Ordo is a story in which absolutely nothing happens. At least by the standards of crime fiction. And that’s rare for Westlake. He didn’t normally write that way. Lots of famous authors do, of course. ‘Serious’ authors. The ‘slice of life’ folks. They show us ordinary people having experiences, conversations, epiphanies, while performing various mundane tasks along the road to death. Because that is, after all, most of what happens in life, (or if not, who has time to read?).
That’s why we eagerly consume crime fiction, along with a host of other entertainments. To get the hell away from that mundane aspect of daily life. Cunning genre writers find ways to tell us things about life, convey their personal insights, while still giving us a nice thrilling story, and that’s Westlake’s normal thing.
I think this is crime fiction, though. In its own fashion. It’s a murder mystery, and the title character, Ordo Tupikos, is the detective. This is his only case. He is not a reluctant detective, like most of Westlake’s other protagonists in this type of story, who get roped into finding out whodunnit, and having done so, usually feel like they should have left well enough alone. They are perpetually discontented, not at ease with themselves, and a lot of fun to read about.
But Ordo, who is not the least bit discontented, who is totally at ease with himself at all times, really wants to crack this case, and when he finally does, he’s contented with the answer he got, and he goes back to his life, and that’s it. End of story. It’s interesting; I wouldn’t say it was fun. It’s funny at points, but you don’t laugh while reading it.
So why would anyone want to read this? Well, aside from the fact that it’s very well written, it’s mainly set in Hollywood, and the other main character in this mystery–at once the murderer and the victim–is a beautiful famous movie star, who used to be married to the title character. Well, she was and she wasn’t. It takes a little time to explain.
American writers of prose fiction are perpetually fascinated by Hollywood (they can’t afford not to be), and Westlake was no exception–he was increasingly dependent on the entertainment biz to supplement his income, he had friends and colleagues in Hollywood, he spent a fair bit of time there, he knew a lot of producers, directors, screenwriters, and must have met at least a few real film stars. He’d tried the acting life himself for a while, the straw hat theater circuit, none too successfully.
His first series protagonist was an actor (the Phil Crawford Trilogy, if you want to call it that), and he repeatedly wrote about actors in his fiction–he also wrote a short tell-all biography of Elizabeth Taylor under a pseudonym–which had the misfortune to end just before she met Richard Burton. Still a very sympathetic and rather insightful portrayal, I thought. Taylor never really chose stardom, though, at least not at first–that life was chosen for her, by her mother. Most people who become stars (as opposed to mere actors) choose to be stars. That’s a rather important point. The star in this book is much closer to a certain Norma Jeane Mortenson.
As I mentioned last week, to the extent that Enough got any critical notice, it mainly generated a lot of head-scratching from the critics. Why is this story paired with A Travesty, a farcical yarn about a detective/murderer, when the protagonists, the stories, even the writing styles, are so blatantly mismatched?
Both stories have first-person narrators, yes. But whereas Carey Thorpe is the more usual type of Westlake narrator, full of clever urbane asides, pop cultural references, and inadvertent revelations of his own confused identity that he may fail or succeed in grasping before the story ends (this one fails), Ordo Tupikos addresses us in a simple unadorned fashion, describing his experiences to us matter-of-factly, much in the manner of Paul Cole, the amnesiac narrator of Memory, a book Westlake chose not to publish in his life, perhaps because he knew it wasn’t what people expected from him, perhaps for other reasons (see my review).
But while Paul Cole (an actor, reportedly on his way to stardom before he was skulled with a chair by a jealous husband) is prevented from achieving self-understanding by his amnesia, Ordo, much like Parker, has a very complete understanding of himself. He knows who he is. He’s always known. He can’t understand how anyone couldn’t know that. He’s Ordo, and he’s never wanted to be anyone else, anything else. What would be the point in wanting something like that? What else can you ever be but you?
