Category Archives: Interracial Romance

Review: Dancing Aztecs, Part 2

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“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.

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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 trained 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.  And 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.

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Filed under Dancing Aztecs, Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: The Blackbird

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He got out of the shower, toweled himself dry, and walked nude into the room, stopping short in the doorway.  Seated on the chair across the room was a coal black Negro girl in a green pants suit, looking like Robin Hood got up for a Commando raid.  She looked Grofield up and down and said, as though to herself, “They are smaller.”

“I don’t believe it,” Grofield said.

“Take my word for it,” she said.

“I don’t believe God could be so cruel,” Grofield said.  “All I want to do is sleep.  I don’t want anything complicated now.”

“Nothing complicated,” the girl said briskly.  Behind her camouflage, she was a stunning girl, with large flashing eyes and close-cropped hair in the natural style, very wooly.  She spoke with a vaguely British accent.  She said, “All you have to do is tell me who sent you here and why.  Then I’ll go away and you can sleep.”

“My doctor,” Grofield said.  “For the waters.”

“What?”

“My doctor sent me here.  For the waters.”

“What waters?”  She sounded more annoyed than confused.

“I was misinformed,” Grofield said.  “Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, Casablanca, 1942.  I hope you have an exit line, because you’re exiting.”  He walked toward the bed.

So here we are at the third Grofield novel, published by MacMillan in 1969, which begins with the same fouled-up armored car heist as a Parker novel named Slayground, published by Random House in 1971, even though the next Parker novel Deadly Edge (also dated 1971) clearly takes place before the events of the earlier Grofield novel. And just to make things even more convoluted, Slayground has two copyright dates–1969 and 1971. Confused yet? You will be.

You will read in many souces that The Blackbird has the same opening chapter as Slayground–not quite exactly the case. We see the same sequence of events that Slayground begins with, true enough, but in this book we see them from Grofield’s POV.

In the latter book, Stark sticks with Parker, showing us the action from his perspective–the paragraphs that don’t describe what one of them is doing or seeing are identical (which is evidently the reason for Slayground having two different copyright years). In Slayground, the chapter ends with Parker running into an amusement park with a satchel of money. In The Blackbird, Grofield (appropriately enough) blacks out, subsequent to the getaway car crashing.

Probably by the time Grofield woke up in a nearby hospital, Parker’s very bad day at the fair had already concluded and he was back at a house in Northern New Jersey we’ll be learning about in another book. So that’s where the experiment in parallel plotting ends, but I’m curious–has anybody else ever done this? Start two completely different books from two completely different publishers with two completely different protagonists with the same opening chapter, from two different vantage points?

And did Westlake write these books at around the same time, as Sarah Weinman says in her introduction to the Grofield novels for the University of Chicago reprints? She says it was about publishing schedules–that’s quite plausible, and she may have had inside information to that effect (not entirely clear). After Gold Medal decided to stop publishing the Parker novels as first edition paperbacks, it took a while for Westlake to work out a deal with Random House to publish them in hardcover. He might have had two or three written by that time. For a while there, Grofield was the only Stark character with a job.

However, given that Slayground clearly takes place after the events of Deadly Edge (in the last chapter, Parker goes back to the house in New Jersey), I’m wondering if Westlake wrote The Blackbird before either of them, and decided to give Grofield a sales boost, by having Parker make what was then his only cameo appearance in another character’s book (up until a certain Joe Gores novel in ’72).

Did he get curious later as to what happened to Parker after Grofield blacked out, and decide to write that story? Or did he write The Blackbird and Slayground together, and then decide to fill in the gap of how Parker and Claire came to live in New Jersey with Deadly Edge, before publishing Slayground, and add in the reference to New Jersey in Slayground? See, I told you you’d be confused. Join the club. Anybody knows for sure, pipe up by all means.

So. Grofield wakes up in the hospital, with police guards, and he figures he’s screwed. He is, but not the way he thinks. There are Feds there who want to talk to him. Not FBI. Not CIA. Not Treasury. Some other branch in the great spreading tree that is U.S. Defense/Intelligence/Law Enforcement/Etc.

They do not seem to know Grofield already worked for the government (after a fashion) around a year back (see The Handle), along with Parker, and that it didn’t work out so well for the government (though Grofield was the one who got shot multiple times).

They seem to know everything about Grofield–like for example, that he’s on good terms with with both General Pozos of Guerrero and Unum Marba of Undurwa, who we met in the two previous books–so you’d think they’d know about the Cockaigne job as well, but you can rationalize it as typically poor communication between different agencies. It’s not really that implausible. That’s how 9/11 happened, right? Oh of course, that was a vast government conspiracy. No plane ever hit the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a patsy, or a plant. Because vast sprawling government bureaucracies are just that well-organized. I’m rolling my eyes now.

Grofield has a choice, and you will note it’s not entirely dissimilar to the choice made by J. Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment, published about three years earlier. Eugene’s choice is A)Go undercover with terrorists who think he’s one of them or B)Wait for the terrorists to figure out he’s not one of them and kill him.

Grofield’s choice is simpler–A)Go undercover at a gathering of third world leaders in Canada (including Pozos and Marba) who may find out he’s a U.S. agent and kill him or B)Go to jail, do not pass go, and collect Social Security much later, if ever. He’s not happy with this choice. Nobody would be happy with this choice. But these are his options.

He accepts the deal offered with the tacit understanding by all concerned that he’s going to try to run out on them the moment he gets the chance. He tries really hard–and Grofield has already demonstrated his talent at shaking a tail in The Handle. Makes a run at the airport. No dice–they bugged his clothes. He can’t shake them the way he did the agents in The Handle. He wonders out loud to an agent name of Murray if they’ve even implanted some kind of tracking device inside his body–this is a rather prescient little passage in its way–

“My God!” Grofield said. He felt physically weak. “What a thing even to think about!”

Murray looked thoughtful. “But you know,” he said slowly, “that isn’t such a bad idea. You take your known Commie, say, your incorrigible criminal, like you, for instance, you take whoever it might be you’re interested in, you put the little transmitter in them, then any time you wanted to know what they were up to you’d just triangulate on them, see where they were, go on over and check them out.”

“That’s the most evil thing I ever heard in my life,” Grofield said.

“Why?” Murray seemed honestly puzzled. “We wouldn’t use it on good people,” he said. “Just bad people.” He smiled broadly, delighted with himself. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put that in the suggestion box back in the office.”

Grofield looked at him. “I keep having the strong feeling,” he said, “that for the sake of generations unborn I ought to strangle you here and now.”

Murray chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Oh you,” he said. You’ve just got a vested interest, that’s all. Being a thief and everything.”

Relax, Grofield. It’s been over 40 years, and they still aren’t there yet. Just stay off the internet, and watch out for tiny helicopters–oh never mind, you’d be retired by then. Or dead.

They don’t need tracking devices–they know about his acting career. There’s no way he can elude them indefinitely. He gets them the intel they’re after–the purpose of the gathering of tinpot dictators in Quebec City–or the next time he sees his lovely wife Mary will be on visiting day.

And somehow, superhumanly faithful and patient though she is, it’s hard to imagine Mary waiting 25 years to life. I mean, fair is fair–the last time Grofield went away for a job, he bedded three fetching blondes over the course of maybe two months, and one of them showed up on Mary’s doorstep with his money from the job–wearing support stockings. Like that makes it any better. And he’s going to cheat on her yet again, but not with a blonde this time. He’s an equal opportunity philanderer.

In the scene I opened this review with, he meets Vivian Kamdela, who is from Undurwa, the same country as Onum Marba, and that’s no coincidence–she works for him, and has been assigned to find out why Grofield is there. Strong-willed, educated, and rather contemptuous of Grofield’s every-man-for-himself attitude. Throughout the book, they’re having a back and forth philosophical dialogue strongly resembling that between Oliver Abbott and Leona Roof in Up Your Banners, only these two are not falling in love at any point in time. Vivian is very patriotic and loyal to her country, and believes in being a good soldier. Grofield only believes in being Grofield.

There’s clearly an attraction (of course there is, it’s a Grofield novel), but her reaction to him is even more hostile than that of the female leads in the two previous books–in all three cases, he’s faced with a strong-willed female he’d happily bed given the opportunity, who wants to use him for some agenda that puts his life in danger–difference here is that Vivian’s agenda isn’t personal, but political.

