Category Archives: Dancing Aztecs

Review: Dancing Aztecs, Part 2


“Why would anybody want to live anywhere except New York?” he asked her.  “You’re quits with your husband, so you punish yourself by living in some tank town somewhere.”

“Los Angeles isn’t a tank town.”

“The hell it isn’t.  Los Angeles is three Long Islands next to each other.  But no Midtown Tunnel.”

Laughing, she said, “If you’re so crazy about New York, what are you doing way out in the provinces?”

“Business,” he said.  “I’m coming out to get something, and then I’m going right back.”

“All right,” she said.  “But what if everybody felt the way you do?  What if everybody wanted to live in New York?”

“They do.  That’s why they all hate New York so much–it’s envy.  But you know who the big guy is in the social set in Indianapolis?  The one that just got back from a trip to New York.  He could go to Chicago or St. Louis or any damn place, and all people say is, ‘How was the trip?’  New York is the only place in this country he could go, when he gets back people say, ‘Tell me all about it.'”

Re-reading this passage, I was reminded of Go Set  A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book (that Westlake never got to read), where the grown-up Scout goes home to Maycomb, having been living and working in New York for several years.   Everybody asks her about it, and she has a hard time explaining how different it is.  And then she meets a rather tedious hometown couple, just back from their honeymoon in New York, and they can’t stop talking about it.  And they say they wouldn’t live there for anything, it’s just awful.  And they still can’t stop talking about it.  They probably never did.

Westlake was well aware that New York was not America, nor America New York–his narrator in this book informs us that America doesn’t begin until you’re over the Pennsylvania border, and ends somewhere around Nevada.   New York is the quintessential American city in its diversity, its energy, its hustle.  It’s where people from all over the world converge upon to begin the process of becoming Americans.  But as Spaulding Gray once remarked, it’s really just an island off the coast of America.  And the most popular tourist destination, for Americans and pretty much everybody else.

And I think that quote up top does a good job explaining why that is.  When you take a trip, you want people to ask you about it once you’re home.  Everybody wants to know what New York is really like.  And probably no two people who have been there would give you the same exact answer to that question.  New York is all things to all men.  It’s the Saint Paul of cities, much more so than the one in Minnesota.

Donald Westlake’s emotions towards the city of his birth were always conflicted.  He recognized very well that it is not a particularly beautiful town, for all its grandeur; that it lacks the more focused individual character of many other world capitals, that it’s really an assortment of small provincial villages lumped together into a metropolis.  In 361, he has his very alienated protagonist say it’s basically just a blown-up Binghamton, and you would really have to see Binghamton to know what a put-down that was.

Once he was an established writer, Westlake generally preferred to live out in the country, in upstate New York or Northern New Jersey, far from the madding crowds.  But throughout his career, he kept returning to Gotham, in his stories and in his life.  He never got it out of his system.  It was The City to him.  As it has been to so many others.

Dancing Aztecs is a book about New York, more than anything else, which is why it’s really weird that somebody made it into a movie set in France–and not even in Paris (which we’re all thinking about this week).  Lyon, for Christ’s sake.  A city also featured in Mise à sac.   With a present-day population of about half a million people.  At least in Mise à sac it was only subbing for Newark.


Not an easy film to lay your hands on a copy of.  I have not seen it.  There’s a clip on YouTube that seems to indicate that a gag in the book (where there’s a mix-up relating to the fact that different languages which utilize the Latin alphabet pronounce the names of the letters differently) translates fairly well into French, with a few minor adjustments.  But looking at the little bit of it I can see, I can’t say that I feel I’ve missed some life-altering cinematic experience by not having seen it.   And yet still probably better than the version Hollywood never got around to mangling, I mean making.

Anyway, picking up from Part 1, I have several more items of interest to discuss, and I’d best get cracking.  Gotta hustle.

Item Three: The Not-So-Melancholy Danes

Donald Westlake rarely ever depicted Man’s Best Friend in anything other than an intimidating light, and until somebody who knew him well tells me otherwise, I’m going to assume that’s because he was mortally afraid of large dogs.  But he was also quite clearly an animal lover.   This creates a conflict, because dogs are animals, and he knows perfectly well that the aggressive ones are usually only that way because they were bred and conditioned to be that way–it’s their job, and everybody has to do his job, right?

In his work as Richard Stark, he dealt with the conflict by showing dogs as ruthless incorruptible sentinels, the ultimate professionals, admirable and terrifying.  In his comedic work under his own name, he dealt with it differently.

See, at the home of Bud Beemis, one of the people who might have the real golden statue, Mel Bernstein’s path converges with that of August Corella, the pseudo-mobster who arranged for the real statue to be smuggled into the states.  At this same gracious domicile dwell two Great Danes.  And by great, I mean fabulous.

“Hamlet!” yelled Beemis.  “Ophelia!”  You stop that!  Stop it!  Leave that man alone!”

The dogs reluctantly released Earl, just in time to see Corella come around the corner of the house.  Ah hah!  This must be the guy they should defend the house against.  The two dogs, smiling happily, loped toward Corella, who made an abrupt U-turn and ran like hell the opposite way.

“Hamlet!  Come back!   Ophelia!  Damn it, come back here!”

The dogs were having too much fun to listen to some old spoil-sport.  Pretending they couldn’t hear their master’s voice, they continued after Corella, who scurried around to the front of the house and lunged into the Cadillac, startling Ralph out of a year’s growth.  The two Great Danes thudding against the side of the car startled him him out of a second year’s growth.  “Jesus!” he yelled, flinging his well-read New York Post up in the air.  “Jesus Christ!”

(Westlake may not have been a dog person, but country living forces you to come into contact with such harrowing household guardians on a regular basis, and ever the sharp-eyed observer of the passing scene, he came to understand canine psychology quite well–that selective deafness thing he describes is spot-on.  “But I would have done what you said if I heard you.”  Says the critter who can hear the tiniest scrap of food hit the floor from the other side of the house.)

