Category Archives: Timothy J. Culver

First Read: Forever And A Death

 

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and often much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t, not even close–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.

He’d tried that back in the 80’s with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver

Review: Ex Officio

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Timothy J. Culver: The difference between a hack and a writer is that the hack puts down on paper things he doesn’t believe.  Dick Stark mentioned Mike Hammer.  Now, Mickey Spillane wasn’t a hack, not then at least, and that’s because he really believed all that paranoid crap.  But the thousand imitators didn’t believe it.  You know, one time I was talking to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he had to leave the party early to go work on an article for one of the scholarly journals.  I asked him what it was about, and he said it didn’t matter, just some piece of crap.  “But I have to keep turning them out if I want tenure,” he said.   “It’s pretty much publish or perish in this business.”  “It’s about the same in mine,” I told him.

Moderator: Frankly, Mr. Culver, you sound to me like a cynic.

Timothy J. Culver: I act based on my opinion of the world, so I am a realist.

Moderator: Donald E. Westlake, from your vantage point, would you say that Mr. Culver seems to be a realist?

Donald E. Westlake: Sure he is.  A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.

Timothy J. Culver: I understand it well enough to get by.

Donald E. Westlake: Meaning you can tie your own shoelaces.  Terrific.

From Hearing Voices in My Head, by Donald E. Westlake.

HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Politics, by William Butler Yeats

Donald Westlake will never be thought of as a political writer.   In his lifetime, he was known under his own name for ‘comic capers’ and other light-hearted entertainments (even if they weren’t always so light-hearted beneath the surface).   Under Richard Stark’s name for ice-cold novels about armed robbers.  This is what people came to expect from him, and having established himself as that kind of writer, he knew it would be hard for him to be accepted doing anything much different.

And yet there were, you might say, all these different voices in his head, and some of them did want to write about politics–not so much the campaign trail hoopla as the use of power, and the people who are accustomed to using it through long practice.   It was a subject that interested him.   Many don’t know that he published articles about Watergate, back when it was happening.  Nixon’s downfall doesn’t seem to have come as any great shock or displeasure to him.   One thing he could always do was spot a liar–he said you know a politician is lying when he answers a question nobody asked him.  “I am not a crook.”

His primary interest, always, everywhere, is identity, as I have said countless times by now.  So what would his primary interest in politics be?   The impact of power on identity, of course–well, many have been interested in that.   Lord Acton wrote that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, but what does it corrupt?  The sense of self.  You start out as one kind of person, but then by degrees you become someone else.   Perhaps the person you were destined to be, perhaps not.   The great thing about Democracy is that it limits how much power any one person can have, and that limits the potential corruption.  But only to a certain extent.   And the Democratic process itself can be corrupted, or simply overridden.

Westlake grew up Irish Catholic (America’s supreme political animals, for better and worse) in the corrupt ward-heeling world of upstate New York (that he wrote about in Killing Time), then came to the big city to become a writer.  There he was exposed to more radical (less practical) political expressions among the bohemian intelligentsia; turning 30 (the age he believed we cease to be children) the same year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, then watching President Johnson (a man he clearly disliked) drag us deeper and deeper into a destructive war that divided the nation in a way it had not been for a hundred years.  So politics was never very far away, even as he normally focused on more individualized forms of empowerment in his work.

And as he became a successful writer, a name, somebody whose books were made into major motion pictures, he would have been invited to a wider array of social gatherings, would have become acquainted with people who had real power, and who knew people who had much more.   He would have been curious about them–the rich, the influential, the power-brokers, and of course, the unofficial and mainly WASPish aristocracy that has always been there, disguised as simply more affluent well-connected commoners in our plebeian civil society, but never quite really that, when you take a closer look.

On its surface, Ex Officio is a mere political thriller, a genre that has produced many a best-selling book (which this particular representative of the genre was not destined to be).  It’s his first book for M. Evans & Co, a publisher he went on to have a very fruitful and happy relationship with under his own name, and I’d like to know more about how that came to happen.  It’s a very long complicated book with an intimidatingly large cast of characters, and must have taken him quite some time to complete.