They go for a romantic carriage ride through historic Quebec City, during which Grofield finally meets Mr. Marba again, who respects Grofield’s abilities–which he observed up-close in the previous book–but naturally distrusts him, since he can even use truth as a weapon. Grofield, acting very much against orders, tells Marba who he’s working for, and what he’s supposed to learn. He just wants to find some way out of this mess, and figures Marba might help him. The ride back with Vivian is much less friendly than the ride there.

She faced him again, still frozen-eyed. “If you must know,” she said, “on the way up I thought you were a patriot. I thought you were working for your country out of conviction. A patriot might be my enemy, if his country was my country’s enemy, but at least I would be able to respect him. But you aren’t a patriot, you were forced to be here and you don’t care at all that you are betraying your country. You don’t care for anything but yourself, you don’t understand the existence of anything larger than yourself. I despise you, Mr. Grofield, and I do not want to talk to you any more. And I don’t want you to talk to me.”

“Some day, Miss Kamdela,” Grofield said, “we’ll have a nice long talk about patriotism vs. the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to take care of my own skin whether you approve of me or not.”

It is often hard for me to understand how political conservatives have ever considered Donald Westlake (under any name) to be one of them (as many clearly do). Not that us liberals should ever have regarded him as a reliable ally, either. We’ve already seen him devastate the Anarchist/Libertarian argument in Anarchaos, and he made his feelings clear about aspiring left-wing revolutionaries in Up Your Banners, and quite a few other books. “A plague on all your houses” would probably sum his attitude up fairly well. So good luck trying to stick a label on him.

Grofield is briefly abducted and drugged by some faction, seemingly linked to an extremist French Canadian separatist movement, but their agenda is unclear–they want to know what he knows, and he doesn’t really know anything yet–he didn’t even know there was such a thing as French-Canadian separatist movements. I have to say, he’s much less knowledgeable about politics here than he was in The Damsel–one suspects Westlake decided it just wasn’t believable for somebody as indifferent to politics as Grofield to know much of anything about it. His bugged clothing saves him, bringing in his handlers to the rescue.

But then he gets grabbed again, this time by Marba’s group, who have decided to neutralize him–confiding in Marba was maybe not such a great idea. He’s taken on a plane ride into the frozen wastes of Northern Canada (sorry Canuck readers, but you know better than me what it’s like up there–I can barely make it through a New York City winter these days), given new unbugged clothes, and they finally set down at a remote lodge by a frozen lake, that is only accessible by air, or snowmobile.

Grofield is exactly where the people who recruited him wanted him to be, but not at all in the way they (or he) wanted–he’s got no way to report back, and to make sure he doesn’t learn anything useful to American intelligence, he’s locked in a bleak isolated room with nothing to do but wait for the gathering of third world governments to end.

Grofield can’t stand confinement any more than Parker could, but his reaction to it is different than Parker’s would be–he breaks down the door, and goes to complain about his treatment–taken to see Undurwa’s head of state (who has been told by the irritated Miss Kamdela that this Grofield is not to be trusted), he fails to understand the mentality of a dictator–so alien to a free spirit like himself–and totally blows the interview. He talks to the man as if they were equals. Oh dear.

The military dictator, Colonel Rahgos, says Grofield has unfortunately given him no choice but to order him killed. Nothing personal, of course (it’s a bit personal; military dictators dislike free spirits on general principle). Grofield in this instance does respond the way Parker would–by jumping through a nearby window, after grabbing the Colonel’s overcoat. Which isn’t going to be nearly enough. It’s winter. In Northern Canada. If he can’t find shelter, and better clothing, and fast, they won’t need to kill him.

What follows is Grofield adapting to the situation, as he always does, improvising his way into a nearby structure guarded by only two armed men–normally not such a problem for him, except he’s in the process of freezing to death. But through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck, he figures out a way to ride up on an electrically operated door, and conceal himself on the ceiling–then at an opportune moment, incapacitates the guards, obtaining boots, a heavy mackinaw, and an automatic rifle. There are supplies in the building, and snowmobiles. He appropriates both, and makes his escape.

Only not quite. He had to wait until dawn to see where he was going, and in the distance, he sees that something very bad is happening at the compound–it seems to be under attack. Not from his government, but (as it turns out) the people who had grabbed him earlier. Lots of shooting and burning going on. He sees no reason to involved himself in it–but then he meets Vivian–who assumes he’s behind it, naturally. But he convinces her otherwise, and the fact that he’s her only chance of surviving has a rather thawing effect on her frosty demeanor. They evade an airplane piloted by some of the attackers, and by this time she’s fully on Team Grofield.

She tells him what’s been going on–four African American soldiers managed to steal a really nasty biological weapon from a military storehouse. They’ve hidden it somewhere in the surrounding area, and are auctioning it off to the highest third world bidders. There’s enough of it to kill everybody on the planet forty times over (Uncle Sam being nothing if not thorough), so there’s plenty to go around–and as Vivian explains, even if they never wanted to use it, the threat of a neighbor having it would be enough to make them want to have some too, just as a counter-balance.

Now Grofield is not the altruistic sort. That’s been very well established. It takes a whole hell of a lot to motivate him to do anything at all for anyone other than himself. What he wants to do now is head south, find a phone, and call his handlers–let them handle it. If the sale was going ahead as planned, that’s exactly what he’d do.

But Vivian, being a practical levelheaded sort of girl under all her patriotic zeal, convinces him that this won’t work–clearly what’s happened is that some more dangerous entity than these little impoverished countries intends to get the whole stockpile, and then maybe drop it on major American cities, or blackmail the western governments–when you can kill everybody in the world forty times over, your options are fairly expansive.

Grofield’s options, by contrast, are very limited–if he chooses escape, then these people will get the gas canisters, and make off with them, long before the cavalry arrives. There’s nobody else to stop them. Grofield doesn’t want to be James Freakin’ Bond. But that’s the role he’s been forcibly cast in. And he’s really really pissed about that.

He’ll play the role, because he’s a professional and all, but he won’t enjoy it one bit, and he’s going to take some ethical shortcuts, because he just wants to get back alive, and play the role he’s more comfortable in–taking other people’s money. However, for his actor/heister lifestyle to continue, he does need civilization as we know it to go on functioning. Not much demand for an actor in a post-apocalyptic world, and since everybody would be stealing, his other profession would get much too crowded. So once more into the breach.

Vivian tells him only the four black American soldiers–Grofield’s countrymen–know the location of the gas cannisters. Grofield and Vivian fight their way through the chaotic scene at the compound, get to the soldiers, who are being held prisoner, preparatory to having the information tortured out of them–and what happens then–okay, major spoiler alert–

One of the four said to Grofield, “I don’t know where you came from, man, but you’re beautiful.” All four of them were grinning in relief.

Grofield said, “Did you tell anybody where the canisters are?”

“Are you crazy? That’s what kept us alive.”

“Nobody at all?” Grofield insisted.

“Not even the chaplain,” the spokesman said.

“That’s good,” Grofield said, and pointed the machine gun at them and pulled the trigger.

Here we see that Grofield maybe does pass muster as a Stark protagonist after all. He’s learned a few things from Parker. If it needs doing, do it. These men had betrayed their country (which to be sure, hasn’t exactly done right by them most of the time), and Grofield obviously doesn’t give a damn about that. But they put the lives of everyone on the planet at risk in the process. They were obviously going to kill Grofield as soon as they didn’t need him. And even if that wasn’t true, the only way to be sure the people attacking the compound don’t get the gas is to make sure nobody–absolutely nobody–knows where it is. They gots to go.

So why make the soldiers black? It just raises the question of race in a way seemingly unnecessary to the story being told–so clearly Westlake, who was working on a book about American racial turmoil around the same time, wanted to raise that issue–but not deal with it seriously, because it’s not a serious book.

Now, we don’t get to know these men–not even their names–so it’s not as shocking as it might be for Grofield to just whack them. We’ve seen him kill lots of white guys before now, and not waste a moment’s time worrying about it–but still–pretty damn cold. And dealt with by Stark in his usual terse offhanded anti-climactic approach to violence.

The point, I’d guess, is who would be most likely to have such a low opinion of society as to not give a damn what happens to it? Obviously the people society treats the worst. Not most of them–but it only takes a few. And, as Westlake said in Up Your Banners, nobody condescends up–if you keep treating people with kid gloves because you’re sorry for the way they’ve been treated, or guilty about it, you’re not really treating them as equals. Rather the opposite. People deserve to be judged by the content of their character–those who sell weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder can’t really be said to have any character at all.

