Category Archives: Two Much

Distraction: Had I But Known………

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The Saddest are these: “It might have been!”

From Maud Muller, by John Greenleaf Whittier, but then Kurt Vonnegut reworded it slightly in Cat’s Cradle, referring to Whittier only as ‘the poet’, and now everyone attributes it to Vonnegut.

To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago.” 

From Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny, and notice how he credits his sources, even though he’s just paraphrasing?

Ah, hindsight.  Had I but known.  That’s considered a mystery subgenre of sorts, you know.  But I didn’t, you see.  There’s the rub.

When I started this blog, I was but an aging neophyte with regards to the mystery genre.  I knew Westlake pretty well–or so I thought–but not the ocean he spent most of his life navigating.  So when it came time to talk about the influences on a given novel or story, I might, by chance, be familiar with this or that possible source (I was reading a long time before I knew Westlake existed), but there would be so many others I had no inkling of.

And then, later, I stumble across one, smite my forehead.  Then another.  And yet another.  The forehead shows signs of bruising.  Mr. Westlake was a most erudite mariner.  Or if you prefer, he’s Arne Saknussemm, and as I tunnel my way through this genre, I keep finding his mark, to indicate he’s been here before me.  Perhaps you’ve seen his mark too, here and there. (Or are we the marks? God save us.)

To be a professional genre writer, you have to know the territory–those who came before you may have tricks of the trade to share–or have made mistakes you want to avoid–and you certainly want to avoid plagiarism charges.

The trick, and it’s no mean one, is to borrow, constantly, without stealing.  To see something worth recycling, run your own variations on the theme–perhaps improve on them, as Bach ofttimes improved upon Vivaldi (Vivaldi might disagree).  And if you do it just right, you can make your influences clear without ever copping to them (thus opening yourself up to the legal representatives of an irate estate).  Clear, that is, to those who pay attention, and the rest can just enjoy a good story.

Like Mitch Tobin, sagest and saddest of his reluctant detectives, Westlake was a completist.  You need as much context as you can muster, to see as many of the worlds within this world as you can, in order to pierce the mystery (which is about so much more than whodunnit).  Mystery is not one form but rather hundreds, perhaps thousands.  I don’t think he read everything (nobody could), but he covered the bases, mastered the essentials.

And perhaps for no reason other than to challenge himself (and to make a living), he would identify a discrete form within the form, study its best practitioners–and set out to create his own take on it, possibly without telling anyone he was doing that.  The result wouldn’t always turn out equally well (trial and error leads to a great deal of the latter), but it kept him amused, and I think he had no greater enemy than boredom.  The sense of repeating oneself, going through the motions.  He had to keep writing.

And what he wrote had to come partly from himself, his ideas and experiences, but you run out of those so quickly (as Hammett learned).  And then what? Then, Westlake reasoned, you combine stale ideas with fresh perceptions.

Anyway, I’ve come across what I consider three separate instances of this penchant of his–I’ve already mentioned one in the comments section for the relevant novel–hadn’t thought it enough of a find for its own piece, but it will do as one wheel of a tricycle.  Let’s start with that.

I’m working from home of late (call me eccentric), and as fate would have it, I’m helping to catalogue a large assortment of old mystery novels, anthologies, assorted miscellenia (hmm–aren’t all miscellenia assorted, by definition?)

One title caught my eye–The Chinese Parrot.  The second Charlie Chan novel (of six), by Earl Derr Biggers.

Westlake directly referenced the Chan novels and movies in his third Samuel Holt mystery, What I Tell You Three Times Is False.  In that novel, Sam is trapped in a huge mansion on a remote island with several other actors known entirely for playing a fictional detective, one of whom is Fred Li, described as the first Asian to play Chan, which isn’t quite accurate–there were several early adaptations (including a silent adaptation of The Chinese Parrot, of which no extant prints are currently known to exist) featuring Korean and Japanese actors as Chan (because they all look alike and Chinese immigration had been banned for a while), but for reasons too tiresomely predictable to mention, the detective’s role in the story was greatly reduced.  Chan only became the protagonist of his own films once he was played by Occidentals in makeup.

All this merely serves to establish Westlake’s famliarity with the character, which shouldn’t really require proof, since his generation routinely went to see Chan movies in the theater, then watched them on latenight TV later on.  Very popular.

Those of us familiar with Mr. Westlake will further divine that he wouldn’t have stopped with the Hollywood yellowface.  He would have gone back to the originals, at least some of them.  The second book in a series, in some ways, matters more than the first (you don’t have a series until you have a second book) so safe bet he read it.   Equally safe bet he wouldn’t use plot elements from it in a novel where an actor playing Chan is a character.

But years later, when he was writing the penultimate Parker novel, I believe elements of this book came back to him.  Let’s come back to that after I do a very quick synopsis.  (I can do that when forced.)

This is the only Chan novel I’ve ever read, and I skimmed it, mainly because most of the characters are white people, and these white people are dull.  By which I mean not only uninteresting, but exceptionally thick-witted.  It’s normal in a detective story for nearly everyone other than the detective and killer to be clueless (or what’s the detective for?), but Chan novels take this to the extreme, so I mainly just skipped to the parts about Chan himself, and soon discovered why these books have endured, in spite of their dating, and their defects.

Charlie Chan is a sphinx with many secrets–not only in the caucasian world, but even amongst his relations, some of whom he visits on his trip to the west coast. The previous novel having established him as a police detective in Honolulu, he goes to visit a cousin in San Francisco, who thinks he’s doing the bidding of ‘white devils.’  (The cousin also objects to his pretty assimilated American-born daughter working as a switchboard operator, but that second generation tends to laugh off such objections from old fuddy duddies, as those of us with recent immigrant roots know full well.)

He is there, ostensibly, to deliver a valuable necklace to a wealthy buyer, as a favor to a former employer fallen on hard times, but there is murder most fowl (humble apologies, dishonorable pun was lying there waiting to be sprung)–a pet parrot in the buyer’s desert home is poisoned.  Apparently because he talked too much.

“Poor Tony very sick before he go on long journey,” Chan continued. “Very silent and very sick. In my time I am on track of many murders, but I must come to this peculiar mainland to ferret out parrot-murder. Ah, well—all my life I hear about wonders on this mainland.”

“They poisoned him,” Bob Eden cried. “Why?”

“Why not?” shrugged Chan. “Very true rumour says ‘dead men tell no tales’! Dead parrots are in same fix, I think. Tony speaks Chinese like me. Tony and me never speak together again.”

Many justly defend Biggers from intended bigotry, but it must be said, a man as smart as Chan, born and raised in the future 50th state, could speak better English than that if he wanted to.  Then again, a man as smart as Lieutenant Columbo probably could too, when questioning snooty rich guys–only he appreciates the advantages of being underestimated by his social superiors, who prove not so superior after all–and guess where that idea came from?  The shadow of Chan is large indeed.

For the usual contrived reasons, Chan spends much of the book masquerading as a domestic, with even more stereotypical dialect, in the rich man’s desert home, with a few confederates knowing of the imposture (not as few as he’d prefer, since his trust in caucasians is only slightly greater than his cousin’s).

“Charlie,” said Bob Eden, “this is a friend of mine, Mr Will Holley. Holley, meet Detective-Sergeant Chan, of the Honolulu police.”

At mention of his name Chan’s eyes narrowed. “How do you do?” he said coldly.

“It’s all right,” Eden assured him. “Mr Holley can be trusted—absolutely. I’ve told him everything.”

“I am far away in strange land,” returned Chan. “Maybe I would choose to trust no one—but that, no doubt, are my heathen churlishness. Mr Holley will pardon, I am sure.”

“Don’t worry,” said Holley. “I give you my word. I’ll tell no one.”

Chan made no reply, in his mind, perhaps, the memory of other white men who had given their word.

He’s always wearing a mask, hiding his true self from those around him–now he’s wearing a mask over his mask, because much as white devils underestimate a Chinese policeman, they barely notice a Chinese servant.  This allows him great freedom of movement, ample opportunity for investigation.

The case is cracked, and let’s just say it’s not the greatest mystery ever written by a long shot (I gather it’s not the best Biggers was capable of), but that’s not really the point of anything, since it’s a story about human motivations, and a man who studies them closely, carefully,  quietly, because his professional success depends on such observations.  As to his true feelings, his own motivations, those always remain, to some extent, opaque–one might say inscrutable.  You want to know what Chan really thinks of us?  Might as well ask the parrot.

Yeah.

So that’s where the hook for the best of the final three Parker novels and one of the most haunting and intriguing books of the entire series, comes from.  (Though to be fair, fish out of water stories are older than the Paleoarchean hills, as are stories about disguised wanderers.)

To make it even more clear, there’s an abandoned mining town key to the story, and a crazy old hermit who comes out of nowhere, then disappears from the story, after providing a useful if misleading clue (but he isn’t shot down by mistake then left for scavengers, like the equivalent character from the Stark novel).

As usual, where Westlake seeks to improve upon his model is motivation.  Chan, as a policeman, self-effacing hero of the piece, and a self-conscious attempt by Biggers to counter racial stereotypes (only to end by perpetrating them, because it’s never that easy), has to behave honorably at all times.  Even though you get the distinct feeling he does so under extreme sufferance.

As a felon on the lam in upstate NY, Parker only has to survive.  His imposture, in a dying little town, done at the behest of a poor man seeking restitution, who knows Parker’s secret, and has one of his own Parker smells profit in, is much easier to justify.  Not only is he not called upon to solve the parrot’s murder (which is no mystery, except in the sense so much of we do is mysterious), he never even learns about it, nor would he give a damn if he did.  The story wouldn’t be much different if Stark’s nameless parrot (less garrulous than poor Tony, though it’s his decision to speak that gets him shot) wasn’t there–yet he’s the title character.  How come?

The parrot is there to tell us where parts of this story came from.  A respectful and nigh-inscrutable nod of the head to a predecessor who taught him a few tricks of the trade.  A subtle hint to the reader, that went unnoticed by most, since these two novels really couldn’t be much more different.  (Marilyn Stasio, who reviewed several late Parker novels, provided an introduction to a recent reprint of The Chinese Parrot–did she pierce the mystery?  I greatly misdoubt it, but that edition is not evailable.)

51bC7+O9t9L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

(In both books, the titular parrot is not nearly so colorful as the ones on most of the covers.)

All that being said (and Stark’s parrot is the wiser bird by far), Westlake knew very well Parker could never equal Chan’s ability to blend into the background, by putting on a cook’s clothing and chattering like Hop Sing from Bonanza. Parker is suspected, almost immediately, by several suspicious locals, of not being who he claims to be–Chan is only exposed at the climax, through a chance encounter, the fool’s mask slipping away to reveal the hunter beneath.

The race/class element is not present, and the story told to justify Parker’s sudden presence in Tom Lindahl’s world is even more hastily improvised, under the far sterner exigencies Parker faces.  For all that, it’s still a story about how most people see only what they’re prepared to see, and Parker, like Chan, sees what’s really there.

Thankfully, Parker doesn’t have to speak in hokey dialect.  He has the luxury of a white skin.  Not that he gives a damn.  Just another mask.  The Chinese policeman and the Wolf in sheep’s clothing would understand each other very well, in spite of their professional divide.  I would not go so far as to say Parker is Chan’s Number One Son, but again, dishonorable pun was impossible to resist.

So from one of Westlake’s finest novels to perhaps his very worst–I’ll give this one short shrift.  This is an easy catch, but to make it, you have to know the source, and it’s not a much-watched film these days.  TCM and DVR–what did we ever do without you?

Jane Russell was Star of the Month for April, and I could hardly refrain from recording a few of her films I was not familiar with.  (This gentleman does not invariably prefer blondes.)   The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown?  Didn’t sound promising, but what the hell.  It ended up being the only one I watched without fast-forwarding (much).

One of her personal favorites, though according to her own perceptive commentary (Russell, as you all should know, was a damn smart broad) it ended up foundering on a difference in vision between herself and the director, Norman Taurog.  She wanted a more serious satiric film, in black and white–he wanted a color romp.  It ended up going both ways.  You can see the joins.

She’s great in it–one of her best performances–like her chum Bob Mitchum, she never really exerted herself much, unless she found the role challenging.  With looks like theirs, it wasn’t necessary.  Neither is a synopsis.

There’s no point in my trying to prove Westlake saw this film prior to writing his take, since Westlake only wrote that half-baked kidnap caper after working up  a script with that general premise at the behest of disreputable film producers (very nearly the only kind he ever to to work with.  The flick was never lensed, but he retained the novel adaptation rights (hated to waste work).

I have no idea who first had the idea of kidnapping a sexy starlet and holding her for ransom, but Taurog’s comedy is the earliest instance I know of where somebody actually made a film with this precise subject,  and given that it had been just about ten years since the last attempt, some producer probably figured it was worth another go.

It’s not easy to write a romantic comedy about an ex-con (wrongly convicted, of course) who decides to kidnap a famous sex bomb who is bored with her life (though very good at her job), roughs her up a bit when she gets out of line, and they end up falling madly in love with each other.  Westlake probably did know the earlier film (maybe had it screened for him), and would have noted all the gyrations you have to go through to make that work.  He decided to switch the romantic angle from the star who is bored with her life to a younger woman who wants that life for herself, or so she thinks.

The kidnapping in the Taurog film is very perfunctory, and far too easy.  Westlake, who had only written capers as Stark up to that point, made it into a carefully planned girl heist (computer-planned, in fact) that gangs a mite aglae, but still works out well for all concerned (except for the English grifters who for all I know were a legacy from the original film concept).  The kidnappers, sterling lads all, actually get their cash, get away clean, and the gangleader gets his girl, while the movie star goes home well-rested.  Were they going to do all that if the film was made?  They didn’t in Russell’s flick.

There’s little point in trying to decipher how much of Sassi is Westlake, how much is the fuzzy nightgown, and how much is the threadbare borrowed concept he was handed by his former employers.  That’s not my point of interest here.  It is rather the origin of the earlier film, which was, if you’d believe it, based on a novel that may have been the basis for the self-faked kidnapping of a very minor Hollywood starlet.  (No, her name wasn’t Jimmy, but she was some kid.)

So did Westlake know about Marie McDonald’s fictionally inspired self-snatch? Did he check out the Sylvia Tate novel?  I would, but damn, expensive–though the first edition hardcover is often cheaper, because it doesn’t have Jane Russell on the cover, like the paperbacks that came out with the movie.  The book is not e-vailable, and life is short, you know?  Shorter all the time.

Unknown

Life imitating art imitating life imitating whatever.  Shades of the Peugeot snatch, that inspired the third Dortmunder book.  Did all that stick in his mind, and a few years later, he found an opportunity to tell a version of the same story, only this time  exploiting all the latent satiric potential that Russell and Taurog couldn’t get close to? With a gang that wasn’t the least bit glamorous, but were always good for a laugh.  (Incidentally, the great Keenan Wynn plays the kidnapper’s best friend and confederate, and wouldn’t he have been a great pick to play Kelp, if Kelp had actually been a thing in the 1950’s?)   I think that’s all I want to say about this one.

So elsewhere amidst all the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore I’m helping to catalogue (some of which were penned by Poe), I became aware of Mary Roberts Rinehart.  One of the most influential and successful of early mystery novelists, by no means forgotten today, though not quite the icon she used to be.  (Through her industrious sons, her last name decorated several major publishing houses over the years.)

She it was who inspired The Butler Did It meme that everybody knows, and almost nobody knows the origin of (it was actually a stage adaptation of a novel of hers that got that into popular parlance–the line does not appear in her novel, but people would describe what happened, and the rest is history).

Her most famous and influential novel of all is the one you see up top.  (That link leads to Project Gutenberg.)

And that novel (along with many others that followed in its train) inspired a less well-known term, that subsequently inspired the ribaldry of Ogden Nash–

Personally, I don’t care whether a detective-story writer was educated in night school or day school
So long as he doesn’t belong to the H.I.B.K. school,
The H.I.B.K. being a device to which too many detective-story writers are prone;
Namely the Had-I-But-Known.

In this case, the critics done it.  Readers loved her books, bought them by the carload, but were not required to read them for a living, and become overly innured to the inevitable tropes.  So peevish reviewers began pointing out that book after book would begin with the narrator of the ensuing mystery lamenting that if she (it was often a she) had only known what would happen, things would have gone much differently.  Foreshadowing, a technique for getting the mystery reader interested in finding out what terrible things would happen, as if the genre itself wasn’t a damned good clue.

But isn’t that life, friends?  Don’t we all go around lamenting thusly, of our unfortunate uninformedness, that led us into one pickle after another, and sometimes the waiting embrace of a body bag?  Is the mystery writer to ignore this inevitable outcome of being an autonomous, self-aware, yet not omniscient being?

(“Had I but known that when I went to the corner store to buy Kleenex, a woman would just walk up to the counter, right next to me, her unworn mask dangling down her neck, wanting to buy a pack of gum….”  Three days ago.  I’ll stop obsessing over it in another eleven.  I trust.  “Had we but known Donald Trump was a self-obsessed idiot…”–oh wait, we did know that.  But what’s the worst that could happen, huh?  Better not waste any more time on second-guessing.)

Let it be said, Rinehart was not a bad writer at all (most styles date at least a bit) and Westlake was hardly the first, by a very long shot, to inject wry humor into the mystery trade.

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then—the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray—Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”

The opening passage of The Circular Staircase.  And here is a less whimsical, more existential approach to the same answerless rhetorical question.

The ticket window was to my left, and on impulse I went over and asked the man when was the next train back to New York.  Without checking anything, he said “Four-ten.” It was not yet eleven-thirty.

Would I have gone back if there’d been a train right away?  Possibly, I don’t know.  The house would have been empty, Kate and Bill already gone to Long Island.  I would have had a month to myself, Kate wouldn’t have had to know I’d stayed home until she herself returned.  And of course by then it would have been too late to make me go back to The Midway.

Would that have been better, as things turned out?  But that’s a meaningless question, really.  In a life in which nothing really matters, nothing can be either better or worse.

If you’re looking for it, it’s not at all hard to see (which I suppose is one possible answer to the Had-I-But-Known thing–we are not sufficiently mindful of our surroundings, or of past life lessons learned, then forgotten–not our stars, but ourselves.)  However, he knows better–having read Rinehart, and many others–not to harp on it too much.  It’s all so much less busy, and there is far more attention paid to motivation, character development–to making it a story about people, not plot devices.

This much I can know–Westlake wrote Wax Apple quite consciously in the H.I.B.K. vein.  It is entirely about belated recognitions, Mitch Tobin figuring things out just a moment too late to avoid the consequences, to himself and others.  He typically feels no sense of triumph in identifying the guilty party here, already in stir, you might say.  It’s diverting, gripping–but there’s no sense of fun to it.  What’s so fun about people dying?  (Rinehart’s protagonist is already missing the excitement by the end, planning to find another country house to rent, hoping for more distractions from her boring existence, which is of course what people read books like this for.)

While this is not an uncommon feature in detective stories, and Tobin especially, it is especially pronounced here, and to exceptionally fine effect.  I consider this the best of the Tobin novels, and far as I’m concerned, the best H.I.B.K anyone ever wrote, though I’d have to slog through a whole lot of so-so mystery books to know that for sure.

He indubitably read some of Rinehart’s work.  He probably knew about the disdain some critics held this type of story in (most of them being male, and filled with the usual derision towards lady scriveners not named Austen or Sand), and while he was something of a critic himself, he knew professional book reviewers are mainly good at missing the point of things, as they did so often with him.

But would they even notice the well-worn plot device here, in a hard-boiled detective story, whose protagonist is not an aging spinster, but a disgraced and depressed former police detective, visiting not a grand old country manor, but a halfway house for mental patients?  I am not aware of anyone but myself ever twigging to that, and me only by virtue of being stuck at home, pouring over endless lists of books most people will never read again.  That doesn’t mean no one ever did.  Could I but know……

So to sum up, this is my lament for all the things that had I but known them, I would have put in my earlier reviews of these three books, and so many others. But I did not know, had nary the inkling, and all I can do now is bewail my past ignorance, and be grateful the consequences here are relatively inconsequential. Nobody died.  Right?

And the upside is, I can write many more articles about all the things I didn’t know heretofore.  And since I know so very little, I can bore you all here for years to come with my belated recognitions.  If I can but avoid being one of the many casualties of ignorance.  Would that you all avoid that as well.

10 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Two Much

Ironically Forgotten Promo: Double Feature

Until the night Laura Penney did herself in, most of the violence I’d known had been secondhand.  Carey Thorpe is the name, and if that rings no bells you aren’t a truly serious student of the cinema.  I’ll admit it’s easy to miss my general film reviewing, in publications such as Third World Cinema and The Kips Bay Voice, but my first book, Author and Auteur: Dynamism And Domination In Film, was an alternate selection of Book Find Club in the summer of 1972, and last year my second book, The Mob at the Movies: Down From Rico To Puzo, got universal raves.

Born in Boston in 1942, I came to consciousness concurrently with television.  Being a spindly youth, I spent most of my childhood in front of the box, watching whatever the program directors thought fit to show me.  Old movies were the mainstay of local programming then, so by 1960 when I went away to college (Penn State; anything to get away from home and family) I knew more about movies than Sam Goldwyn and less than him about anything else.

My name is Ordo Tupikos, and I was born  in North Flat, Wyoming, on November 9th 1936.  My father was part Greek and part Swede and part American Indian, while my mother was half Irish and half Italian.  Both had been born in this country, so I am 100% American.

You know how dates will get away from you sometime?  (No, I’m not talking about Tinder.)  February 4th got away from me.  The release date for yet another Westlake reprint from Hard Case Crime.  The release date for other things as well, one of which gazes ever more forlornly at me from the bathroom mirror each morning.  Oh Hard Case–you shouldn’t have.  (Because I wanted Adios Scheherazade.  Anyway, it’s the thought that counts.)

I knew it was coming, spaced on the matter of when.  I also knew that the original title of this mini-anthology was deemed insufficiently clear, and would be changed to what you see up top left.  Westlake called it a ‘two-reeler’ in the dedication, so I don’t think he’d mind much.  For the record, people who have been confused for decades as to why it was named Enough–myself included–should have looked closer at the Bierce quote he opened it with, from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: Too Much.”  And connected the dots.

images

It had only been two years earlier that Westlake published Two Much!, about a man who loves not wisely but too often, and the protagonist of that book, as I mentioned in my review of the first offering here, resembles Carey Thorpe in many ways–which philandering philosophe meets the unhappier fate would be an interesting discussion (anyone wants to raise it in the comments section, I’d be only too pleased), but when it comes to literary discussion,  Art Dodge’s sordid saga is much the better story.  All that aside, the relationship between the two is clear.

Now which of the two he wrote first, I could not tell you.  But there is nothing in A Travesty that would rule out it having been conceived and/or written, at least in part, before Westlake completed Two Much!  Or they could have been turned out more or less simultaneously.  Or maybe it doesn’t really matter.  (This isn’t going to be that long a piece.)

I am still honored to occasionally correspond with Charles Ardai,  to whom we are all indebted for many an overdue Westlake reprint (and, in three cases, first print), in hardcover, paperback, and digital ink, always with great cover art.  So yes, he did tell me about this one, some time back.

The title change fits nicely with the cinematic subtheme in each, both of which have ironically been adapted (American Television, Cinema Francais ).  While neither in its prose form is considered Westlake at his best, they both hold up rather well, like nearly everything he wrote in his maturity.  As he once noted, writers train for distance, and these are both within his approved range–a short novel, and a long story.  They make their points efficiently, then exeunt all.

There’s a bit of a personality test inherent to reading them together–which do you like best?  For me, it’s Ordo.  I like to be the outlier, and it is, you must admit, the Starker of the two in its style, and the more unique.  The humor is kept on the down-low, and Ordo doesn’t really feel like a Westlake protagonist–maybe more out of Tucker Coe.  Only without the guilt.  Another voice in Westlake’s head, that he wasn’t free to give rein to most of the time.

The majority view (recently restated here) is that A Travesty is what we want from Westlake, if a bit more cynical and sanguinary than a Dortmunder fan might expect.  The French maybe feel a bit differently about the question (btw, there seems to be a lot of nudity in that film, so guess which one I’d rather see?)

I’m sure the other adaptation has its pleasures, Felicity Huffman not least among them, (though who would have thought she’d be the one to get in trouble with the law in real life?)

(You know how Mr. Westlake loved to borrow titles from Hollywood?–well, Hollywood loves to borrow titles from itself even more.  And you can bet he knew that, without any need to consult with IMDb.)

ddc74f2d86a66c639cac33cb5bafd69a

Though it’s great to have these two tawdry tales evailable, as well as in paperback, I wouldn’t call this two-reeler one of Mr. Westlake’s true literary orphans.  Aside from the films, the two narratives within have seen multiple print editions in multiple languages, together and separately.  When I checked The Official Westlake Blog, I found two covers I’d never seen before had been added, both of them rather good, and there they are up top.  (Sometimes I wish all his cover art was of the Tromple L’oeil variety, even though the phrase ‘Trompe L’oeil’, the latter word being pronounced ‘lay’, leaves a harsher aftertaste than it used to).

Out of print Westlake novels are getting thin on the ground, if one counts ebooks as print.  I just realized that The Scared Stiff got published in 2013, by Mysterious Press/Open Road.  Not sure how I missed that.  It’s actually the best cover art yet, unless you count the Japanese edition, which it echoes).

I still wait in pensive pathetic passion for Killy, Killing Time, Adios Scheherazade, Up Your BannersAnarchaos, and A Likely Story.  (Why do I suspect Who Stole Sassi Manoon? and I Gave At The Office will be out first?)  I don’t expect Hard Case to handle all of those.  But may each and every one be traversing the Kindle-verse soon.  And the sleazes as well, a few more of which I shall shortly be downloading–oh get your minds out of the gutter!

And next in our queue–hmmm…….

 

4 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Enough, Ordo, Two Much

Review: Two Much

two_much_1st_1two_much_uk1_1two_much_2nd_1two_much_1

How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away!
But while you thus teaze me together;
To neither a word will I say;
But tol de rol, &c.

John Gay.

“Humor is like a fountain,” I said.

“That’s life.  Are you a native New Yorker?”

I frowned at her.  “What’s that got to do with comedy?”

“There are theories about the humorist as the outsider,” she said. “We can make it work both ways.  If you were born and raised in New York City, you must feel isolated from the rest of the country: ergo, comedy.  If you came from Kansas or somewhere, you feel isolated and rootless here in New York: ergo, comedy.  I just want to know whether you go under Column A or Column B.”

“I go with the West Lake Duck.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

Westlake ‘only’ published two novels in 1975: both for M. Evans & Co., both of them stand-alone works, both featuring a thirty-ish unmarried male protagonist who gets into trouble, both ranking among his most interesting works.  And I’d say only the latter of the two protagonists would qualify as a Westlake ‘Nephew’ (not that Westlake ever used this term, that I know of).   But the protagonist of the book we’re looking at now is, I would suggest, an anti-Nephew.

And he’s something else you wouldn’t call most of Westlake’s leading men–an unmitigated cad.  Had this book (which inspired two film adaptations) been written three or four decades earlier, and then made into a Hollywood film (notwithstanding the fact that the cad in this book is a Yank), there really would have been only one actor in all the world to play him.

For back in that era, who but He Who Was Addison DeWitt could have portrayed such a irredeemable rogue and made you like him?  (Errol Flynn may have been the superior cad in real life, but movie-goers only liked him as a hero).  The same way he could pull off a line in the film Death of a Scoundrel–when a married lady he propositions says she is already taken, he replies with the most impeccable aplomb, “I don’t want to take you.  Just to borrow you.”

Mr. Sanders’ scoundrel comes to a bad end in that film, as he did in many others, and he’s forced to recant his wicked ways, as he was in the very disappointing and heavily rewritten ending of the otherwise surprisingly faithful film version of The Moon And Sixpence.   Because, you see, the movie-going public is heavily composed of folks like Strickland’s thick-witted son in Maugham’s book, making fatuous comments like “The mills of the gods grind slow–” and thinking they’re quoting scripture when they do.  Rarely do we let Don Giovanni descend into hell without making him apologize first.   Makes us feel better about ourselves for admiring him.

Maybe it doesn’t take a Mozart (or a Da Ponte) to portray an unapologetic cad, but it’s a rare storyteller who can make one work as the hero of a popular work of fiction.  Charles Willeford was writing this kind of protagonist as far back as 1953 (High Priest of California), not that anything he wrote before the Hoke Moseley books was popular (and ‘cad’ might be too gentle a word for some of his protagonists).   Westlake may have been responding more to Willeford than to any other living storyteller when writing this one, though he’d toyed with this type of character before.

Many of Westlake’s best short stories depicted cads (also a novella we’ll be looking at soon), but making one the center of a full-length novel is more challenging.  Alan Grofield has his caddish moments, true, but he only dabbles at it.  When we first met him, he got involved with a girl while pulling a heist, let her talk him into taking her with him, was ready to stand up to Parker himself to defend her life, and ended up marrying her–a happy  and devoted marriage it seems to be, in spite of his wandering eye–and for all his incessant wisecracking, he’s deadly serious about his two professions.

Eugene Raxford, narrator and protagonist of The Spy In The Ointment is clearly another prototype for this book’s ‘hero’ in terms of his glib freewheeling anti-authoritarian style, but he’s sincerely devoted to the cause of ethical pacifism, and is madly in love with his beautiful klutzy heiress girlfriend, even if he won’t ever admit that to us.

Westlake protagonists, written under any name–with this one exception we’re looking at now–either have a conscience, or (in Parker’s case) a sort of instinctive code of conduct that serves in place of one.  This guy has neither. Rotten to the core, and he likes it that way.  If he ever feels a pang of remorse, he suppresses it rigorously.  As I shall have to do now myself, because cad that I am, I am going to give away some major plot twists of this book (while sparing many others, because I can’t possibly cover them all in one review), but I don’t see how I can talk about what this story means without talking about what happens in it. Seriously, I’m not going to give the whole book away, but if you haven’t read it, stop reading now.  This one’s available on Kindle.   It won’t take you long.

Another thing Westlake protagonists all have in common is that we never see them die.  Westlake came close to showing us one of them kick it in Killing Time, but it’s possible–barely–that Tim Smith was telling his story to the cops from a hospital bed.  All we know for sure is that a very pissed-off Italian guy pointed a gun at Tim while his girlfriend screamed in the distance.  How would you show a first person narrator’s death, anyway?  I mean, if you weren’t going the Jim Thompson ‘exit interview in hell’s waiting room’ route, or a spectral voice-over monologue, ala Wilder’s  Sunset Boulevard?   Westlake has decided to kill this narrator off before our very eyes.  Is this a spoiler?  Not exactly.

I know it must seem I’m avoiding the central point of this book–that it’s about a man pretending to be twins in order to fuck twins.  That’s certainly the main point of the two films made from it, and going by the online synopses, they both totally miss the point.   The twins are mere matching MacGuffins.  This is a book about identity, of course–Westlake wrote it.   And the twin motif serves that end most admirably.  But it’s not really the axis the plot spins upon.  What is?  Money.  I’ll try to keep the synopsis brief this time, if only because I haven’t done a one-part book review in what seems like ages.

What can we say about Art Dodge, aside from the fact that he owes his pun-laden name to Charles Dickens?   He’s thirty years old–the age Westlake believed that we become true adults, and must make choices about how to live the rest of our lives, or else have them made for us.  He’s a philanderer par excellence, exceptionally successful with women, through some combination of good looks, wit, and roguish self-confidence, but he also has bad eyesight and a receding hairline–as did Westlake himself.

He’s a former military brat, who lived all over the place, and has a sister he’s not very close to–Westlake was in the Air Force, and had a sister he rarely if ever referred to in public.  Art’s mother ran out on Art’s dad–and on Art–when Art was still a kid.  This doesn’t seem to refer to Westlake’s own mother, but the hero whose mom checked out on him in some way is a theme you can find in other of Westlake’s books, such as 361.

I don’t know what that’s about–I do know Westlake’s mother had to work long hours to help support the family.   That can feel like abandonment, even though it isn’t.  His children’s book Philip has no father, and an ever-present mother.  That is not an autobiographical work–that is an expression of a lifelong yearning for female attention that permeates most if not all Westlake’s work for adults, and it can also help explain how a fellow gets married three times in twenty-two years.

Art apparently used to work in advertising, but at some point he struck out on his own, and founded a tiny and perpetually indigent greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, aka Folksy Cards.  The cards are all ribaldly humorous, full of not terribly subtle sexual innuendo and the occasional ethnic slur.  Art writes them all himself, then cons artists into doing the visuals, then finds ways to avoid paying them, and then his distributor finds ways to avoid paying him, and this is the rugged capitalist spirit that made America great, folks.

He has a long-suffering secretary named Gloria, who is equal parts gal friday, best friend, mother confessor, and more of a sister to him than his actual sister. He does pay her–occasionally.  She puts up with the irregular paychecks because working for him is so much more interesting than her last gig at Met Life (my mother sold insurance for Met Life–small world).

His best male friend is an earnest and staggeringly innocent young attorney named Ralph, who vicariously enjoys hearing about Art’s many conquests, and never once suspects that the mother of his children is one of them.  Her name is Candy, and she’s not really that sweet, but neither is Art.  Anyway, as the story begins, Art is staying with Ralph and Candy and their kids in their tiny summer cottage on Fire Island.  Since Ralph has to go into Manhattan on work days, Art has ample opportunity to take Candy from–eh–too easy.    Anyway, he’s only borrowing her.   In Candy’s mind, she’d like to be on permanent loan.

Then at a party he meets Liz Kerner, a busty brunette in a blue bikini, who turns out to have a house in Point o’ Woods, a tiny exclusive enclave on the island.  It’s not her only place of residence–not by a long shot.  Liz is loaded, being the daughter of a self-made lumber magnate and a mother who came from old money (that had started to run out, hence the lumber magnate).

She’s also a twin.  Their parents perversely named them both Elizabeth, only the other twin spells it with an ‘s’.  Her sister’s everyday name is Betty.  If you want to know what this name game means, I refer you to a quote I put in my review of Adios Scheherazade (Part 2).  But in brief, Liz is a party girl, and Betty is more straight-laced and respectable–in her own fashion.

The sisters, now in their mid-twenties, were orphaned a few years before, when a piano fell on their parents’ limo.  Yes, I suppose we all would love to drop a piano on some rich people from time to time, but the nice thing about being a writer of fiction is you can actually do it and not get arrested.   We get a few more conservative justices on the Supreme Court, probably even that imaginary loophole will be closed.

So Art and Liz, much to Candy’s disgust, head off for bed, and that outcome was never in doubt, so Art doesn’t really know why he suddenly piped up and said he was a twin as well–with an identical brother named Bart.   But clearly somewhere in the back of his mind is the dream all men have dreamed ever since seeing an attractive pair of siblings (please note I left room for gay guys in there), and particularly twins–“Could I have both, please?”  And having tried to pull the sister-switch before, he knows it just does not work.  There’s only so much even the most intrepid of men can accomplish–but suppose he were not one man, but two?

As he meets the equally well-endowed Betty, and finds himself expanding upon the myth of Bart, Art realizes he’s just got to try it.  He normally wears contacts, but he’s got an old pair of glasses, and he does something with his hair, and without really trying he comes up with an alternate personality for himself–he basically just leaves out all the things that make him interesting, becomes a real straight-arrow gee-whiz kind of guy (a male Betty, in other words), and somehow this seems to give him depth in the very gullible Betty’s eyes (the more cynical Liz is not impressed, but she’s got Art).  Art, as Bart, gets very drunk the night he beds Betty, and when he wakes up, they’re engaged.

Art can’t believe it either.  He’s so overwhelmed by his success, he keeps ignoring the little warning bells going off in his head, telling him that you can take a con too far (Kenny Rogers hadn’t yet recorded that song about how you gotta know when to fold ’em, and anyway, when it comes to busty brunettes, it’s so much more fun to hold ’em).

Art started out looking for random sex with a sultry stranger who smells of salt and sand and sweat–but now he smells money, something he’s never had enough of, and it’s skewing his judgment.  How much can he wangle out of these two matching marks before it’s time to call the charade off?

As he puts it, “I’ve never been familiar enough with money to feel contempt for it,” but like his creator, he feels no end of contempt for those who are excessively familiar with it.  He meets Betty at a party the sisters are throwing to find a suitable buyer for their Point o’ Woods house, and he just can’t believe what a bunch of hopeless squares they are.   You know, the way most of us reacted to the Romneys once we’d had a good look at them?

What kind of party was this to be hosted by two girls in their mid-twenties?  There were perhaps forty people present, but only about a quarter of them were under thirty, and they were as stiff as their elders.  There was no dancing.  In fact, there was scarcely any commingling of the sexes at all; women stood with women to discuss department stores, Arthur Hailey novels, absent friends and other parties, while men grouped with men to talk transportation, taxes, politics, and horses–breeding, not racing.  I actually did hear one man say, as I was strolling past, “After all, racing does improve the breed.”

“Quite the contrary,” I said.  “In point of fact, all our effort is the other way, to make breeding improve the race.”

This being the most incisive remark any of them had ever heard in their lives, I was immediately absorbed into the group, where the man I’d contradicted thrust his hand out and said “Frazier.”

I gave him my honest grip, and said “Dodge.”

Another man said “Of the New Bedford Dodges?”

“Distantly,” I said.

So if the unscrupulous Mr. Dodge is the hero of this story, who could the villain possibly be?   Well, you can’t go wrong with a lawyer, can you?

Mr. Volpinex had apparently been my age when he’d died, several thousand years ago, and in the depths of the pyramids had been given this simulacrum of life.  The ancient chemists had died his flesh a dark unhealthy tan, and painted his teeth with that cheap gloss white enamel used in rent-controlled apartments.   His black suit was surely some sort of oil by-product, and so was his smile.

“I take it,” this thing said, extending its hand, “I am addressing Mr Arthur Dodge?”

“That’s right.”  His hand was as dry as driftwood.

“I am Ernest Volpinex,” he said, and gave himself away.  No real thirty-year-old would have reached into his vest pocket at that juncture and given me his card.  So my first guess was right; he was the undead.

Volpinex introduces himself as the attorney for the Kerner estate, though it comes out later he only works for Liz, not Betty–and he would like very much to marry either of them, Betty in particular, but he’d settle for Liz.  He’s as mercenary as Art, but so much less amiable, and he sees the more charming Art and his more virtuous twin as threats to his supposed hegemony over the Kerner sisters, which is indeed the case–though not in quite the way he thinks of course, because a man of his humorless temperament couldn’t imagine the twin con in a million years.

Volpinex–is this a little wink of the eye at Ben Jonson’s Volpone?  I rather think so, but I also think he’s another of Westlake’s beast-men, like Parker, only corrupted (like Quittner, or Leon Ten Eyck)–a fox in human form, but no Reynard the Trickster he (that would be more Art’s line).  He readily admits to having no functioning sense of humor, seeing it as a sign of unreliability.  Rather critically to our story, he is exactly the same age, height, and build as Art, though no one could ever mistake them for twins.  He’s a Starkian doppelganger,  invading the world of a Westlake protagonist, but in his mind, Art is the intruder.

In a later, very telling conversation he and Art have at his club, Art tells him humor is what separates us from the animals, to which Volpinex responds rather perceptively that parrots tell jokes and hyenas laugh.  Art asks him what does separate man from the other animals, then.  “Nothing,” he responds, and they proceed to have a very civilized lunch, full of raw oysters, fine wine, and veiled threats.

As Volpinex runs background checks on him and Bart, Art asks the thick-headedly loyal Ralph (still in the dark about Candy) to run a check in the other direction, and it comes out that Mr. Volpinex’s wife died under mysterious circumstances a few years previous.  We are left in little doubt that he has already murdered someone very close to him to clear a path between him and the Kerner fortune.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

To make things worse, Mr. Volpinex is a martial arts expert, as well as a squash player who takes the name of his game a mite too literally, as Art finds out after lunch at the club.  And perversely, his ever-escalating threats, mingled with the occasional bribe, just make Art more determined to follow through with his scheme, even though he’s just making it up as he goes along, and he hasn’t really figured out any kind of endgame yet.  This is very much out of Peter Rabe, by the way–the criminal protagonist keeps getting himself deeper and deeper into an impossible situation, partly because he’s determined to defeat a rival even worse than him who is after the same unreachable prize–he wins–and it doesn’t matter.  The game was not worth the candle.  But hey, a Pyrrhic victory is better than none.

Before he actually ties the knot with Betty, Art meets a rather different kind of girl than either of the Kerner sisters.  Linda Ann Margolies, a grad student at Columbia, finishing her master’s thesis on comedy.  She’s extremely familiar with Art’s work, both as an ad copywriter and a purveyor of snarky greeting cards, and she arranges to meet with him at his office, looking to do some research.  You know how I like to say that while Westlake’s protagonists don’t invariably make the right choices, he always gives them a chance to do so?  Linda’s the chance.

Ah, yes, there are moments when I understand cannibalism.  Food imagery kept filling my head as I looked at this lush morsel: home-baked pastry, crepes suzette, ripe peaches.  If she were any shorter, it would be too much, overblown, fit for a gourmand rather than a gourmet, but she was just tall enough to cool the effect slightly and thereby become perfect.  Sex without loss of status, how lovely.  “Come in, Miss Margolies,” I said, and ignored the jaundiced lip-curl of Gloria in the background.

You know how I know when Westlake is describing his feminine ideal?  When his description of her is simultaneously rapturously evocative and frustratingly vague.  Just as with Claire Carroll, we never learn the color of her eyes or hair or anything, we just know she’s very full-figured (in contradistinction to the model-slim Claire–like any true admirer of female beauty, Westlake knew that perfection comes in many sizes and shapes).  Margolies is typically a Jewish name, of course.  Which doesn’t tell us what she looks like, but we can make some educated guesses.  If they made yet another movie adaptation right now–

img-thing

(Hey, Linda’s got to work her way through Columbia somehow).

So we have a lively exchange of questions, answers, ideas, and one-liners, part of which you can see up top, climaxing with Art, feeling correctly that Linda has dared him to come around his desk and take her on the floor, does precisely that, to their very mutual pleasure.  You know, maybe Don Juan will always wind up in hell in the end, and Captain MacHeath is going to the gallows in all but the most contrived of finales, but somehow one can’t help feeling there are compensations…

Westlake had by this time fully mastered the art of having a narrator tell us more than he intends, or even realizes, and it’s obvious to us–but not to Art–that Linda is more than just another easy lay to him.  Mr. Westlake has dangled a potential soulmate in front of his anti-Nephew, someone who can not only accept him as he is, but prefer him that way.  Only she’s got no money.   She’s just another penniless adventurer, albeit of a more intellectual bent.  And he finds it oddly disconcerting that she knows him so well when they’ve only just met.   She was reading those cards very closely.  She knows what the clown is hiding behind his puns and pratfalls.  She was seeing what he wrote between the lines.  Somebody please love meThe real meWhoever that is.

And this is, sadly, the last we see of the luscious Linda in this novel, though she periodically reaches out to Art, by phone and by mail, sensing their connection, wanting to make something of it, and he thinks about it, even yearns for it, but there’s so much else going on right now, you see.  And this is Westlake testing Art, hitting him over the head really, yelling in his ear, “Hey–dummy!  That’s The Girl.”  But Art is just too much in love with his own cleverness to listen.  Until it’s much too late.   And much as I wish we men were not that stupid–well, as my female readers (I must have some) will know all too well, we’re just precisely that stupid at times–even when we don’t have rich sexy twins to distract us.

So it’s back to the fortune hunt, and what follows is not so much a tango as a lively gavotte, with Art changing partners (and identities) at a rate that both we and he have a hard time keeping pace with.  The only variation we don’t get is Liz sleeping with Bart, but she does propose marriage to Art, much to his horror–and temptation, because she’s offering (via a contract drawn up by Volpinex) an arrangement any penniless Lothario would cheerfully sell his soul for, if he had one.  No romantic strings attached, on either side–and two thousand a month for Art.   And hey–what is it about these Kerner sisters that makes them so eager to get hitched to twin brothers they barely know, who they’ve never even seen in the same place at the same time?

The answer keeps coming out the same way–money.  See, Liz had told Art half a truth–that if she didn’t get married soon, she’d take a huge tax hit (Pre-Reagan era, remember, the rich had to work harder to hold onto their money back then).

But in fact, she and Betty are suing each other for control of the Kerner fortune, along with a host of minor relations, and because of the terms of their father’s will, they both need a husband to win out, and their social circle simply doesn’t include anyone who is both presentable and available, the way Art and Bart so prodigiously are.   Okay, it probably doesn’t hurt that they’re both so good in the sack (though in a rather identity-rattling moment for Art, when Betty cheats on her non-existent husband with his increasingly confused ‘brother’ one night, she whispers in Art’s ear that he’s better).

Betty, more accomplished at fooling herself than Liz (because she’s so much more invested in the culture that goes with their class), believes she is genuinely in love with Bart, who was concocted mainly as a male version of herself.   Liz, by contrast, is genuinely like Art in many ways, and has been rebelling against her class with her hard-partying lifestyle and sarcastic asides, but it’s all an act, and she knows it.  She doesn’t own the  money, it owns her–at one point, she asks Art how he thinks she’d have reacted if he’d turned down her very unromantic proposal. “You would have loved me more, but you wouldn’t be marrying me,” Art suggests.  And she’s very unhappy to realize that’s exactly right.   He sees her looking at herself in the mirror later, frowning strangely.  Art’s is by no means the only identity crisis in this story.  But it’s the only one that gets definitively resolved.

So many twists and turns in this one, so many ruses, reversals, and revelations.  I could easily turn this review into a two or even three-parter recounting only half of them, but you all know what bedroom farce is, right?   That’s the fun part of the book, and there’s quite a lot of it (286 pages in the first edition hardcover) but it’s not all sex, lies, and gigolo japes.  It’s got a lot to say, and as Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan remark, there is much to be learned from a cynical devil–you definitely won’t find a sentimental one here.

The identity of an adventurer–or a comedian, same difference–isn’t terribly well-rooted to begin with.  Constantly putting on masks, rarely if ever letting them slip, Art is barely on speaking terms with himself, but he is capable of moments of real insight when prodded.  Like what he tells Linda, about a minute before he fucks her on the floor.   She’s just asked him why some people choose comedy as their defense against the many dangers of this world.

Taking a deep breath, I said “Because the comic is a killer himself, that’s why.   The comic is the last civilized man to feel the killer inside himself.  We’re omnivores, little girl, and that means we’ll eat anything that stands still, we’ll eat anything that doesn’t have flashing lights.  ‘Comedy instead of some other defense,’ you said, and that’s right.  Comedy is surprise.  I make you laugh, that means I surprise you, that means you’ll keep your distance, you won’t attack.  Laugh meters should record in megadeaths, because that’s what comedy is all about; I kill you for practice to keep you from killing me for real.”

And, self-evidently, to keep from having to kill anyone else for real, and here’s the thing about Art–he’s a complete and total bastard, not a redeeming trait in him, but he’s got not one ounce of malice in him–towards anyone.  He just wants to enjoy his brief time on earth as best he can, to have both a variety of pleasurable experiences and absolute liberty, and that’s hard, folks.  Very few ever manage that balancing act for long (some rich and famous people can fake it to beat the band, but it’s all done with mirrors) and he’s been teetering on the high wire for some time now.   He wants the money the Kerners proffer, because he thinks that will stabilize him.   Oh that it will, Art.

Volpinex had him pegged, at the club, when he offered Art 30 grand in venture capital in exchange for backing away from the Kerner sisters.  It seems an improbably on-target assessment from such a soulless drip, but we all have hidden depths, I suppose.

“You are not quite the standard fortune-hunter,” he said, “some money-mad chauffeur out to make a quick killing.  You are better than that, more educated, more intelligent, more talented.”

I put my fork down and stared at him.  “Now you’re trying to sell me an encyclopedia.”

He ignored that, saying, “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you enjoy the life you already have: the freedom, some sense of adventure and experiment, the opportunity to employ your talent.”

“And the bill collectors,” I said.  “They’re my favorites.”

He nodded, thoughtfully.  “The money Elizabeth offered you has gone to your head, and why not?  It’s a lot of money.  But it isn’t what you really want.”

Ah, but you see, Mr. Volpinex, for a man to know what he really wants, he has to know what he really is.  Maybe you know it reflexively, being more of a Starkian figure, however corrupted.   But Art Dodge is just a man, and he’s never taken the time to figure himself out, because the answers would have come with a few too many inconvenient questions, that might get in the way of his fun.  That might force him to grow up.

He just figures he can kill Bart off when the time is right, so Art can thrive–or the other way around–what’s the difference?   What’s in a name?  It’s just another Dodge.

When the whole twin act falls to bits, as Art always knew must happen eventually, he’s unprepared for it–he’s got no escape hatch ready.  He has to start killing people to keep his secret.  Or else honestly face up to the consequences of his myriad deceptions, something no cad ever willingly does–that’s what makes him a cad.   And if the comedian kills you symbolically, to keep from having to kill you for real, that means Art Dodge is comedian no more.   He’s the other kind of murderer, and his identity has been irreparably compromised.  Not least by the fact that he has become fabulously wealthy and powerful–and it turns out he’s very good at it.  Money has no loyalties, you know.  The Kerner money is Dodge money now.  And it couldn’t care less.

A strange way to punish a rogue.  A strange hell for Don Giovanni to descend into.   But that is precisely what we’re witnessing here.  Art Dodge is dead.  And damned.  And there’s not enough left of him to care.

It doesn’t happen all at once.  He resists.  He tells himself “I am becoming Volpinex” and the thought truly horrifies him (choose your enemy carefully…).  But the inexorable twin pulls of survival and money keep dragging him down, forcing him to become an alien creature, as spiritually mummified as his now-deceased rival.

As the story concludes, he’s in his old office, giving up Folksy Cards, giving Gloria two thousand bucks severance–clearly saddened at the end of their relationship, she asks won’t he need a secretary where he’s going?  He suggests she talk to the consortium of disgruntled artists he’s held at bay for years, who will take his place.   She can see something is terribly wrong, but she can’t understand it.  He tells us she squints at him, as though he’s surrounded by smoke.  We realize that there really was somebody who loved this clown for himself–and will mourn his passing.

And maybe one other.  Gloria hands Art a card from Linda Ann Margolies–whose master’s thesis he tried to read, found it rather frivolous, how could he have been attracted to someone so common, so immature?  Sitting at his desk for the very last time, he concludes what we now realize was an extended epitaph for his soul.

I very nearly tossed it out at once–something about my brief encounter with that girl bothered me, I couldn’t say what–but curiosity got the upper hand.  Opening it, I found a greeting card inside of the kind I used to publish, though not one from my company.  The front showed a man in the front half of a horse suit, with a theater’s stage in the background.  Inside, it said, “I just can’t go on without you.”

Was that supposed to be funny?  I threw it away.

Brrrrr!

In the massed ranks of the books Westlake published in his lifetime,  there is only one that can stand beside this in terms of a truly chilling anti-climax (still a ways off, and much more in the Starkian mode, with more than a touch of Coe).

For all his understandable cynicism about the human race, his black Irish melancholia, Westlake was a hopeful optimistic person by nature, and something in him hated to let his heroes die–even if they lost everything, they still had themselves (indeed, losing everything might prove the very best way to find yourself, as many a visionary has opined).  Perhaps this aversion to killing his protagonists stemmed from him wanting to be a just God to the people he breathed life into–perhaps because it was too much like suicide by typewriter.

But in this breezy bedroom farce of his, having so much in common in its style and plot material with the desultory sleaze novels he’d cranked out under false names earlier in his career,  he truly does rise above the material at last, even as he shows his hero sinking ever-deeper into moral quicksand.  There were a million ways he could have ended this one, and he chose the truest and most painful.   And it seems damned few people at the time appreciated that.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ whose New York Times review of Butcher’s Moon I referenced a few weeks back, just could not seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Mr. Westlake was never going to be content to be a mere composer of light entertainments for our momentary diversion.   The first edition of the next book we’ll be looking at bore a blurb from his review of this one, acclaiming Westlake “The Neil Simon of the Crime Novel,” but read in context, that’s not so much a compliment as a politely worded put-down.

Callendar always paid warm tribute to Westlake’s skill as a writer, while obtusely failing to understand his choices as a storyteller (it’s tragic but hardly surprising that he succeeded the far more qualified Anthony Boucher as the prime writer on the mystery genre for the Times).  As he saw it, this book “belabors a situation that is impossible to begin with, ends up with too pat a solution and turns farce into tragedy.  The author of the book is the deus ex machina and that is always a cop-out.”

Leaving aside the tiresomely obvious fact that the author of every book ever written is the deus ex machina, it is precisely the turning of farce into tragedy that elevates this book above most of the other stories Westlake wrote about confused harried bachelors with overly complex personal lives.  Newgate Callendar, in his everyday guise of Harold C. Schonberg, may have been a brilliant music critic–when it came to discussing mere technique–but why do I suspect that if he’d been critiquing Mozart while the latter was still alive, he’d have missed the point of every opera?  Just like most of Mozart’s contemporaries did.

Diabolus ex machina would be more to the point, since Westlake has tempted his hero with Mephistophelian ingenuity–while still clearly pointing him towards the path to redemption, which he fails to follow, or even recognize.  And this is entirely logical for the character we’ve been shown.  It’s no cop-out–it’s a fair cop, as the Brits say.  And yes, contrived as all hell, but that’s no less true of the Dortmunders, which Callendar heartily approved of–because he didn’t take them seriously.  More fool he.

All this modern-day Faust had to do was say to Linda “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (the precise meaning of her name in Spanish) and he would have been saved, even if he remained as lecherous, light-fingered, and leering as ever.  His damnation lay in his failure to know himself well enough to withstand temptation–not of the flesh, but of filthy lucre (Westlake whole-heartedly approved of temptations of the flesh; much as they may need to be resisted at times, to resist them at all times is to fail at life).

And yet, I fear it was Newgate Callendar’s take on this book that won out, at least in the short term.  People wanted the farce, bedrooms and all, sans the tragedy–the people making movies certainly did.  Film producers hear “Neil Simon” and think “Money”, so it got two film adaptations, as already noted–one French and one American.  The French one starred one of those comic actors nobody but the French care about, and had a happy ending. I suspect this is the better of the two, but it still sounds pretty bad.

The American one came ten years later, and starred Antonio Banderas (well, at least that makes Art’s romantic prowess more believable), and the sisters were played by Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah, which of course destroys the whole twin angle, and Art is an artist (the kind who paints), and I’ve never seen it, and I don’t care if I ever do.  I mean, if you have to stick a happy ending on it, why not Art and Linda going off into the sunset?  Because Linda is too small a part to tempt a big star, and of course one big star has to end up with another big star.  And virtue has to be rewarded–not self-understanding, which was the point of the book.  For some reason, self-understanding isn’t usually a big thing in Tinseltown.

“Thus do we artists adapt the facts of our own lives to the purposes of our art.”  So Art Dodge tells us, as he scrawls the text for yet another witty greeting card on the Fire Island Ferry.  Westlake knew the temptations of money very well–and I think he often lusted for big material success, the blockbuster best-seller he never got–and feared it at the same time.  Somebody as talented and prolific as him really should have been rich at some point, right?  Why didn’t he ever get there?  Maybe, on some level, because he didn’t want to.  Because without the need to get up every day and dodge bill collectors, dodge exes, dodge rivals, the supreme dodge that is art would fall away from  him, never to be regained.

It wouldn’t necessarily for everyone.  I’m sure Stephen King is a nice enough person in real life, and he’s written some very good books since he got rich.  If he’s written anything as good as Two Much, I’m not aware of it.  Well, that’s just my opinion.  And it’s a different thing to earn your money through creativity than through connivance.  Not all rich guys with political aspirations are stick-in-the-mud bores, as we’ve had occasion to learn recently–but self-understanding will never be theirs.  And their only real love affairs are with themselves.  But they provide ample material for the true clowns of the world.  So ridi, Pagliacci.  Ridi.

Our next book could not be more different from this one, and yet I’d argue it was intended as a companion piece to it–Westlake must have written one right after the other, maybe working on both at the same time.  It features a slightly older and ultimately much wiser protagonist, and a Nephew he is, to his very core–but he’s a Nephew with lots of brothers, and that makes all the difference.  And if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to try and get that review finished by October 25th.  I must say, I’ll be very impressed with any of my readers who understand why that particular date.  Oh, for a muse of fire….

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

26 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Two Much