Westlake had gotten some negative feedback for The Spy in the Ointment (basically a political thriller played for laughs) from longtime readers who didn’t expect that from him, so perhaps that’s why he chose to write this one under a single-use pseudonym, the shortlived Timothy J. Culver, who he ended up having Richard Stark murder in that mock-interview of his pseudonyms I quote from above.

By the time he wrote that piece for an anthology of articles about the mystery genre called Murder Ink (it is now happily collected in The Getaway Car), it must have been quite clear to Westlake that Mr. Culver’s services would no longer be required, though the oblivious Culver blithely declares himself indispensable.  Stark’s pistol is Westlake’s way of saying “Oh yeah?”   Made all the more ironic by the fact that as Stark complains, he hasn’t published anything in years either.

Neither has Tucker Coe, who dies mysteriously during the interview, while Westlake proclaims repeatedly that he didn’t do it, even though nobody asked him (you see what he did there).  So basically, the whole interview is Westlake pointing out that he, Westlake, is the last one standing in that battle between the voices in his head (though the fact that he leaves Stark alive and free tells us he thinks he might still have use for Parker someday, if he can just get that voice right again).

The Westlake who appears in that interview is quite disrespectful towards Mr. Culver, as you can see, and Culver himself cheerfully cops to being a hack, who writes things he does not believe.   But in reading this, and then reading the book itself, which is much more than just a series of hackneyed plot elements cobbled together to make money, I’m forced to ask–what precisely did Westlake write in this book that he didn’t believe personally?  Because I don’t believe it’s possible he believed none of it.

He could not have spent so much time and labor on something he didn’t believe in at all, even if he was ‘writing to the market’ to some extent, as he so often did in his career.   This is not a book he had any reason to be ashamed of, as Stanley Ellin’s enthused comparison of it with Seven Days in May on the cover of the paperback reprint (under the lamentable alternate title Power Play) amply demonstrates.  Ellin’s was not a name that was going to sell a lot of books to the audience this type of book is aimed at–it wasn’t his genre either–but a writer that meticulous doesn’t praise hackwork.

Seven Days in May (which became the brilliant Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster vehicle written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer) probably does mark the pinnacle of this odd hybrid form.   There are political novels, and there are thrillers, and you combine the two to get a political thriller.  The modern form of it could be said to originate with Graham Greene–Somerset Maugham has a fair claim with his witty ruminative Ashenden stories, except those aren’t novels, or particularly thrilling.  Is Richard III a political thriller?   Julius Caesar? Depends on how good the production is.

A political thriller written for the popular book market doesn’t have to have a major elected leader, such as the President of the United States, as a character–but it doesn’t hurt.   If he’s basically an ‘offscreen’ character, you can use a real person, like Charles De Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal.  In that kind of story, nothing your main characters do is going to change history; they’re just scribbling around the edges.

A variation on that would be to imagine something happening to a real life figure–Lawrence Block wrote a novel under a pen name, where a group of hired assassins set out to assassinate Fidel Castro, and one of them succeeds.  Fun book, got dated in a hurry.  And there’s always the roman à clef–John Ehrlichman’s The Company, which told a fictionalized version of the Watergate scandal, where Richard Nixon became ‘Dick Monckton’–Joe Klein did the same thing to Bill Clinton with Primary Colors, under the rather bland pseudonym ‘Anonymous’.

The rule has generally been that if the President is a major onscreen character, you use a fictional personage, so that you can do whatever you want, like have a coup aimed at toppling him ala Seven Days, or maybe have him disappear from the face of the earth for a while.  Because Americans are so invested in the image of their President (whether they like the current officeholder or not), this is invariably good for domestic book sales, and the inevitable adaptation for film or TV.

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(Peter Graves?   Was Henry Fonda not available?)

So that’s the form, and it’s led to some enormous best-sellers and a few films of lasting merit, but as literature, most of it dates very badly (not Greene, of course, but he’s the exception to every rule).   And books like these also frequently tend to fall under the heading of Airport Novels, a form we’ll talk about when we get to a much shorter and less serious Westlake novel also written under a single-use pseudonym beginning with ‘C’.

