Tommy Watson and Luz Coco were the only South Abilenians fluent in English and, so far as Kirby could tell, the only sophisticates in the crowd, whose conversation and manner betrayed a wider knowledge of civilization. With their half-mocking existential hip form of the traditional Indian fatalism, they looked like a couple of Marx brothers wandering through a Robert Flaherty documentary. They were so total a contrast, in fact, that Kirby would have loved to know their story, but they insisted he tell them first how it happened that he had bought the farm.
“It looked great when I saw it,” Kirby said. “St. Michael was just representing the real owner, some big aristocrat up in Mexico. The aristocrat couldn’t take back a mortgage on account of taxes, so the price was right because I could pay all cash.”
“Fat man?” Tommy asked. “Happy with himself?”
“That’s Innocent St. Michael,” Kirby agreed.
“It was his land,” Tommy said. “He’s been looking for a first-class fish for years.”
“I appreciate that information, Tommy,” Kirby said.
“So you’re a rich man, right?” said Luz. “You can afford a mistake.”
“Rich men,” Kirby told him, “don’t risk their ass and twenty years in jail flying pot to the states. That’s how I got the money. Oh Jesus,” he said, remembering.
Tommy swigged home-brew and puffed pot and said, “Something else, huh?”
Kirby swigged and puffed and swigged and puffed and said, “I just gave the rest of my money to a guy in Texas for some cows.”
Luz laughed. Tommy tried to look sympathetic, but he was grinning. Kirby swigged and puffed, and then he too laughed. “I guess I’m not as smart as I think I am.”
“Nobody is,” Tommy said. “But what the hell, we can still enjoy ourselves.”
So, having abruptly decided to make this review a two-parter, breaking it off at what seemed to me an appropriate juncture, I was then informed by one of my comments section kibitzers that I had failed to explain or justify my contention that this book is, in some ways, a reworking of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which I consider the very worst novel Donald Westlake ever published under his own name (unless there’s a worse one he never published, and seeing as the two ‘lost’ novels published after his death were both really good, I doubt that). And of course it was too late to fix my error by then, but I appreciate that information, Mike.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is about Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, a tall lean sullen disgruntled young adult from a rich dysfunctional family that more or less disowned him, who then blackmailed his rich dad for the money to buy a yacht, which he named the Nothing Ventured IV. (What happened to the first three? Oh right, because the yacht is an extension of Kelly’s personality, and he’s a IV. Missed that last time.)
He has a scheme to make his own fortune (or at least the operating capital to make his own fortune), by kidnapping a movie star. He recruits two sardonic offbeat chums of his (one of whom is a hip young black guy, and the other does impressions) as henchmen, and makes his pitch for the caper, and they hesitantly agree. Partly for the money, but mainly because it sounds kind of fun, albeit risky.
So they grab the movie star, but it doesn’t go as planned, and they end up also grabbing Jigger Jackson (I still don’t know where the hell Westlake got that name from), a spicy young redhead who wants to be a film star herself, but not so much because she really wants to do the work involved in being an actress (it’s not clear if she’s even studied acting), but rather because she, like Kelly, aspires to become independent, to not have to bother with people she doesn’t like, and for that you need money (while we the readers are shown that becoming really famous is not necessarily the best way to avoid dealing with people you don’t like).
It’s hate at first sight between the two of them, which of course really means they’re meant for each other, because that’s the kind of story this is, heavily derived from the work of P.G. Wodehouse, but lacking the master’s fine control (in a short time, Westlake himself would be the master).
Jigger wanted to somehow become the titular Sassi’s protege, and is convinced that she has to save her from these dastardly kidnappers, but in fact Sassi is delighted to take a break from her movie star life, and just get to be a person for a while. Jigger sees herself as the spunky heroine in some sort of Nancy Drew-ish adventure–she projects her youthful empowerment fantasies onto the world around her, and for her to be the heroine, somebody has to be the bad guy, namely Kelly.
But as the story winds on (drags on, really), she realizes she’s in love with Kelly, that they are in fact soulmates, that she’s badly misunderstood the situation, and that movie stardom was never what she really wanted, and she and Kelly sail off into the sunset on the Nothing Ventured IV, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms.
That’s all the synopsis I can bear to type. Notwithstanding some very clever writing, it’s a terrible book. But you can see the potential for something better, if not necessarily something brilliant. And so could Westlake. And this book is it. Not brilliant–but a whole lot better. And much more rooted in reality, while still very much a fantasy.