Unlike Parker, though, he has to tell us his story himself–no Richard Stark to translate, and really, no translator needed–he’s not a wolf in human form–he’s just a man. He doesn’t rob banks. He has no problem performing those mundane tasks I mentioned above to earn his bread. He has no creative impulses to satisfy, frustrated or otherwise. His intelligence seems to be quite normal. He isn’t what you’d call intellectually curious, but then he finds himself presented with a puzzle, and it triggers this itch in his head (like Parker gets sometimes), and he has to go solve the puzzle before he can be at ease with himself again.
Ordo is a sailor, thirty-eight years of age at the time our story begins, doing a hitch in the U.S. Navy, as he has been for most of his adult life. But he’s no military lifer–his job isn’t who he is–it’s just what he does for a living. He’s going to retire at some point, and get another job. He is mainly out of touch with his mother and siblings–his family isn’t the source of his identity, nor is his ethnicity, a mixture of Greek, Swede, Native American, Irish, and Italian.
Two marriages, both short-lived, no children. Nothing in the way of religious convictions, and no indication of any kind of conventional patriotism, though he’d surely fight for his country if called upon. Born in Wyoming of all places, he’s been all over, and has no ties to any particular community. Not even a ball team to root for. He just lives.
The end of the second marriage seemingly upset him (he implies his wife was unfaithful). He drank a bit, got into some fights, and the judge suggested he go back to the Navy for a while, which he did–the routine straightened him out, and he started dating a divorced woman with three kids. He likes her, and she him, but it’s not true love, just companionship, sex. He doesn’t identify himself by who he’s sleeping with either.
One day he’s working at the Naval Repair Station that is his current assignment, and one of his fellow sailors shows him an article in a magazine about Dawn Devayne. He knows who that is, one of the reigning blonde bombshells, he’s seen some of her movies, but is confused by the fact that his buddy is telling him that the article mentions she was once married to a sailor named Ordo Tupikos. There’s a picture of him and her on their wedding day, in San Diego. Her name was Estelle Anlic when he married her.
Ordo doesn’t understand it–Estelle Anlic, then just a teenager (she lied to him about her age, and her mother nearly had him arrested for statutory rape before she had the marriage annulled), looked nothing at all like Dawn Devayne. She wasn’t a blonde for one thing, but it’s much more than that. Estelle was pretty enough, but nothing special–Dawn Devayne is widely considered one of the most beautiful glamorous women on the planet. She’s got ‘It’, as the saying goes.
Estelle didn’t even know what ‘It’ was. But they were happy together, for the short time they were married. He loved her. It was real, whatever it was they had between them. Wasn’t it?
He’s confused. He knew Estelle Anlic. This woman in the magazine, the woman on the movie screen–that isn’t her. That’s another person entirely. And yet this person used to be his wife. She’s become somebody else. He didn’t know that was possible. It never occurred to him that people change their identities. Not just their names, their appearances, but who they are inside.
His navy buddies kid him about it for days, until one of them makes the mistake of calling Orry (his nickname) by his former wife’s current last name, at which point he picks up a wrench and walks toward the man.
“My name is Orry.”
He looked surprised and a little scared. He said:
“Sure. Sure, I know that.”
“Let me hear you say it.”
“Jeez, Orry, it was just a–”
“Okay, then,” I said, and went back to where I was working, and that was the last I heard about that.”
But what’s he supposed to do when his girlfriend, having heard about his first wife, gets all excited, and wants to try a lot of weird sexual positions? And gets upset when he doesn’t understand, and won’t play along with her fantasies? He doesn’t understand people any more than Parker does.
What did Fran want from me, anyway? Just because it turns out I used to be married to somebody famous,all of a sudden I’m supposed to be different? I’m not any different, I’m the same guy I always was. People don’t just change, they have ways that they are, and that’s what they are. That’s who they are, that’s what you mean by personality. The way a person is.
Then I thought: Estelle changed.
That’s right. Estelle Anlic is Dawn Devayne now. She’s changed, she’s somebody else. There isn’t any–she isn’t–there isn’t any Estelle Anlic any more, nowhere on the face of the earth.
And if she isn’t the same person she was when he knew her, loved her, does that mean he’s somebody else now?
