Category Archives: Hopscotch

Review: Hopscotch

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“Our kind has been on this planet for perhaps two million years,” Yaskov said, “and during all but one percent of that period, we lived as hunters.  The hunting way of life is the only one natural to man.  The one most rewarding.  It was your way of life but your government took it away from you.  I offer to return it to you.”

“It’s self-destructive lunacy, is what it is.”

“Well my dear Miles, you can’t lead our kind of life and expect to live forever.  But at least we can be alive for a time.”

“It’s all computers now.   World War Three will be known as the Paperkrieg.  There’s no need for my kind of toy gladiator any more.  We’re as obsolete as fur-trapping explorers.”

“It’s hardly gone that far, old friend.  Otherwise, why should I be making you this offer?”

“Because you can’t face obsolescence–you won’t acknowledge it the way I’ve done.  You’re as redundant as I am–you just don’t know it yet.”  Kendig smiled meaninglessly.  “We’ve seven’d out.  All of us.”

“I don’t know the expression, but you make it sound clear enough.”

“It’s to do with a dice game.”

This is going to be one of my shorter reviews, and it could be argued that I’m violating the mission statement of this blog by posting it at all.  The book being reviewed here was not written by Donald E. Westlake, but rather by his longtime friend, Brian Garfield.   Nor can I pretend to any great familiarity with Garfield’s work.  What happened was, Garfield and Westlake co-wrote the last book I reviewed here, and I felt like I needed to read some Garfield as part of my background research, and this novel was easily available to me, and I kind of wanted to read it anyhow.

What I learned, upon reading it, is that 1)Garfield is a hell of a writer (I’m hardly the first to reach this conclusion) and 2)He was, at least in this instance, very powerfully influenced by Westlake, and specifically by what Westlake wrote as Richard Stark.   And he wasn’t shy about tacitly admitting that in the book itself.   I should perhaps mention that this is the book that won Garfield the Edgar Award for best mystery novel, even though it’s a spy thriller, but we discussed that little oddity of the Edgars when I was reviewing God Save The Mark.

I knew the story going in, or thought I did–I went to see Hopscotch (the movie) shortly after it premiered in 1980, liked it so much I went to see it twice.  It’s long been a favorite of mine.  It’s right at the tail-end of Walter Matthau’s career as a leading man (he was 60 when it came out); probably the last picture he made where he was the unquestioned star, the story entirely about his character, even though Glenda Jackson has a memorable supporting role, and there’s a great cast overall, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, etc.  Neat little flick, and you can watch it for free on Hulu, for the price of sitting through a few bad commercials.

And going in with such strongly positive memories of the film, I was amazed at how quickly the book supplanted it in my loyalties.  It’s not that the film’s script (co-written by Garfield) tells such a different story–most major elements of the plot are there, in altered form–but the approach to it is light-hearted, comic, almost innocent–a sort of espionage quadrille.  Which is what they figured they could sell to a mainstream movie audience looking for a nice Matthau comedy, with a bit of a romance hook between him and Jackson (since they’d just done a romantic comedy together a few years before).

The book is none of those things.  It truly is written in the spirit of Richard Stark (as reinterpreted by Brian Garfield) and to the extent there’s any humor in it, it’s very black indeed.  It’s not a quadrille, so much as a tango–a dance of life and death.  It’s romantic all right, but in the same spirit as the Parker novels.  Not at all what Hollywood means by romance.

The film’s score is full of Mozart, with a bit of Rossini mixed in (Matthau, a lifelong fan of Wolfgang Amadeus, can even whistle some of his compositions like a crazed canary), but a score for the novel would be rather more Wagnerian, I think–Götterdämmerung.  Or even better, some delta blues, or New Orleans jazz, the kind they play at funerals– a fair bit of  the story is set in the American South.  Or maybe music would just get in the way.   Because to the extent this novel’s protagonist resembles a Richard Stark protagonist, it sure as hell isn’t Alan Grofield.  He’s not hearing any movie score in his head.

He does go see a movie in the course of the story, though–The Outfit, with Robert Duvall.  He’s just killing some time in the theater, as we sometimes see Parker do on a job; not really interested in the film–he walks out after an hour, as the story is building to its climax, so nobody will notice him leaving–he’s got to use the bathroom to put on a disguise, That’s a very obvious tip of the hat to Stark.  As is his later briefly adopting the alias of Jules Parker.  That’s almost too obvious.

The protagonist’s name is Miles Kendig, and he used to work for the CIA.   He was good–quite possibly the best, though like any good intelligence man, he drew as little attention to himself as possible, which meant that relatively few people knew how good he really was.  Just a handful of fellow pros.   And even they may underestimate him at times.

