Category Archives: The Comedy is Finished

Review: Sacred Monster

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.   The bug was out of his system at long last.  This is his final statement on the subject.  And 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 eggplant 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 unquestionably 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 reverent enough in its irreverence.  Underneath the light farce, there’s a lot of really biting sarcasm, and a scathing disrespect for glamor, perhaps the deadliest of sins in Lalaland.  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.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ordo, Samuel Holt Novels, The Comedy is Finished

Review: The Comedy is Finished

“And now,” Koo was going on, “I’m supposed to read this statement. Here goes: I am being held by elements of the People’s Revolutionary Army–huh, think of that–and have so far not been harmed–except for the punch in the nose, let’s not forget about that.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not materi–Wait a minute.  I don’t usually get words like this in my scripts.  The only really big word I know is BankAmericard.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not ma-ter-i-a-lis-tic-ally or-ien-ted–there–and so this is not a kidnapping in the ordinary capitalist sense.  Well, that’s a relief.  We have chosen Koo Davis not because he is rich–smart, very smart–but because he has made a career of being court jester to the bosses, the warmongers and the forces of reaction.  You left out the Girl Scouts.  Okay, okay.  The United States, which trumpets endlessly about civil rights in other nations, itself has thousands of political prisoners in its jails.  Ten of these are to be released and are to be given air passage to Algeria or to whatever other destination they choose.  These ten are to be released within the next twenty-four hours or a certain amount of harm will come to me.  I don’t think I like that part.”

“You’ve two hopes. Bob Hope and no hope.”

Variously attributed

At the end of my last review (so very long ago, sorry about that, life gets in the way), I left out my usual segue into the next one, because I hadn’t decided yet what the next review would be.   I do these based on order of publication, but as with Memory, this is a book that wasn’t published in Westlake’s lifetime, so I have to estimate when it would have been published, the alternative being to review books he respectively wrote in the early 60’s and late 70’s after the very last Parker and Dortmunder novels he wrote in the early 21st century.

This would be unsatisfying to me, since I’m trying to chronicle the evolution of a writer here.  Each book Westlake wrote was a product of the time he was writing it in, and almost invariably set in that time, or not long before it.  This book he seems to have written sometime in the late 70’s;  it would have presumably been published after Kahawa, and was certainly written before Why Me?   So I’m putting it here.   It’s a judgment call, and I’ve called it.

Hard Case Crime handled both posthumous additions to the bibliography, and did a splendid job with both.   However, I’ve never been fully satisfied, in either case, with the explanations presented as to why these books were only published after Westlake’s death.   In both cases, a manuscript turned up, and his estate gave the okay–in neither case did he leave any instructions in his will or with loved ones for what might be done with two full length novels he clearly spent a lot of time and effort on–and they are finished novels.  Complete polished works that must have undergone multiple drafts and are easily superior to any number of high profile critically lauded novels that will be published this year, or any year.

If he’d wanted to, he could have gotten them both in print before he died.  Why didn’t he want to?   Westlake published pretty nearly everything he wrote–few writers have been his equal at getting into print, and many of the books he produced were difficult to pigeonhole, not what people associated with him, but they still got first editions, and sometimes second and third editions.

Far as I know, the last remaining unpublished work of any significance is an autobiography, that he put aside unfinished, and we hope to see that someday, but not hard to understand why an unfinished book full of personal revelations about himself and others would stay in the vaults a while longer.   Memory was not in an identifiable genre, and is an exceptionally dark pessimistic story by any standard, so you can understand him feeling like maybe there wasn’t a market for it (I have some other ideas about why he didn’t try to get it out there, and you can read my review of it to find out what they are).

But this novel we’re looking at now is very much in the crime/suspense genre he was known for, with plenty of the wry oddball humor people expected from him. It’s a fast-paced entertaining read, with a bloody yet weirdly optimistic finish, and I’ll just say it right now–it’s one of the best books he ever wrote.  I’ll climb all the way out on the limb, and say it’s a minor masterpiece.  It’s a book that contains many a portent of things to come–things happening right now.  And it would have been a damn dirty shame if it never got into print.  So why did it take so long?

The official story is that Westlake found out that Martin Scorsese was making a movie called The King of Comedy, based on a script by Paul D. Zimmerman that had gone through many rewrites since Zimmerman had first come up with the concept in the Mid-70’s (right around the time The Fan Club became a bestseller), and sold the rights to Robert DeNiro.