He’s had mainly sympathetic black characters in his books up to now–Grofield himself makes a metatextual comment to Vivian about how black guys are never the villains in this kind of story (not really true–see Live and Let Die, clearly an influence on this book). Time for a little balance. Black men can be just as despicable as white men, if they set their minds to it.

While it’s a bit hard to buy that four black soldiers could steal such a deadly weapon without the government noticing, we Americans do tend to misplace our toys rather a lot, don’t we? So allowing for that level of bureaucratic incompetence, as Westlake invariably does, what’s the simplest answer to Grofield’s dilemma?

Vivian can’t believe he chose that answer, and once they’ve gotten clear of the bad guys (well, the worse guys), she really lights into him–accuses him of killing the men just because they’re black. But she’s forced to concede eventually that it was the only way–to stop the weapons from getting into the worst possible hands–and for the two of them to survive.

And having forgiven Grofield, seen that there is some merit to his worldview, even if she can’t entirely share it, and of course being impressed by his capabilities–well, this is the third Grofield novel to end with him bedding the hostile broad. I’m a guy, so I’m not complaining, but it is getting a mite repetitive. By the bye, he explains to her in mid-coitus that while white men seem to have smaller procreative members than black men on average, it’s actually only true when they’re in the flaccid state (hey, don’t ask me). She finds this very sexy, for some reason. It’s good to be the hero–as long as you survive.

Overall, I think this is the best of the three Grofields published by MacMillan–Westlake has gotten much closer to figuring out how to write like Stark without writing about Parker. I think actually that’s one of the reasons he put Grofield in that situation with the four soldiers–to prove that Grofield could be just as cold and capable. But somehow, he’s not nearly as convincing, or compelling. He’s still too much of a Mary Sue, if you know what I mean (if not, click the link).

I’d take any of the Parkers over this book. Of course, Parker wouldn’t have let himself get involved in this kind of story to begin with–as I said in an earlier review, Parker forces the narrative to bow to his agenda–Grofield, however grudgingly, will ultimately agree to be whatever the story calls on him to be–even a hero who saves the world from dastardly villains seeking doomsday devices. He’ll do it in his own unique style, with a lot fewer pretensions than Philip Marlowe or James Bond, but he’ll do it. An actor learns to make do with the roles he’s offered. The show must go on.

Grofield is an interesting experiment, and by no means a completely failed one. Stark will give him one last chance to be the protagonist, working on familiar Stark territory at long last, and we finally get to see Mary again (and she shows us why Grofield always goes back to her, however far he strays). The Blackbird won’t be the best Grofield novel for very long. But ultimately, Westlake had to acknowledge that enough was enough–he’d taken this character as far as he could go. There wasn’t enough there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

What distinguishes Grofield most from Parker is the sense of humor–there’s humor in the Parker novels, sure, but it’s very subdued, played so close to the vest as to be nearly indistinguishible–you don’t laugh reading them. Grofield is always joking, never taking anything seriously, least of all himself–it’s endearing in its way, but the thing is, he’s so determined to find the humor in every situation, so convinced of how funny he is, that you don’t really laugh reading about his adventures either. He’s trying too hard.

Suppose there was a Westlake protagonist who aspired to be like Parker–who wanted to be cold and capable and competent–and who really is, in so many ways–but life keeps conspiring to make him look ridiculous, and there’s nothing he can do about it? Comedy always works best when the protagonist doesn’t want to see the joke–nothing funnier than wounded dignity. Than things not working out as planned. Buster Keaton never laughed at anything, and that’s why everybody laughed at him. Parker doesn’t want to make us laugh–refuses to participate in comic ventures–Grofield, for all his wit, can’t make us do much more than chortle–the Westlake Nephews are diverting, amusing, but the bellylaughs somehow just aren’t there.

Donald E. Westlake, having had his biggest success with a comic crime novel, has been trying for half a decade now to be funny–really funny. But he hasn’t had the right foil. He’s going to find him now. And perhaps you see him in your mind’s eye, walking out of prison with a perpetual hangdog air, like a malnourished coyote, and now a car bears down upon him–and is that a girly scream emitting from his mouth? What the heck?

The Blackbird was the last Donald Westlake novel to bear a 1960’s publication date (and they can be somewhat misleading, but never mind that now). The 70’s are here, and they’re going to be something quite quite extraordinary in this particular writer’s career. Westlake the comedian has fully emerged from his chrysalis. And the crime novel will never be the same again.

(But first, I’m going to do one more thing about Grofield–patience, readers. Dortmunder is coming–save me a seat at the OC Bar & Grill–I’ll have a bourbon–something cheap–but oh so sustaining).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: Up Your Banners, Part 2

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There is a typical piece of dialogue between Herzen and Louis Blanc, the French socialist (whom he respected greatly), which Herzen quotes, and which shows the kind of levity with which Herzen sometimes expressed his deepest convictions. The conversation is described as taking place in London somewhere in the early 50’s. One day Louis Blanc observed to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society.

‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc]–but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’

‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

‘You are playing with words.’

‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.

From the essay Alexander Herzen, by Isaiah Berlin.

“That school is hell, don’t you understand that? The school and all those people and the television and all, that’s a bad dream, except it’s a kind of bad dream that can hurt people. But this is real, this rotten backyard and that swing. When I kissed you, that was real. The only time you’re real is when you’re doing your own thing, when you’re being absolutely yourself. Society is something somebody made up, it’s a fantasy, and when you start working as a social creature you make yourself part of the fantasy.”

She stared at me. “Do you really believe all that?”

“Definitely,” I said. “Just as I believe the entire universe began with the instant of my birth and the whole damn thing will snuff out at the instant of my death. I believe that people should work for the general good, I really do, but it should never be anything other than secondary. Once you start thinking that humanity is more important than you are, you’ve become the worst kind of traitor in the world, because you’ve betrayed yourself.”

From Up Your Banners, by Donald E. Westlake

This is a truly unique book in the Westlake canon (and I know I say that a lot, but it’s not my fault he wrote so many unique books).  It’s his only book that directly addresses racism, or poverty, or the educational system.  But more importantly, it’s his only book that is devoted almost entirely to a love affair between two people–indeed, one of very few books where his hero meets a girl, has (frequent) sex with her during the course of the plot, and clearly intends to marry her by the end, if she’ll have him.

Actually, this kind of story was featured pretty often in his early ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms to pay the bills, but that’s just him adhering to the conventions of that short-lived genre–a dollop of morality to excuse all the hijinks, so the book doesn’t get labeled as porn–have lots of sex with lots of people, then settle down with The One.

In his books written under his own name (and several others), the sex angle is almost invariably present, romantic subplots abound, but in this one the romance almost perversely insists on being the A-plot.  The story hinges on whether this boy makes it with this girl, making it by far Westlake’s most romantic book ever–and it’s an interracial romance.   At a time when they really weren’t common at all in any fictional medium.   Today, we’re pretty much over it.   But it was still fairly taboo back then.

Eugene O’Neill famously broke that taboo back in the 20’s, with All God’s Chillun Got Wings (people were getting the vapors that Paul Robeson actually touched a white woman’s hand onstage) but that story ended tragically.   The marriage is perfectly legal, no crosses are burned at their doorway, but society’s mores, ingrained at an early age, won’t let this mixed-race couple be happy, any more than society will let Romeo and Juliet be happy, or Othello and Desdemona.

Later on, Chester Himes wrote a novel about a similarly doomed interracial relationship, The End of a Primitive–rendered a bit ironic by the fact that Himes himself made a success of his second marriage to a white woman he met in Paris, a relationship that began in 1959 and lasted until his death in 1984.   But no doubt Himes felt the pull of society just as strongly.

And this book is basically Westlake telling society to go screw itself, and creating two characters with enough mutual attraction, self-understanding and strength of character to pull it off.   It’s nobody’s damn business who loves whom.  An opinion, by the way, that he shared with Malcolm X, at least towards the end of Malcolm’s life.  They would probably have had some heated debates on certain other subjects.

But let’s give Westlake some credit here–he’s not going to write a whole book just to defend interracial love–not in 1968, roughly a year after the Supreme Court had ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Nor is he really that interested in public education, though as a father with young children, he knows it’s important, and that parents should band together to insist their children be properly schooled, and parents from under-served communities most of all.

