Snopes said smoothly.  “The way it looks now, we won’t be at the demolish stage with your facility at least until next September and possibly not until the following spring.”

Demolish stage: so now he had begun to redress the imbalance in the language by taking a verb and turning it into. . . what?  An adjective, modifying “stage”?  Or its own noun?

But it was the gist that Brother Oliver concentrated on.  He said, “But we don’t want you to demolish us.  We don’t want to be relocated.”

The Snopes personality wound itself up another forty watts, to include sympathy and human understanding.  “Boy, I know just how you feel, Brother Oliver.”  Flash: “You, too, Brother Benedict.”  End of flash.  “You people have been living there for years, haven’t you?  You kind of get attached to a place.”

“Precisely,” Brother Oliver said.

“But we’ve got ourselves almost a year lead time,” Snopes told us,  and his flashing eyes told us how happy that made him.  “We’ll come up with just the right relocate long before we get deadlined.”

“Un,” I said.

Snopes raised a gleaming eyebrow at me.  “Brother Benedict?”

“It’s nothing,” I said.  “I was just getting gastricked there for a second.”

Dimp is already looking at an abandoned community college campus in New Paltz, “Brick buildings, in what you might call your Ivy League style, only more modern, if you know what I mean.”  “I’m afraid I do,” Brother Oliver responds dryly.

Before the brothers leave, they are treated to a sneak peek at a model of the structure that will replace their monastery.   “On a more or less square surface stood two featureless white slabs.  They looked like tombstones on a macrobiotic diet.”

Snopes says he understands they’re more comfortable with an older style of architecture.  “I’m comfortable with style,” Brother Oliver told him, “And I’m comfortable with architecture.”  He is more resolved than ever.   This will not stand.  Literally.   It will not.   As they leave, Brother Oliver asks if Mr. Dwarfmann, who is in Rome, is trying to buy up St. Peter’s or the Vatican.  No, and not the Coliseum either, laughs Snopes.  “Well, you wouldn’t,” Brother Oliver said.  “That’s already a ruin.”  Later, he shall meet a foeman worthy of his steel.

Brother Benedict’s sense of himself is reeling from these two journeys into hostile terrain, and we see him trying to come to terms with it–the pearl of insight forming within the aggravated oyster.

I sat for quite a while on my bed, once we returned from our journey to Dimp, watching the slowly changing trapezoid of afternoon sunlight on my floor and thinking about my recent experiences of Travel.  How complex the world is, once one leaves the familiar and known.  It contains–and has for years contained, without my knowing it–both Eileen Flattery Bone and Elroy Snopes.  If one were to Travel every day, would one go on meeting such richly intrusive personalities?  How could the ordinary brain survive such an onslaught?

I was meditating on the possibility that perhaps ordinary brains did not survive such onslaughts, and that the coming of the Age of Travel produced by the end of feudalism and the social changes of the industrial revolution had in fact created mass psychosis (a theory that would explain much of the world’s history over the last hundred years), when Brother Quillon, our resident homosexual, knocked on my open door and said, “Pardon my interrupting your meditation, Brother Benedict, but Brother Oliver would like to see you in his office.”

“Our resident homosexual.”  Westlake the language maven has still not come to terms with the repurposing of the word ‘gay’ (I’m sure he’d hate the word ‘repurposing’ just as much), and five years after A Jade In Aries, his views on gay men don’t seem to have evolved any further–the problem with token characters is that no one person can properly represent a group.   There are things to be said in favor of some changes in the world around us, and things to be said against curmudgeonliness.   Brother Quillon is a fine sympathetic person, a true brother, and much admired by the Order for his willingness to quell his inner longings in the midst of so much temptation, but he’s a somewhat condescending portrait, for all that.  The only false note struck in this book, much as Dostoevsky struck a false note in The Brothers Karamazov, when speaking of Jews and Poles.  We all have blind spots–that’s why we need each other.

Now might be a good time to run down the remaining roster of monks, who must now be made aware of the threat to their future as an order.   There’s Brother Flavian, the firebrand, the agitator.  Brother Eli, the woodcarver, who deserted while serving in Vietnam, wandered southeast Asia, and ended up with the Crispinites after hearing about them in a lamasery in Tibet–he told them he was a fugitive from the government but what do such wordly things matter to those who live the spiritual life?

There’s Brother Jerome, the handyman, who mainly expresses himself with furtive gestures and one word sentences (he provides valuable intelligence on what’s going on with the other buildings set for demolition, since he’s in touch with all the superintendants and janitors and what-all).  Brother Silas, a reformed thief, who believes their copy of the lease is missing because it was stolen.  Brother Peregrine, a former actor, who can be a bit of a drama queen, but a rock in a crisis.

There is also the aged Brother Zebulon, who remembers things everyone else has forgotten.  Brother Thaddeus, a former merchant seaman.  Brother Mallory, a professional pugilist before joining the Crispinites, who is using the Calefactory as a sort of make-shift gym where he conducts boxing lessons (where nobody actually hits anybody else).  The bearish Brother Leo, who for reasons known only to himself, is an aviation buff, who does plane-spotting from the courtyard. And Brother Valerian, whose orange Flair pen Benedict stole the other day in vengeance for the illicit filling out of the Sunday Times crossword, but what does that matter now?

What does matter?   Preserving their home, their way of life, their collective identity.   But how can they possibly do this?  The answer may lie with Eileen Flattery Bone, who accosts Benedict in her sports car, and says she needs to talk to him.   After getting permission from Brother Oliver, Benedict ends up in Central Park with her, bedazzled by her tantalizing proximity.  Driving around in circles, she asks him why she should give a damn what happens to this useless order of holy woolgatherers.

She is troubled, he can tell–her loyalty to her family is struggling with her sense of right and wrong.  She tells him, with no apparent jest intended, that she is the ‘sincerest of Flatterys,’ (yes, Westlake is having way too much fun with Irish names) but she can’t help him unless she’s sure it’s right.  She swears that if he can convince her his arguments are better than her father’s, she knows how to save the monastery.  Then they get mugged.

Two skinny young black men pull them out of the car (it’s the 70’s, Central Park is still a no-go zone in the evening), and the light being poor, and Eileen wearing pants, and Benedict wearing robes that could be considered a dress, the muggers get their genders confused, and in that confusion, Benedict, his protective instincts engaged, chases both of them off.  And then he embraces her.  And now things are really confused.  And maybe this is a good point to wrap up Part 1, while it’s still St. Crispin’s Day.

These few.  These happy few.   This band of brothers.  Would you believe Westlake let that pun remain implicit for the entire book?  He doesn’t even mention Henry V, though Shakespearean references abound.   October 25th has already come and gone when the story begins, but for these sixteen embattled monks, every day marks a new battle to remain themselves.   The odds are vastly worse than five to one against them.  Fearful odds indeed.

But they have God on their side, and by God, I mean Westlake, who loves them all (yes, Brother Quillon too), as fiercely and bigotedly as he did the intrepid people of Anguilla, when he wrote Under An English Heaven.  Only now he’s in the realm of fiction, where he is all-powerful.  He will offer them all possible aid, but it will be up to them–and Benedict in particular–to follow the slim leads he gives them, that lead to redemption and victory–as well as confusion and doubt.

And never mind that the real Henry V was actually fighting to take somebody else’s home away–that’s neither here nor there.  These sixteen men of peace must fight their holy war without the shedding of blood, but there may be just a dash of violence in there somewhere, because after all, this is a Donald Westlake novel.  So sometime before the end of this month I shall return to finish synopsizing the battle, and those that come not back to read it shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their fanhood cheap whiles any speaks, that read with us upon SAINT CRISPIN’S DAYYYYYY!!!!!

(I always wanted to do that–this Irishman maybe does it a little better).

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