Although the stories are extremely different, both center around the kidnapping of a famous comedian.  In the movie this comedian is patterned after Johnny Carson (who was approached to play the character, but declined, so they got Jerry Lewis, who was terrific and atypically low-key in the role).  In the novel, he’s quite unmistakably modeled on Bob Hope.  So much so that you almost have to wonder if there were inquiries from Hope’s attorneys, but who knows if Hope ever even heard about the book, or would have minded?  Not me.

Westlake felt like he’d been beaten to the punchline, so to speak (even though he’d written a comic novel about a movie star’s kidnapping in the 1960’s).  By the time the movie (a box office flop, but an enduring cult favorite) had faded somewhat from memory, Westlake’s novel, which was about the lingering consequences of the 60’s generation gap and the counterculture, seemed dated.  The national conversation had changed; nobody would care anymore.  So he shelved the book permanently.  Westlake never was one to live in the past, and once he abandoned a project, he tended not to ever return to it.

There are some problems with the story.  For one thing, the movie came out in early 1983, and Westlake’s novel was probably finished in the late 70’s.  He could have gotten the book out well before the film if he’d wanted, and at a time when the subject matter would have seemed more current.   And for another, aside from the bare bones premise of a famous funnyman being kidnapped by people who want publicity rather than money (and one of them has a more personal motivation), there’s just not a lot of similarities there.

The King of Comedy is about the cult of celebrity, people who are obsessed with fame, with show business, whose identities get swallowed up by it (Westlake did a very different take on this concept later in the 80’s).   There are no meaningful human relationships of any kind in Scorsese’s film, because it takes place in a world where such relationships have become impossible, even unimaginable.  The Comedy is Finished is about politics, and is full of very deep passionate relationships that have been tragically distorted by radical ideologies, mutual incomprehension and (in one case) personal irresponsibility.

I admire them both–I saw the movie when it came out, considered it a classic at the time and still do–but having reread Westlake’s novel, I have to say that I consider it the better piece of work overall.  Less modern, more timeless, in spite of being set in a very specific era–one reason why Westlake, with his deep aversion to period pieces, wouldn’t have wanted it published later.  Probably wouldn’t have made as good a movie as Zimmerman’s concept.   Scorsese put his own auteurial stamp on The King of Comedy, and it became his story, much more than Zimmerman’s.  As we’ve seen again and again, no director ever quite managed to do that with anything Westlake wrote, though not for want of trying.

Zimmerman basically produced nothing else of note in his career as a fiction writer (he was a film critic), and Scorsese made a lot of changes, but an early draft of Zimmerman’s screenplay can be viewed online.   All the later changes improved it, but the basic set-up is there from the start.  Westlake had many contacts in Hollywood by this time, and that’s probably how he knew about the movie well before it came out.  It was really Robert DeNiro’s project, that he kept pushing on Scorsese, much as Rupert Pupkin keeps pushing himself on Jerry Langford.

So we may posit that Westlake worried some people would whisper that he had seen Zimmerman’s script, rushed a book into publication before the film came out.  Both stories have a deranged sexually aggressive woman menacing the kidnapped comedian, which would raise eyebrows, coincidence or no.  He’s got enough problems already, selling a story that’s full of politics and sex–two things readers of his comic capers would write him angry letters about whenever he indulged in them–that furthermore paints a sympathetic but scathing portrait of a legendary showman, beloved of Middle America.

And he’d get no support from the Left, because elements of the counterculture are his principal target here, though hardly the only one.   Where’s the audience for this book?   There’s not much comfort here for anybody.   He’d just had a major disappointment with the book sales for Kahawa.  A few more high-profile failures could really hurt him.

Even if he did know about Zimmerman’s script before starting (and my opinion is that he didn’t; that this is a sort of creative confluence that happens much more often than people realize), there’s nothing in this book that approaches plagiarism.  Professional writers know very well that’s no defense against a lawsuit if anyone can prove you knew the work allegedly copied, and while I doubt Scorsese would have sued, Zimmerman just might have, the studio might have backed him up, and Westlake depended on Hollywood for a good part of his income–and the book is full of observations that would hardly endear him to Hollywood insiders.

