Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
Cypher: I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important–like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.
(No, Donald Westlake didn’t write this dialogue, but I bet he enjoyed it).
“The symbolic weight you carry, darling,” Lorraine assured him, “would crush a lesser man.”
Pleased, smiling like a puppy, Jack said, “Do you really think so, darling?”
“Darling,” Lorraine said, holding tightly to his hand as they strode along the beach, “in many ways you’re a monster, a statement of infantile voracious appetite. And yet at the same time you are God’s holy fool, the sacred monster, the innocent untouched by the harshness of reality. You can be the hero, incredibly strong, and yet even I don’t know the depths of your vulnerability.”
Jack loved to hear talk about himself. He listened as they walked together, nodding, absorbed in what she was saying. “Tell me more,” he said.
Sacred Monster is a novel about the rise and fall and rise and etc. of a major motion picture star who is also a gifted but extremely eccentric actor. A Brando, a Pacino, a DeNiro, a James Dean, a Steve McQueen, and, I’d posit most of all, a Jack Nicholson (though as opposed to The Comedy is Finished, the protagonist’s bio can’t easily be matched up to any specific real-life star, which probably made it easier to get published). Before we start in on this one, why don’t we run down the thespian-oriented books Westlake had penned ere now.
There were the three Phil Crawford sleaze paperbacks of the late 50’s/early 60’s, about the life of a callow young stage actor, and his seemingly endless love affairs. Some other Westlake pseudo-porns dealt with acting (there was one about the porn industry, redundant as that may sound), but Westlake wrote so many of these, under so many different names, we’ll just take these three as representative. I’ve only read the first of the Crawfords, didn’t think much of it, but was rather struck at how hard Westlake worked on describing the theatrical milieu, when all the sleazy publisher cared about was the sex.
There was Pity Him Afterwards, a psychological thriller about an escaped paranoid psychotic who kills a young stage actor, takes his place, and joins the small summer rep company his victim was about to join–the hero of that story is an actor as well. They never do get around to performing the play they’re rehearsing. We’re told the madman feels very much at home in the theater.
There were the four Alan Grofield novels, about an actor/heister, who bankrolls his perpetually bankrupt little theater in rural Indiana by committing armed robbery, with and without his friend Parker. We never get to see him act on stage (even in rehearsal), but it seems like he’s always performing to some extent, sees even his criminal activity as a form of performance art. Grofield, we’re told, could easily become a financial success on television, maybe even in movies, but he won’t use his craft that way. Being in Richard Stark novels, selling out isn’t really an option for him. An alternate universe version of him appears in some early Dortmunder books, and he sells out right quick in those.
Westlake turned a script he’d written for a movie that never got made into what I think was his worst novel ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, about the kidnapping of the #1 box office star in the world, who is so fed up with her high-stress lifestyle that she treats the kidnapping as a sort of vacation, once she realizes the people who snatched her are harmless. But title character though she is, she’s really a supporting character, and rather a nice well-balanced person overall. Westlake may have gotten some of the inspiration from this for research he did into the life of Elizabeth Taylor, having written a sensitive (for the genre) unauthorized tell-all biography of her under a pseudonym, that had the misfortune to be written and published just before her epic romance with Richard Burton.
In the literary double-feature Enough, which collected two novellas of his, the second story, Ordo, was about an unsophisticated sailor of that name who found out that Estelle Anlic, the naive teenager he’d been married to briefly before her mother broke them up had become a film star named Dawn Devayne, and it’s basically a detective story in which Ordo tries to find out what happened to the girl he used to know, who has been subsumed into this new persona.
There were also the four Samuel Holt novels, about an actor who never even did live theater, just went straight to Hollywood after being discovered, got cast as the lead of a hit TV series after a very short apprenticeship, then found out after the show ended that he’d been typecast, and he couldn’t get work as anyone other than the only character people knew him for. He kept having to solve mysteries for some reason. Oh, and he had two beautiful girlfriends, one on each coast, and they knew about each other, and went right on dating him. Not what you’d call an exercise in realism, but then again, reality is notoriously overrated.