Very little of the book takes place inside a classroom–contrary to all the best-selling ‘heroic young teacher’ books I mentioned in Part 1, Westlake carefully writes the story in such a way as to make sure his heroic young teacher never works one full day in an actual school in his entire life.  He’s got a big point to make here, one that matters to him a great deal, but it’s neither racial, nor political, nor pedagogical–it’s philosophical.   Mr. Westlake was an individualist above all else, and the target he has in his sights here is collectivism.   Anyway, let’s get back to the book.

Oliver Abbott has shown up for work on the first day of school at Schuyler Colfax, in the fictive Brooklyn nabe of South Romulus, only to find that community activists have mobilized the locals to boycott the school–because he, Oliver Abbott, was hired in preference to a qualified black teacher currently working in a white school nearby.   It takes him a long time to figure this out, though–because everybody and his uncle assumes he already knew about it.

He did not.  His dad never told him.  A variety of journalists from publications ranging from the Times to the Village Voice, all of whom have names that sound to him like ‘Bibble’ (one of Westlake’s beloved running jokes), keep calling to get a comment from him, and hard as he tries, he can’t get any of them to let him know what the story is they’re asking him to comment on.   They already know who Oliver Abbott is (one seemingly far-right publication thinks he’s a hero of the white race), and he can’t seem to convince any of them that he’s been badly misunderstood.

The only one he can convince of this–with some difficulty–is the beautiful and self-assured Leona Roof, a black phys-ed instructor, who is involved in one of the activist groups pushing for local community control (her group is integrated–not looking to push out white teachers who actually want to teach).   Trapped in the school by a raging mob of protesters (waving banners, hence the title), he convinces her to drive him home, which she does so that the police won’t have to crack people’s heads to get him through.

She assumes he’s lying about his innocence at first, but he’s so obviously bewildered and clueless, she finally realizes he’s more worthy of her sympathy than her disdain–and anyway, he makes her laugh.   He also makes her very aware from the start that his interest in her is anything but platonic.   Oliver figures out early on that if he lets Leona friend-zone him, he’ll never get anywhere, so he keeps making passes, which she, being a judo expert, easily deflects–but she’s flattered, all the same.  He’s appealing to some part of her that’s tired of living for everybody but herself.   And she, by contrast, starts making him question his own life choices–or lack thereof.

He only meets two of his home room students (nobody else shows up on the second day of school)–one is Henrietta Clark, a young black woman with a fiercely determined expression, who firmly states that she’s only there because her mother told her she can’t afford the risk of being expelled after the protests die down.   She needs a diploma to go to nursing school, but she thinks that’s the only reason anybody would ever have to go to Schuyler Colfax.  “If it wasn’t for TV and movies and comic books, there wouldn’t be one person in this school knew anything at all.”   Kids never change–just the slang, and the available technology.

The other is James Meegan, a young man with a sort of bobbing walk that Oliver tells us he himself used to practice in front of the mirror when he was younger, because of course the coolest thing in the world to a white kid is black urban culture, and that hasn’t changed either, has it?  James has no family, and supports himself by running an illegal bookmaking operation inside the school–he’s there because he sees no future for himself without an education.  He seems barely literate, and Oliver writes him off as a moron.

Then as both students leave (because all he’s there to do is certify who showed up), he suddenly realizes–James is running a large bookmaking operation all by himself–all those names and figures–he’s got to be really smart!  He runs after him, but it’s too late.  He had a moment there, where he could have reached out, made a connection, and he blew it.

And this is one indication that Leona is right in what she tells Oliver–that he’s not a teacher–he’s been routed into the wrong profession. He lacks the temperament, the instinct for it. “Those who can’t do, teach” may be correct in the sense that a lot of rather unimpressive people end up in the teaching profession–but the fact is, being smart and capable, in and of itself, doesn’t make you a good teacher.  Oliver has taken the path of least resistance, laid down for him by his father (who for all his flaws is a good administrator, and probably a good teacher in his day).   But this isn’t who he is.

Oliver is what you might call a belatedly reliable narrator.  He keeps jumping to conclusions about the people he meets, black and white, just as they do about him, and he keeps realizing after the fact that he’s misjudged them, or at least that they’re more complex than he’d given them credit for being–he constantly gets it wrong, but he never stops trying to get it right–his good instincts are constantly thwarted by his social programming.  And this is basically the human experience, isn’t it?   We have prejudices for a reason–they save us a lot of hard work.   And that will probably never change.   But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting it.

The school is shut down entirely, until some kind of compromise can be hammered out between the various groups.  And over the next week or so, temporarily liberated from adult responsibility, Oliver and Leona start going to the beach together–she wears a yellow two piece bathing suit (her favorite color), and he loves seeing her in it–but when he ogles a blonde in a bikini, Leona is hurt and offended–only to have Oliver point out that she was looking at a young black man whose physique puts Oliver’s to shame.  The revelation of their mutual insecurity somehow brings them closer.

What’s going on between them started out as curiosity, but it’s evolving into something more–frankly, if they were both working at the school, the speed at which their relationship develops would be impossible (the entire story unfolds over maybe three weeks).   Westlake has deliberately put them into a sort of speed-dating mode–so they can learn more about each other in a week than many couples do in years.

Wanting Oliver to learn more about the young people he’d be teaching–and about himself–Leona manipulates  him into teaching some classes held at a local church, thrown together as an emergency measure by community groups and teachers, so Schuyler Colfax students who want to go on being educated don’t miss out too much during the strike.

He asks her what if they recognize him as the hated ‘Junior Abbott’–with much amusement, she tells him to wear sunglasses. He ends up organizing them to do a live reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus–because that’s one of the few things they have enough copies of to go around–the events of the play, and the enthused reaction of his students to it are, to say the least, unsettling for him–well, the Bard does speak to all generations. I feel this scene merits an extended quotation.

I lowered my eyes to the book. “Act one. Scene one,” I read aloud. “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

Silence. Nobody said a word. I didn’t dare look up. I jut sat there and stared at that one sentence while a fog of paranoia crept over me on little cat feet. Or were those little cat feet not the fog?

“Oh, yeah!” somebody cried. “It’s me, I forgot.” He cleared his throat and began to read, and once again I will not attempt to reconstruct the dialect, but will stick with Shakespeare’s spelling:

FIRST CITIZEN: Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.

ALL: Speak! Speak! Lay it on us, Daddy! Tell it, man! Give us the word, baby!

I raised my head and looked at them, and gradually they settled down once more. My First Citizen gave me a pained look, as though to say that he and I were the only mature adults in the room. I nodded at him, and he went on.

FIRST CITIZEN: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?

ALL: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!

ONE SMART ALECK: You bet your ass, baby!

It’s tough to glare through sunglasses–if the sun can’t, how can we expect people to? Nevertheless, I tried.

FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.

ALL: We know’t, we know’t.

SECOND CITIZEN: You mean Junior Abbott, don’t you, baby?

ALL: You know it, you know it!

I lowered my eyes to the book, I shielded my face with my hand.

FIRST CITIZEN (with gusto): Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?

ALL: No more talking on’t! Let it be done! Away, away!

Away, away. Would I ever get to say exeunt omnes?

But he sticks with the class over the coming week or so–who fail to recognize him, and of course these are the students who chose to go to school when they didn’t have to, so really unlikely they’d have done him any harm–sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But in spite of everything, he can’t help liking them.  And they’re fine with him–not knowing who he is.  But that can’t possibly last.

He comes home one day, and there’s a protest rally–banners and all–marching outside his house!  And they’re all holding glasses of cold lemonade–where’d those come from?  He goes inside, and finds his mother with the leader of the protest, Mrs. Letitia Quernik–squeezing lemons!   Well, you can’t expect people to march in the blazing September sun without refreshment, right?

The situation he’s in keeps getting more and more insane, but he has to keep updating his opinions on it every other minute.  Mrs. Quernik is maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer–neither is his mom–but they each have something to contribute to his understanding of what’s going on.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  And at the end of the day, people of similar temperaments understand each other, no matter how society tries to divide them.

Next, Leona drags him to a meeting at a small black church, where a variety of factions (including the small integrated activist group she’s a part of) are going to discuss strategy and objectives–and it quickly becomes clear the black community is far from monolithic on this issue–and very passionate about it.   And like people of all races who are passionate but not necessarily well-informed, they fall prey to a con man–one Prescott Wade Sinclair (“Pres” for short, and I can’t believe a jazz fan like Westlake gave him the same nickname as Lester Young), the tall thin sardonically grinning fellow with the Lucifer-beard, who told Oliver’s home room school was out.