(Fittingly enough, years later Westlake and Scorsese would both be involved in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel–Westlake wrote the screenplay, and Scorsese ended up as one of the producers, after originally being attached to direct.  He had a fairly important consultative role; Westlake mentions meeting with him several times, and one would love to know if the subject of Westlake’s book ever came up, but somehow one doubts that question will ever be answered.)

So that’s a whole lot of speculation, without a whole lot of facts behind it, but this is a strange story, any way you tell it.  It’s one thing for a writer to work on a book, put it aside, then it gets published after his death, either in its extant form, or finished by some other writer.   Or maybe the writer just figures it’s not good enough and refuses to publish it, as Harper Lee decided with Go Set A Watchman.  I have a hard time believing either possibility holds true here.  This book is 100% finished, a finely-tuned piece of first-rate storytelling, and if not for Max Allan Collins holding on to a manuscript Westlake gave him, we wouldn’t have it now.

And no, I don’t think Collins finished it himself, though he did get hired to finish a Mickey Spillane novel recently, and critics have made open accusations regarding the provenance of Go Set A Watchman.  Let me state for the record that nobody but Donald E. Westlake could have written any part of this book.   Then let me try to explain why that is.

The story begins in 1977, with Koo Davis, aging comedian and movie star, taping a TV special before a live audience in L.A.   His career has suffered from him getting involved in conservative politics, taking the law&order/love-it-or-leave-it side of the culture wars during Vietnam.   But Vietnam is over, things are calming down, and he’s concluded he made a mistake–it’s his job to make people laugh, not lecture them.

He got involved, against his own better judgment, because ever since WWII, he was out entertaining the troops, sometimes in very dangerous places.   He sees America as The Good Guy, always, and so whoever we’re fighting must be The Bad Guy, right?  That’s how it is in the movies.  If you used the word ‘Manichean’, he’d just get confused, and probably make a crack along the lines of “Manny Kean?  I think that guy owes me twenty bucks.”  Basically, there’s nothing Koo Davis can’t turn into a punchline.

But his comic stylings are put to the ultimate test when he’s kidnapped at gunpoint while heading back to his dressing room, punched in the face, and tossed into the back of a van with a bag over his head (who writes this stuff?),  then taken to a house in the Tarzana section of L.A., where he’s imprisoned in a truly bizarre basement room, where one wall is made of glass, and looks out into a swimming pool, like an aquarium for the jet set.

This clown’s captors are a motley collection of white 60’s radicals, the kind that formed groups like the Weathermen, that set bombs in college science labs, that kidnapped Patty Hearst and reprogrammed her to spout revolutionary rhetoric and rob banks (obviously that news story helped inspire this book).

The 60’s are over now, their group’s once burgeoning ranks have been decimated, and they’re worried that history has somehow passed them by, the assurances of Marxian dialectic notwithstanding.  They need to do something to get noticed again, and kidnapping a famous conservative might do the trick–the ones that actually deserve any real blame for the state of things are too well-guarded.

Westlake once again plays with structure–the book alternates between POV’s, but with a key difference.   Most chapters are written in the past tense, and focused around one character or another–cops, kidnappers, and Koo’s deathlessly loyal agent, Lynsey Rayne, far and away the most admirable person in the book, though of less dramatic interest, because you always know what she’ll do–fight for Koo.  Like a pit bull with lots of bracelets.

But when the chapter is focused on Koo himself, it’s always written in the present tense (not including flashbacks, of which there are many), because Koo Davis lives perpetually in the here and now–all the more because he’s increasingly afraid that now is all he’s got left.  And if there’s one thing Koo can do to utter perfection, it’s terror.

“My brain is happy to be here,” Koo Davis says, “but my feet wanna be in Tennessee.”  That’s a line from Saturday Evening Ghost, one of a series of comedic spook movies Koo made in the early forties.  Portraits with moving eyes, chairs whose arms suddenly reach up and grab at the person seated there, wall panels that open so a black-gloved hand can emerge clutching a knife; and Koo Davis moving brash and unknowing through it all.  It was a genre then, everybody did the same gags: the candle that slid along a tabletop, the stuffed gorilla on wheels whose finger was caught (unknown to him) in the back of the hero’s belt so he’d be tiptoeing through the spooky house with this gorilla rolling along behind him, the hero pretending to be one of the figures in a wax museum.  The audience didn’t seem to care how often they saw these gags, and a recurring bit in Koo’s movies was the point where he would suddenly notice all those weird things around him, and become terrified.  Koo’s bit of going from absolute self-assurance to gibbering terror was one of his most famous routines, so much so that Bosley Crowther wrote in a review, “No one can make panic as hilarious as Koo Davis.”