Westlake seems to have spent some time in Jamaica before writing Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and he tries to incorporate his impressions of that island nation and its people into the book, as he also did with Mexico (The Damsel), Puerto Rico (The Dame), and the Lesser Antilles (I Gave At the Office, but also the nonfiction Under An English Heaven). The book after this one has a final chapter set in Aruba. Under any name, he likes to write about tropical settings and the people who live there, and he likes to visit them first. If you were raised in upstate New York (as Kirby Galway, the male lead in this book was, after being orphaned at a young age), you’d want to get someplace warm too.
But he must have known his descriptions of these places and their inhabitants were superficial–perhaps necessarily so, but he wasn’t satisfied with them. He’d gone to a lot more trouble getting Kenya and Uganda right for Kahawa (even though he couldn’t safely visit Uganda when he was in Kenya), and as we’ve seen, he’d made such an extensive tour of Belize in 1984 that he and his wife wrote a long authoritative travel piece for the New York Times about it.
So he’s had a great deal more experience of life, of love, of the world, and of writing comic novels with a serious core to them, by the time he gets around to this one. And Belize is a very small country–and very safe to venture around in then. These days, travel advisories tell you to avoid certain areas in Belize City because of drug-related crime, but it’s still a very friendly open welcoming place, at least according to The Peregrine Dame. (And I believe everything sexy brunettes in bikinis tell me. It’s a rule.)
High Adventure is dedicated to Westlake’s wife Abby, who explored this brave new world with him, but also to five prominent citizens of Belize they had clearly spoken with; Emory and Elisa King, Stewart and Lita Krohn, and Compton Fairweather, who sounds like he could be a character in this very novel, but definitely not Innocent St. John.
An abridged passage from Emory King’s book, Hey Dad, This is Belize! serves as a sort of preface to the novel–the strange but true story of what happened to a traveling circus there, which demonstrates both the generous hospitable spirit of Belizean people, and the unpredictable and often chancy nature of daily life there. It contains a warning for those who go there with ambitious plans: “Bigger circus than this come to Belize and broke up.” In retrospect, seeing as this book is long out of print, perhaps a warning for ambitious novelists as well; but what the hell, he still enjoyed himself.
Westlake did his homework and then some. And if my prefatory remarks frequently run on too long, it’s only because I try to follow his example. The synopsis resumes.
So having come across Kirby Galway’s fake Mayan temple, exactly where she thought there would be a real one, and seeing Duluth-based museum curator Whitman Lemuel there, and remembering that she’d seen these two men talking at a party in New York, idealistic young archaeologist Valerie Greene correctly assumes Lemuel is engaged in the illicit purchase of Mayan artifacts, but also incorrectly assumes that Kirby is selling him real ones. DESPOLIATION!!!
Lemuel, to whom the six foot Valerie now greatly resembles the protagonist of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (he feels almost Lilliputian in her presence), flees in terror, fearing both professional disgrace and criminal prosecution. Fledgling con man Kirby, who was just reeling in his fish only to see him scared away by this pestilence of a woman, starts swearing profusely, and waving his machete around with wild abandon.
Valerie departs in some haste, intending to inform the proper authorities of this outrage, but her driver, supposedly working for Innocent St. Michael (who in this specific instance actually is innocent), but covertly working for Innocent’s treacherous assistant Vernon, who is in the employ of the Guatemalan military for some sinister agenda not yet revealed (even to Vernon), spirits her away to an isolated cabin, where the terrified Vernon reluctantly orders her death to avoid exposure.
As the days pass, and Valerie fails to resurface, Innocent St. Michael presumes her dead, and not knowing of Vernon’s treachery, believes Kirby somehow bribed the driver to kill her–and having somehow fallen in love with a girl he just took to bed for a lark (because that’s what you do with girls when you’re Innocent St. Michael), he swears he will find some way to make that murdering bastard pay for his crime.
Meanwhile Kirby and his Mayan partners in crime dismantle their fake temple, leaving no evidence of their confidence scheme, and are blissfully unaware of Valerie’s disappearance, or the various intrigues going on around them, being so very caught up in their own. I think that catches us up. We’re about 174 pages in as Part 1 (The Famous Plane) concludes, and Westlake calls for an intermission, before resuming with Part 2 (Tings Bruk Down). Phew.