On a mission to the Balkans, he was badly wounded, nearly killed.  Once he recovered, the higher-ups decided he was past his prime, over the hill (he’s 53 when we first meet him).  They wouldn’t put him in the field anymore–he could ride a desk for a while, if he wanted, or take retirement.  He took the desk–just long enough to expunge his personnel records–when he leaves, they don’t even have a photograph of him, and because of his low profile, only a few people at the Agency could pull him out of a line-up.  He’s a self-made tabula rasa.

As the book opens, he’s retired, playing high stakes poker in Paris, not caring if he wins or loses, and so of course he wins big, as he has before.  The glamorous sophisticated 40-ish European woman who was his primary opponent in the game (Jeanne Moreau, maybe?) picks him up afterwards, and he reluctantly allows himself to be seduced (he’s no fashion plate, he’s mainly not interested, and women are drawn to him like flies to honey–sound familiar?).

He’s also dabbled in fast cars, and other things people to do distract themselves from a purposeless existence.  He’s got money, adventure, sex, freedom, and his health.  And he’s terminally bored.  Without his work, something has died inside him.  He’s trying to find a reason go to on living, and failing, badly.

Then a former adversary of his, a Russian spymaster named Yaskov, makes the proposition referred to in the passage from the novel I kicked this review off with–come work for us–we see your value, even if those fools do not.  And he can’t do it.  Even though the illusions of conventional patriotism have largely been destroyed in him, he can’t go over to the other side.  It’s not who he is.  And since he wouldn’t believe in what he was doing, he’d just be working for the sake of working, going through the motions.  It wouldn’t fix what’s broken in him.

But as he mulls it over, an alternative presents itself.  He can’t ply his trade for his own country anymore, or for any other country, but he can still ply it for himself.  He can issue a challenge–the name of the game is Catch Me If You Can (or Hopscotch, if you prefer).  But first he needs the appropriate bait.  So he starts work on a book.  A book about what he knows.  And he starts sending out pages–to publishers, and to spy agencies.  The pages are full of some very direct and telling hints of what the book’s content will be.

He knows a lot.  More than anyone realized.  This is something the book explains much better than the film–a field agent typically only knows what’s relevant to his work–that way he can only tell so much if he’s captured and tortured.  In the movie, Kendig quit immediately after his boss told him to sit behind a desk (movie plot shorthand)–in the novel, he took that desk job long enough to read a whole lot of very interesting top secret files–and Miles Kendig never forgets anything he reads.

So when his bosses find out what he’s got in mind, various carefully worded threats are issued, which Kendig merely laughs at.  Because what he wants is for them to come after him, with the purpose of killing him.  And by evading them, through the methodical application of a lifetime of training, he can prove he’s the best there is at what he does, and slip the shackles of existential ennui.

Actually revealing the secrets to the world–many of which are explosive in nature, political assassinations and so forth–is not his primary goal.  He isn’t Edward Snowden.  He doesn’t think he can bring about a better freer more transparent world, nor does he have any interest in being lauded as a whistleblower, or put on any Nobel short lists.  He just wants to stop feeling dead inside.  He’s been the hunter for most of his life–now he’ll try being the hunted.

The CIA assigns Kendig’s best pupil, Joe Cutter, to track him down.  Joe picks Leonard Ross, a younger agent, to assist him, since Ross at least knows what Kendig looks like.   Cutter doesn’t like what Kendig is doing, but he understands it, better than anyone else (they’ll be forcing him out too, one of these days).  He isn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of killing his teacher, but he’ll do as he’s ordered.   And Kendig goes out of his way to provoke Cutter, wanting to make sure his protégé gives the job his all.

Now I’d normally launch into a detailed synopsis here, going over the plot with a fine-toothed comb, leaking spoilers all over the carpet, possibly stretching it out into a two-parter, but this is The Westlake Review, not The Garfield Gazette.  I greatly admire this book, but my point is how Garfield, who in a sense became Westlake’s protégé, absorbed the lessons he learned from Westlake’s novels, particularly the Parker novels, and applied them to his own quite distinct purposes.  Not that Stark is the only influence here–there’s a character named Joe Tobin–an FBI agent, called into the hunt when Kendig goes to ground in Georgia to write his book.  Kendig’s deep depression that he’s trying to shake off, along with his nagging conscience, do seem more reminiscent of Tucker Coe than of Richard Stark.

There’s also a CIA man named Glenn Follett, and that’s about as glaringly obvious a reference to Ken Follett as one could imagine–except that when this book came out, the internationally best-selling author of espionage thrillers hadn’t had a best seller yet–he’d published only two novels, both quite recently, and wasn’t very well known at all.   Clearly Garfield had him pegged as a comer, and felt like tipping his hat–and yet, we’re left in no doubt that Glenn Follett, though a capable man, is not in the same league as ‘Jules Parker’–there’s a lot of little inside references like this, and you’re not always quite sure what they mean, but they mean something, that’s for damn certain.   As with Westlake, the inside jokes are there for those able to appreciate them.