There are also many references to actors and the theater and movies and television throughout many if not most of Westlake’s novels. And Westlake’s two excellent but commercially problematic unpublished novels, that were only released after his death–Memory and The Comedy is Finished. Both of them about actors. One of them a rising stage performer (perhaps destined for the movies) who lost his memory, and with it his ability to act, after a disgruntled husband skulled him with a chair.
The other is about a kidnap victim patterned very obviously after Bob Hope, and like his model, a major film star for some time. We get quite a lot of background on him, his rise to success, the chaos of his personal life, his oddly fluid identity, his penchant for commenting wryly on the hellish situation he’s in. But not much of an actor, really, and he mainly just did minor variations on the same role–the clown in danger. The role he’s playing in real life in the book. He’s no longer making movies by the time we meet him. Comedian first, actor second. Westlake had to put this book aside for various reasons, having put a lot of work into it. In some respects, Sacred Monster is him coming at the same problem from a different angle.
So that’s at least fifteen novels and one novella dealing with actors of one sort or another, plus many other peripheral references to thespians in other novels, and let’s not even worry about short stories. Donald Westlake was himself an actor for a time–that part of his life is not well-documented (like the rest of his life). What roles did he play? He referred to himself as a ‘former spear carrier’–it’s unlikely he ever had any leading roles. But out on the straw hat circuit you never know–maybe he was the star’s understudy sometimes? Thing is, even if he had some acting talent, he didn’t have the looks to be a leading man. And well he knew it.
Then again, the movie actors he’d have most admired weren’t always lookers themselves. Mr. Westlake was an avid fan of Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and 40’s–Cagney and Robinson were hardly fashion plates, even Bogart seems ugly by modern standards. He might have allowed himself a few fleeting fantasies of showbiz glory, even as he began to concentrate more and more on writing fiction for a living. In any event, writers call on their past experiences to create, just as actors do. There are many points of similarity between the two professions, as he often observed.
So even though he wasn’t an actor very long, his need to support his family forced him to keep the lines of communication open with Hollywood, and he kept coming back to his brief tantalizing experience with the stage, to his avid yet ambivalent love of movies, to the lucrative yet compromise-laden world of television, and as always, to the question of identity. What is an actor’s true identity? Does he or she ever really know? If your mission in life is to become other people–to disappear into a role, then another–then how can you be yourself? And is there not a similar problem for the writer of fiction, who has to inhabit many different people in the course of just one story?
And at a certain point, he just seems to have had enough. He stopped writing Grofield novels, and never returned to the character when he resumed writing Parker novels in the 90’s–the other Grofield disappeared from the Dortmunders as well after Nobody’s Perfect. He abandoned the Holt series after a short time, he never published the two novels of his that dealt most directly with acting and show business (in part because he had a hard time finding publishers for either of them). When he wrote a second Sara Joslyn novel, Trust Me On This having dealt with actors to some extent, it was focused on the country-western music scene.
There may be a few minor exceptions I can’t bring to mind this moment, but it would be fair to say that after he wrote and published this book we’re looking at now that deals entirely with the world of theater and film, he stopped writing about actors and showbiz altogether. The bug was out of his system at long last. This is his final statement on the subject. And it’s one of his best and funniest novels. But also quite possibly his strangest.
Remember how the Hollywood gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, used to interview movie stars sitting by their swimming pools, said star often attired in a swimsuit or robe, while he or she talked about his or her meteoric rise to fame and fortune from humble origins, while making it clear they’re still just regular folks down inside? Well of course not, you’re much too young to remember that kind of thing, but you remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons that parodied that type of interview, no? Well, that’s the format of this novel–an interview. By a swimming pool. Of a movie star. In a robe (and nothing else, which is unfortunate at times).