I’m scared, Koo thinks, but he doesn’t say it aloud; it ain’t that hilarious.  Remembering how often he simulated fear in all those movies and later on television, he’s surprised at how different the real thing is.  Of course, like everyone else he’s known brief moments of fear in his life–mostly on those USO tours–but what he’s feeling now is steady, growing, ongoing.  He’s afraid of these people, he’s afraid of what will happen, he’s afraid of his own helplessness, and he’s afraid of his fear.

(And I’m afraid I know now where Westlake got the idea for the wax museum scene in Slayground, only I’ve already written that review.  Not necessarily from a Bob Hope film–he actually only did two movies in this precise sub-genre; The Cat and the Canary remake, and The Ghost Breakers, both filmed in the late 30’s.  I’m sure it seemed like more.)

You learn a lot about Koo in these chapters, most of it not the least bit complimentary.  He’s a self-centered, womanizing, cowardly little twit–not a mean bone in his body, his intentions are always good, but as a husband, a father, a lover–he just never made the grade.  He’s been married to the same woman for most of his life, but he never took his vows seriously, and it’s in name only now (a good way to keep all the busty starlets he keeps bedding at bay).   He desperately tried to connect with his two sons as they grew up, one of whom is gay–they’re basically strangers to each other.  He sees nothing of himself in them.  They don’t even laugh at his jokes, except to be polite, and as Koo knows full well, when you’re polite to a comedian, you’re killing him.

He earns some genuine moral brownie points by going to war torn areas to entertain the troops, and he’s truly happy to do it.  He was 4F during WWII, you see, and anyway, there’s no better audience than soldiers in a war zone.

But when he learns that some private has been brainwashed by the commies during the Korean ‘police action’, he goes to talk to the boy, thinking he can snap him out of it–and he gets a foretaste of what it’s like to argue with somebody who knows ‘The Truth’–thing is, not everything the boy said was wrong, and he got under Koo’s skin in spite of the latter’s patriotic self-righteousness–and it came as a shock to Koo, years later, when he found out the Feds were keeping a file on him, because of all his left-wing entertainment buddies.  That was when he realized it was time to put the politics away, and go back to making people laugh.   Better late than never.

So we see him stripped bare of every illusion, a fat aging skirt-chasing buffoon, whose only real friend is his agent (who he slept with almost as an afterthought years ago, and she’s still carrying a torch)–and we love him.  He’s Harlequin, Scaramouche, Falstaff, Punch without a Judy–the eternal clown, taking his pratfalls and slapstick blows with elan, vibrantly unquenchably alive.  And the fact that this Punch maybe deserves that crocodile hand-puppet to come swallow him up doesn’t make us root any less for him.   We’ll cheer his disembodied voice emanating from the croc’s gaping maw.

The Clown isn’t supposed to impress us with his moral fiber.  He’s there to remind us how ridiculous we are.  He’s there to spit in Death’s ugly face.   His only mission statement is to be himself.  Koo’s being punished here for having forgotten this, during the Vietnam era, the Watergate imbroglio.   But he’s remembered it again, belatedly.  So he’s the hero of the piece–one of two, really.  Koo’s out of the Westlake stable, a Nephew type, despite his age–the other hero is a bit more out of Richard Stark.  That’s right.

This is Westlake’s third and final book about a kidnapping (making me suspect he thought he’d finally licked the problem of how to write that kind of story, then put it aside forever)–it’s also the the only one to present it in the form of a conventional police procedural, switching back and forth between cops, abductors, and abductee–but there’s no easy discerned line between good guys and bad guys–the formula is deepened, made to serve a different agenda, much as Westlake had already done with the heist story.

There’s an FBI Agent, Mike Wiskiel, a smart seasoned pro, and we learn to respect his abilities–and to him, Koo Davis’ life is much less important than his own career, which hit a snag when he participated in the Watergate cover-up–which is what he thought he was supposed to do, follow orders, do favors for the big boys, but then it all went sour, the politics changed, and he found himself holding the bag, exiled to the Hollywood beat.