Playing on racial divisions, mocking anyone of either race who wants real dialogue, he quickly fixes things so that his group–which just wants social chaos, so, you know, the revolution can come–is in control of the process.   Most of the people just want compromise, will settle for incremental change, but that always sounds so weak–whether you’re on the left or the right.   It’s much more fun to be extreme, and Pres is having the time of his life.   Leona is disgusted–but it’s starting to be noticed how close she and Oliver are becoming, and it’s compromising her position in the movement.

Things are now very serious between her and Oliver–who she starts calling “Matt”, because he’s always wished his name was Matthew–and one night they go out to the then-deserted beach, and make love.   Actual sex scenes are rare in Westlake’s books that aren’t about sex (he usually cuts over to the post-coital scene), and this one has a lyric quality you’d almost associate with Hemingway–

There was no stopping this time, and no hurry.  And no surprises.  Only the slow rhythm of the surf to guide us, and everything else already familiar and known, as though this was where we had been for a thousand years and we’d only forgotten for one brief hour.

While we were still joined she whispered in my ear, “It’s so hard to trust you.”

“I love you,” I whispered, having no idea whether it was true or not, whether she could trust me or not, whether I could trust her or not, whether I could trust myself or not.  “I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing else exists.”

She sighed, and her body relaxed into new softnesses, and I realized belatedly she’d been controlling herself against me, reining in, not wanting to let go and be vulnerable.  And now she had, and my immediate fear of the responsibility she was thrusting on me was smothered in the luxuriousness of her unfettered self, and for a while we couldn’t hear the surf at all, and when at last we could hear it again, it was a lullaby.

And then it all starts to unravel.  They both start getting threatening calls–from black men, there’s no Ku Klux Klan in Brooklyn, though an agitated Oliver snaps at one caller that he’ll sic the Klan on him–just looking for a way to hit back.

As the black community sees it, Oliver has trespassed where he is not welcome, and Leona is betraying her people. As Jacob Abbott’s son, him dating her is a bit too much like the young master having his sport. Never occurs to any of them them this affair might be serious–and honestly, neither of them is 100% sure it is, yet.

If he weren’t a symbol for every crappy thing that the establishment ever did to black people, and she weren’t a public spokesperson for the movement to give the community more control over how its children are educated, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  Leona’s female roommates all think Oliver is okay–but that’s because they’ve met him.  He’s going to learn now just how much it sucks when people prejudge you on the basis of things you can’t help.   When your skin tells them all they think they need to know about you.

Then Oliver’s parents start to talk to him, and that’s much much worse–his mother seems to have no racial prejudices to speak of–she wants everybody to get along–but she’s upset that her new friend Letitia is angry about Oliver and Leona being together.  She’s also worried her husband’s career will be ruined–a very real possibility.

His father, who in spite of their many differences, Oliver respects the hell out of–well, he’s a disappointment.   A lot of us have experienced that kind of disappointment, haven’t we?  Oliver finds out that even though his father genuinely wants to do right by the minority kids he’s responsible for, he believes he has to keep tight control over the school in order for it to receive major funding from a private foundation.

And he has very limited expectations of his pupils–Leona has it right again–the elder Abbott doesn’t believe black children are teachable.  They aren’t a fire to be lit or a slate to be written upon–they’re a problem to be controlled.  He makes a lot of very nasty sexual assumptions about Leona (never occurs to him his son might have been the pursuer), and you can imagine how well that goes over with Oliver.   But there’s worse coming.

Oliver’s car is stripped and burned by black kids–he and Leona get into a fight with another group–and then Oliver comes home one night and finds a group of white kids trying to burn a cross on the lawn of his family home.  The tension between the communities is getting out of control, and he and Leona have somehow ended up at the center of it.

Oliver shows up at Leona’s house and finds what I think in modern terms we’d call an ‘intervention’–a contingent of black people who know and work with Leona, bearing a ‘Dear Oliver’ note from her–she’s breaking it off.   She’s been made to understand that anger over their relationship is making negotiations impossible–so she’s choosing the common good over what she personally wants.   Oliver takes this the way any young man in love would take it.   He refuses to believe she wrote the letter–but he can see that she did sign it.

He hangs around the house for the better part of a day, hoping she’ll come back–then he walks home through the South Romulus slums, wishing to hell he’d come across some Nation of Islam organizer handing out “White Man is the Devil” pamphlets, so he could start a fight.  He just badly needs to strike out at somebody–but the enemy isn’t any one person, black or white.   The enemy is group-thought.  How do you fight that?   He tells his parents it’s over, sees their relief–and then proceeds to get drunk, and stay drunk for some days.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oliver is the hero of this book, but a decidedly flawed one–his quest is for self-actualization, not social justice–and Westlake wants us to know that the poison of racism is very much alive in him.  In his anger over being jilted, he calls Leona every name in the book inside his head–yes, including that one.  He feels betrayed, even though he knows on some level she wasn’t being given any choice.   He doesn’t want to hear any Humphrey Bogart speech from Casablanca.  The problems of two little people mean a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans to him–as they should to everyone.

How did E.M. Forster put it–“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”   But suppose your country is more than just some state structure–suppose it’s a group of people who have fought and bled and died for equal citizenship, over hundreds of years?   How then, Mr. Forster?

Oliver sobers up, and goes to a meeting in midtown Manhattan with his father (who has been atypically considerate and downright apologetic to his son, who he can see is in mortal pain).   The meeting is at one of those little surviving brownstone townhouses in an area full of big glass office towers, which invariably signify enormous wealth and power.  They’re meeting with the men who have promised a big financial grant to Schuyler Colfax, and who have been wondering if their money should be invested elsewhere.  Oliver is there with his father to reassure them that this unpleasantness is coming to an end.

Westlake’s deep-seated hostility and outright contempt for the very wealthy is on full display here.   Oliver sees his father walking a fine line between begging for money and maintaining his self-respect.  He’s little more than a trusted servant in this company–the actual servants are all black, of course.   Phantoms, flitting in and out with trays of refreshments.   They get no lines.  Nobody worries about what they might overhear.

What we overhear from this assemblage of social pillars (only one of whom, Mr. Butler, is from the south) is basically warmed-over Thomas Carlyle.  Westlake did not preface this novel with that lovely little bit of vintage racism from him just to offend people.   Again, I feel a lengthy quotation is called for.   This is an unusually clear political statement from a man who generally avoided them in his fiction.  And I suspect few of his more conservative readers (or, for that matter, the liberal ones) have ever seen it.

Mr. Duncan, the corporation lawyer, said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.  I judge every man on the basis of his ability as a man, and I always have, and I always will.  Many of these people have a great deal of natural ability, singers, for instance, athletes.  I want to make it absolutely clear that for my part I do not believe in denying any man the right to fulfill his own abilities to the best of his, uh. But if any of these people prefer to stay in their own areas, I believe they have the right to decide that for themselves.  I don’t want to push any man into any situation that he knows or believes himself not to be ready for.”

Mr. Whitney said, “It is a question of education, of course, education and diet.  Members of minority groups aren’t inherently unable to compete on an equal basis, but they do have two strikes against them. Fourth-rate education, for one thing, the very problem we’re here to try to do something about.  And diet.  I don’t know if you gentlemen are aware of the neurological studies that have been made on the effect of low-protein diet in the formative years, but a great deal of the answer to the problem of minorities lies right there.  And it is up to us, to the affluent, to make it possible for these people, or if not this generation then at least the next generation, to upgrade themselves to the point where they can participate, where they can be accepted on equal terms.  You might say it’s the affluent man’s burden, and I’m sure we all shoulder it gladly.”

General Winterhilff said, “Of course we do.  And our experience in the military is that these people can be trained, they can even be placed in positions of responsibility.  Give a man the proper incentive, don’t push him along too fast, and he won’t let you down.  And we didn’t do it by bringing them all along to the Officers’ Club, I assure you.  I shudder to think what that would have done for morale on both sides.”

“My point exactly,” Mr. Butler said softly.  “In any social situation where one side is uncomfortable and feels out of place, you can usually be sure the other side is just as troubled.”

“I’ve certainly seen that to be true,” Mr. Duncan said.  He wore an earnest face as though he’d just bought it at Lord & Taylor.  “Now, the golf club I belong to in Maryland integrated recently, and I want to make it perfectly clear I am absolutely in favor of integration in principle, but our colored member is not at all comfortable at that club, and everyone knows it.  I suppose he feels he has to prove a point, and I respect his position, but there are times when it seems to me he’s putting himself to a great deal of trouble for very little gain.”  He chuckled, not as though anything were funny but as though some counting machine in his head had told him it was time to chuckle now, and said “With the condition of the greens the last few years, I’ve been expecting members to be fighting their way out, not in.”