Mel, who was smart enough to make friends with the toothsome twosome on his way in, gets away with the statue (another fake), while they worry the exposed flanks of the opposing forces (literally), and then pursue them all a country mile down the road, before trotting back home in an excellent mood, Hamlet flourishing the rear bumper of Corella’s Cadillac in his gaping maw like a trophy of war.   But Mel, no longer having the furry fiends to protect him, has to somehow shake Corella’s steadfast pursuit, which brings us to–

Item Four: Did Anyone Ever Put Out a Car Called Kill?

Perhaps the most frequently-quoted passage from this book appears in a section of the book dealing with a fantasy-prone Connecticut State Trooper named Luke Snell, who Mel latches onto as a means of thwarting Corella & Co.  Like so many other of the best lines in the book, it’s reserved for the narrator.

The state trooper was driving a Fury II.  State troopers love Fury IIs.  State troopers will go on driving Fury IIs until some car company puts out a car called Kill.  Then state troopers will drive Kills.  State troopers get their self-image from Marvel comics.

Westlake probably had the odd few run-ins with state troopers as a motorist living in rural New Jersey, but of course his irreverent attitude towards officers of the law had been formed many years before.  However, our question must be whether he had accurately (if sardonically) assessed the reason for the enduring popularity of the Plymouth Fury among state troopers (the one in the novel even drives an older model Fury as his personal automobile).

And it took only a few moment’s research for me to determine that Mr. Westlake had missed an important datum–in 1971, AMC put out the Matador, and as we all know, the word matador means ‘killer’, which is surely close enough.  So by the mid-70’s, state police were still often driving Fury IIs, even though their dream car was now available.  So Westlake was wrong?  Let us merely say he overstated his point, because, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, “Matadors were a popular vehicle for police, as it outperformed most other police cars. It was also featured in many television shows and movies during the 1970s.”   And possibly some Marvel comics, but I really couldn’t say.

Nor can I say with authority what state troopers are driving now, since the Fury was discontinued, along with Plymouth, and for that matter, AMC.   Clearly fantasy-prone state troopers are not a large enough consumer base to sustain a brand in today’s competitive automobile market.   I do believe the Ford Taurus and Dodge Charger are enjoying brisk business in that niche, however; something to bear in mind when you feel like making up a bit of time on the interstate.  Even if your only purpose for breaking the speed limit is to return more quickly to the side of your beloved, which brings us to–

Item Five: The Love Rectangle

There are numerous sexual liaisons of various types depicted in this book, but only four that could really be called romantic, making up the sides of a rectangle (two of them much shorter than the other two).  To wit–

A)The idealized interracial couple of Jenny Kendall (white) and Eddie Ross (black), who represent love at its most pure and perfect.  Having helped the Open Sports Committee achieve its goal of a public squash court in Harlem, they take their ‘Other Oscars’ (Oscar Russell Greene’s name for the replicas of the Dancing Aztec Priest that he hands out to each member of the group, not knowing that one of them isn’t a replica), and set off on matching motorcycles to see America, and it’s been a few years since Easy Rider, so maybe that worked out okay for them (maybe stay out of the deep south a while longer, kids).

Our narrator has a soft spot for these two, making it clear that their connection is real and powerful, but that adult complications may loom in the future (Jenny has not yet told her parents about Eddie).  They’re basically too perfect to be funny, so we don’t see much of them, and they disappear from the narrative shortly after their statues both prove to be fakes–and that’s fine, because they still have each other, and youth, and youth’s illusions, so preferable to reality in every possible way.  They have the real thing, so they don’t need the real statue.

B)The not so idealized and yet rather more believable interracial couple of David Fayley (white) and Kenny Spang (black).  Who we meet when Jerry breaks into their apartment to check their statues, and gets discovered–first by David, then by Kenny.  Who are gay, naturally–and referred to as such.  As I’ve already mentioned, Westlake the word man had finally given up the hopeless rearguard action (oh shut up) of pretending that the meaning of ‘gay’ had not been definitively reassigned (double entendres abound) to refer to same-sex oriented males.

So what happens?  Jerry plays it cool, acts like he’s supposed to be there.  So David assumes Kenny picked him up, and Kenny assumes the same of David, and neither of them wants to be square enough to act as if this is any big deal, we’re all adults here, and they’re both very very hurt, but neither will admit it.  It’s funny, but also touching.  Gay men were still figuring out how to do monogamy (well, aren’t we all, really?), and the rules were not so clear.  Much later in the book, the reason for Jerry’s presence is revealed, and they’re both very relieved to know they’re just a pair of squares.  And again, the revelation that they don’t have the real statue doesn’t phase them a bit, because they have each other.

Jerry’s encounter with these two has quite an impact on him as well–seeing their apartment, realizing how different life can be from what he’s used to in his own little corner of New York, doesn’t disgust him as he expects–it intrigues him.  How many other new worlds remain to be explored?

C)The unsettled marital relationship of Mel and Angela (nee Manelli) Bernstein (you can see how we’re moving through different stages of romance here).  When we first meet Angela, she’s having sex with the rather callow Wally Hintzlebel in her and her husband’s bedroom, and then Mel comes  home unexpectedly, and ends up seducing his wife while Wally waits unhappily in the closet (and thus learns about the statues).

This marriage would not seem long for the world, and clearly both partners have taken each other much for granted, and yet after Mel learns of her infidelity (in the context of Angela rescuing him from Wylie Cheshire the surly football player), and the expected domestic fracas results, the end result is a somewhat more perfect union.  The Bernsteins, who had simply been a couple, transition into a partnership, with the estimable Mandy Addleford as their live-in maid and part-time marriage counselor.  I have to say, her roving eye notwithstanding, the bed-hopping bridge-playing Angela is my favorite female character in the book, and Mel Bernstein is a lucky man, horns and all.