The book switches back and forth between chapters from Kendig’s perspective, watching him play his deadly game with deadly calm, moving around, creating false identities, laying false trails for the hunters, always a few steps ahead of the hounds–and chapters from the perspective of Cutter and Ross and the other people hunting Kendig.  Including Yaskov, because once the Soviets realize how much information Kendig has, they’re desperate to lay hands on him–and then, once they realize that he’s compromising them almost as much as the Americans, they just want him dead as much as the CIA does.

And this, of course, is very Starkian as well, but Stark didn’t invent the idea of switching perspectives in fiction (don’t ask me who did).  The book isn’t broken up into four parts–it’s not that direct an homage.  The idea is the same, though–to contrast Kendig’s mentality with that of his pursuers.  Only Cutter and Yaskov (and eventually Ross) come close to fully understanding him, but because they’re all organization men–cogs in a machine, whether they like it or not–they can’t ever fully understand a man who has decided to cut all ties, be totally free.  One does get the feeling they envy him, though.

Yaskov, the wily old Russian, who Cutter observes would have just as happily been a czarist spy if he’d been born a few generations sooner (what difference, really?), arranges a meet with Cutter and Ross, to swap intel on Kendig–and makes this rather trenchant remark to Cutter, that as you might imagine, perked my ears right up–

“Kendig and I are among the last of the old wolves,” Yaskov said, “but perhaps there’s still hope.  I’m told you conform to the breed more than most of our colleagues.”

Hmm.   I wonder sometimes about conversations Westlake had with his closest comrades about the nature of Parker, and what might have been said in these discussions.   Or left unsaid, while remaining implicit.

I’m barely giving the flavor of the book–most of the major plot points made it into the film, but in very altered form–the way they play out in the book is so different as to constitute an entirely different story, and there are some fascinating things that didn’t get into the film at all–like Kendig finding a double of himself, a down on his luck American, and paying him to impersonate Kendig, for a hefty fee–which the man does with considerable pleasure, and surprising skill.

The ploy doesn’t really fool Cutter, who knows Kendig too well, but resources are still expended to track the impostor down on an ocean liner.  I suspect the point of that episode isn’t to display Kendig’s resourcefulness, but to make a very Westlakeian comment about identity.  The double–a secret sharer, you might say–had lost himself in the wake of a bad marriage, and now, by pretending to be a fugitive secret agent, seems to have rediscovered his own agency in life.

Kendig doesn’t kill one person in this novel (he doesn’t even like to carry a gun), and goes out of his way to make sure no one is killed because of him.  That is not much like Parker, or even Grofield.  And this is Garfield’s variation on the theme–Kendig isn’t really a wolf in human form, you see.  He’s very much a man, who had to become like a wolf, to do his job.  We learn about his forlorn search for his long-lost father, who died poor and alone just before Kendig located him–the experience left lasting scars, that impacted all the choices he made afterwards, and he begins to understand that as the story builds to its conclusion.

Kendig has very understandable human goals and aspirations, and a very human form of melancholia, and yet at the end, he seems ready to really live again, maybe even love, without the stimulus of having trained killers on his trail night and day.  But for that to happen, he has to shake those killers once and for all, and maybe you should read the book.  Or you can watch the movie, which has its own unique pleasures to impart (and a character who isn’t in the book at all–a rather kick-ass London-based publisher named–I kid you not–Parker Westlake). But seriously–read the book first.   I wish I had.

Garfield has Cutter think to himself at one point that he’s glad he played poker with Kendig–it’s his opinion that there’s no better way to understand your rival.  Or your friend.  And in writing this book, Garfield proved he understood them both very well.  His old poker buddy, Donald E. Westlake–and his rival, Richard Stark.  (I don’t think Garfield ever really did much in the comic caper area after Gangway!, though he was perhaps taking a few pointers when co-writing the script for the film adaptation–and he and Westlake would later collaborate on a film, but that one is decidedly not a comedy).

Garfield’s interest in espionage and those who practice that dark art continues to this very day, not always in the form of fiction   He’s got a new book out about Richard Meinertzhagen, a legendary adventurer, who may have been an even more legendary con artist.  I hope to get around to it soon.

But now, I have to prepare myself for what may be the biggest challenge of my book-blogging career to date.   Miles Kendig, as I have already mentioned, is not so terribly hard to understand.  But Parker is, and our next book–the 16th Parker novel, and the last to appear in print for a very long time–is just one identity puzzle after another–frequently reviewed, but never in any great depth, that I can see.  I must warn you in advance, I have no idea how long this one is going to go–I very much doubt a two-parter will suffice, and I would not rule out a four-parter.  We’ll play the hand we’re dealt, and see how the cards stack up.

And now a little music to set the mood.  I was thinking about Bad Moon Rising, but that’s a bit too on the nose, don’t you think?

Any Rory Gallagher fans in the house?  He was always a million miles away from all the rest.

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Filed under Brian Garfield, Hopscotch, Parker Novels