So before I resume, you see that scary-looking fellow up top? That’s an artist’s impression of the evil Mayan bat god, Zotzilaha, only reimagined as Batman. Or it’s Batman reimagined as Zotzilaha. Either way. While rereading the book, in which ‘Zotz’ plays a rather key role, it occurred to me that Westlake sometimes references The Dark Knight, having once nearly ended up writing for one of his venues (I don’t know which one, maybe Detective Comics?), so he probably made that connection, and I googled, and he’s not the only one. So that’s worth knowing. I guess. Got your popcorn? Okay, I’ll start the projector rolling again. Somebody dim the lights.
So as Part 2 begins, Kirby is back from a smuggling run to the states in his Cessna aircraft, Cynthia. What happened with Valerie and Lemuel was unfortunate, but nobody can prove anything, maybe the fake artifact business can be revived later, there’s still pot to be smuggled, he’s got his Mayan chums to hang with (including a girl named Rosita he’s taking horrible advantage of, sick wife in America, yeah right), things will work themselves out. Kirby tends not to make long-term plans.
And as he returns to the remote village of South Abilene, where Tommy and Luz live, and where the faked artifacts are made (Kirby lives closer to town with a somewhat more civilized Mayan couple), he starts hearing weird stories about how Sheena Queen of the Jungle has come to live there. You know, this girl. Only not blonde. Probably a printer’s error.
Well of course it’s Valerie. She heard Vernon order her killed, and strapping lass she is, was able to break through the wall of her prison, and run out into the jungle, where she spent several harrowing days, finding out that living on roots and berries is something best left to comic book heroines.
And then she found the village, where she was given shelter and succor and a cool nickname, and I totally believe all of this. It happened to a birder friend of mine, years ago. Only he came across a documentary film crew in Columbia, several hours after escaping from a guerilla camp, after they captured him and his companions, thinking they were CIA, and you think I’m making all this up, don’t you? Well hah!
(Everybody else was eventually released as well, but it took a while. Thankfully it worked out more like a Westlake than a Stark, but there were some Starkian elements in the plot at various points, based on what I heard).
Valerie has come to love these people as much as Kirby does, albeit not in quite the same way–to him, they’re just his buds, as much on the bend as him. To her, they’re a dream made real. She thought she was an archaeologist, out to preserve the ancient past from greedy collectors, but she’s really more of an anthropologist, out to understand and learn from people who are still here, and to protect them from people far more evil than greedy collectors.
And she still thinks Kirby is one of those people they need protection from, but Westlake still isn’t ready for them to talk, so Kirby just figures his friends have been smoking too much gage again, and she figures Kirby will try to have her killed again. Kirby does see a tall white woman running for cover, while flying overhead in Cynthia, but he just sort of shrugs it off.
Skipping ahead a bit, that happy go lucky trickster, Innocent St. Michael, still distracted with grief and rage nigh-Shakespearean in proportion, finally gets a gun and tries to shoot Kirby dead with it. He has no idea how to use a gun, so he misses, repeatedly (this would never happen in a Richard Stark novel). Kirby’s friend Manny holds a shotgun on him, while Kirby and he finally talk with something resembling honesty.
Kirby finally realizes ‘Sheena’ is Valerie, and needing to convince Innocent she’s alive, they all go to South Abilene, where Valerie, believing she’s been betrayed by everyone, runs into the jungle. As she flees, she grabs a handful of tortillas Rosita baked for her (she’s been giving relationship advice to Rosita, and this may be the most absurd thing that happens in the whole book). Rosita wanted to share the joys of cannibis with her new friend Sheena, but Valerie didn’t want to get high She also didn’t want to offend anyone, so she said she couldn’t smoke anything. Rosita, generous soul, made up some edibles for her. The tortillas are heavily laced with you-know-what. Valerie does not know this. So we’re back to the adventures of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but they are sure as hell high adventures now.
And after a period of increasingly psychedelic wanderings through the rainforest (where some deity is clearly looking out for her, because there are no fewer than eight dangerously venomous species of snake there, including the Fer-de-Lance), she runs across a patrol of Gurkha soldiers (I know, this is three happenstantial jungle meetings in one book if you count Valerie barging in on Kirby and Lemuel, but remember what happened to my friend?).
Ah, the mighty Gurkhas, still protecting Belize on behalf of the British Empire (what’s left of it)–she’s saved! Again! Only for some reason these Gurkhas speak Kekchi, one of the Mayan languages–which she understands, but instinctively does not let them know she understands, because shouldn’t they be speaking Nepalese, or whatever? (It’s Nepali, but I had to look it up. I don’t know everything.)