“Retroactive,” Mike said, dealing with the word as though it was a pebble he was moving around in his mouth.  “‘Do this,’ they said, ‘it’s your patriotic duty.’  ‘Oh yessir,’ I said. and salute the son of a bitch, and I go do it, and when I come back there’s some other son of a bitch in there and he says, ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t patriotic, it was illegal, and you shouldn’t have done it’  And I said, ‘Why I got my orders right here, I’m covered, I got everything in black and white, this is the guy told me what to do,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we know about him, he’s out on his ear, he’s in worse trouble than you are.’  So that guy’s ass is in a sling and my nuts are in a wringer and Al Capone is up there at San Clemente in a golf cart.  And who’s loyal now, huh?  Who do you trust now, the shitter or the shit-upon?”

This kidnapping case is Mike’s ticket back to the show, and he admits to Lynsey at one point that given a choice between saving Koo’s life with no good press for him and catching the kidnappers with lots of it, he’d choose the latter.  In a heartbeat.  He doesn’t want to be the shit-upon, ever again.  But aside from that, he’s just more interested in the hunt.  Protecting honest citizens doesn’t ring his bell at all.   Which reminds me of the cop from The Seventh, who is all gung-ho to catch Parker, but doesn’t give a damn who killed Ellie Cannaday.  Stark has been out of the picture for years before Westlake wrote this, and yet he’s still there, looming in the darkness, waiting his return.

Westlake’s ambivalence about law enforcement types is on full display here–his cops are by no means always comic bumblers, nor are they mere brutish stereotypes, but he can never entirely trust anyone with a badge.  Wiskiel ought to be the hero–he does eventually crack the case, performs his duties admirably (except for one serious stumble, where he badly underestimates his quarry and puts Koo’s life at risk).  He’d be the hero in a movie, or a TV show (he’d probably end up dating Lynsey), but not in this story, somehow.

Westlake respects professionalism in anyone, cop or robber, but what drives Wiskiel is careerism, which a very different thing.  He is tested and found wanting.   It’s not really his failure so much as it is that of the entire system he serves so ably and unquestioningly.  He wants to be a cog in a machine.  The one thing his creator can never forgive.

So the establishment boys are not the heroes, but neither are the would-be revolutionaries, Westlake being very much in the vein of Mercutio’s death scene here.   The greater part of the book is devoted to Koo’s abductors–that’s generally how a  kidnapping novel works, ratcheting up tension and division between the people who did the snatch, exposing their inner weaknesses, and there’s no end of those.  If the revolution depends on these people, not only will it not be televised, it won’t even get through pilot development.

Their leader is Peter Dinely, 34 years old, who has a nervous habit of chewing at the insides of his cheeks, and a determination to remake the entire world in his image.  Someday everything will be different, and people will remember that he was leading the way.  He has taken to heart Lenin’s lighthearted gibe that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  Koo’s just another egg to him.  He doesn’t particularly want to hurt anyone, certainly not in person, but he needs to make a statement.   He’s worked up a little list of ‘political prisoners’ (most of whom he’s never met, or communicated with, an unfortunate oversight on his part), and he’s going to trade Koo’s life for their freedom, then use that victory to establish himself as an important radical figure, a man of importance. The others are mere foot soldiers. He’s the general.

He knew he was the only one in the group who thought historically.  None of the others could project beyond the immediate results of action, but at least they were prepared to follow where they themselves could not see the path. Did they know why it was so vital to free the ten?  No and if he were to waste his breath with explanations, they still wouldn’t understand.  But they acknowledged his capacity and followed his orders, which made them both essential and unbearable.  Soon I must have equals about me, Peter thought, or I shall wither.

Far less dangerous (or so it seems) is Joyce, a soft-spoken shy unassuming young woman, who doesn’t seem to have strong opinions on any subject, but who somehow ended up in this group–because she always has to have a group.   She watches the TV report of Koo’s kidnapping with them.

It was the group that Joyce loved, the very idea of being part of a group.  In her childhood, she had been a Brownie, later a Girl Scout and for a while simultaneously a Campfire Girl, also a member of a Junior Sodality at church, the 4-H Club, other groups at school and college; and tonight she sat with her feet curled up under her at one end of the sofa, the complete group around her, the television offering its flickering light to the room, and she was back where it had all begun; an “overnight” with friends.  Her hand over her mouth so no one would know, her eyes on the screen without seeing it, her ears ignoring the loping cadence of Koo Davis’ voice, she giggled.