He’s got to understand. He’s got to find out what happened to Estelle. So he requests some leave, and on his way to L.A. makes a brief stop in New York, where he meets a hooker who specializes in pretending to Dawn Devayne, and is insulted when he passes up her services, screaming after him that what he’s after is Robert Redford. Who now I think on it, is probably who they’d have cast to play Ordo if there’d been a Hollywood film based on this, but never mind now.
He gets to Hollywood, a small town within the labyrinth that is L.A., and it doesn’t take him long to find Dawn Devayne’s agent, who is obviously suspicious at first, but being a rank sentimentalist, is delighted when he finds out that yes, this really is his client’s first great love, and he facilitates their reunion happily. And Dawn herself is eager to see Orry again.
He’s giving us his impressions of Tinseltown as all this is happening, and what he’s showing us is an entire community of people who are all trying to become somebody else, who are proudest when you recognize them for playing some other person, even in just a bit role. The ones who haven’t made it yet try to look as though they have, as they push carts through the supermarket with an air of privilege, while picking up only the cheapest items.
Even the limo chauffeur who drives him to the agent’s office is playing a part–the guy who knows all the stars. Dawn Devayne? Great lady, very real, doesn’t give herself airs at all. He’s completely thrown off balance when Ordo mentions he was married to her. That wasn’t in the script.
What really fascinates Ordo is the Walk of Stars, where the names of icons past and present are embedded in the sidewalk. He hears a family of tourists talking, the kids asking about all the names they don’t recognize, Emil Jannings, Dolores Costello–the boy teases his sister by saying that all these people are buried underneath their names, standing straight up to save space. She isn’t 100% sure he’s lying.
So finally he meets Dawn Devayne. Who remembers him. Very very well. She says he hasn’t changed a bit (which is not the lie it usually is when old friends meet), and of course he can’t return the compliment, if that’s what it is.
And before you know it, they’re lovers again. She just decides they should be, so that’s what happens. He says she’s everything men imagine she would be, everything his girlfriend Fran was trying (and failing) to be. And he adapts to that rather effortlessly, and she’s very pleased with his performance in bed. But there’s something about the way she treats him–like he’s her old dog that she had brought up from the country to play with. The old dog learns a few new tricks. But he’s still just a dog.
He asks her current co-star, heterosexual onscreen, gay in real life, and whose name is Rod (of course it is) how Estelle Anlic became Dawn Devane. When Rod realizes Ordo is seriously asking the question, he gives him the best answer he can.
“She decided to,” he said. He had a crinkly, masculine, self-confident smile, but at the same time he had another expression going on behind the smile, an expression that told me the smile was a fake, a mask. The inner expression was also smiling, but it was more intelligent, and more truly friendly. He said, using that inner expression, “Why did you ask me that question, Orry?’
It was, of course, because I believed he’d somehow done the same sort of thing as Dawn, that somewhere there existed photos of him in some unimaginable other person. But it would sound like an insult to say that, and I said nothing, floundering around for an alternate answer.
“You’re right,” he said.
“Then how?” I asked him. “She decided to be somebody else. How is it possible to do that?”
He shrugged and grinned, friendly and amiable, but not really able to describe colors to a blind man. “You find somebody you’d rather be,” he said. “It really is as simple as that, Orry.”
I knew he was wrong. There was truth in the idea that people like Dawn and himself had found somebody else they’d rather be, but it surely couldn’t be as simple as that. Everybody has fantasies, but not everybody throws away the real self and lives in the fantasy.
The only real drama in the story comes from two painful moments where Dawn is forced to confront her past–see, she won’t admit she’s changed that much. Orry tries to ask her about it, in spite of Rod warning him not to, and she just blows him off, says she’s the same person she always was. But when her agent, the sentimental old fool, presents her with a goddam standee made from a blown-up copy of that old wedding photograph of her and Ordo–with her looking as she did then–she flies into a rage.
Then later, her mother Edna (every bit as vulgar and common as you’d expect in a movie about a starlet’s past, but that’s how it often is in real life as well) shows up with her husband–also a navy man, retired, he and Ordo understand each other very well. Edna, not quite recognizing Ordo, starts asking probing questions about what he’s doing there, is he going to be husband #5, like that.