So enough build-up–time to synopsize.  The first edition hardcover runs to 498 pages, and the plot is a great deal more convoluted than your typical Westlake novel.  If I do for this book what I do for the average Parker heist, the review will run to 25,000 words, at least.  I like it, but not that much.  So let’s boil it down as much as possible.

Bradford Lockridge, former President of the United States, voted out after one term, is spending an unhappy retirement, doing ex-President stuff and hating every minute of it.   A strong-willed vital man of 70, he mopes around in his impressive family estate in rural Pennsylvania, his only real comfort being the delightful company of his quietly lovely 26 year old granddaughter Evelyn Canby and her daughter Dinah (named after Bradford’s deceased wife).

Evelyn was widowed several years before, when her soldier husband Fred was killed in Asia.   So she ended up being Bradford’s caretaker, and they are devoted to each other, as they have been since she was a child ( when she lost both her parents to an accident).   But much as she loves her grandfather, she feels sometimes as if she’s been buried alive.

Forced to attend a ribbon-cutting for a planned community in California his feckless younger brother Harrison is involved with, Bradford finds out that Harrison has once more let himself get roped into a shady deal–there isn’t enough of a water supply for the the community they’ve planned, and the partners can’t get their money back if they don’t get a lot more suckers to buy houses there, so Harrison wants Bradford to look the other way, figuring the water won’t run out for a decade or so.  Exhausted by the trip, and enraged by his brother’s self-centered stupidity, Bradford passes out on the floor.

His personal physician Joseph Holt (related to him by marriage, and let’s just state now that pretty nearly everybody in the book is related to Bradford Lockridge, in one way or another–it’s a huge extended family, and we meet nearly fifty blood relations and in-laws before the book is done) says Bradford had a very mild stroke–a warning shot, if you will–no damage done, but worse could be coming.

Still, he lets Bradford travel to Paris for a meeting with a Chinese official–relations between China and the western world still being virtually non-existent.   Okay, this might be one reason Westlake felt belatedly embarrassed by the book.   It’s pretty clear from the snippets of real-life history that are mentioned that Bradford Lockridge’s Presidency came after Richard Nixon’s–Lockridge was elected either in 1972 (Westlake not knowing Nixon will be reelected then forced to resign by scandal), or more likely in 1976 (since there’s no mention of Nixon being a one-termer), and when the book starts, it’s been 13 years since he was voted in, 9 years since he was voted out.

So it’s got to be either 1985 or more likely 1989.   Westlake putting some space between the present-day and the events of the book, so 70’s readers could suspend disbelief more readily–but that ended up backfiring.

Richard Nixon, as we all know (even if we need Google to remind us of the fine details), visited China in 1972, beginning the great thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations that led to one of the most improbable plot twists in modern history–the world’s most populous nation, ruled by a communist dictatorship, becoming, in a startlingly short time, the world’s biggest Capitalist economy (okay, they haven’t quite caught us yet, but they’re closing in).

Nobody in 1970 was expecting this–certainly not in a Nixon Presidency (who knew that China would be the one nation on earth to find him lovable?).   The book was politically and historically obsolete within about two years of its publication.   Just one more reason for Westlake to dislike Nixon.   Damn politicians.

Now you could argue Ex Officio is rather prescient in its own way, given the emphasis on an American President with a strange affinity for Red China, and given that we did elect a one-term President in 1976, who did have an embarrassing younger brother who exploited his elder sibling’s stature to promote odd business ventures (remember Billy Beer?), has been a controversial outspoken figure, and has clearly yearned for a larger role in world affairs than ex-Presidents normally get.   That’s all rather eerily on-point.

But none of that changes the fact that the book’s central premise is fatally undermined by what happened in 1972.  So you just have to say it’s an alternate timeline and go with it.  It correctly predicts that Mao would have died by then, but seeing as he’d have probably been well into his 90’s by the time the book begins (Mao died in ’76), that’s not a huge stretch.   There’s just too much specific information in the book for it not to hit its sell-by date very quickly.   It’s an inherent problem with the genre, made worse by the fact that Westlake is actually interested in political history, which I tend to doubt was the case with many more successful writers in this genre.