Our protagonist, Jack Pine (best as we can tell, his real name–don’t you love farce?), believes the bland-looking gentleman interviewing him is from People or some other such celebrity-obsessive publication. He’s a bit unclear about recent events, and for some reason keeps refusing to look directly at the swimming pool he’s sitting (then lying) by, but he stubbornly clings to this delusion throughout the interview.
We the readers are made privy to more information–the interviewer is a cop, and there has been a murder. Michael O’Connor, detective second grade, has been assigned to get background information on the prime suspect. Well really, they could have just asked for his press clippings. But perhaps a few salient details have been left out of those.
There is the typically atypical chapter structure, of course. The book opens in first person format, with Jack sharing his inmost thoughts and sensations (and hangover) with us, but then switches to a third person flashback–each flashback is numbered. Sometimes lettered as well, when a given scene is revisited to be viewed from a different camera angle.
So it goes throughout the book, back and forth between brief first person reveries at the pool and detailed third person flashbacks, moving us through Jack’s life from high school to acting school to Broadway to Hollywood to stardom to superstardom to all that goes with superstardom–but Jack is apparently telling O’Connor all of this himself (quite possibly in third person format, it’s not clear) and O’Connor keeps asking him how Jack knows what was happening and who said what in a given scene where Jack wasn’t even present.
Jack simply says “One knows such things.” In other words, he perceives not merely his life, but the life of everyone he ever met, as one big movie he’s the star of (probably has script control in his contract by now), and he knows by now how such scenes tend to go, formulaic conventions you see, so where his memories give out, he just fills in the blanks with melodramatic tropes picked up over a lifetime of bad movies and plays. There’s a few specific blanks he doesn’t particularly want to fill in, but we’ll get to that.
Just to make things a bit more complicated, there are also several scattered chapters referred to simply as ‘Lude’–meaning interlude. Really strange interludes. Brought on by (among other things) quaaludes. Jack just shuts down, and stops responding to external stimuli, making O’Connor’s job quite impossible. He has been imbibing so many arcane substances for so long now, that his grasp on reality, not to mention consciousness, has become sorely compromised. There are a lot of ‘Tommy can you hear me?’ moments (hmm, how many Nicholson movie references can I fit into this thing?) Also one dream sequence, Jack floating down a celestial staircase, and ya know, Bob Fosse could have done a great job directing this if he hadn’t up and died, but them’s the Missouri Breaks (a bit forced, but I’ll work on it).
Jack’s taciturn manservant Hoskins (English, of course), has to keep being called over from the house to administer various supplemental chemicals in finely balanced dosages, to keep Jack functioning (after a fashion) until the interview is over. Hoskins is a delight, Westlake channeling Wodehouse again, but with a twist–Jack has to keep prompting Hoskins to play the part of the impeccably irreverent manservant correctly–when Jack yells for him, he’s supposed to respond “You bellowed, sir?”, and he keeps blowing the line. Jack’s reaction to pretty much all of life is “Am I the only one who knows his cues?” Except by the time we meet him, he keeps forgetting them himself when he’s working, because of all the substances. Well, that’s what film editors are for, right?
There are so many juicy quotes from this one, I could do a ten thousand word review that was nothing but quotes. But I don’t want to do that. Nor do I want to make this a two-parter. So let me try to do the synopsis more quickly this time. Spoilers abound, not that this book is really about who did what to whom.
Jack Pine grew up in a small town named Grover’s Corners (I completely missed the Thornton Wilder ref until somebody pointed it out) with his best childhood pal, whose name happens to be Pal. Buddy Pal. Farce, remember? They resemble each other quite a lot, physically speaking (psychologically speaking, not so much) and are inseparable up to the time Jack goes to New York to study acting, and Buddy goes into the army to study killing people.
Their most intimate secret stems from when they went with the local good-time girl to a secluded spot, in order to have a nice courtly gang-bang. Her name was Wendy. What else would Peter Pan’s first lay be named? Something really bad happened. Jack does his level best not to think about that, while Buddy does his level best to make sure Jack never forgets that he owes Buddy for covering it up.