So assuming she’s just some dumb white woman they’ll rape and murder once they get around to it, and obviously does not understand their language, they let the evil plan slip (hey, these guys don’t have the internet, they haven’t read that Evil Overlord List of things not to do when you have an evil plan). Long story short, they aren’t Gurkhas. They’re Mayans as much as Valerie’s friends are, but they are also brutalized ruthless Guatemalan soldiers disguised as Gurkhas, which is why Vernon was paid to get photos of Gurkhas in uniform.
Their mission is to wait until Vernon, under orders from his paymaster, brings a group of western journalists into a small village made up entirely of Guatemalan refugees, Indians who fled the horrible oppression of that country’s military dictatorship into Belize, where they have been welcomed and sheltered. The Faux Gurkhas will slaughter the entire village before the horrified eyes of the reporters (who have cameras), and this scandal will be a huge propaganda victory, discouraging more people from leaving Guatemala for Belize, and maybe forcing Britain to withdraw its small military force, which will allow Guatemala to move in and reclaim what it considers its lost province.
(Kind of curious to know if this book got any bad reviews in Guatemalan newspapers, but hey, the New York Times didn’t review it at all.)
So Valerie runs back into the jungle. It’s getting to be a habit with her. She’s coming down off her high, and she knows she has to find some way to save these people–who she hasn’t met, remember, it’s a different village. Like that makes any difference. Sheena Queen of the Jungle protects all innocents in her primeval realm from nefarious evildoers. It’s like her thing.
So meanwhile, back at the village (the one that isn’t going to get slaughtered), Kirby and Innocent have started ironing out their misunderstandings, hampered somewhat by the fact that Kirby can’t easily confess to a government official that he was committing fraud. But Innocent, still doubting Valerie is alive, accepts Kirby did not kill her, and is thus forced to blame himself, which is what he was trying to avoid by blaming Kirby, of course. She reached something in him he didn’t know was there, with her honesty and goodness–she was the magical lozenge that changed his personality, but he knows it won’t last.
Innocent said, “Kirby, did you ever visit someplace that was really nice, a place that made you happy, so you started to think maybe you’d just like to stay there forever?”
“But then after a while you realize it isn’t your place, you don’t fit in except as a visitor, you don’t belong there and you never will. So you go home, where you do belong, and where you’re happy most of the time because it’s the right place where you ought to be.
“From time to time,” Innocent said, “you remember that other place, and how nice it was to visit, but you don’t make the mistake of thinking you can go back and live there. So that’s what’s happening now, Kirby. I’m visiting some other me, a real nice me that I never knew before,” That lazy smile softened Innocent’s features once more. “But don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll go home to the real me when the time comes.”
“In that case,” Kirby said, now completely sincere, “I’m glad I was here to meet the other fella.”
(Westlake was typing this at home, of course. Wistfully, I’d think. Getting ready to go back to the heists and murder mysteries.)
So Valerie, having finally figured out who the real bad guys are, enlists Kirby’s aid, and the aid of the South Abilenians, and Cynthia’s aid for that matter. There’s no time to bring in the real Gurkhas–Vernon is driving the journalists to the other village right now, not knowing why he’s been ordered to do this, but he knows it’s something bad, and he is filled with a sense of some horrible destiny overtaking him at last. They have to somehow stop the slaughter, and Kirby has an idea.
The South Abilenians have, with great reluctance, made up a bunch of little Zotzilaha statues for him to sell in America–now they make little parachutes for them. Kirby and Valerie fly over the doomed village in Cynthia, buzz it a few times, then bombard the false Gurkhas with a host of tiny caped crusaders, and this is just going to make them laugh, right? Well turns out there is at least one place on earth where the image of an anthropomorphized bat does strike fear in the hearts of criminals. Who are, as you may have heard, a cowardly and superstitious lot.
The false Gurhkas had been brought up in Christian homes. They had been taught to know and to love God and the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints. They had been taught to despise Satan and all his works. They had risen above such education, and had struck out to live their own lives by their own rules.
No one had ever told them they had to believe in the Mayan gods and the Mayan devils. Those beings were there in the stories, that’s all, there in the drawings, and the cloth designs and the carvings, there in the rites and ceremonies that a minority of their older relatives sometimes engaged in. Nobody had ever told them they had to believe in Zotzilaha Chimalman, and yet none of them had ever in his heart doubted that the cave of bats existed, the forked road to eternity existed, the evil hater of mankind was there in the darkness just waiting the opportunity to drag them down to eternal death.