So Bradford has high hopes for the meeting in Paris, figuring he might be able to help accomplish what Nixon actually did in 1972, but it turns out the official was just using him to gain greater prominence at home.   He blasts the man at a press conference, and heads back in a cold rage, disgusted with himself and the world in general.  He falls into a deep sleep in his own bed back at the mansion, has a far more serious stroke, and what follows is one of the most frightening bits of prose Westlake ever typed.

Bradford’s face, even in the uncertain pale reflected light of the moonlight, now showed clear and distinct signs of the brutalization taking place within.  The two sides of his face no longer matched.  Whereas the left side looked much the same as it always had, the right side was a different face, and belonged to a far different man.  A less intelligent man, a less confident man, a less healthy man.  That side sagged, the skin looked gray and lumpy and not quite real, the  mouth drooped down so much it looked like an expression of twisted bitterness, and saliva still trickled down into a growing damp circle on the sheet.

Bradford’s bowels and bladder released.

His right hand continued to scratch and contract under the covers, making a tiny gray sound in the silence.

The thrombus blocking his cerebral artery gives way after a few minutes, but the harm has been done, to an area of the brain that governs personality.  When he wakes up the next morning, he launders his bedding himself, telling no one, thinking he was merely incontinent.   He has no idea what happened.   He does not realize that he has become a different person.  Identity is, as Westlake reminded us in Memory, a brittle construct, that can be suddenly and forever changed by relatively minor damage to that wrinkled blob of gray matter inside our skulls.

Bradford has all his memories, knows who he is, what he’s done in life, but his view of that life and his role within it, has been radically altered.   In a sense, his superego died in the stroke.  He’s lost all sense of perspective, of self-understanding, is no longer constrained by protocol.  Given his status, he is now potentially a very dangerous man (and as the book hardly needs tell us, this could just as easily happen to an incumbent President, which is perhaps why Dwight Eisenhower said nobody over 70 should ever hold that office, but I guess that ship has sailed, huh?).

In the weeks following his secret stroke, he contemplates running for congress, taking back the seat in his district currently held by a member of the other party (we are never told which party Bradford belongs to).  He points to the precedent of John Quincy Adams doing the same thing after he left the Presidency, and to bolster his argument, he invites to lunch a young history professor, Robert Pratt, a big handsome former football player, divorced for several years, who works at a university run by Bradford’s brother Sterling, who has become close friends with Robert.

The secondary purpose of this invite is to see if Robert and Evelyn will hit it off, but Bradford is already more interested in reviving his career than his granddaughter’s marriage prospects.   Robert and Evelyn go for a ride together (on horses, there’s a large stable of them–rich WASPs, remember?), and they don’t quite click, but there’s something happening there.   The obligatory romantic subplot has been established, and part of me thinks this is actually the best part of the book.

Because Evelyn is the best part of the book–the character most worthy of our admiration and sympathy.  She is, in my estimation, Westlake’s first really well-developed female protagonist, and the true hero(ine) of the piece, though there are a goodly number of other ‘POV’ characters we meet along the way, some more compelling than others, but none quite like her.  She’s our window into the entire Lockridge clan, the focal point of the narrative.

We all know Evelyn–every family has one, and no family can survive long without one.  The peacemaker, the caretaker, the one who puts her needs aside for others, the one people turn to when she’s needed, then ignore when she isn’t.

That she happens to be exceptionally pretty when she makes an effort just makes her situation more poignant–she can see life and love going on all around her, while she stands on the sidelines attending to humdrum necessities, and it’s not as if men don’t notice her, but all they seem to do is make clumsy passes.   Robert is more interesting to her, but he doesn’t even call after their first meeting, though he thinks about doing it.   Yeah.  I know.  Men.

She goes riding one fine day on the estate on her favorite horse Jester, in the splendid Pennsylvania countryside, and she cries out to no one in particular, “Life could be goddam beautiful!” and is miserable, we are told, because it isn’t.   She loves her daughter, she loves Bradford, but she needs more.   She doesn’t want Bradford to die.   And at the same time, of course, she does want him to die, so she’ll be free to live her own life.   Which just makes her more miserable, and more loyal to him.    And very much a Tolstoy heroine, under the skin.