So Jack is a natural actor, better in high school productions than most actors ever get–he has a positive knack for inhabiting other identities–having none himself, at least none he wants to acknowledge. He studies in New York, developing his talent by leaps and bounds, and quickly gets a part in a play with a famous but aging leading lady–in her play, and then in her bed (Jack has no sense of sexual shame at all, which on the whole is one of his good qualities).
Then while they’re having sex in her limo, she dies of a heart attack, in mid-orgasm. Although he feels, with some justification, that he made her last moments happy ones, Jack is most distraught (brings up unpleasant memories). So is the lady’s powerful agent, who blacklists him in the legit theater for life, for not having the good taste to stay away from her funeral.
Jack, not to be deterred, gets an introduction to a famous playwright, who holds court out on Fire Island. The playwright immediately falls madly in love with him–because Jack is attractive, sure, but also because he’s the spitting image of the lead in a play the guy was writing at the time. So Jack (who is not even a little bit gay but hum a few bars…) goes to bed with him too, because hey, it’s a really good part in a play! And doesn’t everybody deserve a little love? Or at least a reasonable facsimile?
O’Connor, the Irish cop, does not think so–he’s disgusted with Jack at this point in the story. I mean, the actress in her sixties was bad enough, but this?
“The point is,” the prissy interviewer says, viewing me with loathing, “the point is, you slept your way to the top.”
“I did not.” I frown at him with offended dignity. “I slept my way to the middle,” I correct him frostily. “I clawed my way to the top.”
It’s an important distinction. And who does this two-bit reporter think he is, anyway? Jack still not processing what’s going on, fortunately for us.
The play is a hit, but even hits close eventually, and Jack is still blackballed anywhere else in the world of theater–that agent is really powerful. Buddy Pal reappears in his life, attacking himself like a shark to a remora (yes, I know, but it doesn’t work the other way), and Jack is now sleeping rather more enthusiastically with his co-star, a tall sardonic brunette named Marcia Callahan, who also fits Buddy in on the side. Somehow I see her as a young Paula Prentiss–one knows these things. Though I suppose Suzanne Pleshette could work. Jean Peters? Rosalind or Jane Russell? You know, there’s been a lot of tall sardonic brunettes in showbiz. Not nearly enough for my tastes, but a lot. I digress.
Marcia heads out to Hollywood to do the movie version of the play that Jack wasn’t deemed suitable for. Not having anything better to do (or anyone) he follows her out there. She gets tired of him hanging around the place (all play, no work…), so she gets him hooked up with a Hollywood agent (not literally hooked up this time), who doesn’t care that he’s blackballed on Broadway. Hollywood agents don’t give a solitary shit what powerful theatrical agents think about you or anything else in life. And this agent sees potential in Jack Pine. The statue encased in the marble.
Irwin Sandstone’s blunt thumb caressed the statue’s budding breasts. “I am a mere servant of the creative impulse, Jack,” he said, circling and circling. “It’s your unique gift we’re concerned with here, not the life or goals or dreams of Irwin Sandstone.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jack.
Irwin’s fingers oiled and warmed the bronze. “How to mold, how to shape, how to bring out to the acclaim of the multitudes that unique talent deep within you, that is my humble duty, that is my mantra, to serve great talents, to be the willing stepping stone on which they rise, to do whatever is within my small powers”–with a wave at the power-reeking office–“to bring each wonderful unique private talent to its greatest glory. That is what I wish do do with you, Jack. If you agree. Will you give me that task, Jack? Will you order me to make you great?”
Accommodating, Jack said, “Sure.”
Fair to a fault, Jack says later in his narrative that Irwin was the real genius of the two of them–I kind of wonder how Westlake’s own agent, Henry Morrison, reacted to this passage. But he was used to Westlake’s sense of humor by now (even though he originally told Westlake not to try writing comedy, it would ruin his career–then he made him write an Arthur Hailey parody that was pitched to the publisher on a roll of toilet paper).