Most dangerous of all (because he’s the Richard Stark character) is Mark Halliwell, who doesn’t really seem to know or care much about left-wing politics, or anything else.   He just knows he’s angry, that the world is full of evil, and there are people out there who are responsible, and they must be punished.  It’s like an itch in his brain that he can never scratch.

Mark burned with a pure fire.  He knew what he wanted, and how to get it.  The people who made pain in the world would be stopped.  The uncaring, the smug, the self-confident, the lofty, too high and mighty to think about the people down below; they would all be toppled from their pedestals, and afterward the world would be clean.  No more hatred, no more pain, no more suffering, no more pity.  No need for pity in a world without pain.

He’s Koo Davis’ bastard son, or at least he believes he is–his mother was one of the starlets Koo was shtupping on those USO tours (she was supposed to get an abortion, and never told Koo she didn’t).  He’s the reason Koo was kidnapped, but no other members of the group know about his personal agenda, or that they’ve been manipulated to serve it.  Koo finds out pretty quick, though.  Mark can’t resist telling him.  Koo understandably believes Mark is the most serious threat to his life, but nothing is ever as it seems in this book.  Nothing and no one.

Mark is the one who keeps figuring out the ruses the FBI will come up with to try and find them, the one who understands trickery and violence best.   Even Peter is afraid of him.  Because he’s afraid of nothing.  He’d be perfectly at home in a string led by Parker, but I don’t know if Parker would want to work with him.  Too volatile, too emotional.  Maybe a bit reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, the disgraced police chief who wanted to use Parker and his fellow heist men to get revenge on a whole town.  But is Mark’s motive really revenge?   Or something else?

Larry Crosfield, by contrast, has no personal agenda, no megalomaniac ambitions, no obsessive need to be part of a group.   He just has a lot of ideas about what the world could be–some from Marx, some from himself.  He’s the group theoretician, theologian really, the one who can cite chapter and verse, but he’s having a crisis of faith lately.   We get a glimpse of what he’s writing in his notebook, to distract himself from the crime he’s helping to perpetrate.

The dreadful paradox, of course, is the absolute necessity to do evil in order to bring about good.  To make the world a better place, one must be worthy.  To be worthy, one must strive for sainthood (in the non clerical sense of total commitment to unattainable but appropriate ideals), and yet the lethargic and static forces of Society are so powerful that it requires, specifically requires, extra-social acts in order to promote change.  One must do evil while knowing it to be evil and at the same time one must strive for sainthood.  This paradox–

–is a rather sadly recurrent leitmotif in the history of ideas and social movements.  Isaiah Berlin could tell you more, if you’re interested, and so could Karl Popper, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Anatole France, Dostoevsky….  But for our purposes, Larry is merely an overly idealistic young man who persistently advocates for Koo’s health and well-being (at some risk to himself), who really wants no part of any violent act, who has let himself get pulled into a situation he doesn’t belong in.   He’s basically a more detailed work-up of the same kind of character as Dan Tynebourne, from Don’t Lie To Me.   His true nature is at odds with who he thinks he’s supposed to be, what he wants to believe.

He spends quite a lot of time trying to indoctrinate Koo, while the latter is sick as a running dog capitalist from not having all the pills he routinely pops to stay alive.   He can’t understand why Koo suddenly asks to see Mark.  Better the devil who scares you than the devil who bores you.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when Larry and Joyce realize they’re in love, that they have been for a long time, but the no-strings sexual ethic of the group, and their own innate shyness, had kept them from acting on it.  They make love, and Larry has a brief coital epiphany, courtesy of Alexander Pope.

Years ago, in college, he had memorized a portion of Pope’s An Essay on Man, thinking it expressed his own beliefs better than he ever could, and only now understanding he had always misunderstood it.  In a murmering voice, slowly, in time with their lovemaking, he recited:

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind of man.  Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, a being darkly wise and rudely great: with too much knowledge for the skeptic side, with too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, he hangs between: in doubt to act or rest; in doubt to deem himself a god or beast; in doubt his mind or body to prefer; born but to die, and reasoning but to err; alike in ignorance, his reason such, whether he thinks too little or too much.” 

“Don’t think,” she whispered, and the hint of a smile touched her lips in the semi-dark. “Larry, don’t think at all.”

(Thanks for introducing me to that poem, Mr. Westlake.  Explains a lot, doesn’t it?  About us in general, and you, specifically.)