Later in the book, Westlake has a character refer to Tolstoy’s famous dictum that happy families are all alike.  The Lockridge family is actually many linked families, some much happier than others, and we see more of the unhappy ones, because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.

It seems pretty obvious to me that Westlake, hardly hubristic enough to think he could write the American War and Peace (particularly since there is no war here, other than the cold one), certainly was reacting to Tolstoy in this much shorter book, trying for something of the same social complexity and reflectiveness, the fascination with conflicting ideas and personalities that we see in Tolstoy’s work.

His handicap is that unlike Tolstoy, he doesn’t know the people he’s writing about from the inside–and that he’s writing about the near-future instead of events that took place half a century ago.  And that he’s not as good a writer as Tolstoy.   Was anyone?   Ever?  No disgrace in that.   But leaving raw ability out of it, Westlake simply could not afford the kind of time and research Tolstoy invested in his books.  Unlike the Sage of Yasnaya Polyana, he’s doing this for a living.  He’s got to be a great deal more prolific.  He doesn’t have a landed estate to support him.

So here’s another reason he might have become disgusted with the book–that even though on one level, it’s a bloated political potboiler cranked out for money, that will be read by bored travelers stuck in airports, he’s trying to invest it with some of the same intellectual foment one finds in the great social epics of Europe and Russia, while still making it entertaining and accessible enough for the market it’s being written for.

The book is divided against itself in that way–too smart for its target audience, not smart enough to stand with the classics that truly inspired it.   To me, it’s a fascinating experiment, but not an entirely successful one.  Westlake may have viewed it less kindly.

Like many before me, when I first read War and Peace, I was struck by the way I felt like I knew all these people, had met variations of them throughout my life, even though I’ve never been to Russia, and was born a century after it was written, and have certainly never been part of any kind of aristocracy.  They are universal types, and yet extremely specific to their era and culture, and thus tell us a great deal about that era and culture.

You get a bit of that from Ex Officio–it does have a fairly keen eye for social detail, for the types of people who would be found in this setting, for the complex and often troubled interactions of an extended family that has risen to prominence primarily because of one man–who is now in the process of going mad, putting all their futures in doubt.

But again, Westlake doesn’t know these people from the inside–though most of them aren’t really what you’d call rich, just prosperous careerists in a variety of fields (publishing, television, medicine, the law, government, academia, etc), they’re still not the kind of people he normally writes about, the wily rugged free-ranging individualists that we associate with his best work.  He’s interested in them, sympathetic towards their problems, but he doesn’t entirely respect them.  He’s on the outside looking in.

There’s really only four characters that have his full attention–Bradford, Evelyn, Robert, and the fourth is Wellington Lockridge, son of Bradford, who is a spy.  Not officially, of course–he won’t talk about his work–and not in the CIA, but rather in one of those shadowy organizations Westlake liked to write about that exist above and apart from the official U.S. intelligence agencies.

A bland, inconspicuous, unprepossessing figure (George Smiley would be proud), Wellington lurks on the edge of the narrative for much of the book, only to come to prominence towards the end.  He’s the guy you don’t want to have to depend on, but sometimes have to in dire circumstances.  Which arise about halfway through.

Having abandoned the idea of running for congress (because as Robert tells him, he’s already more prominent as an ex-POTUS than he could ever be in a lower elected office), and having become convinced by Robert’s thesis that America is on the edge of abandoning Democracy and becoming a dictatorship under a ‘fuehrer’ of the left or right, Bradford goes full La Mancha, and decides he’s going to defect to China.

He does a television interview (with Evelyn’s brother George interviewing him–the Lockridge mafia is amazingly widespread–Bradford’s nephew Howard is editing his multi-part Presidential memoirs for Random House) in which he cryptically hints at what he’s going to do, but nobody picks up on it–the network guys just know people will see that he isn’t the way they remember him, and blame them for it,  so the interview is heavily edited for broadcast, much to Bradford’s disgust.

He doesn’t think of what he’s planning to do as defecting–in his mind, his first loyalty is still to his country–but he believes China (still holding itself aloof from the rest of the world in this reality) is the great destabilizing factor on the planet, and by going over to them, he can become a voice for real lasting peace in the world.