Mr. Butler said, “Fred, that’s exactly the point.  That man isn’t gaining anything, and deep down inside he knows it, but he feels he has to make a gesture.  Too many of these people have been convinced they’re somehow missing something by not being allowed on those shaggy greens of yours–” everybody smiled, in comradely fashion–“and the result is embarrassment and inconvenience for everyone.  But I believe it’s a phase, merely a phase, and it will pass away.  In fact, it’s already started to pass, these people are beginning to realize they’re much more comfortable with their own kind.  As in this current school controversy, for instance.”

Then a servant shows up with the coffee, and this spirited exchange of identical views subsides.  And I can’t help but think similar exchanges are going on in similar townhouses, even as I type this.  Maybe they’ve gotten a bit more well-encoded.  Of course, now they’re probably talking about that poor well-intentioned man in the White House.  And perhaps the sorry state of the gardens there.

So it all goes well enough, and the money for the school seems assured, and Oliver, who has been pretty quiet up to now, decides to tell a really disgusting racist joke.  Something about Rastus and the watermelon–he doesn’t want to go into details with us readers about it.  He says it’s some gremlin inside of him–some imp of the perverse that won’t leave him alone.  The money men all laugh politely, but uncomfortably–you don’t say those things out loud anymore, doesn’t this young fellow realize that?  His father asks him afterward why he told the joke–Oliver says “I thought it was funny.”

So with Oliver and Leona broken up, the factions work out a compromise (Oliver can go on teaching at Schuyler Colfax, though he has no intention of actually doing so, because he’s decided he’s not a teacher after all), and the community activists schedule a big meeting at a grand old movie palace in some part of Brooklyn white people just do not go–but Oliver manages to get himself there, because this Candide has decided it’s time to become David Copperfield (no, not the one in Vegas), and be the hero of his own story.  Though the only one he really wants to be a hero to is Leona.  Who he knows will be at the meeting.

He gets up on stage, and he tells the sea of astonished black faces that they were right to fight for their children, that nobody is going to fix the problems in their schools but them, but they’re going about it the wrong way–that the path to a better future doesn’t lie in answering hate with more hate.   Honestly, it’s a good speech, but it does feel a bit like he’s talking to the wrong people.  Not likely anybody there slashed his tires, or made obscene phone calls, or tried to beat him up.

But again, the only one he’s really talking to is Leona–she’s the only person, black or white, who is real to him in that moment, and he’s calling out to her, telling her that she has to be true to herself, and to what he and she have found together, and it’s all very Matthew Arnold.  And she answers him.   And if you want to know how, read the book.

This is the longest novel Westlake had published up to this point, and the most complicated.  It’s been a struggle to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.   The thing is, it’s an easy book to  misunderstand.   I wish I could have found some reviews of it written by black people–it seems to have mainly vanished into the racial foment of the late 60’s/early 70’s with nary a ripple.  I think most people didn’t know what to make of it.

It was more warmly received overseas, I think–there was a brief but  glowing notice in the Times Literary Supplement.   The reviewer (anonymous, as were all the TLS reviewers back then) said “You would hardly think it possible at this stage of the game that an American could write a funny and intelligent and fundamentally loving novel with black-white strife as its background.”  He (or she) seemed confused as to why this ‘novelist of romantico-sociological bent’ (whatever that means) was being put forth as a writer of thrillers.   TLS didn’t review much crime fiction back then, I guess.

It got a much longer and very negative review in the New York Times (not written by Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s champion there), which so badly misses the point, it’s almost laughable–the reviewer–whose name is not Bibble, but one feels somehow it ought to be–indignantly asks how Westlake could possibly not know about what happened in the Brownsville public schools just recently, somehow failing to grasp that the novel is a direct commentary on that battle that divided so many well-intentioned people from each other.   Westlake was saying everybody was to blame there, because they were too busy waving their goddam banners to listen to each other, give each other at least some benefit of the doubt.

And in the process of letting themselves be divided, by the likes of the cynical Preston Wade Sinclair (whose comeuppance is brief but satisfying), they were only making themselves perpetual victims to the people with real power–the Duncans, Whitneys, Winterhilffs, and Butlers.  As we all still are, to some extent.  To a very great extent, actually.

There’s genuine respect in the novel for those Westlake considers the true activists, black and white–the ones who are trying to build something, not just destroy–the ones who bridge the gaps, learn to understand each other, work together.   Leona is one of them, and even though she’s somewhat giving way to Oliver’s more individualistic philosophy, she doesn’t surrender her principles at the end, doesn’t abandon her people–she’s just going to take a break, come down off her pedestal.   She reclaims her sense of self, her right to choose who she loves, a choice without which freedom and equality are quite quite meaningless.

And Oliver, the most serious of the Westlake Nephews, conquers his fears of adulthood and commitment, even as he abandons the life plans his father had made for him.    Because you’re only real when you’re being absolutely yourself.  And being real is all there really is, isn’t it?   The Velveteen Rabbit would certainly say so.  Eh, google it.

Obviously the book in its entirety doesn’t begin to address the black experience, the undeniable facts that made black activism in America necessary then, as it is necessary today.   But there were an awful lot of other books coming out on this subject–Westlake hardly had to say it all himself.   He wasn’t equipped for that, and he knew it.  But you can’t tell me Westlake, a lifelong jazz buff (ie, a worshipper at the altar of African American genius), wasn’t reading the black authors of that general time period–Invisible Man is the supreme novel of identity–I don’t just mean black identity–Westlake must have devoured it hungrily, and understood its points perfectly.   And had a few points of his own to make.

Not long after Westlake finished this book, Chester Himes, a writer Westlake admired very much, started work on the abortive and posthumously published Plan B, the last of his Harlem Detective novels–in which (spoiler alert) he vividly imagines the race war everybody thought was coming back then, and in the process kills off his two greatest creations, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, those great intercessors between black and white America, in a sort of despairing gesture–what hope is there for America, for humanity?   We’ll never work this shit out. Just too far gone to care.

And his despair was understandable–we still feel it, sometimes.   But it was wrong.   He knew that it was.  That, I think, is why he never published the book in his lifetime.   And of course, he lived most of his life as a writer in a loving if troubled relationship with a white woman–in Europe.   Safely away from the fray.   Cultivating his own garden, like Candide.  And suffering from survivor’s guilt.

My favorite work about racial turmoil from this period was written by somebody who really didn’t have a tribe of his own–the novel Chien Blanc (White Dog), from Romain Gary.   In that deeply painful (and only partly factual) account of his and his wife Jean Seberg’s experiences with a German Shepherd conditioned to attack black people on sight, this supremely alienated French Jewish writer (who wasn’t really French, or Jewish, and often didn’t even seem to want to be human), saw us Yanks with objective clarity, like Tocqueville before him–he said the main thing about us is that we can’t ever leave things alone.

We have an image of how we’re supposed to be, an ideal we need to live up to, and no matter how racist we undoubtedly are at times, we simply can’t accept that’s how it will always be.  We keep fighting the conflict, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, trying to resolve it.   In a time where many thought America would tear itself apart, Gary said we’d find some way to fix it, seek some way out of a shared nightmare.   On November 4th 2008, we proved him right–not for the first time, or the last. E. Pluribus Unum. Damn straight.

But see, Gary also made it very clear that the toxins of race hatred linger in our collective bloodstreams, passed from one generation to the next.   George Orwell would agree, and might add that the only way to fight the smelly little bigotries vying for your souls is to recognize them for what they are.   To confess to their existence, and allow for them, because they only get more dangerous when you pretend they aren’t there–that it’s just those other people who have a problem.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a racist–early in the book, Oliver talks to a policeman guarding the school, who talks quite soberly about how black people have thicker skulls than white people–that’s why they’re a bit less smart, but can take a much harder crack on the head.   He says he’s got nothing against the colored.  And neither did the policemen who choked Eric Garner to death, and left him to die in a public sidewalk, for selling loose cigarettes.

And man, this was a long review–my longest yet–took me three weeks to finish, and I broke my self-imposed rule over never letting a single post go over 6,000 words (the long quotes really killed me here), and that’s not including Part 1.   But all in a worthy cause.