She may be The Girl, but this isn’t a Nephew book, and the course of true love never did run smooth.  I’ll leave that plot twist for you to discover yourself.

The last member of the group is Liz (Westlake clearly chose that name thinking of a certain passage from Adios Scheherazade), a hard lean lethal blonde, with a killer body, and a back lined with scars that will never heal, the origins of which we never learn.  She walks around naked much of the time, swimming in the pool where Koo can watch her through that basement aquarium window, knowing the sight will frighten rather than arouse him.

The scars inside her are much worse.  She’s stopped believing in anything at this point, too damaged by the life she’s led, the comrades she’s lost, to really give a damn anymore, but there’s still so much anger there–towards the world, towards herself, towards men.  Towards Eric Mallock, one of the prisoners they’re trying to get released, her mentor, lover, and destroyer.

Eric had been everything.  Eric had taught her what her body was for, what her brain was for, what the world was for.  “It isn’t hard to change society,” he used to say, with his easy bright intelligent grin.  “Society changes all the time, whether we help it along or not.  Capitalism is an aberration, a mistaken turn away from feudalism–it would have been so much easier to go directly to collectivism then, simply remove the landlord class and permit the masses to absorb the land they already occupied.  All right, an aberration.  But it’s coming to an end, and unless somebody gives the whole mass a shove in a new direction we’ll simply go right back to feudalism under another name, with General Motors and Chase Manhattan instead of the kingdom of this and the duchy of that.  We have to push on it, that’s all, deflect it a little.  We may not even see the effect in our lifetimes.  Not everybody can be Martin Luther.  Columbus died having no idea how much he’d changed the world.

Change the world.  Eric changed me, and then he went away, his work unfinished.  If he’d even been killed, if he’d died along with Paul and the others, it would be easier to forgive.  What did it matter that he had abandoned her unwillingly, only because he’d been captured and put in jail? He had swept her beyond the point of no return, that was all that mattered, and then he had gone away.

Take an interest?  Yes.  She did have an interest after all.  She raised her eyes, finally, to gaze at the giant television screen, where the program was about to begin, where the government was about to announce whether or not they would release Eric Mallock.  Let him go, you bastards, she willed at the screen.  Let him go so I can kill him.  And then myself.  That last journey they would take together.

And so they all watch the broadcast together, where the authorities announce their decision whether to release the ten prisoners on Peter’s list in exchange for Koo’s life.  What follows is a series of filmed or written statements from the prisoners.  And Peter really should have done a bit more research into those names.

One by one, we learn that all but three of them don’t want to go to Algeria.  The three that want to go are clearly just killers and thieves, who want out so they can go back to killing and stealing for the sake of killing and stealing, which was all they got into that revolutionary shit for in the first place.  One of them is so clearly a psychopath with no political principles (or any other kind of principles) that Algeria has refused to take him.

But the ones who want to stay in prison–their reasons are more complex.  Some are just tired, want to go back to something like a normal life.  One has a book on revolutionary theory she wants to finish, she says her activism was a mistake, a wrong turn.  One, a pacifist defrocked priest, wants to go back to being a missionary to this barbarian country.   Another, a labor activist, has been inspired by Caesar Chavez, now believes change is possible without violence.

There’s a general sense of confusion, indignation, from the ones who haven’t given up, who still believe in the cause they went to prison for (often for nothing more than minor vandalism, begging the question of why they’re in maximum security, and Nixon is golfing at San Clemente)–why would they want to go to Algeria?  The work is here.  They know who they are, and where they belong. They aren’t alienated from society–society is alienated from them.  From itself.   They are true revolutionaries–and they make the pretenders sitting in that room feel small, embarrassed, ashamed–and angry.   Peter, in particular, is filled with inchoate rage.

Eric is the biggest disappointment–his spark is all but extinguished.  He’s given up.  His revolutionary zeal has vanished with his youth.  He works on the prison newspaper, and has started a bookkeeping course for the inmates.  He doesn’t think the cause they fought for was wrong, but he now thinks their methods were wrong.   He has a pretty good idea of who is behind this kidnapping, and he flashes them a bit of his old grin, but as Liz watches him on TV, her last illusion dies.  She can’t kill the man who ruined her life.   That man died in prison.