What happened was that he was approached quietly by the Chinese over the debacle in Paris, and once they heard what he wanted to do, the prospect of such a huge propaganda victory made them determined to get him over there at any cost–at which point they will use him as evidence of western decadence.   (Honestly, if you rewrote it as North Korea, this story could still work today.)

Robert and Evelyn are unable to talk him out of this (it’s increasingly apparent to them that it’s impossible to talk to him at all in his abstracted messianic state of mind–they still don’t know about the stroke), and they are forced to talk to other family members at a family wedding.

The shock waves spread throughout the entire Lockridge clan, but they are determined to keep this within the family as much as possible–because it would destroy Bradford’s image–and by extension, their own.   Their identity as a family would be changed forever by being no longer related to a respected if controversial former President, but rather to an insane traitor broadcasting messages from Beijing (the name ‘Lord Haw Haw’ is referenced, and you can google that if you want).

Westlake is ambiguous about the story he’s telling here.   He tends to identify with the individualist, and what more powerful statement of individuality could there be than for a retired U.S. President to go rogue in the name of world peace?

But on the other hand, there’s always a fine line between individualism and insanity–his rugged individualists like Parker succeed because they know who they are.  Bradford’s cerebral malfunction has made him incapable of self-understanding, pathologically averse to it.  He just knows he finally sees a way out of the trap of forced retirement, obsolescence, that he entered when he lost the Presidency.  If anyone, even Evelyn, told him why he was doing this, he wouldn’t believe it.  He’s closed himself off to reason, because reason has become the enemy.

And in fact, he wants Evelyn to come with him.  To China.  Without Dinah (the rhyme is remarked upon).  That he’d even consider putting her in that situation, calling on her deep loyalty to him in such a devastating way, tells us that he’s lost all perspective, that the political aspect of his nature, always powerful, has now completely overwhelmed the personal.   And coached by the rest of the family, looking for some way to stall Bradford until they can figure out a way to stymie his mad ambition, Evelyn fearfully agrees–to what, if it happened, would be a true burial, of everything she hopes for in life.

She and Robert, drawn together by the crisis, are by now deeply in love, and as obligatory as that may seem, it’s also rather well done, and a needed break from all the earnest political discussions and family intrigue.  I head-cast them (early 70’s TV miniseries) as Lee Remick and Rod Taylor.  Bradford would be Jason Robards (after playing Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, this would be cake for him–I got to see him play that in the Jose Quintero revival, and he was mesmerizing).

Lee Ann Remick, London, 1974imagesindex

So that would be a pretty decent early 70’s miniseries.  Only somehow Wellington ended up being John Hodgman and clearly that’s never going to work.  Head-casting doesn’t really have to work, does it?

index

With Robert having taken a grubby little apartment near the estate, Evelyn can, for a time, shed the role of caretaker, along with her clothing–remember how in Up Your Banners, we’re told the only time you’re real is when you’re being yourself?

The only times she felt real in these days were when she was naked in Robert’s apartment.  It was strange, that difference in her, strange and delightful.  Though she’d never exactly been a prude with Fred, it was true that the intervals she’d spent wearing absolutely nothing during their marriage had been almost nil.  She’d worn nightgowns to bed, and though she might sometimes have been nude during sex, she had always put on either the nightgown or a robe immediately afterwards.

But now it was different, astonishingly so.  She had loved going without clothes in Robert’s apartment, padding around the room or standing at the kitchen-closet to make coffee, or just lying on the bed.  Sex was a large part of it, of course, her avidity for his body was still getting stronger all the time, was enough now to make her smile suddenly and at odd moments when they were miles apart, was enough to make her much less inhibited and more inventive in bed than she’d ever been before–they had done together so far two things she had previously never done with anyone–but that wasn’t all the reason. There was also a feeling of freedom that came with stripping away her clothing, as though the garments were symbols of the morass of responsibility in which she was mired; without them, she could pretend for a while to be nothing but a female body, desirable and desiring, and that she was someone for whom it was all right to think only of pleasure.