And now I really feel the need for something less worthy, more frivolous.   What would you say to two Grofield novels in a row?   Well as it happens, that’s what’s up next in the review queue.   Though I should mention there’s a lot of black people in the second book, one of whom Grofield ends up in bed with, but he ends up in bed with everybody, sooner or later.  So, having set the scene, exeunt omnes. 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: Up Your Banners

up_your_banners_1up_your_banners_2 Blackboard-JungleTo-Sir-With-LoveUp-Down-Stairs

I worked on my Fresca while I thought about things, and then said, “Leona, I’m just not the right kind of guy for all this.  You say all those things, and you may be right, and I do understand and sympathize, but I’m just not the fighting kind.  I’m the floating kind.  I drift very slowly and easily through life.  I prefer things to be funny.”

“Ghetto schools aren’t funny,” she said.

“I agree.”

Up Your Banners is an odd book.  The origin of this one is very strange.

Donald Westlake

Must have been sometime in 1968 that David Susskind (of all people) called his literary agent, Henry Morrison, who also happened to be Donald Westlake’s literary agent, and asked Morrison to set up a meet between the three of them. He had an idea to pitch. He wanted Westlake to write a novel about a racially troubled high school in New York.

Like most people, he knew Westlake primarily as someone who wrote comic treatments of dangerous situations, and that was the approach he wanted–somebody seeing the humorous side of the very dangerous situation involving inner city schools.  Westlake had a hard time seeing how that was going to work. What’s so funny about poverty, racism, and a failed educational system?

As he described his reaction much later, it went like this–“I really don’t know the area, I’m not interested, I don’t know whose side to take, I don’t see who you make fun of, I don’t see who you don’t make fun of”–I didn’t see any way to do it at all.  

But Susskind was persistent, and he promised to buy the film rights to the book if Westlake wrote it.  Westlake thought about it a while, and finally he hit upon an approach he thought was viable–he’d write it as a ‘Nephew’ book–not that he called them that.   He said it came to him when he found his hero–“the innocent, the Candide who could carry the story.”   His reference to Voltaire’s famed satiric picaresque was very much to the point, as we shall see.

It’s basically the same set-up as his five earlier comic novels (this doesn’t include Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which wasn’t originally conceived as a book).   A naive young man, who has been putting off maturity, gets enmeshed in something he doesn’t understand, becomes the center of a dangerous chaotic situation (only political, instead of criminal), and people make all kinds of false assumptions about him.   And in figuring his way out of this mess, he finally grows up, and meets a great girl–only this time she’s black.  Simple, right?

Susskind began sending him the serious books, fiction and non-fiction, that had already been written on this subject recently, including Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (the link is to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly).  But the fact is, works of fiction about dysfunctional schools and noble overburdened teachers already amounted to a sort of genre of their own.  You can see the covers for three of them up top, and odds are good you’ve heard of at least one or two. Westlake would certainly have been familiar with The Blackboard Jungle, since it was written by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain.

But none of these novels really confronted racism in any direct way–even To Sir, With Love, written by a black teacher working with white cockneys in London (played by Sidney Poitier in the movie), seemed to gloss over the race issue–just a matter of white people recognizing that some black people had exceptional abilities, and accepting them into white society–and what about all the black people who were just average, and stuck in the ghetto, with little chance of ever getting out?

Truth is, none of these then-popular novels have held up very well over time (Kozol’s nonfiction work remains a classic).  They were a response to a growing awareness that something was brewing in the schools–the generation gap, racial conflicts, urban blight, the breakdown of the family, loss of respect for authority. Probably Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, written in comic epistolary style, with a protagonist who is brave and sympathetic, but not really in control of the situation she’s in, has stood the test of time best.

The heroine of that book is a young Jewish woman teaching in an impoverished inner city school.  She  loves her students, and many of them love her, but it’s still a crazy and sometimes scary situation–not so much because she’s in danger from her pupils as that she has a terrible time dealing with the bureaucracy, and the expectations society has of her.

But even that book doesn’t really deal with racial issues to any great extent, as I recall (been a long time).   The proper liberal attitude back then was that you were supposed to ignore such things as best you could.   And after all, it’s New York City, not Selma.  No Jim Crow here. It’s a class problem, not a race problem. We’re above such things up north.

One would surmise that Susskind, who dealt with issues like integration and forced busing all the time on his talk show, noticed that all these earlier novels had been made into films–but all of them just kind of avoided the real questions, mainly because the real questions tended to rile people up.  Kaufman had dealt humorously with the problems facing teachers  in these schools, giving her a bit more leeway, but what about all the other players in the drama?   There were certain built-in limits to her approach–still, a bit of humor can sometimes help put things in perspective.  Everybody loves to laugh.  But nobody likes being laughed at.   Ay, there’s the rub.

Before I go any further, perhaps I had best confess that I myself worked briefly in the New York City Public School system, after I graduated from college, back in the 1980’s.   I aspired to be a public school teacher, sue me.   I got a TPD (a provisional teacher’s license), and was immediately hired to work at a school in Far Rockaway, at the arse-end of the city (two hour commute by train–each way).

I had no training of any kind.  I got almost no help from anyone–mainly just the odd pep talk from the principal, who mouthed platitudes about positive thinking and success, which didn’t seem to be doing anyone much good.  I was filling in for a teacher who was sick.  My first student stuck his head in the door, and a big grin slapped itself across his face.  “SUBSTITUTE!!!!” he yelled down the hall, like he was ringing a dinner bell.  I think you can guess how it went after that.   I never had a chance.

I can still remember their faces.  They’re more real to me than most of the people I’ve met in my life.  I wanted to reach them, and I didn’t know how.  And I could feel the frustration changing me, making me bitter, angry at them for not wanting to listen to me–resistance I could handle, but they just tuned me out entirely, acted as if I wasn’t there.   I quickly had to give up on that school–the commute was killing me, and if I moved to that remote beachfront nabe, I was going to be stuck there, cut off from the rest of the city.

I spent a few more months taking substitute jobs at a variety of middle schools around town–middle school is the hardest–that’s when the hormones kick in–much harder than high school, by which time most of the real troublemakers have dropped out or gotten slotted into special classes.   I worked mainly with black and Latino kids–one class was mainly white, and they were every bit as rowdy and unfocused.

And they were all so damn funny.  And they were all so damn smart.  And they all broke your heart.  And much as I was frustrated at them, the people who really gave me hives were the administrators–who I’m sure had nemeses higher up the food chain to blame, and so on.  There were really good teachers, here and there, doing their best, and the students listened to them.  But most were just trying make it to retirement.

The only time I ever once felt like I was teaching was when I taught a special ed class–for developmentally disabled children.  Just a few kids, so I could talk to them one on one.  But that, of course, is even more painful in some ways.  If there’s a tougher job than teaching this age group in a system like this, in a city like this, I don’t know about it.   You get it from both sides, and there’s nobody to help you.  Maybe it’s better now.

So that’s my story, but it isn’t Westlake’s–far as I know, he never worked as a teacher.   He must have at least considered it–not an uncommon day job for a writer (the late Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, who I knew very slightly, made a career of it–and a book).  Salvatore Lombino (Evan Hunter’s birth name) taught at a vocational school in The Bronx for a few weeks, and based The Blackboard Jungle on that. Not often a writer gets paid for doing research (if you can call a beginning teacher’s salary getting paid).

Based on what I’ve read, if Westlake ever seriously considered teaching, it was at the college level.  It was a potential fallback position if his writing career foundered, as Peter Rabe’s did.  But it was never really what he wanted to do.   But, you can hear him asking himself, “Suppose I had been been programmed to think teaching was what I wanted to do, and then I found out it wasn’t?”   Identity confusion–his wheelhouse.  But this isn’t a fantasy like his comic crime novels–he’s going to need more of a build-up than usual.

The book begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, that is guaranteed to offend just about anyone.   And makes it clear that Westlake is not going to shy away from the question of race–or racism.  “A merry-hearted, grinning, dancing, singing, affectionate kind of creature, with a great deal of melody and amenability in his composition.”   We’re told this is from a work entitled The Nigger Question.  Which is true, but that’s the title Carlyle republished it under, basically just to shock people (not as much as it would today, of course).  It was originally called Occasional Discourse on The Negro Question.

The choice of Carlyle is interesting because that quarrelsome Scot also had some fairly controversial opinions on The Irish Question–he considered the Catholic Irish peasantry (as opposed to the mainly Protestant gentry) to be basically white niggers, which is how many English people thought of them back then (yes, I know this is offensive, but we’re talking about real history here, so let’s not mince words, shall we?).   We should now pause to consider that Donald E. Westlake, like most Irish Americans, was descended from those peasants–and quite aware of that fact.