So they do the normal progression of roles for an up and comer with actual acting talent–first a biker picture, then a psycho killer, and finally a ‘patient picture’–meaning a film where the protagonist is impaired in some way, terminally ill, paralyzed, psych ward–the full spectrum of humanity, in other words. You can see why I thought about Jack Nicholson, not that his early career can be summarized so neatly. (The hell it can’t, but I’m being polite.)
And yadda yadda yadda, Jack’s a major movie star. Not without the odd few bumps in the road, to be sure. Like finding Buddy in bed with Marcia, who is Jack’s wife by that point (they had a charming little ceremony at a Hollywood church that has been a backdrop to many a film, and the guests were all extras hired by the studio, but still man and wife in the eyes of God and Man and Variety).
Jack eventually forgives Buddy (after stabbing him repeatedly with a rubber prop knife while shooting the psycho picture in Mexico), and told Marcia the baby better look a lot like him (but since Jack looks a lot like Buddy, and DNA testing is a long way off yet….). That marriage is not long for this world, but here’s my problem–ever hear the one about the big macho film star who caught his wife in bed with his best friend? Me neither. That’s not in any movie I ever saw. Where’d that come from? Hmmm. Well, inquiring minds don’t need to know everything.
With Marcia gone, Jack invites his parents to live with him at his Malibu beach house. Then remembers they are both really hard to live with (Jack’s mother is clearly nuts, and let’s just say the apple didn’t fall far), so he leaves them there at the beach house, chaperoned by an illegal immigrant from Guatemala named Constanza. At least she wants to see the endless snapshots of his sister’s kids his mother keeps waving around.
Jack gets a ranch in Topanga Canyon. Of course he does.
The people of Topanga Canyon are loners, oddballs, dropouts, believers in alternatives. They are not fierce pioneers, the progenitors of capitalists, but gentle solitaries, aware of the fragility of all things in the fragility of themselves. They do not pound deep foundations into the earth’s skin, do not thrust steel erections at the indifferent sky. Their houses are modest, set apart from one another, colored in earth tones of orange and brown and green. Unpainted rail fences enclose their horses: yes, they have horses. Their driveways are likelier to be of gravel or dirt than glittering blacktop. They grow egglant and tomatoes and marijuana. Their lives are so in tune with their environment, they blend in so well with their terrain, that they are barely noticeable in their bivouacs up on the steep sides of the many canyon walls. Only their television reception dishes stand out, amazingly, looking in this setting like UFOs from outer space. (They believe in UFOs).
Sounds nice. Jack finds God there. Also nice. Reverend Cornbraker, who helped him find God (for a very reasonable fee) turns out to be a child molester. Not so nice. Buddy, sensing another shark clinging to his remora, brought Jack the photos. “I didn’t know anybody could do it in that position,” Jack mentions. Buddy explains that young bones are very supple. A ‘Lude’ follows. Jack was very very upset about Reverend Cornbraker.
Deprived of God, Jack turned to drugs. But first he tried the ultimate drug–Love. The real thing this time. Well, as real as it could ever get for someone like him. Her name was Lorraine. She came to him a simple graduate student from Chicago, beautiful, auburn-haired, effortlessly chic, doing her doctoral thesis on ‘Post-Camp Male Nonaggression in the Popular Arts.’ “Naturally, I was one of the people she had to interview.” O’Connor is really wondering by this point if this interview will ever end. While you wonder the same thing about this review.
So they have amazing sex, and they talk about various profound intellectual topics (mainly relating to Jack, which he enjoys, see the quote up top). They call each other ‘darling’ every other sentence, which kind of makes you want to find a way into the book to murder them, but that never works. They get married at the London registry office. Not the first celebrity wedding conducted there, it seems.
“I remember,” O’Connor says, “the news footage of the two of you coming out of there, protected by the bobbies, with the crowd of fans in the street.”