D)The main event, romantically speaking, is the meet-cute and then mate-cute of Jerry Manelli and Bobbi Harwood.  The only serious couple we see in the process of becoming a couple (the others are entirely about sex).   Jerry is a bit too street-wise to be a ‘Nephew’ in the strict sense, but hustler that he is, he’s no match for the ultimate hustler, Cupid.   Unlike his fellow hustler, Art Dodge, he knows The Girl when he sees her.

Believing Bobby has the legit statue, Jerry tracks her down on the road, while she’s driving across country to California, having walked out on her college prof. husband, who seems determined to believe she’s having affairs with a variety of black men (sadly not the case), and keeps telling her it’s fine, he doesn’t mind at all, and if you don’t believe this kind of husband exists there’s some websites you need to check out, but I’m not posting those links here.

While romancing the statue out of her, Jerry finds to his dismay (and no reader’s surprise) that he’s falling for her,  but she’s so obviously out of his league, being a classy blonde who plays harp for the Philharmonic, he just figures it’s not to be, and keeps going for the gold.  And he gets it; just not the way he expected.  And we don’t get their first sexual encounter described for us, and the narrator explains why–

(Novelists, when their characters drive cars, never feel compelled to describe precisely what the physical actions are of hands, feet, eyes, knees, elbows.  Yet many of these same novelists, when their characters copulate, get into such detailed physical description you’d think they were writing an exercise book.  We all know the inter-relation between the right ankle and the accelerator when driving a car, and we needn’t be told.  In sex, we all know about knees, thighs, fingers, the softness at the side of the throat, here-let-me-help, how’s that, mf, mf, mf, mf.  And if you don’t know it, you shouldn’t read dirty books anyway; they’ll only give you the wrong ideas.)

Speak for yourself, Mr. Stingy.  Not our fault you got sick of this kind of writing doing all those smutty books to pay your electric bills and what-all.   As I recall, this restraint of yours in describing the sex act did not last long.   Okay, granted, some writers do get a bit hung up on the fine details, but do you see their readers complaining?   Self-evidently not, because you had Mel Bernstein, formerly a faux literary agent wading through an endless pile of slush, strike it rich as the author of a smutty bestseller, partly plagiarized from his former clients.

So that’s the Love Rectangle, and in all four cases, the point is the same.  Golden statues with emerald eyes are fine in their place, but love remains the universal currency.  A lesson that may never be learned by–

Item Six: The Amateur

Wally Hintzlebel is a type of character we meet in a lot of Westlake novels (and at least one Richard Stark).   Tall, gangly, innocent-looking, far from wise in the ways of the world, and yet with aspirations to know more of that world.  If only he could catch a break.  As already mentioned, he lives with his mother, a ghastly woman who dotes on him, and has basically smothered him with her cloying affection and her good cooking.  He believes he’s happy living the way he is, selling swimming pools to suburban housewives, and then selling his way into their beds, but when he hears about a million dollar statue going up for grabs, all he can think about is getting his hands on it, and getting the hell away from mom and the horny housewives, and seeing what the world has to offer him.

Now which previous character in the books we’ve already looked at does this most remind us of?  Lanky acned 18 year old Alfred Ricks, of The Jugger, that’s who.    Who overheard the town sheriff trying to beat the location of this supposed huge stash of stolen cash out of his next door neighbor, Joe Sheer, and all Alfred could think about was getting the money for himself, so he could run away from his parents and his stilted small-town life, leading to an unfortunate sequence of events that culminated with him getting buried in Joe Sheer’s cellar.  Because you really do not want to be a young naive amateur in a Richard Stark novel.

Westlake is kinder to amateurs, and he gives Wally a lot of breaks–and yet, at the end, is Wally really better off than Alfred?  I don’t want to give it all away, but when you read that chapter, think about it.   What are we actually being shown here?  What’s the moral of the story?  Maybe Alfred had the better deal after all.  Cleaner, anyway.  Quicker.

But amateurs in a Richard Stark novel get off easy compared to a different sort of character in nearly any Westlake novel, namely–

Item Seven: Rich Pricks

This is a long book, so we get a variety of rich people, but just two of any significance (Westlake has no problems with prosperous hard-working members of the bourgeoisie, being one himself at least some of the time), these being shifty financier Victor Krassmier, and heir to old money, Hugh Van Dinast.

Krassmeier is introduced to us by way of an annual report he drafts out relating to himself, that he has no intention of making public (you can’t do an IPO for a person anyway, no matter what Mitt Romney thinks).  Basically, he’s overextended himself, and he arranged with August Corella to pull the statue heist, having good connections with a museum willing to put up the cash.  He concludes the report thusly–

The Future

Victor Krassmeier’s physical plant remains active and capable, with only slight depreciation, except for a continuing problem with the prostrate gland, which should not prove to be a serious factor in future business activity.  On the national and international economic scene, Victor Krassmeier remains optimistic.  The system continues to suffer one of its periodic dislocations and adjustments, but he anticipates–along with most of the rest of the financial community (see Graph 1 and  Chart 2)–that the long-awaited upturn will begin to make itself at last evident in the second or third quarter of the next calendar year.  His portfolio and other holdings remain basically sound.  The “South America matter” should solve the negative cash flow problems, at least until the expected turnaround.  Should that turnaround take longer than anticipated to emerge, future partnerships with August Corella or others could certainly be considered.  On balance, Victor Krassmeier considers his current posture to be nerve-racking but positive.

Well okay,  corporations aren’t people, but maybe some people can be corporations.

Hugh Van Dinast comes from very old money indeed–his ancestors helped build this city, and indeed this country, and perhaps they can be forgiven the odd peccadillo, such as a marked proclivity for very young Polynesian girls (or boys, what does it matter, really?).