The law is closing in.   You’ve all seen kidnapping stories, you know how this goes.  It always ends with a big showdown at the hideout, but the difference here is that you give a damn what happens to the victim, and strangely, what happens to the kidnappers, at least some of them.  Mark, particularly.  He and Koo have somehow forged a bond.  Koo is more surprised than anyone, except perhaps Mark.  Turns out Mark (who could easily be some other man’s son, and doesn’t look even the least bit like him) has somehow inherited his sense of humor, and this delights Koo–finally, somebody gets him.

Barricaded in a room together, while Peter tries to get in there so he can at least be remembered as the man who murdered Koo Davis, they trade quips, beginning to love each other, to span the generation gap, and only occasionally does Mark bring up the possibility of killing his old man.  He doesn’t really want to anymore, but it’s an option.

I’ve left out a key character–Ginger Merville, British, a smirking little rock god, not a real star, just a high-priced sideman to the stars, who for reasons of his own has chosen to bankroll these revolutionaries, without really believing in their cause.  Westlake never did care much for rock, did he?   Less about the music than the lifestyle, I think.  Too much fame and money for too little effort. Ginger seems to be playing both sides against the middle, figuring that whoever wins, he wins along with them–he figures wrong, and when he gets caught by Wiskiel, he breaks like an egg, spills everything he knows, and maybe they’ll let him play for his fellow inmates.

At a Malibu beach house they fled to after the house in Tarzana was discovered, surrounded by an army of cops and Feds, the bullets begin to fly–Liz has her final moment of vengeance on basically everything and everybody–and Mike Wiskiel reveals his true colors, as Lynsey looks on in horror and revulsion, the liberal shocked by the violence lurking in every human heart, as liberals always are (and I would know).

And all that remains at the end is a father finally standing up for his son (and it does not matter a damn whether there’s a genetic relationship or not).  All that matters to Koo Davis, when the law breaks down the door of his cell, having shot all the other kidnappers to pieces, is that they don’t hurt his boy.   He’ll do whatever he has to to keep Mark alive, and hopefully free, and that’s how he earns his survival–by acknowledging the monster he helped make, and loving him.

This is Westlake’s final dirge to the 60’s and what followed it.  It was a wild creative era, that produced much of lasting value, and much that didn’t stand the test of time.  He understands and sympathizes with the revolutionary spirit, feels the same soul-deep antipathy towards authority, has no faith at all in the system, but he knows the truth of Mike Wiskiel’s comment that “once people lose the social thread, they’re capable of anything.”

Westlake’s conservatism, if you want to call it that, is of the Burkean strain–yes, things need to change, but if they change too quickly, too chaotically, you lose everything you were fighting for.  Change can’t be imposed from outside.  It comes when people are ready, and not a moment before.  And the people who are determined to make revolutions ‘by any means necessary’ are the very last people you want in charge of your destiny.  Because they aren’t doing it for you.  You’re just another egg in the omelette.

You have to know where the line is.  “There are things a man must not do to save a nation” wrote an Irish  revolutionary named O’Leary once, and he was more right than he knew.  Today’s ‘conservatives’ don’t even seem to remember who Burke was, and they never knew O’Leary.  They’re quite often the crazed wild-eyed revolutionaries now, only believing in law & order if they can control it absolutely–and the role reversal would be comedic, if it wasn’t so horrifying.

 The Comedy Is Finished--was this Westlake trying to say goodbye to the image of him as a man who wrote funny crime books that nobody should take seriously?   Maybe not, but it must have bothered him at times, this man of many ideas, many insights, that people thought of him as nothing more than a shallow jester, his books good for nothing more than a few chuckles.   Then again, he may have decided, like Preston Sturges’ John L. Sullivan, that there’s much to be said for making people laugh in a world full of pain and disappointment and shattered dreams.

In any event, our next book is the fifth John Dortmunder novel, and a rather pivotal book in the series–also rather atypical–it culminates, you might say, in a sort of anti-heist.   I’ll try not to take so long finishing that one.   This review you’re reading now just didn’t want to get written, but at some point you have to shit or get off the pot.

As for the real Bob Hope, he died less than six years before Westlake, at the most improbable age of 100 (seriously, who writes this stuff?), and the story that was reported afterwards was that as the great comedian lay on his deathbed, his wife asked him where he wanted to be buried, and Hope replied “Surprise me.”

Westlake must have laughed for days.

Bravo, Pagliaccio.  Bravo.  

PS: Okay, I have another theory as to why Westlake gave the book its title.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, The Comedy is Finished, Uncategorized