He flies, Zotzilaha, he comes out of the sky like a bat. He is full of tricks and malevolence. If he catches you when your heart is black, you’re doomed.
They run screaming into the jungle, dropping their rifles. Their leader tries to stop them. He is shot dead by his own men. Two of the villagers had already been killed, the rest survive. One annoyingly witty Australian journalist is non-fatally wounded (he’s clearly a prototype for some fellows we’ll be meeting in a later book, but there’ll be time for that later). Vernon is shot several times, and to his deep despair, he survives–he’s not getting off that easily. It’s over. Good has triumphed. In the form of evil. Irony!
So what’s left is mainly just tidying up a bunch of dangling plot threads, which Westlake does fairly well. Kirby gets his money back from Innocent, but Innocent, back to his old trickster self, has one more joke to play. Kirby and Valerie have sex, and it’s an anticlimax, but no doubt a very pleasant one. Rosita is just plain out of luck, but she was sleeping with a married man whose wife was dying (or so he told her), so what do you expect?
Alan and Gerry remain a happy gay couple, still not entirely understanding what the hell happened, but it was an adventure, wasn’t it? And they got high, didn’t they? Their journalist friend, who was there in the village when the false Gurkhas came, has a hell of a great story to write when he gets back. And I’ve shamefully neglected their subplot, because that’s what it was. If there was ever a movie, most of it would probably end up on the cutting room floor. And don’t you think maybe Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively for Kirby and Valerie?
Though Innocent wouldn’t spill the beans on Kirby for anything, admiring a good scam as much as anyone, there’s no way the fake temple or the pot smuggling can be kept quiet in the furor that’s going to stem from the narrowly avoided massacre. Kirby’s a hero of Belize, but he’s also going to be a wanted criminal there for a while (Belizean law tends to have a short memory for such things; he’ll be back someday).
One assumes life returned to normal for the residents of South Abilene, which isn’t saying much. Manny and Estelle Cruz, who he’s been living with, are saddened to see him go, but they get to keep all the modern improvements he bought for them, such as they are.
So he and Valerie just get into Cynthia, and fly away to a secluded tiny island off the coast of Central America, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms, and it looks like they’re settling into a long-term thing as we leave them, each somehow correcting for the flaws in the other, and it’s a bit contrived, sure, but no more than Shakespeare’s romances, and a lot less than Who Stole Sassi Manoon? I have left out a whole lot of ancillary characters, by the way, but you could just read the book.
Oh, and Kirby frames Whitford Lemuel, the curator from Duluth, for pot smuggling. He does this, believe it or not, in a spot called Trump Glade, in Florida. I’m 100% sure that’s just a freaky coincidence, and I’ve lost count of how many of those I’ve come across in Westlake’s fiction.
If Vernon’s crime was betraying his country, Lemuel’s was betraying his calling, as a preserver of man’s ancient past. He wasn’t saving those artifacts for science, or cultural preservation–he was doing it for his own self-aggrandizement. I’ll say it again; the only true crime in a Donald Westlake story is betraying yourself. The only salvation lies in in better understanding yourself, and what you’re here to accomplish.
And as our story ends, I can see Zotzilaha himself, the evil bat god of the Maya, grinning down with malevolent humor on the infernal chaos he has spawned for dark unknowable purposes of his own. Let those mortals who have proven their worth be happy a short time, but he shall someday have his–eh? It’s his other line ringing. Aw geez, not the Catholics again! Don’t those people ever let up? Ah well, better change. They scare easy.
And suddenly he’s a skinny white man in his fifties, balding, glasses, sitting in a small office, maybe in an apartment somewhere. Now what’s the problem? Imprisoned nun, evil father, office tower, mercenary army, uh huh, got it. Okay, who’s available to handle this job? The wolf guy? No, he always makes a mess, bullets flying everywhere, and he hasn’t been answering his phone lately. The actor? Can’t trust him anywhere near the nun. The ex-cop? Can’t listen to another of his long-winded guilty confessions afterwards; that guy needs to mellow out, try some of the latest pharmaceuticals.
“John, I guess this falls on you. It’s a local gig. Don’t fuck it up this time. I’ll make it worth your while. Anyway, I owe Otto something commercial. Even God needs a publisher.”
Sitting down at his desk, he fits a sheet of foolscap in his celestial Smith-Corona, and begins to shape the world around him.
Brothers and Sisters: Let us Prey.
(One of Friday’s Forgotten Books)