“They’re there all the time,” I say modestly. “I believe they camp out there. Some say they’ve been there since the Paul McCartney wedding, others that it goes back as far as Elizabeth Taylor. Some scholars suggest a Druid connection, but I don’t go that far.”
So all is bliss for Jack and Lorraine, but not for poor Buddy Pal, and one occasionally hears the stirring sound of a face being soundly slapped when he and Lorraine are in another room. Well, they can’t all be Marcia. Lorraine would just as soon Jack cut Buddy out of his life entirely, but of course Jack can’t do that, for reasons O’Connor would avidly like to learn, but in the meantime something else unpleasant happens, as it so often does to famous people, which is why supermarket tabloids are so profitable.
A young woman of rather questionable background and appearance accuses Jack of fathering her rather questionable infant, which he absolutely did not do. Her questionable family and attorneys back her up. Still no DNA testing (barbaric times). Jack’s case looks hopeless–even the superb quality of his expensive legal team makes him look guilty. But he devises a cunning stratagem–didn’t do all those courtroom dramas for nothing, you see. All he needs is a few good women.
It’s a major Hollywood paternity trial. As should go without saying, his wife, and his former wife, and three former girlfriends (obviously Jack does not refer to them as five easy pieces) are all present in the courtroom. Protocol. He asks them all to step forward and display themselves to the jury, which they do, looking confused. He asks the jury to compare these sexy sophisticated gals he has married and/or had wild affairs with to the rather unappetizing plaintiff. He spreads his hands, in the great tradition of irreverent Westlake protagonists. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury….I ask you.” The jury finds for the defendant.
And then a seething Lorraine dumps him for being a sexist womanizing pig–which she surely already knew that he was, having done her research, but there are different levels of knowing, and she can’t handle the truth. Some verdicts you can’t appeal. She keeps right on calling him ‘darling’ on her way out the door, but the darlings have a certain bite to them now–no longer terms of endearment. Buddy tries to look sympathetic. Jack tries to drown his sorrows in drink, among other things. Many other things. We’ve been over that.
Jack’s work begins to suffer, but he’s such a big star now, so well-established in the minds of the movie-going public, he’s got what you might call tenure. His name alone fills theater seats, and somebody like that keeps getting callbacks from studio heads, no matter what he does. In the days of the old studio system, a Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner might have run him out of town. But we’ve arrived at the era in movie making where the superstars really did run the roost most of the time. Jack never forms his own production company, because he’s too stoned, but he can work when he wants to. And this is how he typically works now.
At the far end of the set, he brought up against the interior door, which was not in fact a working door at all, so that he didn’t pass through it but merely brought up hard against it, with force enough to make the whole set tremble. Recoiling form this encounter, he reeled back through his previous carnage to the middle of the set, where at last he managed to come to something like a stop; through he trembled all over, like a race horse after the meet.
And he wasn’t quite finished yet. Turning to say something to the director, raising one expressive hand, index finger upthrust, he lost his balance yet again. This time, he tottered backward, feet fumbling and stumbling with the shards and shreds of his previous passage, until he reached the wall of the set. Here he flung his arms out to the sides as though crucified and leaned back against the wall, which gave way, the whole canvas rear of the set slowly falling over, Jack riding it down backward, arms outspread, an expression of harried but mild surprise on his face as he and the wall went completely over and landed with a mighty whoosh and great puffs of dust.
No one said a word. A final clink was heard from somewhere. The dust slowly settled. And then the director spoke. “Cut,” he said.
There’s a whole short chapter of that (Flashback 19), and it’s a small marvel of comic timing, absolutely first-rate slapstick, and I still have to say–it would work better visually, on film. With the right actor and director, obviously. That’s an underlying problem of the book–that you keep finding yourself wanting to see the movie adaptation that doesn’t exist. With a forty-ish Jack Nicholson playing Jack Pine (okay, so pick your own sacred monster, see if I care).