Hugh himself is an oddball, in that he lusts after tall patrician blondes, and when Bobbi Harwood, seeking transport out of town, gets hired to drive his Jaguar across country, Hugh falls madly in lust with her, and makes extremely improper (and unwelcome) advances.  Soundly rebuffed, he figures he’ll meet her in California to apologize for his beastliness, and maybe slip some sleeping pills into her drink.

Charming fellow.  And persistent.  And basically useless to the narrative, except for the purpose of getting Bobbi out of town, and reminding us that the people who built a city may not be the ones who best understand it, and their heirs may end up not understanding much of anything.   Old money tends to be dumb money.   And as Victor proves, new money may not be much better.

I could add one item to the next, until this review was half as long as the book itself, and be very hard-pressed to run out of material.  That’s Dancing Aztecs, and it’s been a pleasure and a challenge to review it.  I’m pretty damn certain this is the longest and most detailed review it’s ever gotten (that’s probably true of most if not all of the preceding reviews),  and maybe it doesn’t need all this analysis, but then again, does Joyce’s Ulysses?

Sure, there’s a lot of things in that book that need explaining, interpretation, scholarly musings, but isn’t it basically the same thing?  A story of many characters milling around one city and its environs, and we look into their minds one by one, and recognize bits of ourselves in them,  and we realize what a complex organism a city can be, and how many stories unfold daily within it, and within each person within it.   This is simpler, more readable, less ambitious perhaps, but am I reaching here?  In fact, Westlake made a very direct reference to the opening line of Ulysses in the next Dortmunder novel.  Which is not our next book.  I’ll get to that.

Joyce’s point was about how different people react to life, how they say yes or no to it, how they balance their hungers with their morals (if any).  This more modern urban trek is, like all Westlake’s books, about how people find out who they are, what they’re capable of–or fail in that quest.  Jerry the hustler succeeds by putting the hustle aside for a while, going with the flow, and realizing that as lovely as Ms. Harwood is, as much potential as they may have together, his true love is Gotham, and he will always return to Her, expanding his horizons, while still remaining rooted in the town of his birth.  A different character might have a different answer.  Because everyone is different.  But we all gotta hustle.  Because tempus fugit and all that.

Each of the three parts of this book begins with a masterful little essay, each with its own point to make–Everybody in New York is looking for something–Everybody in New York is trying to get somewhere–Everybody in New York wants to be somebody.   And ending in each case by reminding us that only once in a while does somebody find what he or she is seeking, get where he or she is going, be what he or she wants to be.  But the potential is always there.  So keep hustling.  But don’t forget to stop and look around you sometimes.  Because when you do that maybe you’ll see what you’re really looking for, where you really want to go, who you really want to be.

The Hustle is a New York Dance, we’re told at the start–referring to the Disco scene, and I doubt Westlake the jazz buff was a fan (I sure wasn’t), but he would have noted with approval, all the same, how that scene encompassed such a wide variety of races and classes.   We’re all in this dance together, and it’s messy and rude and maybe we don’t know the moves as well as we should, and we step on each others’ toes a lot (or try to hog the spotlight)–but it can be beautiful sometimes.  When it works.  If you’re on the streets of New York, or any city where all the colors blend together–stop and look.  Look at us learning how to dance.  Maybe we’ll get it right someday, in spite of all the haters.  Do it.  Do it.  Do The Hustle.

And now I have to review a book that is actually one short novel and one long story, and I’ve long debated with myself whether to make this one a two-parter.  I’m still debating it.  But it’ll work itself out.  Enough, already.


Filed under Dancing Aztecs, Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: Dancing Aztecs


Greater New York is in some ways like a house.  Manhattan is the living room, with the TV and the stereo and the good furniture, where guests are entertained.  Brooklyn and Queens are the bedrooms where the family sleeps, and the Bronx is the attic, full of inflammable crap that nobody has any use for.  Staten Island is the backyard, and Long Island is the attached garage, so filled up with paint cans, workbenches, and a motorboat that you can’t get the car in it any more.  Hudson County over in New Jersey is the basement, with the furnace and the freezer and the stacks of old newspapers, and the Jersey swamps are the toilet.  Westchester is the den, with paneling and a fake kerosene lamp, and Connecticut is the guest room, with starched curtains and landscape prints.  The kitchen is way up in Albany, which means the food is always cold by the time it gets to the table, and the formal dining room was torn down by William Zeckendorf and friends back in the early fifties.

Jerry Manelli had spent most of his life in just one corner of this house, and he was only now beginning to realize it.  The last twenty-four hours had been frustrating, but they’d also been interesting, catching his attention as nothing had done for years.  While he’d been moving in the small circle of the family and Inter-Air Forwarding and a succession of Myrnas, the world all around him had been full of strange neighborhoods and even stranger citizens, and if they weren’t people you’d want to be around every day of your life, so what?  They were new experiences, and it had been a long time since Jerry had had any new experiences.

Dancing Aztecs is the only book Donald Westlake published in 1976, the bicentennial year of his nation’s founding.  The last time this had happened was 1964, when his sole contribution to literature was Pity Him Afterwards, which he wrote in eleven days–that it was his only book to come out that year was probably more a matter of publishers’ schedules than him producing less work in that time period.  In 1965, he published The Fugitive Pigeon, one of his biggest sellers ever, and established himself as a comic crime novelist, a niche he created almost from scratch, and then dominated for decades afterwards.