Wellington increasingly takes charge of the family cabal that is going to save Bradford from himself, using Vietnamese agents who came over to the U.S. after the end of the war to kill the Chinese agents keeping watch on Bradford on the family estate, and quietly taking their place (Westlake goes to some pains to say that all orientals do not look alike, but most occidentals aren’t qualified to know the difference).

Wellington is fighting on multiple fronts–he has to work with amateurs in his own family, to keep the general public from learning of his father having become the Presidential equivalent of King Lear, while at the same time reassuring that Lear’s Cordelia that he has a plan to keep Bradford safe–and it’s increasingly clear that if Bradford does actually try to defect, his superiors will order his assassination (approved, with great reluctance, by the current POTUS).

Wellington has a plan to avoid that eventuality and keep Bradford from ending up in an asylum somewhere, but he keeps Evelyn (and us) in the dark about what it is.   And since this novel is available as an ebook now, I’m going to respect that, and not give away the final twist, though I will say it’s a rather ingenious and plausible take on what was a pretty well-worn idea by then.  And that Evelyn shows tremendous courage in the face of a daunting fate.

So what was it all about?   Identity, of course.   As Bradford loses himself, Evelyn begins to find herself, Robert redefines himself, and Wellington reminds us that the price of being a spy is that you can never really be yourself, though he makes you believe there’s still a human being down there somewhere, trying to get out.

But it’s also Westlake letting some of his own doubts and fears about the future of his country and the world out, and it’s fun–and challenging–to try and figure out which of the ideas in this book he really does believe in–remembering all the while that in that mock-interview, Culver says he didn’t believe any of it, and Westlake said that the world we live in is too complicated to be understood.

Did Westlake worry, as Robert and Bradford do, that we were on the verge of a left-wing junta, that would lead in its turn to a right-wing tyranny?  His politics are never easy to understand, since he distrusts the left, fears the right, and has no confidence in the center holding indefinitely.   It’s suggested in the book that Eugene McCarthy, of all people, could have become a left-wing dictator, and that’s about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

I think with a few years perspective, Westlake realized that he’d let his imagination run away with him–and perhaps even at the time, he was writing, as he later said, things he did not entirely believe.   Nixon going to China, as I mentioned, undermined the book’s central storyline, though we still do worry about China.   And China, no doubt, worries about us.  I mean, we owe them so much money now.   Nobody in this book remotely anticipates that scenario, and neither did anybody in reality (except maybe in China).  Westlake was right in the end–the world is too complicated to understand, and that’s why predicting its future is an act of sheer futility.

To me, the point of the book is that you don’t let the political overwhelm the personal.   That you don’t let abstract ideas become more important than daily realities, and the people who make them up.  Evelyn is the hero of this book because she stays true to who she is as a person, and expands her sense of self, opening herself to new possibilities while still remaining true to her grandfather, and her family.  It’s a hard balancing act to pull off, but she manages it somehow, with some help from Wellington (who she doesn’t like, but he can understand that).

Tolstoy himself failed to live up to this ideal–he stopped writing timeless novels where he let his characters speak their hearts (even when they disagreed with their creator’s vision), and started preaching a radical new faith, trying to change the world instead of just observing it faithfully.   It led to some interesting new ideas, but it also destroyed the lives of the people who loved him, including his long-suffering wife.  Maybe he had a stroke too.  We’ll never know.

It’s fitting in its way that Richard Stark murdered Timothy J. Culver, because he was the antithesis of Culver on every level.  He always knew exactly what he was saying, and he said it in a lot fewer words.   I’ve been pondering about something–see, Isaiah Berlin famously asked if Tolstoy was a hedgehog or a fox–a believer in One Big Idea, or lots of little ones–and decided he was a fox who believed in being a hedgehog–an identity in a state of lifelong confusion, which he ultimately tried to resolve by abandoning the one thing he did better than anyone else.

Was Donald E. Westlake a hedgehog or a fox?   I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question–but Richard Stark, of course, was a wolf.   And what’s up next is what I’d call the only true Starkian novel that doesn’t feature Parker.   Grofield is back for one last solo outing, and much as he may lie to everyone around him, he never lies to us.   And neither do Lemons.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Ex Officio, Political Thriller, Timothy J. Culver