Parts of it would be hard to bring across visually, of course–certain bits of verbal ju-jitsu that few besides Westlake could ever do just right in any medium. The constantly switching perspectives (and states of consciousness) might be tough to pull off. But overall, I think this should have been a movie, and maybe Westlake thought it might be–Hollywood has never really had a problem with satirizing itself (because like Jack, it believes it’s the only really interesting subject in the world), but maybe this hits a bit too close to home, and is not quite sufficiently respectful. Underneath the light farce, there’s a lot of really biting sarcasm, and a scathing disrespect for glamor. But anyway, the industry Westlake was spoofing here doesn’t quite exist in that form today, though certain universal constants hold true (and not just at Universal). The moment has probably passed.
So Jack finally finds his one true love–and his name is Oscar. Stoned out of his mind, he gives what would probably have gone down as the most embarrassing acceptance speech ever, had it actually happened (though the qualifier stands). Probably should have sent a Native American up to claim the trophy for him. He departs the stage holding Oscar in one hand, and the right breast of the busty starlet who presented the award to him in the other–and then he marries her. Seriously. Their wedding at that same little chapel he married Marcia in turns into a riot, with everybody fighting everybody, and the happy couple viciously mauling each other. Thankfully, he can just get that annulled, since he only had carnal knowledge of her before the ceremony.
And now he just spends most of the year at a compound (the very one he’s giving this interminable interview at), with lots of private security, and Buddy hires nubile young things for him to chase naked around the grounds (they are instructed to let him catch them eventually, otherwise he’d never get any). Hoskins has mastered the art of maintaining the proper balance of chemicals in his system. He only has to work once a year or so. He just did an apparently obscenity-laden remake of the most overrated film in history. (“Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a flying fuck!”)
His one really bad moment came when a young woman having a bad trip at a friend’s cliff side home ran through a window with a splendid scenic overlook, and fell to her death. That brought back some really bad memories. The van. The girl. The lake. O’Connor finally gets to the bottom of that lake–Buddy had already had the girl, and Jack was up next, but he lost control of himself, playing the role of a lover (it was his first time), pretending he was confident macho Buddy–and he killed her by accident in the course of the wild ride–no easy rider, he (is anybody keeping score?). Buddy and Jack, at Buddy’s insistence, pushed the van into a nearby lake. The body was found, but the girl was known to drink too much, and the car was her father’s.
But O’Connor (who Jack now understands is not from People, or even US Weekly, nor is he from the Enquirer, so Jack can’t set the dogs on him, even if he had any, as Hoskins helpfully reminds him he does not), was never here about that past indiscretion. It’s useful background detail, explains some things, but out of his jurisdiction. He’s there interviewing Jack Pine because in that swimming pool Jack keeps refusing to look at is the waterlogged corpse of Buddy Pal. Jack had meant to dump his body in a lake too, which would have had a nice dramatic symmetry to it, but he was so high at the time, he thought the pool was a lake. He’d done such a good job cleaning up the crime scene, but he blew the last detail.
And why did he kill his other self, his alter-ego, his best and oldest friend in the whole wide world? Because Buddy had just come back from Brazil where (as is well known) the best plastic surgeons in the world reside (Jack goes once a year now), and such is his pre-existing physical resemblance to Jack, it didn’t take that much work for him to be the spitting image of the star–frankly, he looks a lot better than the prematurely aged Bacchus Jack has become.
And all of Jack’s hangers-on, including his agent and doctor, are in on the scheme. Jack’s no longer the actor he used to be, he’s working much less, and his asking price keeps going down because of his unprofessional behavior. He’s not so much an actor as a brand, and the brand is losing its value. His talent has degraded past the point of no return. He just shows up, as he himself admits to O’Connor, and does a sort of impression of himself. He can still do the tics, the vocal mannerisms, but the only part he’s playing now is Jack Pine, or rather the public perception of Jack Pine, and that’s all anybody really expects now, so nobody will notice it’s not him anymore, since it hasn’t been for a while now. Jack will be sent to a rest home somewhere, given all the drugs he wants, and Buddy Pal will take his place, become the sacred monster.