The Fugitive Pigeon is about a young New Yorker living way out in Canarsie, who is forced by circumstances to traverse a large part of the greater New York area (even Staten Island), to try and clear his name before the mob puts a hit on him.  In the process, he learns a lot about his city and himself, finds true love, and accepts adulthood.  It’s a short book, written in the first person, with a lot of fascinating detail built into it, and it’s still a lot of fun to read.  But as I said in my review of it, it isn’t really laugh out loud funny.  And its perspective is fairly limited, since it’s basically a romantic picaresque with a crime angle, and we see the story solely from the protagonist’s point of view.  Also, basically everybody in the book is white.  Even the gangsters seem pretty vanilla.  And there’s a lot of pop cultural references.

Dancing Aztecs is written in the third person omniscient (and this narrator is as about as omniscient as they come).   The first edition from M. Evans & Co. is 374 pages, which was not a record for Westlake–Ex Officio had been much longer.  But unless you count Smoke as a comic novel (that one’s a bit harder to peg), it’s the longest humorous work he ever published, and in its original form was reportedly even longer, with a character we don’t see at all in the published work; an insane Federal agent who was fired twelve years ago, but thinks he’s just in really really deep cover.

It’s hard to sustain a comic plot over a long stretch.  Westlake had a very large story to tell, with a lot of characters, a lot of side-plots, a lot of detail.   He solved this problem by basically making the book into three books; The First Part of the Search, which is the length of one of his usual comic novels (he tells the reader to go to bed after finishing it), then the novella-length Second Part of the Search, and The Third Part of the Search is really a long short story, 73 pages in all.  Each part, you see, gets more focused and intense, as the search begins to narrow, and the once widely-dispersed cast of characters start coming together for the big finish.

It’s not aiming to be a tightly plotted little mousetrap of a book, like the books we know him best for, Parker, Dortmunder, Tobin, the Nephews, etc.   There is a mystery in it, but it’s even less the point of the proceedings than is usually the case with Westlake.  The story is basically a chaotic treasure hunt, with one fairly obvious influence–


But I’d say this was in the mix as well, along with the type of comic theater that inspired it–


That being said, this is first and foremost a reworking of The Fugitive Pigeon, greatly expanding on the basic idea of that book, and employing the vastly superior comic techniques Westlake had mastered in the ensuing decade.

It also has maybe a touch of Comfort Station in it, believe it or not, that tiniest of Westlake novels, a mere parody of Arthur Hailey (I have since reconciled myself to this fact), but in creating a mock-narrative of a handful of mismatching strangers brought together by circumstances in New York City (crossroads of well over seven million private lives in the mid-70’s, not counting commuters), Westlake may have felt like this was worth revisiting in earnest–still comedic, but granting the characters actual human dimensions, and the capacity to learn, to grow.  This book would not be a parody of anything–why let the Arthur Haileys of the world be the only ones to paint grand tableaux?

I’m not just guessing here–Westlake dropped a substantial clue when he had one character walk right by the Bryant Park Comfort Station (closed to the public at that time, but no matter).   He also used the same tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae device to open the book.

KIC Image 0002(4)KIC Image 0003(1)

But he refers to quite a few other past comic novels of his as well.  There’s a moment where that same character walks into the same midtown office building where Art Dodge’s greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, from Two Much, is located–the V.S. Goth cab company from Somebody Owes Me Money is there as well.   There’s something called Nebula Musical Attractions, and I don’t know what book that’s from.  But I assume like the others, it’s a book about New York.  Building up to Westlake’s ultimate book about New York.

There are those who think this is the funniest book Westlake ever wrote.  One interviewer called it his masterpiece.  Liking it as much as I do, I can’t go that far.  For my money, it’s still not as funny as the best of the Dortmunders, nor as original and insightful as some of his other works, comic and otherwise–it’s an inspired mess, when you get right down to it.  But it’s a larger more vivid book than most writers could ever claim, and not just in terms of sheer length.  It’s an epic picaresque.  And its hero, you might say, is not a person, but a city.

Time to synopsize?  That’s what I generally do at this point in the review.  Well, how do I put this?

There is too much.  Let me sum up.

The Dancing Aztec Priest is a solid gold statue with emerald eyes.  It is from Descalzo, another of Westlake’s fictional Latin American countries, this one situated over the spine of the Andes (where there were no Aztecs, but somehow Dancing Incas doesn’t have quite the right ring to it).  Some Descalzan ne’er do wells and some equally shady New Yorkers conspire to steal the statue from the state museum and replace it with a souvenir replica, sending the original to New York in a crate that is supposed to contain 16 souvenir replicas, but one will be the genuine item.

The crate will be intercepted at the airport by Jerry Manelli, a young hustler from Queens, who has created a fictitious company called Inter-Air Forwarding.   He pretends to be legitimately picking up various items from JFK Airport, when in fact he’s stealing them, for himself and others.  The airport is so huge and busy, nobody ever notices (this I believe). He doesn’t know what he’s picking up, and he doesn’t care.

But in this case, because of a regrettable oversight regarding the way the letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently in Spanish, he picks up the wrong crate, entirely full of replicas, while the crate with the original and 15 copies goes to a diverse group of people called The Open Sports Committee, as self-awarded prizes for having successfully bugged the city into opening the Stokely Carmichael Memorial Squash Court in a Harlem Park, regardless of the fact that Stokely Carmichael is not dead yet.

This group is straight and gay, black and white, rich and poor, united mainly (not entirely) by their desire to bring squash to Harlem (this multi-cultural devotion to squash I had a harder time believing in, but I’ve heard stranger stories, and so have you).  And having accomplished their goal, they scatter to various parts of the city and points beyond with the statues, one of which is worth over a million dollars to a local museum that will ask no inconvenient questions.

Jerry, picking up on the fact that the people he delivered the crate to are really really unhappy about something, talks to some in-laws of his–Mel Bernstein, who is married to Jerry’s seductive sister Angela, and runs a hustle of his own that sounds a lot like the Scott Meredith Literary Agency on a small scale–and Frank and Floyd McCann, two Irish brothers who are hustlers in the sense of being union workers who don’t actually have to work that much.

They figure out that the real statue was in there.  In discussing this at Mel’s house, they inadvertently alert Wally Hintzlebel, a pool salesman who was just having sex with Mel’s wife Angela (Jerry’s sister) and is hiding in the closet upstairs.  Wally lives with his mother.  He’s never lived anywhere but Long Island, never done anything but other men’s wives.  He wants that money so he can broaden his horizons.  The people who set up the original hustle also understandably want it to pay off for them.  And once they are alerted to what’s going on, so do certain members of the Open Sports Committee, who demand their own cut.   But nobody knows who has the real statue.  And the game is afoot, Watson.

Most of the book is these disparate groups racing around desperately, breaking plaster statues right and left, trying to find the gold one.  Their problem is that because of the unusual diversity of the Open Sports Committee, the searchers are going to have to venture into places they are not familiar with, interact with types of people they have no real experience with.  You’d think New Yorkers would be used to anything, but in reality, as our all-seeing narrator informs us–

Almost nobody lives in New York, and that’s especially true of those born there.  They live in neighborhoods, the way small-town people live in small towns, and they very rarely leave their own districts.  The average citizen of Ozone Park, say, in Queens, has probably never in his life been to the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and why should he?  It’s just another neighborhood, exactly like his own, with churches and stores and movies and schools, and with nothing in particular to attract the interest of outsiders.  And though most citizens of both Ozone Park and Midwood are likely to have been to Manhattan–because they work there, or they’ve had an occasional special night out–they don’t really think of Manhattan as being part of their hometown.  “I’m going to the city,” say the people in the outer boroughs.

(I used to say that all the time when I lived in The Bronx, and this was after I’d lived in Manhattan first.  Well, when Londoners say ‘The City’ they just mean an area of about a square mile where a bit over 7,000 people actually live–we’re not that bad, anyway).

How many people are there who really know New York?  All five boroughs.  Who have visited each and every neighborhood–not necessarily walked every block, but could find it if they wanted, without referring to a map or asking directions?   I’m far from convinced any such person has ever existed, at least not in the past century (I’m sure there were lots of people who had a strong working knowledge of Old New Amsterdam).   I think there’s probably not a person in this city, native-born citizen or immigrant, who could make that claim.  But what a claim to be able to make.  Even Eustace Tilly might be impressed by such a person.

There’s not a part of this city you can’t reach by train or by bus.   I’ve been to many of them, probably more than the average New Yorker.  And whenever I get to a new place, I end up thinking “I can’t believe this was always here, and I never knew about it.”  And if I said that maybe ten thousand times, I’d be getting somewhere.   But I seriously doubt I’ll live that long.

I really do not want to synopsize the plot of this book, because the fact is, it just doesn’t pay.  It would take too long, because the story keeps going around and around in ever-tightening circles.  The plot, the characters, the premise itself, are all MacGuffins.  The real point of the enterprise is to give us a tour of Greater New York, and a highly philosophical overview of same.  And to suggest that people are nutty when it comes to money and sex; hardly an original observation, but I’d call this a fairly original presentation.

Usually, when I review one of Westlake’s books, I do a thorough synopsis, because it’s just such a pleasure to walk through the story again, and doing so brings certain aspects of the book into greater focus.  Here, it simply makes my head spin.  The comings and goings, and goings right after comings (I’m talking about sex here), and enough already.  What items of particular interest may be found within this maelstrom of human activity?

Item One: The Race Thing

I’d say nearly half the people in this book are not white.  The major protagonists all are, but because the POV of the book is constantly shifting, we get a large number of chapters written from the perspective of African Americans and Latinos.  The chapters dealing with black people are written more or less in the style of Chester Himes, with a wily funeral home director named F. Xavier White filling in for H. Exodus Clay–Westlake’s not even trying to hide the influence here (he thought Himes was just about the best thing that ever happened to the mystery genre after Hammett, and he was probably right about that).

However, some of the chapters in Harlem are written in broad ghetto dialect–something Himes’ omniscient narrator never stooped to in those Harlem Detective novels, which were dialect-heavy for sure, but never in the third-person, and never half as broad as here.  Somehow, the all-seeing narrator in this book can turn into a black man when he’s looking down on Harlem.   Who is the joke supposed to be on here?  Is this even in remotely good taste?  You tell me.  This passage is about a jazz band on a truck in a funeral procession given in honor of a slain gangster from Down South (paid for by the dude who slew him).

Now this band playing, and what they playing, it funeral music.  Jazz funeral music.  Very low, but syncopated.  Lots a looooonnng looowwww trombone notes, full a growl.  Lots a piano left hand.  The clarinet, it tootle and teetle, but it don’t make no fuss about it, and even when the trumpet, it stride, it stride soft.  Same as the bass, it walk slow and stately, it go bum dum bum dum bum, like a fat man carrying a crown on a little red pillow.

(Later on, coming back from the cemetery, this band gone wail.  Then you gone hear something.  You gone hear that trombone waa-do-du-deedle-du-do, and that trumpet climb up la-bat-da-badda-bah, and that clarinet skeetlee-dee-titty-dee, and them drums fa-bot-ba-ba-boo-budeh-bah, and that bass go thun-thun-tha-thun-thun, and that piano triple-skipple-dipple-whipple-fipple-ripple-roo.   You gone see that piano player smile under that bowler hat, and that trumpet man’s eyes, they gone pop right out he head, and that trombone man’s glasses, they gone steam up like in a Turkish bath.  Because this is the idea, on the way the cemetery you got to think about him what dead, so you can play the long slow music with the heavy walking beat.  But on the way back from the cemetery, it time to think about the living, it time to come up out your sadness, come up to happiness again.  At least that’s what them handkerchief-heads from Down South, them Dundershaft relatives, that what they think.)

It was hard work just to type that out from the book, and I can only imagine how much long loving labor Westlake lavished on writing it up from scratch.  I know he means no disrespect–quite the opposite, jazz freak that he is–and Faulkner gets away with worse in his novels–but he’s Faulkner, and Twain is Twain, and they grew up in the country this language comes from.  I guess sometimes it’s just hard to know where the line is, so just pretend it isn’t there, that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we can like the way different people talk differently, and be grateful for it, and it’s not like anybody’s wearing blackface.  But he’s still cutting it pretty close here in these chapters.  And I don’t for one minute believe he didn’t know that, but since the critics never take him seriously anyhow, and there’s never going to be a movie version, what’s the harm?

F. Xavier White has a fat jealous wife named (I kid you not) Maleficent, and she’d blend into any Tyler Perry movie ever made like she was written for it.   And she comes across as a total caricature–until she gets her own chapter, and she’s feeling so sad and lonely, and all of a sudden you feel this wave of sympathy and love for her, and because the two Irishmen (I’ll get to them) break into the funeral home to try and find the statue, and scare the living daylights out of her, she is dissuaded from committing suicide (thinking she’s had a vision), and decides to become a better person.  So does the compassion make up for the caricature?  The sympathy for the superstition?  I dunno.

There’s a black ganglord named Mr. Jeremiah “Bad Death” Jonesburg, and one gets the feeling Westlake likes him much better than any of his white ganglords.  And maybe takes him a bit less seriously than the ones in the Stark novels, but this is not a serious book, is it?

He’s the Man, the Main Man from 96th to 155th, east side and west.  Them Italians downtown shake when they hear the name Bad Death, because he’s the one run them out, run them right out of Harlem and the whole patch.  He’s the meanest the baddest, the biggest, the toughest, the coolest and the hottest son of a bitch ever to hit the street.  Where he walks tombstones grow, and where he sits the sun never shines.  His bed is made of politician’s bones, and for lunch he eats policemen’s orphaned children.  He wears Datsuns when he roller-skates, and his toilet seat is lined with pussy fur.  His hand can crumble bricks, and his piss cuts through solid steel.  He stacks his women three at a time like cordwood, and makes love to them all at once.  The Queen of England irons his shirts, and his Cadillac runs on Dago blood.  When he’s angry bullets melt, and when he smiles trees die.  He’s so mean he can’t look in a mirror, for fear he’ll annoy himself.  When he speaks transistor radios give up the ghost, and when he farts entire neighborhoods turn into deserts.  He is the Man, and nobody forgets it.

Rap music was already a thing when Westlake wrote this, but I doubt he’d listened to any at the time–he’s drawing on the older oral and literary traditions that spawned rap, and on Himes again (except Himes was never much impressed by ganglords, and most of the time neither was Westlake).  Frankly, I doubt there’d be a New Orleans style jazz band in a funeral procession in Harlem in the mid-70’s, but that’s quibbling.  Himes’ Harlem wasn’t exactly up-to-date either, seeing as he was writing it as an exile in France.

So Bad Death is the Man, and it’s impossible to scare him, but he’s tickled pink when Frank and Floyd show up at the Funeral Home, and Frank, in a burst of inspiration, cons him into thinking they’re government agents armed with guns cunningly disguised as pencil flashlights. Bad Death is so delighted that Washington is taking an interest in him that he lets them go.  Now even the Feds know he’s the Man.

Not all the black characters are in Harlem.  There’s a level-headed domestic named Mandy Addleford who works for an actress on Broadway, who Frank and Floyd have to kidnap to keep her from spilling the beans (Frank works on Broadway too, and she recognizes him), and she ends up becoming an integral part of Mel and Angela’s household–part of the family, even.

There’s a beautiful (we’re talking Beyonce-level) school teacher named Felicity Tower, still a virgin in her early 30’s, desperately wanting to stop being one, and not having the foggiest notion how.  There’s a hulking ill-tempered football player named Wylie Cheshire, who Mel assumes is white, because he lives in a mainly white suburb, and it’s such a genteel-sounding name.  There’s two good-natured street urchins named Buhbuh and Leroy, who don’t have much to do except sit and watch the craziness unfold around them.  What links all these people together?   They all got statues.   And they’re all New Yorkers.  And that, to this book, is a vastly more important detail than skin pigmentation, or speech patterns.

The most important black character is Oscar Russell Green, who led the Open Sports Committee to victory over The System, and then retires to his high-rise apartment in Harlem to get drunk, as he does on rare occasions, just to blow off steam.  And then he realizes there’s these two Irishmen burglarizing his place.  We’ll get back to that.  Oscar seems to me to be a character who needed a bit more narrative time, and maybe he had it in the longer version of the novel.  Westlake had an unfortunate tendency to create black characters with a lot of potential and then not do much of anything with them, and again I wonder if that one black character in Comfort Station who couldn’t quite find his way into the main narrative was aimed at Westlake’s deficiencies as a writer as much as Hailey’s.  The best writers know their limitations better than anyone.

But the Latinos in the story have no statues (even the ones who originally stole the original statue).   That part of the story relates mainly to Pedro, a peasant-type from Descalzo, who was forced to participate in the art-theft hustle, then forced to hijack a plane to New York (to avoid the consequences of the art-theft hustle, which would involve being hung by the tongue until dead), and then avoids the consequences of said hijacking by virtue of people just forgetting he’s there, and then he wanders around JFK until a sympathetic fellow Latin (probably Puerto Rican, we’re never told, and it doesn’t matter) who works there takes him home to meet the family, believing him to be a political refugee (which is sort of true).  And Pedro thus becomes the newest of New Yorkers, without even trying, and things turn out rather well for him, and at the end he still has no idea what’s going on, but it sure beats hanging by your tongue in Descalzo.

Pedro is basically our back-door into what Westlake recognized as a growing network of Spanish-speaking New Yorkers who were forming their own society within the city (comprising about a third of the city by the time he wrote this), and he heartily approved.  As we saw in Brothers Keepers, he had a very warm regard for Latinos in general, felt like they had as much of a right to be here as anyone, and that they would in the main be welcome if sometimes chaotic additions to the ever-expanding crazy quilt that is America, even as his own wild Irish ancestors had been.   And it’s kind of sad that four decades later we’re still arguing that point, but not very surprising.  Ethnic stereotypes are durable buggers.  And this brings us to–

Item Two: The Stage Irishmen

Damn, it just occurred to me–Frank McCann, elder brother of Floyd, actually works as a stagehand–on Broadway. Another of Westlake’s patented implicit puns.  Westlake knew very well what he was invoking with those two bumbling bellicose bigoted brothers, and he enjoys every minute of it–they’re a lot of fun.  For him, and for us.

It’s not 100% clear whether Frank and Floyd are Irishmen in the sense of having been born in Ireland and immigrated as young men, or in the sense of just being of Irish stock and not having fully assimilated yet, but that’s neither here nor there.  They are there to remind us that 1)Not all ethnic stereotypes relate to non-white people and 2)Not all ethnic stereotypes are entirely unfair, though the reality is always so much more complex than the stereotype, and all ethnicities have their little quirks (Westlake has fun with a rich inbred WASP here as well, but he’s a mite unsympathetic with that one, as you might expect).

Anyway, the McCanns are big florid-complexioned redheads (rather reminiscent of how Westlake described Ray Kelly’s father and brother in 361–hmm), and much as they’re supposed to be out there looking for the original statue separately, covering more ground, they’re both scared to death of the non-white neighborhoods they’ve been assigned, and being very close, just have a natural inclination to stick together, so they work as a team, going places they’d normally stay the hell away from, dealing with people they’d just as soon leave the hell alone.

“Harlem,” Floyd said, and either through fright or by contrast with his assignment his face had never looked whiter.  “I’ve never been in Harlem in my life!”

“What about me?” his brother Frank demanded.  “I get the South Bronx.  That’s worse than Harlem.”

“I can’t do it,” Floyd said.  “That’s all, I just can’t do it.”

“You think you’ve got troubles,” Mel said, “look at my list.  I’m all over the place, I’ve got Long Island and Connecticut and New Jersey, it’ll take me a month.”

Then everybody talked at once, until Jerry shut them all up by banging the pot on the dining room table–“Dents!” yelled Angela, but whether about the pot or the table she didn’t say–and when the bong-bongs had startled everybody into silence Jerry said “We worked out those four bunches together.  Nobody complained ahead of time, so nobody should complain now.”

“I can’t go to Harlem,” Floyd explained.

Jerry was unsympathetic.  “You want to drop out?  If you want, you go home now and you don’t get a split and no questions asked.”

Floyd stood there blinking, stuck between the rock and the hard place, and his older brother Frank clapped him on the back, saying “You can do it, Floyd.  Any good Irishman is worth ten niggers.”

“There’s more than ten niggers in Harlem,” Floyd said.

The classic Stage Irishman is a mixture of braggadocio and cowardice, cunning and credulity–Amos & Andy would have worked just as well with Irishmen, back in the day.    And just as with black stage stereotypes (and present-day entertainments as well, I already mentioned Tyler Perry, and he’s just part of a very long line), you had the objects of the mockery themselves contributing mightily to the mix (because poor people always love to laugh at themselves, as long as they get some say in how it’s done, and a chance to get a bit of their own back in return).

Any of you ever hear tell of a lad named Ned Harrigan?   I will bet you a week’s salary Westlake had.  In many ways, this novel reads like a late 20th century take on what Harrigan was doing on the New York stage in the late 19th century.  And just like in those plays, the Irish have beefs with everybody–Frank and Floyd are still bitter about their assignment, and wondering if they got screwed over somehow when it came to dividing up the territories–

“But us micks got it again,” Floyd said.  “Every damn time.  I’ll tell you something, Frank.  There’s times you can get ahead of a guinea, and there may even be times you can get ahead of a sheeny, but there isn’t an Irishman born that can get ahead of guineas and sheenies working together.”

“A million dollars is still a million dollars,” Frank said.

So that being unquestionably the case, they cover their territory, and in the process of doing so they–

  • Burglarize a very large black man’s apartment in Harlem.
  • Terrorize poor Felicity Tower, who thinks they’ve come to rape her (and is mainly relieved when they don’t, but still doesn’t know what to do about the virginity thing).
  • Abduct an older and wiser black woman who recognizes Frank, taking her to the wilds of Queens, from whence she never returns (because she finds a better job there, as already mentioned).

And never once do they perceive any ironic reversal of dramatic expectations in any of that.  Not even when Floyd, seeing Oscar Russell Green (who is drunk as a skunk by that time, but still a large black man in Harlem), shouts in mortal terror, “F-f-f-feet do your stuff!”  But really it’s not a reversal–it’s just an intentional anachronism.  They’re taking back the jobs their ancestors did, before those tasks got assigned to other groups.  Everything old is new again.

And perhaps now is a good time for the intermission.  This is a rather long book.  I’ve got several more items to discuss.  And speaking of old things that never really get old, here’s a song from the aforementioned Mr. Harrigan (and his song-writing partner, a Mr. Brahm (who was Jewish, of course, you think multi-culturalism was invented in the late 20th century?).  Yeah, New York New York is a great old song, and Sinatra does it proud, but to me this is the official Gotham Anthem.  And still, at heart, what this city I’m typing in is all about.

(And Mr. Moloney cleaned up a few of the more offensive racial epithets in the original lyrics, but the spirit of the piece remains the same, as does that of the city that inspired it).

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Dancing Aztecs, Donald Westlake novels