Finally, Ordo, irritated by her attitude, probably still angry that she broke him and Estelle up, tells her he was husband #1–and with those words, Dawn gives him a stricken look, and makes her exit. He never sees her again. She just stays away from the house until he gets the message, and leaves.
He goes back home. He finishes his term of service in the navy, retires, and marries his girlfriend Fran, who he says calmed back down, and they had perfectly good, perfectly ordinary sex, lived a perfectly ordinary life, and were contented with that.
He understands now, you see. He doesn’t have that itch in his brain anymore. Rod’s answer to the mystery of Estelle Anlic was good as far as it went, but Ordo figured the rest of it out. To become somebody new, you have to kill the person you used to be. There’s no other way.
Dawn Devayne murdered Estelle Anlic, who in Orry’s imagination is now buried standing up under her name on the Walk of Stars. The reason Dawn seduced Ordo so passionately, luring him into an erotic fantasy of swimming pool sex and wild Hollywood parties was because he brought back memories of Estelle, and she wanted him to think only about Dawn, the fantasy woman she’d become, so dull mediocre little Estelle would slip back into nonexistence. But after he identified himself to her mother as the man who had married and loved Estelle Anlic (as he had never loved Dawn Devayne), she just had to write him out of existence as well.
Why did Westlake give Ordo Tupikos a Greek name, even though he’s only one-fifth Greek at most? Because simple and uneducated a man as he is, he’s a philosopher. He looks beneath surface appearances, at the way things really are. His first name means ‘order’, ‘rank’, or ‘class’ in Latin. His last name can mean ‘shape’ or ‘type’ in Greek. Like another laconic sailor man of fiction, he is what he is and that’s all that he is. And like that fabled spinach-eater of yore, he’s perpetually confused by the airs the people around him put on (well blow me down, I finally got an Elzie Segar ref in edgewise).
And why is this story a good companion piece for A Travesty, after all? Aside from the fact that its hero actually does solve a sort of metaphorical murder mystery? Because Ordo is the polar opposite of Carey Thorpe, a man who ran as fast as he could from self-knowledge, who defined himself by his work, his women, his social position, his possessions, and yet had an identity so poorly rooted that he slipped effortlessly into detective work without even thinking about it, and committed murders just as thoughtlessly, one identity blending into another, until the whole confused structure collapsed on itself.
And as I’ve said too many times already, the only real crime in the world of Donald E. Westlake (under any of his many names) is the crime of not knowing yourself. That’s the crime that gets you caught. Keep it simple, stupid. Only is Westlake practicing what he preaches, when two such fundamentally different stories of his appear at the same time, in the same book? He might have asked himself that same question.
This is a very existentialist piece, isn’t it? Ordo, I mean, not A Travesty (or this review). That’s probably why the French took to it–short as it is, Ordo seems to have had at least two solo editions in French translation, and as you can see up top, one translator was Jean Patrick Manchette, a rather eminent Serie Noire author in his own right. I’d guess that would have pleased Westlake even more than the French film adaptation made about five years before his death, which I haven’t seen, but which is reportedly quite faithful to the original–except it’s not set in Hollywood. Much as I admire Le Cinema Francais, much as I know its many great stars are self-creations just as much as the American screen idols (if not more), is there really a French equivalent to Hollywood? The Riviera, perhaps? Cannes? ::shrugs gallically::
Westlake was no Ordo Tupikos, and well he knew it. Neither was he Carey Thorpe. But both men existed within him, and many others, and that’s the enduring mystery of human identity–that in containing multitudes, we are still ourselves. And one of the most outstanding citizens of Westlake’s inner metropolis is next on our agenda–Mr. Dortmunder himself, in his fourth outing.
And overall, the least distinguished to date (it’s probably my least favorite installment), but a pivotal work in the canon, not least in that it introduces a rather looming figure to the ever-enlarging list of usual suspects in the Dortmunder-verse. Later described as an ICBM with legs. Let’s just set out a glass of vodka and red wine to propitiate him, and hope he doesn’t notice us gawking. Though really, how can we help it?
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)