But the real monster wouldn’t have it, you see. Steal my scene, will you? Nobody puts Jackie in a corner! He ran screaming at Buddy, wielding his Oscar like a tomahawk, and clubbed his bosom chum to death in the parlor with it. (Hey, is there a celebrity version of Clue?) Finally forced to recall this, he is horrified to know he did that to Buddy, and even more aghast he did it to Oscar, who will never be the same again. Those statuettes aren’t as solid as they look.
And that concludes the interview. The little shop of horrors is all sold out. O’Connor beckons the men in blue to take Jack away, and he accepts the situation graciously, telling Hoskins he’ll be back in maybe twelve years. Given the situation, his celebrity status, and the ample evidence of his confused mental state, I doubt it would even be that long. He’s in his early 40’s now, much as he may look older. A few years of detox. Lots of publicity (and need I remind you there’s no such thing as bad publicity for a movie star?). When he gets out there’s always Brazil–a quick trip for a quick nip.
With Buddy gone and much of his entourage probably doing jail time along with him, his operating expenses will plummet, and funds will accrue. The studios will get into ferocious bidding wars over him once he’s back on the market. Nobody will care that he can’t act anymore. His battered Oscar will have a twin in no time. Forget it Jack (or even two Jacks), it’s Tinseltown.
Nothing can kill the Sacred Monster. Least of all the critics. Who mainly loved this book–even the New York Times was kvelling over it. But it didn’t make that much of a splash (sales were probably decent enough). Too far outside what was expected of Donald E. Westlake, and he wasn’t really trying with the murder mystery he stuck in there for the sake of form. More Sunset Boulevard than Double Indemnity.
It’s a very funny book that might have made an even funnier film. Hollywood’s loss, our gain. Cynical as all hell, of course. But you know what Jack Pine would say about that?
“My friend,” I say, “you just used a word that has no meaning.”
His face is blank. “I did?”
“Cynical. You see, my friend, it’s a spectrum,” I say, and spread my hands like a fisherman lying, and very nearly, very nearly, very damn nearly spill the remains of my fuzzy drink, but recover in time and continue: “It’s a spectrum,” I say. “Here at this end is the romantic, and over here at this end is the cynic. So wherever you are on this here spectrum here, you’re the realist, and everybody on that side is too much of a romantic, and everybody on that side is too much of a cynic.”
And a rare few people in this world get it just about right, balance out the romantic and cynic, give both their proper due in life. Westlake was one of those. But there is one bit of indisputable cynicism in this book–that comes in Flashback 11, where we are told that after their marriage, Jack and Marcia moved into a larger house that had formerly been owned by “a television star named Holt who’d committed suicide when his series was canceled.” That’s an atypically mean-spirited dig by Mr. Westlake at his recent failed attempt at self-reinvention, and doesn’t really fit the arc of the protagonist in those books (not that most readers of this book would even get the reference). Mr. Westlake possibly still needed some anger management on the subject of Samuel Holt.
And here’s the crowning irony (which rhymes with Ironweed)–Westlake basically used this book to purge himself of his lingering infatuation with acting, with showbiz, as I already mentioned. He made a lot of money in Hollywood, wrote a lot of stories about acting, but artistically speaking, it rarely worked out that well–the movies or the books. He evidently felt like he finally did the subject justice here, after so many attempts, and as we’ve seen before, this meant he could put it behind him, move on to something else. Personally I would say his best novel with an actor as the main protagonist is Lemons Never Lie, but that book is not about the acting world, and this one is. So with that one checked off the bucket list, he never wrote another book about actors, at least not that I know of.
And right around the time this book was in stores (this is the irony part), Westlake was on the set of what would be the best movie he ever wrote the script for, as well as the finest and truest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel ever lensed. And that’s up next. This one’s as good it it gets for Mr. Westlake and the movies. I swear it. Prizzi’s honor. Oh like you could do better. Drive, he said.
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)