In Mr. Carlyle’s opinion, these merry-hearted grinning dancing peoples like the plantation-living blacks and the bogtrotting Irish were obviously not suited to living as full equals to decent folk, and what would be best for them would be to live in a kind of perpetual serfdom, as opposed to chattel slavery, which his country had recently abolished–which is what Carlyle was taking issue with.

See, the goal for Carlyle was not emancipation, but to reform existing systems of bondage, to make them a bit more humane.   Perhaps with the passage of time, some among these lesser races could be elevated to the point where they could enter polite society as free men and women, but there was no need to rush things.  It would be cruel to raise their expectations of life, and cast them willy nilly into a world they were not properly constituted to live in.  You can read more about Carlyle’s racial ideas here.  Interesting philosophy.  Also disgusting.  Also surprisingly durable in some circles, even if it has learned how to disguise itself better.

So having assured with his opening quote that the easily offended will venture no further, Westlake introduces us to his Candide, who is just heading out to his first day of work as a teacher in a public high school in the fictional Brooklyn slum neighborhood of South Romulus (Brooklyn has many nabes with far stranger-sounding names).   He lives only eight blocks away, but as is common in New York City, his own adjoining neighborhood is mainly white and reasonably prosperous.

He crosses the dividing line of Romulus Boulevard, starts seeing dead cars on blocks and many other signs of urban blight, and soon enters Schuyler Colfax High School, where his father is principal, and his father’s father before him.  And now he’s going to start teaching there himself, continuing the family tradition, as we later learn has been drilled into him since he was a little boy.  He walks into his home room, and writes his name in big letters on the blackboard–Oliver Abbott.  And his students (all black) collectively gasp.

And then this tall thin sly-faced grinning black man with a pointy Lucifer-style beard walks in and says class is dismissed until further notice–okay, I don’t care where you grew up, or how much money your dad made, when they tell you school’s out, you get the hell OUT before they change their minds.  And that’s what Oliver’s students do, leaving him standing them dumbfounded.   He has absolutely no idea what’s going on.  Nobody told him he’s the cause celebre of a brewing race riot.

Oliver Abbott (who is the first-person narrator of the story, meaning this is not an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives, but rather an attempt to show one character come to terms with a variety of perspectives) was not always good with being a teacher.  He rebelled.  First by  joining the Navy.  Then by going to college way way upstate at good old Monequois, a Teacher’s College in this incarnation.  Then he went bumming around the country in his white MG (the affordable hot car for young people at this time).

So he’s been incommunicado, and his father, Principal Jacob Abbott, has never been terribly communicado at any point in their relationship, and just decided not to tell him about the controversy, figuring it would go away by itself.  But the fact is, the local black community made a deal with the city that when new teachers were needed at Schuyler, and a qualified black teacher was available for the position, that teacher would fill the position.

Oliver’s father unilaterally decided to fill this position with his son, who is equally well-educated, but less experienced–the black teacher is already working at a white school nearby, and has a wife and two children.  By the way, we never once hear from this other teacher, and find out whether he even wants to change schools.   That’s not the point.  The point is that the community wants one thing, and Jacob Abbott wants something else.  And Jacob Abbott is used to getting what he wants.   And the community is sick and tired of never getting anything they want.   And this is generally known as an impasse.

Oliver’s naivete, as one character is about to tell him, does stretch credulity at points–the brewing controversy has been widely reported in the news, but he wasn’t reading the papers (or the hate mail coming to the house he currently shares with his mom and dad).  He wasn’t watching the news.  He also doesn’t know the name of the union defending his right to teach–the Fraternal Union of Teachers, or FUT, which Oliver thinks is a silly-sounding name, but nobody asked him.  Anyway, Candides are supposed to be naive.  Goes with the territory.

Here in the real world, the NYC teacher’s union was and is the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT (you see what he did there?), and if you’re interested, here’s the story Westlake would have been reading about in the papers in 1968, which clearly inspired this story, in which that union played a pretty significant and rather controversial role.

South Romulus is Brownsville, only on a smaller scale.   And what happened in Brownsville in 1968 was no tempest in a teapot–we’re still feeling the effects today, still seeing variations on the arguments people were having then.  Many think that racial politics in New York, as we now know them, came into being during this conflict.  When the dust had settled over Brownsville, Jews and blacks in particular were divided in a way they hadn’t been before, and some historians think white working class New Yorkers started seeing things more in terms of race than class than had previously been the case, because of that conflict.

That’s debatable–what isn’t debatable is that for the first time, Westlake was using a book to directly respond to recent events. Not the last time, though. This is Part One of the review, I think you’ve all figured out now. Like Anarchaos, this is too unusual and complex a novel to dissect without going into some detail over its background.

But having read it twice, and looked deeper than most readers probably ever have into the events that spawned it, I still find it a tough nut to crack. Westlake is telling a pretty simple story here–boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s the story, and actually, this is the first time he’s really done what you could call a classic love story, interracial or otherwise.

Yes, there’s nearly always a romance brewing in his comic novels, and it’s sometimes a crucial part of the story, but it’s not usually the main focus. The point of the previous Nephew books was always the hero figuring out who he is and how not to get killed/arrested/etc–and those two objectives are closely linked.

Here there’s relatively little chance of the hero getting killed (getting his ass kicked, definitely) and basically no chance of his being incarcerated (because, you know, white). So the link-up is between the identity crisis and the love story. Who you love is who you are. But can you know who you truly love before you know who you really are?

The very reluctant hero of The Spy in the Ointment (my favorite of Westlake’s comic novels at least until we get to Dortmunder), Eugene Raxford (Westlake loved to give his comic heroes wimpy-sounding names), is only a partial exception to this rule–at the crucial moment, he realizes his girlfriend Angela (who he’s been involved with for some time before the story begins) is more important to him than his pacifist principles–but he and Angela both recommit to those principles afterwards. The point being that love and ideology don’t always agree, and you have to find some way to make them balance out.

I mentioned in my review of that book that I’m convinced Westlake partly based that character on Bucklin Moon, the writer/editor who told Westlake he’d buy The Hunter for Pocket Books if Westlake would agree to write three Parker novels a year for Pocket. Westlake always spoke warmly of Mr. Moon, and certainly would have known about his past troubles–that he’d been an up and coming novelist who wrote very serious novels, mainly about black people–even though Moon was as white as they come–and then his career as a writer was essentially destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts, even though the most revolutionary idea he seemed to have was equality. I guess that’s still pretty revolutionary.

Moon wrote two novels about The Black Experience–The Darker Brother and Without Magnolias–as well as something called A Primer for White Folks, and he edited an anthology of writings by and about black people. He also helped discover Chester Himes, who started out writing very serious books about the black experience, before he realized he could get a lot more readers by doing funny thrilling crime novels about the black experience.

I’ve looked at some of Moon’s books, and they’re well written (his use of African American dialect is a bit dodgy), they were very well-reviewed at the time, and extremely well-intentioned, and let’s just say it’s not surprising they’re long out of print (as is this book we’re looking at now, by the way, though it did get a paperback reprint, not long after the hardcover came out, because there was supposed to be a movie, only Susskind seems to have gotten sidetracked, or else he read the book and decided people weren’t ready for a comedic race riot involving school-age children yet).

So Westlake’s takeaway from Moon’s experience is that it’s probably not a good idea for a white man to pretend he knows what it’s like to be a black man. There’s plenty of black writers to do that job by 1968. He’s going to stick to what he knows–what it’s like to be a young white New Yorker without much money who isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with his life, is drifting along a bit, but knows that he likes girls a heck of a lot.

Only, as Oliver tells us, because he was in the Navy, and then away at Monequois a few years, he kind of missed out on the best girls of his generation in his general locale–he’s in his late 20’s now, not necessarily looking to get married anytime soon, but he’d like to have a steady relationship. He’s had a few short flings with some extremely short girls his mother fixed him up with (mothers used to do that?), but he can’t find anybody he wants to get serious about.

And then he does. But she’s black. And beautiful. And a fellow teacher at Schuyler Colfax. And politically radical. And a judo expert. And wants to get him fired from his job. Obviously he falls head over heels in love with her (this was going to be a movie, remember?). And I think that’s enough set-up for now. Next week–the actual review. What’s that you say? Will I stick to talking about the book, and avoid out-of-left-field asides that don’t seem germane to anything? This must be your first time reading The Westlake Review. Later, bros.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance