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Review: Dead Girl Blues

Cautiously, tentatively. I’d ask one woman out to dinner, take another to the movies. I took pains to appear at ease on such occasions, and to a certain extent I was, but a part of my mind was always busy taking my emotional temperature. Did I like this woman? Did I find her attractive? Was conversation with her difficult or easy? Interesting or tedious? Did I want to see her again?

More to the point, did I want to fuck her? Did I want to kill her first and then fuck her?

Sometimes I asked myself what the hell I thought I was doing. My life in Lima was pleasant enough. I was making decent money, and my prospects were good. I had a growing circle of acquaintances with whom I could contrive to spend as much or as little time as I wanted.

I wouldn’t say that I had any friends. But then I had never had a friend, and how could I be expected to make one now?

I’d seen this bit of doggerel in a souvenir shop, burned into a wooden plaque:

A friend is not a fellow who is taken in by sham
A friend is one who knows our faults and doesn’t give a damn

So there you have it. My acquaintances could only be fellows taken in by sham, as I did not dare to let anyone know who I really was. Because they’d certainly give a damn. How could they not?

Lawrence Block.  Was ever a scribe less aptly named?  (At least his first name isn’t Ryder.)  82 years old, still churning out fiction (and nonfiction) at a staggering rate.  Self-publishing quite a bit now (works better when you’re a name), but also gets the odd gig with Hard Case Crime.  Like his buddy Don, he has no concept of retirement.

Back in 2016, I reviewed his novella Resume Speed, which you see up top.  Liked it very much indeed.  I still consider it some of the best work he’s ever done (not that I’ve read all the work he’s done–few could say they had).  A spare penetrating look into one chapter in the life of a drifter. A talented likable man with a troubled past he can’t come to terms with–even the third person narrator seems unsure exactly what happened to make his protagonist move from one small town to another, settling down for a spell, then abruptly pulling up stakes, leaving thriving businesses and broken hearts behind.  We never even learn his original name.

The clues are few and contradictory.  Did he murder someone?  Is someone trying to murder him?  Is he genuinely in trouble, or is that just an excuse to keep moving?  I wouldn’t expect a sequel to clear that up.  Some stories you only ruin by finishing them.

But this is, you might say, a companion piece to the earlier story, which in turn hearks back to work like the Keller series, where the hitman hero yearns to settle down in some small community, never does.  It also bears some points in common with Random Walk, another recent self-published novel of his I tried to read, gave up on.  When I like Block, I like him very much indeed.  When I don’t, he’s got plenty of other readers to keep him company.  This current book I like pretty well, but let’s get the ground rules clear.

I normally do very thorough plot synopses on this blog.  Reviews meant for people who have already read the work in question, which has in the main been available for decades.  But when I’m reviewing a newly published work, I feel a bit more reticence is called for.  I also use a lot less quotes.  I’ll mainly stick to that here, but I can’t explain what I like or dislike about this one without at least half-revealing some plot twists, so bear that in mind.

So to cut to the chase, if you’re reading this review to decide whether this novel is worth the ten bucks it costs to download–it is, and then some.  If you like Block, and if you like stories that get into the minds of killers–for example, a story about a man who without malice aforethought murdered and raped a young woman–in that order–and tells us in some detail how that came to happen, and what happened afterwards.  Not everything that happened, because this is another story you might ruin by finishing.

This is a story about a drifter with an unequivocally murderous past, who finally stops drifting, puts down permanent roots, meets a woman, starts a family–and then has to learn to deal with the consequences of those choices.  He is, in fact, a sympathetic character.  He is the highly rational first-person narrator of his own story, and we see everything through his eyes, are forced to understand his point of view, have to make up our own minds how we feel about it.

And you might argue this forms a genre of its own in crime fiction.  “I murdered someone, this is how it felt, this is how I reacted, and [usually] this is how I got caught and punished.”  The earliest classic example might be Poe’s The Telltale Heart, (he published The Black Cat the same year) but even he probably didn’t invent it.  And Poe wrote about killers who were clearly incapable of telling reality from fantasy.  Madmen, not sociopaths.

Skipping over a century ahead, we come to Jim Thompson–who Block wrote critically about in several articles I mentioned here some time back.  Thompson almost specialized in first-person narrators who were killers, and they never get away with it, but neither can we really get away from them, so haunting are their twisted insights.  Even after death, they may still be telling someone (we never know who, or what) of their crimes–the Exit Interview in Hell, I like to call it.

The novel you see up top is perhaps his most notorious effort in this vein.  But not even Lou Ford has sexual congress with a victim after beating him/her to death–and his psychopathy is explained by his having been sexually abused by his father’s housekeeper (and mistress) as a child.

The narrator of Block’s novel can’t give us any explanation of what he did–his childhood was almost offensively normal.  Though his parents neglected him a bit, due to his being one of ten children–there were no deep emotional bonds formed, leading to an outwardly affable man who has a hard time feeling anything towards other people, besides idle curiosity, and residual wariness.

He commited that murder, and that posthumous rape, because it seemed like the only thing to do when a random bar hook-up went wrong, and he never stopped thinking about it afterwards, because it felt so unexpectedly right.  He spends a lot of time getting to know the killer inside him, running little thought experiments, trying various scenarios out in his mind, even scoping out potential victims (but never following through), because he knows he was lucky not to get caught the first time, is afraid to push his luck.  He tells us he’s a sociopath, but he’s an exceptionally self-analytical one.  Is this a good thing?  For him, yes.  For the story?  I’m a bit less sure.  But fiction is the ultimate thought experiment, no?

Mr. Block is well aware of his many outstanding debts to past writers in this highly jugular vein–and pays one off by having his protagonist (whose real name we do learn), settle down under the assumed name of John James Thompson.  Methinks he was more impressed than he let on in those critical essays–part of that perhaps came from feeling that the critics had overrated Thompson after his death, while underrating others, himself included.  (But Mr. Block, you can’t very well expect to be posthumously lionized before your posterior is down in the humous, can you now?  First things first.)

It should go without saying that he was also influenced by his lifelong friend, Donald E. Westlake–who rarely wrote first-person narratives about murderers (never about rapists).  Westlake admired Thompson very much, but had reservations about The Killer Inside Me–I think because he felt that even for Thompson, it was going too far.  Making an outlaw hero out of a misogynist monster–who the unfortunate women in his life can’t help but keep crawling back to.  (Westlake perhaps sometimes worried he was doing that with Parker, at least in The Hunter, but of course it was Stark telling the story, not Parker himself–there’s that bit of narrative distance.  Parker would never think of confessing his crimes to anyone, even in Hell’s antechamber, and wolves don’t go to Hell.)

So while there are many models he might have drawn upon, from the work of others, and from his own past efforts, it’s that last book up top that gives us the biggest hint to the puzzle of what he’s attempting here.  He’s trying a variation on The Ax.  The basic narrative form is almost identical, in that ‘Thompson’ is telling us his story in fits and starts, and when he begins, he still doesn’t know where he’s going with it.  (The difference is, we’re told he’s typing this into his computer–and wondering as he does it if he will eventually have to destroy the hard drive to make sure nobody but him ever reads what he’s writing–there’s a bit of Adios Scheherazade here as well, a neglected Westlake masterpiece that Block has made his admiration for known).

But he’s trying to rationalize the process of becoming that Westlake depicted so effectively in that novel.  His family man (whose livelihood is never at serious risk) is going to find a way to keep the killer inside him under wraps, and he’s going to find a way to honestly share who he is with his family, as Burke DeVore never did.  A major part of this story is him deciding what secrets need to be shared with those he somehow has come to love, in order to be kept secret from the world at large.

And (spoiler alert) they not only forgive him, the adoptive son whose actions inadvertently led to a legitimate fear of ‘Thompson’ being brought to justice at last apologizes profusely to him.  And his wife, once he clues her in, goes on wanting to have sex with him in the manner to which they have become accustomed–with her lying limp as a corpse, satisfying his necrophiliac fetish–she prefers it that way.

Yeah.

Reading a recent Matt Scudder short Block self-published recently, I was struck by the way Scudder really didn’t feel like Scudder anymore.  Now I haven’t read most of those novels, just the first few.  I know the character got past his guilt, his alcohol addiction, and I’m happy he and his hooker galpal Elaine eventually became a contented married couple.

But see, my feeling is that Westlake was right to stop writing the oddly similar (and earlier) Mitch Tobin novels after Tobin finally got over his guilt issues, because those issues were what made the books worth reading.  There is no story without them.  Just a franchise, which isn’t the same thing.  Block disagreed, and kept right on turning out Scudders, sometimes as prequels (a form Westlake clearly didn’t care for and neither do I).

While every fictional protagonist is probably, to some extent, a mask his or her creator hides behind, that mask still matters, and a writer is ill advised to ever let it slip too much.  My sense was that in this story, the writer had completely given up on pretending Matt Scudder was anybody other than Lawrence Block.  Even basically the same age as Lawrence Block, leading a very similar Gothamite lifestyle, and enjoying many of the same sexual fantasies as Mr. Block.  (Which I can’t say I ever noted in the earlier books.)

So when the story ended with the pretty young blonde girl Elaine knows from a sort of Twelve Step group for reformed/reforming working girls,  who the aging Scudder just rescued from a creepy stalker, happily volunteers to join him and the missus in a three-way, just to express her gratitude (isn’t she supposed to be reforming?), and they all adjourn to the bedroom–let’s just say I wasn’t shocked. Or turned on.  I mean, I’m all for people doing whatever they like so long as nobody gets hurt and no horses are frightened, but–ew.

So I’m a square, like Huey Lewis, without the sunglasses.  My hang-ups notwithstanding, it struck me more as wish fulfillment than a legit Scudder story–like everything was just an elaborate build-up to the threesome, which Scudder spends some time dreaming about during the course of the story.  And then his dream comes true.

And since the women are fine with it–well, in a Block story, they always are.  Just like it wasn’t statutory rape for the hero of Block’s much earlier Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (whose name, you should know, is Larry) to enjoy frequent coitus with no fewer than five beautiful Catholic school girls under the age of 17 (one of them is 15), because it was all their idea.  (I will not for one moment pretend that didn’t turn me on.  I am, after all, only human.)

In a work of fiction, there is no problem with consent, unless the author puts it in there.  So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that at some point in the course of this new novel, Mr. Thompson’s long-ago victim (who gave consent while drunk, then withdrew it, then got murdered and raped) appears to him in a vision and says she forgives him.  To his credit, it never occurs to him to present this as a legal defense if the law ever catches up to him via DNA evidence he left inside her all those years ago.

It’s an effectively written book.  It has some interesting points to make, and it does quietly keep the reader in suspense, because it is, let’s face it, not your typical story told from the perspective of a psychopathic killer.  I appreciate moral ambiguity in fiction, and especially crime fiction.  But this isn’t all that ambiguous.  We’re clearly supposed to say “This is a good guy, he made a mistake, he worked on his issues, he’s got a nice business, a nice family, the girl forgave him from the spirit realm or the fifth dimension or whatever”–and reading it, I have to admit, I didn’t want him to get caught and sent off to the pokey.

Block does a rather superlative job making us fear the machinations of the law, the wheels grinding fine, the obsession with cold cases, unsolved mysteries, and the everpresent threat of DNA evidence, freeing some, imprisoning others.   But like Westlake, he’s also skeptical of how good the cops really are.

He makes a very persuasive argument towards the end.  You see, Thompson really has kept his nose clean all this time, suppressed his murderous impulses–though he was frequently on the edge of giving in to them, and even considered wiping out his family because he couldn’t bear the thought of them ever finding out who he really was.  He wanted to spare them that pain.

But he never gave in to any of these violent impulses.  Never broke any laws.  Never got so much as a speeding ticket.  Never reached out to his birth family, either.  So even though the law knows now it was him, or rather the him that used to be, they have no way of figuring out where or who he is now.  And in an echo from the Parker novels, the simulations of how he’d look in the present day just don’t match up to reality all that well.

Investigators looking into that old case would ultimately conclude that the scumbag who did this must have died years ago.  He would have killed again with the same MO, he would have gotten into trouble with the law, he would have contacted members of his birth family for help, he would have tripped up somehow.  Because they always do.  Do they?  I have no idea.  They found the Green River Killer.  Zodiac might still be out there.  Or not.  Pretty sure Jack the Ripper is gone, though Robert Bloch (no relation to Lawrence) might dissent.

But I’m damn sure none of them turned into decent family men who owned their actions, confided in their loved ones, became armchair philosophers of psychopathy, and had spirit visions of their victims forgiving them–and that’s what happens with Block’s non-serial killer.  Is this a believable conclusion?  You tell me.  It’s an interesting story, I’ll tell you that.

I think the point is, we all have problems, things we’ve done in our past, or wanted to do, that we’re unhappy about, and we should deal with that baggage, be as open about it as possible without scaring everyone away.  You need to know yourself in your entirety, not just the good stuff.  That’s a moral both Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake would heartily endorse (I couldn’t say about Poe).

But if Westlake didn’t like The Killer Inside Me (which is a bloody good book) I find it hard to believe he would have liked this one.  He knew his friend’s faults very well, I believe, and didn’t give a damn.  I know I still like Resume Speed very much.   And many other books and stories by Lawrence Block.  I’m not sorry I read this one.  I won’t be reading it again.

Nor will I tell you which idea I have toyed with for a story indirectly showed up in it.  Which worried me a bit.  Great minds…..?

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Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

Another post I recently read, written by a literary agent, gave an exhaustive list of all the things authors should not do in the opening lines of their novel.

No fighting, breathing heavily, or running. No dialogue. No dead bodies. No rhetorical questions. No waking up. No vague philosophical statements. No false beginnings. No flashbacks. No prologues.

Don’t even think about anything that could be construed as filler actions or idleness, such as sighing, grinning, or pursing one’s lips. Action that involves fighting or running is a no-no because we don’t yet know or care about the character. But well, apparently we aren’t allowed to actually say anything that would reveal information about the character through dialogue or philosophical inquiry because that’s a “tension killer”.

Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish.  The same agent posted a tweet by another agent who apparently felt the need publicize how a single opening sentence had motivated her to request an entire manuscript. The statement was followed by #querytip, but I personally find it embarrassing that this is the level of flippancy we’ve come to. When a gutted reader commented on the post, asking for examples of what writers were permitted to do, the agent responded with a circuitous rant that amounted to the assertion that the more experienced a writer became, the better their first line would be by default.

Oh, good.

From The Absurdity of Publishing, by Zandra J.  (published online, naturally)

“WELL, PRINCE, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don’t know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I’m scaring you, sit down and talk to me.”

From War and Peace, by Leo Somebodyorother.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Some hack devoting 206,052 words to dudes hunting a whale (animal rights activists will freak).

The Hunter (December 1962): “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”

The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”

The Outfit (September 1963): “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”

The Mourner (December 1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

The Score (July 1964): “When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.”

The Jugger (July 1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

The Handle (February 1966): “When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.”

The Seventh (March 1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”

The Rare Coin Score (1967): “Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.”

The Green Eagle Score (1967): “Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.”

The Black Ice Score (1968): “Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed.”

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): “Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield.”

Deadly Edge (1971): “Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.”

Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”

Plunder Squad (1972): “Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.”

Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”

Comeback (1997): “When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.”

Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

Flashfire (2000): “When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station.”

Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

Breakout (2002) : “When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they’d want.”

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): “When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.”

Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

Dirty Money (2008): “When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.”

Need you ask?

A while back, I somehow I got a trial subscription to this thing called Medium Daily Digest.  Showed up in my inbox every morning like clockwork, for months.  A potpourri of online articles, on topics ranging from How I Ended Up Running An Outlaw Biker Gang to The Misogyny and Authoritarianism of Paw Patrol.  Sometimes the articles are good.  I mean, they’re not trying to sell me Viagra or anything.  The trial subscription ran out, and now they want money.  To read blog articles.  I think they’re missing the point.

So while the trial subscription was active, this article about publishing was highlighted.  They helpfully inform you it takes eight minutes to read.  More like five for me, but see, I know some of this shit already.  I worked in publishing, briefly.  A Likely Story, you say?  Precisely so.

One of Westlake’s best comic novels, if not the best.  Out of print for God only knows how long, still waiting for the ebook (and waiting, and waiting).  Westlake only got it published, after multiple rejections, because Otto Penzler was wooing him for The Mysterious Press.  Otto started a separate imprint for non-mystery books by mystery authors, just to show his quarry he was serious. It’s not often the 80’s makes me feel nostalgic (and the novel itself is anything but), but that’s a story you don’t hear much in the publishing biz now.  Not likely at all anymore.

The novel is written in the first person, and is a satire of the publishing industry, among other things.  Early on, there’s a snatch of dialogue where Tom says to a colleague, as they compile a list of things never-to-do in their line,  “Never write a novel in the first person.” 

There were always rules, they’ve always changed, and they were always broken.  That’s what they’re there for.  If everybody stays within the lines, the lines won’t be worth perusing.  Doesn’t mean you pay no attention to the laws laid down by The Powers That Be, just that you need to make your own as you go.  By-laws, if you will.  Written by you.  If you’re a writer, and if you’re not, what’s the point?   (Being a blogger, I don’t need one.)

In a later and bloodier novel, The Hook, Westlake repurposed the premise of Strangers on a Train for the publishing biz.  A modestly successful novelist who can’t get published anymore because the bookstore chain computers say  he’s a bad risk, agrees to whack a badly blocked bestselling author’s litigious estranged wife in exchange for getting to publish his own novel under the latter’s name, in exchange for half the advance, that would otherwise go to the ex.

And the joke is, they’re both in the same boat–the moral conundrum isn’t the murder, it’s that each is selling out his professional pride, rather than lose his profession entirely.  Even though both have published many novels (one of them under multiple names, to try and do an end run around those computers), and one is rich and famous, there’s still a certain fragility to any novelist’s position (Stephen King doesn’t count, since he only writes novels as a sideline now).

A writer of any gender is at bottom a salesman, and there’s no rock bottom to the life.  Except everybody dast blame them.  Who ever blames publishers when they don’t like the latest novels?  But it is in fact publishers who decide not only which books get in print, but which manuscripts get submitted in the first place, since the more you strike out, the worse your chances get and the harder it is to get an agent to return your calls.  You learn to write to the market, or the market writes you off.  There are a great variety of markets one can write for, and the greatest of names are painfully aware of their own, whatever they may be.

Even an established author like Westlake knew better than to go off-reservation too often, which is why there are 24 Parker novels, and 14 Dortmunders.  The former series happened because of Bucklin Moon, whose own fiction career had been torpedoed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and had been reduced to wading through the slush pile at Pocket Books.

When he found The Hunter in there, it excited him, and he wanted more.  So he told Westlake to rewrite the ending (where Parker gets killed off),  give them several novels a year about this low-life, and the rest is bloody bullet-riddled history.  This, mind you, after Gold Medal and Dell had passed on the book.  If Moon hadn’t seen it, neither might any of us.  Unsung heroes doesn’t half-say it, when you’re talking editors.  The good ones, anyway.

Westlake’s reinvention of himself as a comic author, which ultimately led him to Dortmunder, likewise came about as an act of rebellion, Westlake’s this time.  He started writing a mystery/adventure, and it kept coming out funny, so he went with that, against his agent’s remonstrances that there was no market for funny mysteries anymore.

The Fugitive Pigeon became his biggest seller to date.  That couldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a book a year contract at Random House, and this was the book for that year, written to what was considered a more female audience of genteel mystery lovers (while the more hard-boiled paperbacks were for the boys).

His editor there was Lee Wright, a woman of remarkable literary gifts, who Westlake considered the best he ever worked with (with Moon orbiting close behind).  How did Westlake land that coveted contract, when all he’d done prior to this was short stories for the pulps and a long list of sleaze paperbacks no respectable publisher would touch?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  And so would I, but the publishing industry has yet to bring forth a Westlake biography to provide us with such details.  Many others were granted equal or greater opportunities, and are now entirely out of print.   And others got rich enough to buy their own islands.  (And may also be out of print–which would you choose?)

Some authors of note spend their whole careers with one publisher.  Others, like Westlake, are far more peripatetic.  Partly because of their inner natures, and partly because book sales, while healthy enough, are not so brisk as to make it a priority to hang into them (“Bye Don, thanks for all the Dortmunders.”)  So it is helpful that there be lots of outlets for talent, instead of just a few multi-media titans, with all their various imprints.  That way, you can shop around.

And of course, in this brave new world we live in, there’s self-publishing.  Something Westlake treated as the joke it usually is, in God Save The Mark, where Fred Fitch (the other one) has to fend off the advances of a neighbor who has a massive manuscript relating to his speculative scenario about Caesar having WWI biplanes during his campaign in Gaul.  (Which he won pretty convincingly without, right?  I mean, why not Hannibal?  Or Spartacus, like in that SNL skit with Kirk Douglas?)  He wants Fred to spend his newfound inheritance to print up innumerable copies of the book, and it’s a sign that Fred is beginning to put pigeon-dom behind him when he demurs.

Westlake’s comic  novels are littered with grifters who promise literary fame and fortune to those who will pay them their hard-earned dollars–just another con, and Westlake worked with Scott Meredith, literary grifter supreme,  who ironically did give a number of major talents a start, Westlake not least among them.  But it wasn’t what they wrote for him that was the making of them.  It was just the practice, cranking out crap for a quick buck–and reading other people’s bad books in the slush pile, sending them notes, learning what to avoid.  (And most of all, they learned to avoid guys like Scott Meredith.)

Self-publishing has a new wrinkle today–you can literally publish yourself.  Online.  Start your own digital publishing company, which can be just for you, or host other writers as well.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the comic crime novels of Caimh (pronounced ‘qweev’) McDonnell, an Irish stand-up comedian who decided to be funny in print, while getting in a good bit of trenchant social commentary along the way, and damned if he doesn’t pull that off some of the time.  But other times I’m thinking this guy needs an editor.  (And all the time I’m thinking he may have read almost as much Westlake as I have, so at least he chooses good models to work from.)

See, the problem with this type of self-publishing–even when it works out financially–is that you don’t get the apprenticeship.  You don’t have to worry about rejection slips, or being summoned to an office and given notes on how to improve your work.  And that all sounds great, but Westlake knew damned well that a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold-pressed latinum.  No matter how good you are, you can always be better.  A practiced eye can tell you where your weak spots are, how to fix them.  So you develop faster, find your own voice more easily.  (Or in Westlake’s case, multiple voices.)

Magazines aren’t a good medium to break in through anymore.  Just not enough people willing to pay to read fiction in that format. Westlake did an enormous amount of writing for science fiction and mystery magazines in the late 50’s, early 60’s, most of which are gone now.  Hundreds of stories, most of which will never see the light of day again, and he’d probably be fine with that. His memories of writing to that market were not, in the main, nostalgic.

The dark side of having an editor/publisher is that he may not be there to nurture you, but rather use you, as editors like John W. Campbell used generations of up and coming wordsmiths to give him (and us) the same basic idea over and over again–his notion of evolved psychic superman (‘psupermen’ was Westlake’s own contemptuous term) overcoming their inferiors, and then quite often ruling them.  In an essay where he announced his decision to stop writing for the SF pulps, Westlake revealed that he’d put an outright spoof of Campbell into one story–and Campbell not only didn’t realize he was being lampooned, he loved the story, insisted it be made longer, and his surrogate’s role greatly enlarged.

But then again, a whole lot of great writers came up through the pulps, going back to one of America’s greatest–Westlake’s hero, Dashiell Hammett.  Part of crafting a unique voice for yourself may involve meeting resistance to it–learning how to fight back against editorial expectations.  Anyone who reads about Hammett’s early days as a yarn spinner for Black Mask will know he had to fight several editors on his way up–each of whom helped and hindered him to varying degrees.

And then he had to fight for his vision at Knopf, where he was asked if he really needed to make it clear Spade and Brigid were doing the horizontal tango?  He insisted he did.  They backed down.  See, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact if the two hadn’t been lovers–the ending of the Huston film,  stylish and beloved as it is, doesn’t have a tenth the power–because you never really believe Bogie’s Spade ever gave a damn.  Just playacting his way through.  Which is something any writer better watch out for.  Huston had Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet (and Arthur Edeson).  Hammett just had a typewriter.  And every time I compare the two reigning takes on that story, the typewriter wins.  Hands down.  Always will.  Mere words.

Of which I have now typed over 3,000, and FYI, I started typing this thing many months ago, and fell into a sort of creative torpor.  I came across the draft last week, thought maybe it was time for me to finish it up, or delete it.

Here is my point–I’m not a real writer.  I just write about what other people wrote.  And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that.  I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.  Why some writers get under my skin, and others don’t.  And these days, I see so few of the former, so many of the latter.  And I suspect that’s because the way writers get made nowadays is not so conducive to the kind of writing I like.

And yet I know there are many good writers of fiction out there.  Many make their living in entertainment, where the money is much better, and the creative freedom is–negotiable?  Writing scripts, for TV or Film, comes with so many directives, rules, formats, time constraints, and endless tropes.  It’s really more of a collective effort, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it’s not the same thing as sitting down and writing a story for yourself–even if you also have a market to write to.  Even if you have an editor to satisfy.  It’s still mainly just you, hammering it out, building stories, seeking settings,  fleshing out characters, pondering motivations, and dealing, always, with whatever the reigning style of your era is.

Should you work with the grain, or against it?  I suspect pretty much every writer worth reading has done both.   Westlake combined the two with a deftness I’ve never quite seen anywhere else, to the point where you wonder where the formula leaves off and the man begins.  Probably he did too.  The  most important thing he did was decide what he wanted to say with each story–the questions he always wanted to ask, of each character.  Who are you?  What do you want?  What are you willing to do to get it?  What wouldn’t you do?  How much can you compromise without losing the only thing you ever really have–which is yourself.  Your identity.

Now I know full well Westlake will never have nearly so impressive a literary footprint as Tolstoy, Melville, or the beloved Dickens.  (Nor did he ever sport as impressive a beard as any of them, which is probably why he shaved it before long.)    But his achievement as a writer, in many ways, is even more remarkable, since he kept producing great work over half a century, never had a day job, or a landed estate.  Certainly crowds of people never waited restlessly at a dockside wharf to learn the fate of Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (Just keep reading.) but try finding anyone who can give you a plot synopsis of The Old Curiosity Shop.  (Maybe Peter Dinklage for the evil dwarf?)

His humbler place in the pantheon is nonetheless a place, and it rises over time–nobody thought Shakespeare was all that big a deal in the early 1600’s.  Point is, Westlake did what he loved, and people still love it now that he’s gone.  That’s a winning game.

So will there be another like him?  Who produces nearly a hundred fascinating novels, none of them really bestsellers, or critical favorites, yet most of them popular, endlessly reprinted, each very much its own thing;  alternately funny, dark, thrilling, empathic, philosophical, searing, satiric, sardonic, piquant, prescient–and yet each somehow tied to all the others, forming a corpus, a body of work, that rewards endless rereading and cross-reading–so much so that at the time I type this, all but a handful of his books can be downloaded into a digital device for a few bucks?

Might someone accomplish that once more?

All I can tell you is, it won’t be me.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

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Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

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Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

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(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

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Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

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Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Belated Reminder: A Westlake classic, Traveling once more.

Brother Clemence spoke first. “There’s no record of the lease with the County Clerk,” he told us. “I swear to you that when I expressed surprise at that, an ancient clerk there snapped at me, ‘Don’t you know there was a war on?’ Meaning the Revolution. Most of New York City was held by the British under martial law throughout the Revolution, and many deeds and leases and other legal papers just didn’t get properly recorded. A transfer of property would eventually have found its way into the records, but a simple rental doesn’t create as many legal necessities.”

Brother Dexter said, “But the lease is still binding, isn’t it, even if it isn’t recorded?”

“So long as one party retains a copy of it and wishes to enforce it,” Brother Clemence said, “it’s still binding. But I just wish I could get a look at the wording of the thing. Brother Oliver, still no luck with our copy?”

“I spent all day searching for it,” Brother Oliver said mournfully, and the dust smudges on his cheeks and the tip of his nose bore silent witness. “I’ve searched everywhere, I was even in the attic. I went through every page of VEILED FOR THE LORD, just in case it had been put in there by mistake.”

Brother Clemence squinted, “VEILED FOR THE LORD?”

“Brother Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel,” Brother Oliver explained, “based on the life of Saint Jude the Obscure.”

“I’ve never actually read that,” Brother Hilarius commented. “Do you recommend it?”

“Not wholeheartedly,” Brother Oliver told him.

Brother Clemence, who was usually a jovial galumphing St. Bernard sort of man, could become a bulldog when his attention was caught, and this time his attention had been caught for fair. “I need that lease,” he said, his heavy white-haired head thrusting forward over the refectory table as though he would chomp the missing lease in his jaws. “I need to look at it, I need to see the wording.

Absent-minded as I am, it had quite slipped my mind that Brothers Keepers was due out in early February, courtesy of Hard Case Crime. (Well, it was a Hard Case edition of a never-before-published Westlake novel that told us in grim detail how unreliable a tool memory can be.)

As is their usual custom there, the book is available both as an e-edition and a reasonably priced paperback, complete with misleadingly sexy cover.  In fairness, there is intercourse other than the social in this one, and at least they got Ms. Flattery’s hair color right (though she doesn’t look very Irish to me with that golden tan–must be the Puerto Rican sunshine).

I quite like this art, which covers the bases, story wise.  My heart will always belong to the original M. Evans dust jacket, which puts full emphasis on the monastery and its dowdy yet doughty denizens.  But that more contemplative approach, appropriate though it may be, doesn’t work for a crime novel in paperback.

Begging the question–is this a crime novel?  I would assume somebody at Hard Case must have posed the question at some point.  A few people get punched.  A few documents are pilfered.  A foiled mugging in Central Park.  A monastic vow of chastity is repeatedly and pleasurably broken.

The only malefactor of note in the piece is an avaricious and unapologetic New York City real estate developer, seeking to destroy a beautiful old building to put up an ugly glass tower, caring not that this will destroy the lives of a handful of monks whose order is so obscure, one suspects the Vatican has no inkling of its existence.

A very white collar crime novel, one must conclude.  But that is, after all, the sort of crime many of us are most concerned with of late, or ought to be.

I go back and forth over which of Westlake’s comic novels that isn’t about Dortmunder is my personal favorite, but I always come back to this, and have long lamented its absence from the ranks of books in print.

Precisely because it’s so hard to slot, it’s been hard to find a lasting home for it, and all glory and praise to Charles Ardai & Co. for returning it to us, like an illuminated manuscript of the deed to a long-neglected sanctum sanctorum of the soul, where the primary object of contemplation is human folly–and the joys of brotherhood.  And, of course, the perilous possibilities of Travel.  Broadens the mind, they do say.  But that depends very much on what spirit it is undertaken in.

Of Mr. Westlake’s problem books, the two outstanding absentees are now Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story.  I have been known to put a bug in the ear of the odd publisher about their absence from the rolls.  And it would take a very odd publisher indeed to take a chance on either, but what joy to see them breathe again.  To present their problems to us–which are still our problems today.  We need to take another look at them. We need to see the wording.

Sorry for the long absence–I’ve got things in mind, and if I can just relocate my mind (which has been absent, as mentioned), I’ll get to them.  In the meantime, I see The Official Westlake Blog has found a few covers for this one I had not heretofore encountered–and my fidelity to the M. Evans dustjacket is now sorely beset–

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From Japan–and I think I’m not the only one who recognizes this is the same unsung genius who did several Dortmunder covers I’ve showcased here in past.  (It’s so breathtakingly wonderful, I don’t even care that Eileen’s hair is the wrong color.)

The title translates to We Are Salvation to the Saints, and I’m just now realizing how well the story would translate to a Buddhist monastery or Shinto Shrine, threatened by development in Tokyo or Osaka.  Now that would have been a great Kurosawa film.

Here’s the Rivages edition–

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Droll indeed, and Rivages continues, in its own modern way, the classic tradition of Le Série Noire–ie, never pay for original cover art if you can possibly avoid it.  Never mind if it fits the story or  not!  It is noir, ne c’est pas?  Non?  Read the book and stop complaining!  Hopefully at least they shelled out for a decent translation.  But Rivages publishes more Westlake than any other house I’m aware of.

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Same title used by an Argentinian publisher, but I believe this edition hails from Spain.   And I don’t like it one bit, but I like that the birthplace of so many religious orders has its own edition.  Curious–does the term Brothers Keepers (derived from a familiar children’s taunt) not translate into any language other than English?  Well, at least there’s the actual English–

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Good old Hodder and Staunton.  Not a bad job at all.  But I’m still all agog over the Japanese cover. How many more Westlakes did this luminary illuminate?

Hey, if there’s anybody out there who can read Japanese–can you see the name of the artist?  I think I want to erect a shrine to him. Or her.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Traveling to do.  Metaphorically and literally.

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Metaphysical Coincidence: Brian Garfield, 1939-2018.

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The English call them thrillers, and in our clumsier way we call them novels of suspense.

They contain elements of mystery, romance and adventure, but they don’t fall into restrictive categories. And they’re not circumscribed by artificial systems of rules like those that govern the whodunit or the gothic romance. The field is wide enough to include Alistair MacLean, Allen Drury, Helen Maclnnes, Robert Crichton, Graham Greene, and Donald E. Westlake. (Now there’s a parlay.) The market is not limited by the stigmata of genre labels, and therefore the potential for success of a novel in this field is unrestricted: DAY OF THE JACKAL, for instance, was a first novel.

The game’s object: To perch the reader on edge — to keep him flipping pages to find out what’s going to happen next.

From Ten Rules For Suspense Fiction, by Brian Garfield

Not long ago, I happened to catch a bit of the original Death Wish movie on cable.  I realized I’d never read the original novel by Brian Garfield, whose Hopscotch (made into what I consider a much better movie) I reviewed here a few years back.  I also reviewed Garfield’s Gangway, but solely because he co-wrote it with Westlake (that’s the back dust jacket image you see up top).  And of course The Stepfather, which was co-produced by Garfield, was his concept (and Carol Lefcourt’s), but Westlake ended up writing the screenplay.  It is by far the most successful of their collaborations.

So I checked, and yes, Death Wish is e-vailable.  So is the follow-up Garfield wrote to it, simultaneously protesting and exploiting the international box office success of the film adaptation of his first novel, that he despised on many levels.  (Which is probably the main reason both are e-vailable.)

So what the hell?  Got both, read both.  Finished them up a week or two back.  Figured there was an article or two in it.  You may have noticed that in my last article I made some reference to this.  I posted that article on New Year’s Eve.  I did not remember that was the ten year anniversary of Mr. Westlake’s demise.  Nor did I know it was the two day anniversary (give or take) of Mr. Garfield’s.  Found out yesterday.

He went on December 28th.  Made it to 79, so he beat Westlake by a few years. (Not the only time Garfield ever beat Westlake, going by another photo of one of their many poker games.)

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Garfield was a relative late-comer to the Westlake inner circle, who didn’t cut his teeth in the sleaze paperback industry, or by writing science fiction and crime fic for the pulps.  Nor to the best of my knowledge did he ever know Scott Meredith. But he got his first novel published at 18, which beats Westlake by quite a few years.  Though he was also born in Gotham, he ended up way out west, in more ways than one.  Sometimes under an alias, cuz he was one bad hombre.

This was the main professional point of difference between them, since the only western Westlake (generally averse to period writing) ever published was the one they worked on together, and we can guess whose idea that was.

So crime was their meeting point–but with a difference.  No heists for Garfield, no comic capering, no hapless Nephews fleeing irate mobsters.  Needing a back-up for the shrinking westerns market, Garfield didn’t write straight-up crime fiction, or classic mysteries, cozy or hard-boiled.  He wrote ‘suspense.’  And what the hell is that?  See up top.  (Great article.  I guess it wouldn’t be fair to blame him for Grisham.  That’d be like blaming Westlake for all the hacks who’ve gotten rich copying him.)

Garfield’s two best-known novels are respectively about an accountant who moonlights at hunting muggers and a forcibly retired CIA agent baiting his former employers into hunting him.  They live up to his suspense writer’s credo in spades.  They are also complex insightful looks into the psyches of men who stray from the beaten path, which is what Westlake would have liked about them.  They are, first and foremost, about human beings, and the formula is adjusted to that end.

They both bear a considerable debt to Westlake.   Hopscotch in particular goes out of its way to reference him.  And in reading Death Wish, I found myself convinced that Westlake had, in his way, returned the favor (he name-checked Garfield more than once, particularly in some of the Dortmunders, but that’s not what I mean.  Get to that later.)

Garfield, like Westlake, was fascinated by identity, though the theme is less defined in his work (not that I’ve read enough of it to definitively opine on that). He also had a deep respect for professionals, and a curiosity about what happens to them when they have to redefine themselves in some way, find a new mode of living, working.

Garfield, like Westlake, saw many of his books adapted into films.  Sometimes by him, usually not.  He had a closer connection to Hollywood (Westlake never seems to have aspired to producing anything), and that came with both pluses and minuses.  There’s only so much of yourself to go around in one lifetime.

If Garfield’s literary oeuvre is less impressive than Westlake’s overall–I’d have to say it is, and of course I would–it’s partly because he had fingers in a few too many pies.  Jack of many trades, master of most, he fell short of supreme mastery as a novelist.  (I’d say the same for William Goldman, and he was arguably the greatest screenwriter of all time, as well as a magnificent novelist, but again, spread himself too thin.  The novel is the harshest of all mistresses.)

Garfield made his choices, and they may well have been the right ones–for him. Posterity will have its say, but point is, it will have something to say about Brian Garfield. He made his mark and then some.

Most of all like Westlake, he never retired (though his last book came out in 2008–nonfiction, and I keep meaning to read it).  I assume health was part of the reason for that, not taking it easy.  What can such as they retire to?  You keep going until you can’t.  Nobody runs forever.  Just like nobody stops doing what they love to do.  Unless they have a death wish.

My focus here is Westlake (it has been known to blur at times).  I’m going to review Death Wish.  And Death Sentence.  And try to put them in a Westlakeian context.  But the most important task of any reviewer is to ask the question–who wrote this?  If a novel doesn’t tell you who the novelist is, the novelist didn’t do his or her job.

Brian Garfield always got the job done.  And reading him at his best is like holding a tiger by the tail.  He and the tiger were old friends, don’t you know.

bgdrifter

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Mr. Westlake and The Fuehrers

ROBERT PRATT SAT AT the typewriter and tried to ignore the call of the August sun outside his window. The air-conditioner kept this second floor study cool, but just beyond the glass summer beckoned, a sunny August Sunday that wanted no one indoors. His one concession to the season was the bottle of beer beside the typewriter on his battered desk, but the bottle too kept distracting him from the paper he was writing.

He re-read, for the tenth time, the last sentence on this page: “America is moving inexorably toward a Fuehrer, possibly by the end of this decade, certainly by the end of the century.” Did he actually believe that? Not as surely as he’d made it sound, though he did think the erosion toward an omnipotent leader was well under way and would only with great difficulty be stopped in time. Still, in any case, it would be best to copper his bets a little; he changed the period at the end of the sentence to a comma, and added, “Unless unforeseeable changes take place.”

She said, “I read his article today. The one about the Fuehrer. I hadn’t known people were thinking that way at all.”

“From the highest to the lowest,” Bradford said. “I think perhaps that’s the advantage of retirement, one can step outside the action and see it from a different perspective, not get caught by the received truths that everybody else absorbs without noticing.”

“I’d never known that was possible, to have a whole shift in the way people think, without anybody noticing.”

“Look at a ten-year-old fashion magazine,” Bradford said, “and you’ll see the same thing operating on a different level. The clothes will look foolish to you, you’d be embarrassed to be seen wearing any of them. Try to remember how much you admired clothing like that at the time, and you can’t do it. The memory is gone. You know you must have liked that clothing, you can remember owning things very much like it, but to remember your attitude then is impossible.”

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12th, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk.  Not mother’s milk, nor cow’s milk, nor goat’s milk, not anybody’s milk.  Nor could I digest any of the baby formulas then available.  Everything they fed me at the hospital ran right through me, leaving mere traces of nutrients behind.  On the fourth day, the doctors told my parents to prepare for the worst: “He’ll be dead by his eighth day.” Just another squirming little bundle of muscle and heat that didn’t make it.

Then, on the fifth day, the doctors learned about an experimental baby formula, based on soybeans, nearing the end of its trials in a hospital in Manhattan.  There was nothing else to try, so phone calls were made, the formula was shipped from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and for the first time in my young life I found something I could tolerate.

If I’d been born three months earlier, I was dead in eight days.  If I’d been born in Baltimore, or Boston, much less some small town somewhere, or anywhere else in the world, I was dead in eight days.  Only a surprise ending saved my life.

From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car. 

July 12, 1933 (Wednesday)

The Vienna newspaper Oesterreichische Abendblatt published a three-page story claiming proof that Adolf Hitler was “directly descended on his mother’s side” from a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, and that there were at least ten Jewish persons named Hitler in the city of Polná. Alexander Basch, the recently deceased city registrar, had identified a sister of Hitler’s grandmother as having been a Jew who moved from Polna to Vienna when both places were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Born: Donald E. Westlake,75, American mystery author with 65 novels under 16 pseudonyms; (d. 2008)

From Wikipedia Timeline (both entries for this date contain questionable assertions). 

Imagine you grew up knowing two things about yourself:

1)If you’d been born a bit earlier, or in a different place, you’d have starved to death in eight days.

2)While you were being kept alive by capricious arbitrary events, threadbare plot contrivances that would cause any self-respecting editor to throw his/her hands up in despair, a WWI corporal with a dysfunctional personality and some problematic ideas claimed absolute power over a major western nation.

The NSDAP became the only legal party in Germany on July 14th, 1933–same date they created the first modern eugenics law–basically,  full-on Nazification took place during Westlake’s gestation and early infancy.

(I don’t write any of this stuff, you know.  Don’t look at me.)

Now of course, you can’t be born at all in this world without barging in on some catastrophe or other, since the thing about history is it never stops, even if you ask it nicely.  But this is, you must admit, a higher order of coincidence than usual.  All the more since Westlake spent much of his life writing about the never-ending battle between the independents and the organization men–as good a term as any for Nazi, though not all organization men are Nazis.  It’s a large category.

And that may not be coincidence at all.  Westlake’s attitude towards authority probably gelled quite early in life.  Plausible it was formed, in part, by his growing awareness of what was going on in the world when he first entered it.  We look for patterns, and they’re always there.  Maybe we just imagine them.  I’m sure that’s it.

As I said when I first reviewed Ex Officio, his only novel centered around a politician, Westlake will not be remembered as a political writer.  He nonetheless approached the subject on a regular basis, most often by circuitous pathways. If he’d taken a different path in life…..

His own politics can be something of a puzzlement–a strong liberal on most social issues, such as equal rights for black people, immigrants, gays, everybody. His understanding of the way Hitler and many others used fear and distrust of outsider groups to make people act against their interests is exceptionally strong. You take away anyone else’s freedom, you imperil your own.  And nothing undermines your identity more than attacking someone else’s.

More conservative on economics, as you’d expect from someone who made his living a book at a time.  He’s distrustful of government interference in private life, to the point where he wrote an early short story that seems to indicate he thought Medicare was an infringement of American liberty.  He belonged to at least one writer’s union (probably several), but some of his later work could be interpreted as supporting ‘right to work’ laws, at least when it comes to outfits like the Teamsters.  Straddles the fence there.

He wrote an article for The Weekly Standard (RIP) that seems to be an endorsement of the way George W. Bush addressed 9/11, but this was before the Iraq War started, it was more insult than encomium, and I doubt it got him on the shortlist for any White House galas.  He seems to have mainly written it because William Kristol was a fan.  (Nobody’s all bad.  And Bill’s one of the last Never-Trumpers standing.  Welcome to the struggle, comrade.)

He may even have had some doubts about Social Security (see The Jugger), but those were expressed early in his career, when he was young and healthy (another durable pattern–even Ayn Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare–for herself–when she got old and sick and broke.)

But you’d be dead wrong to slot him as a Libertarian.  His science fiction novel, Anarchaos, which he wrote very early in his career (then went out of his way to get published at basically no profit to himself), evinces a corrosive skepticism towards Anarchist/Libertarian ideas, verging on outright derision.  You need a social structure to keep order, a strong central authority chosen by the people–if only to rebel against.  And to provide a check against perhaps the most insidious organization men of all–the CEOs.  My best summation of his standpoint towards the plague of bureaucracy (as opposed to autocracy) is that the true individualist will learn how to get around it, and the rest won’t know what to do without it.  From each according to his means….

Distrustful of the Left, disgusted by the Right, he could be disdainful towards both.  The far Left and Right he disowned without qualification–as Orwell told us, pigs is pigs, and it doesn’t matter which side of the table they sit on.

One book might be about how Corporate America quietly plotted to institute a new form of feudalism, install a sort of figurehead Democracy, while they did whatever they pleased behind the scenes; only they hadn’t reckoned on a star crossed pack of small time crooks stumbling into the path of their juggernaut, gumming up the works, buying the rest of us some time.

Another might be about how 60’s radicals who decided to work outside the system (with guns and bombs) were mainly doing it for themselves, not the people.  Acting out poorly understood identity crises, making other people die for their ideas, drawing out the bloody farce a few years too long.  A comedy that never really finishes, since there’s always a new cast warming up in the wings.

A mixed bag politically was Mr. Westlake.  Not reliably in the corner of anyone with power, because he assumed no one in power, no matter how pure their intentions, would ever be reliably in our corner.  Power over others corrupts your intentions, your ideas, your ethics, your very sense of self.  Lord Acton would concur.  As would Karl Popper, who said the question of Democracy isn’t who should have the power, but how to prevent anyone from getting too much.  Negative Liberty, which then allows Positive Liberty its greatest practical range for the greatest number and variety of individuals.  (In theory.)  If the individual has no rights, nobody does, since the ‘masses’ are just a collection of individuals. 

But for all of these potential threats to liberty that Mr. Westlake wrote about (around, really), he avoided dealing with the one threat he most feared–the one whose shadow he was born in.  Suppose people just handed over their liberty to the least trustworthy trustee imaginable, because they were tired of it–weary of the sordid scrum of politics, the clamor of short-sighted interest groups, looking for what comes after politics–enforced unanimity.  Which we somehow always think will favor us.

Well, he wrote mainly crime fiction, set mainly in the present day, mainly in America.  There wasn’t much opportunity to write about dictatorship.  We’ve never had one.  Not yet. Anyway, Sinclair Lewis did that already.  (And Philip Roth, later on.)

Why did Westlake, when the story was pitched to him out of the blue, instantly agree to write a train heist story set in Idi Amin’s Uganda, start out to make it comic, then turn it into a somber rumination on the atrocities of that regime, set against the flawed humanity and basic decency of the people who set out to steal from it?  Because the notion that one man could have so much power over so many both fascinated and revolted him, and his heroes were always individualists–individualism being the bane of autarchs everywhere.  (He goes out of his way to mention that the assault that ultimately toppled Amin came through a place in Tanzania called West Lake.)

Tinpot foreign dictators appear throughout his work, but are not covered in any depth, because the form he’s writing in doesn’t allow for it–and he’s got other points to get across.  Still, you can hear him thinking–“If there was a Hitler in America, or a Stalin, or an Amin, or a Castro, or a Pinochet?–where would Parker be then?  Where would Dortmunder be?  Where would I be?”  Squarely behind the eight ball, that’s where.

Under an absolutist state, he’d probably have to switch over to westerns or science fiction–something based in settings too abstracted from daily life to be taken as a commentary on it. Hitler loved those Karl May adventures with Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, which have somehow never caught on in the English speaking world.  No evidence the worst criminal in history ever liked crime fiction, which actually had a pretty good run in Weimar Germany, Fritz Lang and such.  Degenerate art!  Into the flames with it!

Just to show that all historical analogies have their limits, I must now concede that Herr Trump’s tastes are different (can you imagine him sitting through an entire Wagnerian  opera, or any opera?)  He loves crime fiction.  Not in print form,  since that would entail reading, but movies. The Godfather and Goodfellas in particular.  Stories that emphasize honor among thieves, a central authority figure overseeing their efforts, a code of omerta, and of course these stories deal a lot with traitors and stoolpigeons, and their various unpleasant fates. And lots of willing wayward women, we should not forget.

These are stories written from the perspective of gangsters, and on some level sympathizing with them, though one suspects Mr. Trump has focused more on the seamy glamor of the milieu than the morals behind the stories–which isn’t that uncommon.

I’ve mentioned before Westlake’s attitude towards criminal syndicates–just another system designed to undermine individuality.  How often he writes stories where the lone wolves of crime take on the organization men, take them out.  He never romanticizes the mob.  A mob is the thing he most devoutly wishes not to be a part of.   But he would still have found it interesting that America’s first potential Fuehrer so self-consciously modeled himself after Mafiosi, real and fictive. That’s a distinctly American approach to autocracy.

See, we all know what foreign dictators look like, their speech patterns, how they comport themselves in public, because we’ve seen the movies, the newsreel footage, and whatever the hell it was Leni Riefenstahl was doing.  The part they never show is how the dictator got all that power to begin with.  Westlake’s dictators, fictive or real, don’t address that point.  There isn’t time, and there isn’t a market (he couldn’t even find many takers for Kahawa, which is a bloody good book).

Closest any major movie ever came to showing Hitler’s origins was Max, where John Cusack’s Jewish art dealer tries to defang young Adolph by making a successful artist of him.  (Might have worked–and it’s not as if bad art never sells).  Hardly anyone has seen that film.  We prefer stories about his downfall–better meme fodder.

So in Mr. Westlake’s body of work, we see either aspiring despots, or fully realized ones–never do we see that transitional moment that links the two.  Because he writes stories set in the present, mainly in America, and It Can’t Happen Here–Sinclair Lewis’ title was closer to reality than the book itself, which imagined some populist demagogue like Huey Long defeating FDR, then installing a corrupt racist anti-democratic regime, that starts to crumble when its promises all turn out to be lies.  Oddly familiar now, but still overstated, off-balance.  Like one of those novels where the Axis won WWII or the South won the Civil War.  Could it happen?  Sure.  Would it?  Probably not.

Truth is, Democracy was too well-rooted here by Lewis’ time to be undone in a single stroke.  Still is, thankfully.   But nobody runs forever.  How might our run come to an end?

In one novel, Westlake imagined precisely that–without showing it.   And he, like Lewis, was reacting to recent events.  Extrapolating from them.  Less dramatically, and I would argue, more presciently.

His argument, in brief, is that Left and Right are collaborators in the downfall of Democracy.  That each is dissatisfied with the compromises inherent to that system of government, looking for an end run around it.  When enough people stop believing in incremental change, you get dictatorship and revolutionary change, which ends up not working out as advertised.

And this is a fair summation of what happened in Germany, under Hitler.  The Far Right took power with the unwitting help of the Far Left, which then took power when the Far Right was done in by an alliance dominated by centrists, only to collapse under its own weight 46 years later.  And now the former command center of the Far Left is helping the Far Right in America take power.  (I swear I don’t write any of this.)

But see, this is me talking, much more than Westlake.  Trying to understand what’s going on around me, find the pattern, rationalize the irrational, which is comforting, if also disquieting.  This isn’t the Fred Fitch Review.  What was it Westlake was trying to say with an odd cul de sac subplot in a political thriller few people read then, and even fewer now (though it is evailable)?  A subplot I gave extremely short shrift to in my review of that thriller, it should be noted–because at the time I thought it was a bit of a red herring.  Now I’m not so sure.

In Ex Officio, Robert Pratt, football player turned history professor, love interest for the heroine, has stumbled on a new idea, inspired by the Presidential election of 1968 (still fresh in the memory when Westlake wrote this 1970 novel).  Eugene McCarthy, appealing strongly to young anti-war voters and the left wing of the Democratic Party, sabotaged the reelection hopes of Lyndon Johnson (who Westlake didn’t like), only to fail to win the nomination.

Humphrey seemed too complicit after McCarthy and the murdered RFK, the Democrats had held the White House two terms, the once staunchly Democrat south never forgave LBJ the Civil Rights Act, and the country generally seemed to be coming apart at the seams, both generational and racial.

And thus Richard Nixon eked out a narrow win with a bit of chicanery involving secret negotiations with a hostile foreign power.  Only to crush another left-wing Democrat in 1972, then be forced into resignation over still more chicanery, but Westlake didn’t know all that then.  (If we’re being honest, most Americans probably don’t know all that now.)

The characters in Ex Officio, all part of a sprawling extended family with a former President at its center, like to talk about the politics of their day, and just like us, the discussion disturbs and dismays even while it stirs and stimulates.  The occasion for the first conversation is, of all things, an attempt to fix up ex-President Bradford Lockridge’s lonely widowed granddaughter, Evelyn Canby, with a nice fella, namely Robert.

The President of the college Robert works for, wouldn’t you know, is Sterling Lockridge, Bradford’s brother.  He is married to a kvetchy old liberal (she’d say progressive now) named Elizabeth, who likes Robert (he roomed with a nephew of hers, which is how he got the teaching job, and why she’s trying to fix him up with Evelyn), but loses patience with his stick-in-the-mud centrism sometimes.  Their latest joust begins as they’re making the long drive to Bradford’s estate.

THE TRIP, ALL IN all, took an hour and a half. Their route skirted every town along the way, so that once out of Lancashire they didn’t see another populated area until they arrived at Eustace, which turned out to be a surprisingly sleepy little town that obviously hadn’t allowed the international fame of one of its citizens to alter its style and pace.

Robert sat forward as they drove through town, his elbows on the seat back, and said, “Take away the automobiles and you could make a movie here and call it 1925.” Sterling, at the wheel, chuckled and nodded, but Elizabeth said, “That’s better than calling it 1984.”

At sixty-two, five years younger than her husband, Elizabeth was a tall and straight and slender woman, her face very little lined, her hair gray but well-cared-for, her mental faculties and political impatiences intact.

Robert looked at her grim profile in some surprise. “Do you really think that’s a possibility?”

“More and more every day,” she said, and turned to glance at him; he saw her eyes take in his crewcut.

“I’ll grant you we’re on a swing away from liberalism,” Robert said, “but it’s only a swing. The country is heading for conservatism again, but sooner or later the pendulum will start back. It always does. America has always had its Know Nothing party, and it’s always had its Abolitionists.”

Elizabeth’s expression was cynical. “The right-wingers want to stop the clock entirely, you know, and one of these times they’ll make it. Then the pendulum won’t come back at all. That’s what Orwell was talking about.”

“I don’t see it happening,” Robert said. “I know the political history of this country, and the whole story is summed up in the pendulum swinging between left and right.”

“The reason I worked for Eugene McCarthy,” Elizabeth said, “is because he was the only man in public life to stand up and say that kind of thinking was fuzzy-headed and dangerous. Complacency will do more harm to this country than a full-scale atomic attack.”

Sterling, humor in his voice, said, “Robert, for God’s sake don’t get her started now. She gives poor Brad enough hell every time they meet as it is, for not bringing peace on Earth during his administration.”

“If any one man on the planet could do it,” Elizabeth said fiercely, “it’s the President of the United States. He’s the only one with anything approaching the power, the public attention and the prestige. I’ve told Brad that before, and I’ll tell him again. The hour is too late for politics as usual.”

“See what you’ve done,” Sterling said, looking at Robert in the rearview mirror. “On your head be it.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be good,” Elizabeth said. “It’s too late for him now, he’s missed his opportunity. I’ve told him that, too, more than once. Besides, this is Robert’s day. I promise I won’t hog the conversation.”

At Bradford’s house, Elizabeth doesn’t hog the conversation so much as guide it, to subjects like NATO (should we junk it?) and Hitler (could it happen again?)

Robert argues the former is mainly a belated reaction to the latter, 20/20 hindsight, which is true, but of course none of them know the Soviet Union will be gone in a handful of years, replaced by a right-wing capitalist dictatorship with odd religious underpinnings, ruled by a former KGB agent, who will then start looking for ways to reconstitute the old Red Empire under a new name, and may help bring about Elizabeth’s worst nightmare.  The thing about political discussions from an earlier era is that they can seem at once timely and dated.  It will be no different for our era.

Bradford smiled, but he said, “Is that merely a funny joke, or do you mean it?”

“I mean it,” Robert said. “At the beginning of the Cold War, the government knew it had to reassure the people that they were safe, so they—” But at that point he suddenly became aware again of who he was talking to, and faltered. “That is, the way it worked out—”

“That’s all right,” Bradford said gently. “That was before my administration.”

Robert gave him a grateful smile and said, “Thank you, sir. The point was, there was no defense against the Third World War, but the people were going to lose confidence in a government that didn’t promise to defend them, so what they were given was a perfectly adequate defense against the war we’d just won. The whole object of NATO, besides coordinating European military policy, was to give people the comfortable feeling that something was being done.”

Mrs. Canby, who until now hadn’t said a word throughout the meal, suddenly said, “Isn’t that awfully cynical, Mr. Pratt? The people I’ve met in government have tended to be more honest than that.”

Robert turned to her, both in surprise at hearing her speak up and in relief at the opportunity to get out from under Bradford Lockridge’s scrutiny for a few seconds. “I hope it isn’t cynical,” he said. “I don’t really believe that someone sat down in the White House or somewhere and cynically worked out this whole complex global con game to delude the masses. I believe the people generally were scared and worried, and their attitude communicated itself to the decision-makers—”

Bradford interposed, “Who were possibly themselves also scared and worried.”

“Of course,” Robert said, turning back to him for an instant. “People in government I’m sure have the same doubts and the same need for reassurance as people outside. More, even, because they know more about the near misses.” He turned back to Mrs. Canby, saying, “The people in charge did the best they could, but the problem was insoluble because there really isn’t any defense against the kind of weapons that now exist.” He turned to Bradford again, saying, “We aren’t too far from Pittsburgh, are we, sir?”

“About a hundred miles,” Bradford said. “Perhaps a little more.”

“Thank you.” To Mrs. Canby again he said, “Pittsburgh would be a prime target if an all-out war started. Hit Pittsburgh with one of today’s bombs, and everybody in this house would die, and no one would be able to live in this neighborhood for the next seven years.”

Howard said, “There are clean bombs.”

Robert said, “If someone were anxious enough to destroy the United States to launch a nuclear war, I really doubt they would use clean bombs. In fact, the dirtier the better. The people you don’t burn to death you radiate to death.”

Mrs. Canby said, “This is really terrible lunchtime conversation.”

“Exactly my point,” Robert told her. “You would rather believe that our World War Two defenses are adequate, because the alternative is to understand that there isn’t any defense at all.”

Elizabeth said, “But that doesn’t seem to matter, does it? You said a little while ago that there wouldn’t be any Third World War anyway.”

“I was too hasty when I said that,” Robert admitted. “Then I was reminded of Hitler.”

Howard said, “But a Hitler isn’t very likely at this point in history. Not in Russia, anyway. What Bradford said before about fiscal policy is what does it. Russia isn’t poor enough. You have to have an advanced industrial nation that happens to be very poor before you have a people who’ll produce a Hitler, and that just isn’t a description of today’s Russia.”

“I’ll tell you what it is a description of,” Robert said. “China.”

China (before Nixon went there) is the villain of this thriller, not Russia, and nobody in this story knows about the internet (though ARPANET was just starting up when Westlake was writing), or understands asymmetric warfare terribly well, which is why we lost the Vietnam War.  Frankly, a lot of the ideas presented here were out of date within a few years of the novel’s publication, if not before Westlake started writing them down.

It’s hard to know how seriously Westlake, writing as Timothy J. Culver (a pseudonym he came to despise) took any of what he wrote here, but I feel it’s a safe bet some of his disdain for his Culver persona was based around the way Culver kept committing himself to concepts that were almost certainly going to have a brief shelf life, because of the way the world keeps convulsing around us.  Timely fiction isn’t often timeless.

He knew better than to think himself an expert on geopolitics, but had some conflicting perceptions he needed an outlet for, and this was it.  He takes all of the opinions expressed here seriously, because he himself has entertained all of them–just as when you see a Shaw play performed, you have a hard time knowing which character the playwright most identifies with, because he identifies with all of them, and none.  And both men knew nobody ever has all of the truth, that no mind can ever contain it all–making it more utilitarian (and dramatic) to give everyone in the conversation one slice of the philosophic pie.

In this story, he probably does give Mr. Pratt the edge, since Robert is, after all, the virile square-jawed hero required for this form, who wins (then saves) the girl.  But also because as a student of history (one of his creator’s passions), he is best-suited to get across the ideas Westlake is turning around in his head.  (And yet, he’s given him a last name that isn’t exactly a synomym for genius.)

So even though the first meeting with Evelyn didn’t turn out so well, Elizabeth still got Robert’s juices flowing, with her belief in the imminent demise of liberal Democracy– but old football player that he is, he’s not just taking the ball but running with it.

Yes. Now to the subject of the piece: “Eugene McCarthy was probably our only chance for a Fuehrer from the left. With his apparently irreversible defeat, the political left has reverted to its usual rudderless structureless condition, and left the field open for a Fuehrer from the right. The dangers in, say, a successful George Wallace are self-evident, but what are the dangers in a takeover by a Fuehrer from the left?”

Robert took a swig of beer and studied the typewriter moodily. What are the dangers? For that matter, what are the dangers in speculation built on speculation built on speculation? If it were really possible to guess what sort of President a man would be, who would have voted for Lyndon Johnson? The concept of Eugene McCarthy as a Fuehrer from the left rested on such an array of interlocked suppositions that Robert felt himself afraid to take a deep breath, for fear the whole conceit would collapse like a vampire in the sun.

It was Elizabeth Lockridge who should be writing this article in the first place, most of the ideas in it having been generated by her, starting with that ride down to meet Bradford Lockridge three months ago, when Robert’s complacent pendulum theory had decided her his political education urgently needed to be brought up to date. The number of dinners he’d shared with Sterling and Elizabeth since then were uncountable, but at all of them the scene was the same; gentle Sterling watching in quiet amusement while Elizabeth and Robert argued their way through the last decade of American politics.

And slowly she had convinced him of the truth of most of what she believed, though he had ultimately taken her beliefs one step farther, adding his own twist of interpretation and coming up with the idea of the Fuehrer from the left. She it was who had convinced him that the American people were weary of freedom, made nervous by it, ready and anxious to give over their liberties to a man strong enough to demand them, but it was he who pointed out that the same weariness and nervousness were evident on the increasingly radicalized left, which had in 1968 turned to McCarthy not so much as a political alternative as a messiah. “And a messiah,” he’d said, “is simply a Fuehrer we agree with.”

Elizabeth had not agreed, had argued that McCarthy was not a man to allow himself to be used that way, and Robert had replied that he doubted McCarthy would have been given the choice. The whole concept of a Fuehrer from the left remained too contradictory for Elizabeth, however, and at that point they had bogged down, perhaps permanently.

But out of it all had come this article. Although his position as Sterling Lockridge’s nephew’s chum made the teaching profession’s dictum of ‘publish or perish’ not very compelling in Robert’s case, he did try to produce at least two articles a year for the historical journals, one written during the summer and the other during the Christmas recess. This one, relating to material less than a decade old, would probably be more controversial than his previous pieces, essays that he himself had termed “marching in place,” but some journal somewhere would surely make room for an article that raised the concept of a Fuehrer from the left.

The dangers. “Had McCarthy been nominated and elected in 1968,” Robert wrote, “his most vital first move would have had to be to determine his successor, since it seems inescapable that McCarthy himself would not have survived his first term of office. His death—his martyrdom, as it would with justice have been called—would undoubtedly have caused the death of the American electoral process as well, as his increasingly radicalized and isolated governmental apparatus would have been forced to a widening abrogation of liberties for the sake of public order.

“But who would be able to follow McCarthy, aside from another McCarthy, to be gunned down in his turn and followed by another doppelganger, and another, indefinitely? To make one of the obvious choices, to hand the reins to a Weimar Bolshevik like Allard Loewenstein, would simply be to form a caretaker government to await the truly strong man who would of necessity then emerge from the far right.”

Robert stopped again, drank some more beer, and studied that last paragraph. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the specific references to Loewenstein, who was a living human being, not a chess piece, and therefore more complicated and in many ways more politically valuable than his two-word summation suggested. That was why Robert preferred to work with happenings remote enough for all the participants to be long since dead; with a living man, it was too possible to see oneself in his place, reading this essay.

He made the change in pen, so that the clause in question was altered to read, “to hand the reins to one of the Weimar Bolsheviks surrounding him.” He also disliked that sort of vague phraseology—Paul O’Dwyer, for instance, now became by implication lumped under a definition that Robert didn’t believe applied to him at all—but of the two evils vagueness was lesser to nastiness.

Unless you’re a follower of New York politics like Westlake (and myself, to a lesser extent), you’ll miss the significance of this.  The Annotated Ex Officio is no doubt many  years in the future, so let me catch you up.

Paul O’Dwyer, born in the County Mayo, kid brother of New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, whose short-lived well-liked mayoralty was plagued by police scandals and allegations of mob connections, was a mover and shaker in Gotham politics for many years.   I saw the younger O’Dwyer in person a few times before he passed, in all his silver-maned splendor.  Universally respected and largely irrelevant by then.  But for a time, he had real clout.

He endorsed Eugene McCarthy for President, and was in turn endorsed by him for the Senate.  (They both lost, but at least O’Dwyer got nominated.)

Like Robert (and Westlake, trying to see all sides), I don’t think “Weimar Bolshevik” is a fair appellation for O’Dwyer Óg, but it would be fair to say he was well left of center, while somehow remaining at the heart of city politics, and New York being New York, nobody thought this was so terribly strange, at least not from somebody who talked with a brogue.  (The Irish fight on both sides of every war.)

What’s flat-out ridiculous is to say that if McCarthy had somehow gotten elected President, and then got shot for his pains, that anybody like O’Dwyer would have succeeded him (let alone Lowenstein, who almost nobody remembers now, was good friends with William F. Buckley, and I just realized Westlake misspelled his last name).

He’d have been succeeded by his Vice President, and I see no reason to believe that would have been O’Dwyer, Lowenstein, or any ‘Weimar Bolshevik.’  It would have been whoever McCarthy felt could help get him the Presidency, that he sought again in 1976, and then endorsed Reagan in 1980, because he hated Jimmy Carter so damn much.  Probably someone significantly more mainstream than McCarthy, who could net him a swing state or three.

McCarthy’s left-wing creds were never all that bonafide, you ask me, but he seemed radical at the time Westlake was writing.  Politics is a multi-dimensional interactive continuum with currents that constantly mingle and diverge.  It’s not a straight line running from left to right.  That model didn’t even work during the French Revolution.

And the center is impossible to define, always.  We each make our own.  What’s interesting is how some of us place ourselves not at the center of the political continuum (while still remaining the center of the physical universe), but somewhere at its periphery–because to perceive yourself at the center of politics is to accept responsibility for the mess it’s invariably in.

Those who define themselves as the political center tend to be those who are most interested in the power implied by that position, as opposed to the responsibility–the unmoved movers and shakers.  Those such as The Fuehrers (Westlake’s preferred spelling, since he didn’t use the umlaut, because you can’t make one with a Smith Corona Silent Super).

What is Westlake really trying to say with this idea he presents to us in various forms in a book that is really about an ex-President having a small undetected stroke and consequently losing his ability to critically assess his own ideas, and the potential consequences of his actions?  Bradford Lockridge was never a dictator, nor aspired to be, and even in his altered post-stroke persona, he is little more than a brilliant monomaniac, desperately looking for some way to regain his influence in the world, unable to accept his own obsolescence.

He wants to run for congress, and is told that isn’t done anymore.  His younger brother has allowed himself to be used in an unscrupulous land development scheme, and Bradford pressures him to find a water source in the mountains to make it viable, which would bankrupt everyone involved (this leads to a suicide).

Then, intrigued by Robert’s new Fuehrer idea, and upset by a seemingly false overture from the Chinese government (that helped bring on his stroke), he decides to defect to China because he thinks that will bring about world peace.  He loathes totalitarianism, yet acts as if only his decisions are valid.  Partly because the stroke killed off his superego (call it a conscience if you like), and also because having had so much power, he can’t shake the habit of using it, even after it’s gone.

When you have a  job you like, you want to go on doing it, forever, because what you do is who you are.  If that job is taken from you, you will never be whole again until you’ve regained it, or found something to replace it.  Bradford believes his motives to be disinterested, altruistic, but at heart they are self-centered.  Westlake understands all too well.  He later wrote a much better novel on a similar subject, but that was about a guy laid off from a management job in a paper mill, not a President who lost a reelection bid.  And in many ways, it’s the same thing.  With one major difference–power.

Power corrupts, and what it corrupts is identity.  Your ability to perceive yourself accurately, with a proper sense of proportion, and of your own limitations.  Good or evil, straight or crooked–doesn’t matter.  It requires enormous strength of character to resist the temptations of power, and no one ever resists it completely.

It is a frightening but ever-present reality that sometimes people whose sense of their limits was poor to begin with acquire enormous power–their boundless narcissism appeals to many who are themselves chafing against the strictures of reality, filled with insecurities and social resentments they themselves can barely express.  Such individuals exert a sort of gravitational pull over others who don’t know themselves very well, instinctively seeking a mouthpiece to vent their frustrations.  And then you have a Fuehrer.  Or at least the potential for one.  It all depends on how many answer the call.

And while the term Fuehrer will always be associated with the right, some of the most dangerous and enduring manifestations have come from the left.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot.  But where Robert’s thesis seemingly falls short is that these were all military leaders, professional revolutionaries; men who gained power through armed struggle and intra-party machinations.  Not elections.  I guess there could always be a first time.

I put an early cover for Trollope’s The Way We Live Now up top because Westlake referenced it in another of his obliquely political works (now available for kindle), and that was no mere whim on his part.  He saw a kindred spirit there, a parallel consciousness.  Trollope had likewise seen a trend that bothered him, the deification of the conspicuously wealthy, the so-called ‘self-made’ man. Such a man climbs high and fast up the greasy pole of British politics in that book, only to slide back down to his doom, leaving chaos and confusion (and financial ruin) in his wake.

Something about that scenario bothered Mr. Westlake. In Trust Me On This, he spent much time analyzing the inner workings of an oddly influential supermarket tabloid, with conservative political leanings, and an overweening obsession with celebrity–and funny how things arrange themselves in this world, isn’t it?  Funny how patterns repeat themselves.  Funny how Life imitates Art imitates Life and back again.

So what is Westlake reacting to, here and elsewhere in his writing?  The chaos of the late 60’s.  The sense that everything was falling apart–and then it didn’t.  But what did happen?  The Left surged in significance–and the Right got stronger in response.  We were going to elect McCarthy or RFK, and then it turned out to be Nixon.  Then, after the brief Ford/Carter interregnum, Reagan.  Then Bush.  And another Bush.  Republicans have dominated Presidential politics for decades since the leftward shift of the 60’s.  We haven’t had a Fuehrer yet.  But one new President after another is accused of aspiring to that, and of late, the accusations seem less off-base.

What Westlake fears is imbalance.  The Left and Right no longer being able to communicate, each mistrusting each other to the point where a Fuehrer is preferable to the unpredictability and instability of mere Democracy (assuming it’s a Fuehrer you agree with).   Vacillating from one extreme to the next, and extremes in politics encourage each other, to the point where the worst name you can call anyone is ‘centrist.’

He saw it happen in the 60’s, he saw the rights and wrongs of the Rights and Lefts, and he began to despair that there was any longterm answer to the dilemmas of Democracy.  Democracy would end, if only because people were tired of the uncertainty, yearning for stasis, permanent answers, even if those answers would, by definition, have to be lies, since nothing is permanent, and Life is a state of never-ending flux, as Darwin bleakly informed us.  People would surrender their sacred individuality, their very souls, to politics, from fear of change, fear of The Other–and that, for someone like Westlake, is the ultimate dystopian nightmare.  A world where self-knowledge is thought crime.

And we’re getting close to it, aren’t we?  Grouping each other more and more by how we vote.  I do it myself.  I find it hard not to. And none of this is me saying it doesn’t matter.  It matters more than ever.  But not more than everything else in life.  Not more than yourself.  If you don’t know yourself, your vote will always be wrong, because it won’t be you.

Maybe it was just a passing black Irish mood he was in when he wrote this, but I see it now, happening around me, just as he did then, though in a different form than he imagined (and that would always be the case, no matter who was imagining it).  Aspiring Fuehrers of the Right, of the Left.  Promising what they can never deliver, if only we will follow them blindly–and suckers ready and eager to believe them, begging to be led down the proverbial garden path.  And I don’t know anymore than he did where the path ends.  Or if.

And that’s quite enough of that.  Anyway, I’m going to review some Brian Garfield novels next time.  About crime.  You know the ones.  Unless I do something else first.  Amazing I do anything at all.  And yes, I am still alive, aren’t I?  Happy New Year.  Thanks for listening.

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Plug: listen, there’s a hell (of a good discussion going on next door, so go)

As I said in the comments section yesterday, it does not look like I’m going to get any more articles finished before the end of August.  I believe this would be the first time I ever let a whole calendar month pass without a new article, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, this time I definitely was wrong, because here’s an article.  About somebody else’s article.

Pete has been doing a bang-up job on his Gaping Blackbird blog, and I’ve mentioned it before (plus there’s a link to it in my list of Known Associates.)

However, he’s just finished one of his best reviews yet, of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.  Which I always meant to read, and I will someday, but do I let that stop me from commenting?  Nah!  A fine discussion already going, and a few more voices wouldn’t hurt.

So not sure how much of my readership has read that magnum opus of dystopian SF, but if you have–or if you always meant to, and need a bit more encouragement (it’s evailable!), why not head over there and check it out?

It is, shall we say, a timely work.  And much as I’ve touted Mr. Westlake’s penchant for prophecy, I  think even he would acknowledge Brunner his superior in that regard.

He’d also appreciate the man’s taste in typewriters–another Smith-Corona man, was Mr. Brunner.  He used electrics, which Mr. Westlake might deplore, but he’d have appreciated a legend that Brunner emblazoned on his typewriters, reading “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE STUPIDITY OF EDITORS.”  (To which I would append the modifier ‘some’, but Brunner may never have had a Lee Wright or a Bucklin Moon in his life, and modifiers are wimpy.  Sometimes. Arg.)

(And how do I know what typewriter John Brunner used?  I’m so glad you asked me that.)

See you in a few weeks.  Barring catastrophe, of course.  There’s been some kind of upheaval in the world every single time I’ve visited Ireland as an adult.  It’s a thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Addendum: A Titled Man

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In my shamelessly self-indulgent David Murray review, I was pleased to open with a quote from  Joe Goldberg, referencing a lunch he had with Donald Westlake in Beverly Hills, in the 90’s.

I’ve referenced Goldberg several times here, because that friendship is of interest to me, and I’d like to know more about it.  Westlake dedicated Somebody Owes Me Money to Goldberg (congratulating him on his recent book by referring to him as ‘a titled man’).  He loved to repeat the story about how he was lamenting that Parker had been played by actors as diverse as Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, and Anna Karina. Goldberg (who had been working as a script reader for various studios) quipped “The character lacks definition.”  

I just got a copy of his landmark collection of essays, Jazz Masters of the 50’s, and am reading it now.  He had to give up music criticism for a time, because all the clubs closed down, and he made the exodus to the left coast.

Did you ever wonder how Donald Westlake became friends with Joe Goldberg? They were both born in Brooklyn, but Westlake moved upstate when he was very young.  You probably assumed they met at a club in Greenwich Village, or possibly a record store. Maybe just I assumed that. Whoever assumed it was wrong.  As I just found out.

Turns out there’s a blog for everybody–

It didn’t last very long. Not a lot of articles, and most of it seems to be recorded interviews of a very old Joe Goldberg done for an oral history project.  Which are mainly about his work in Hollywood, and I couldn’t find any references to Westlake, but I skimmed.  Because they got a bit depressing.  (I’ve done oral history myself, and you know, probably these things should not be done just before somebody dies, though I guess better late than never.)

Even though this blog only lasted about two months, there’s gold in them thar hills.  My eyes bugged out a little when I spied this entry–do I need to tell you who ‘Hal’ is?  He is, one might say, a man who wrote dirty books.  Then gave up that respectable living to write for Hollywood.  The cad.

Hal writes:

In 1958, I was churning out paperback pornography along with other writer wannabes like Larry Block and Don Westlake.

One of us found a magazine called SWANK or STANK or SLANK that had an article about pulp porn that praised Don Holliday (my pen name) and Sheldon Lord (Larry’s pen name) and Edwin West (Don’s pen name) as being the only pornographers who could write their names in the dirt with a stick.

The article was written by Joe Goldberg which we assumed was a pseudonym. In fact, I thought that Larry had written the piece and Larry figured that Don had and Don was certain that it was my work. But ten or twelve drinks later, one of us had the bleary idea to see if a Joe Goldberg existed in the Manhattan phone book. And sure enough, one did and he became a life-long pal to all three of us.

If we neglected to thank him for the puff piece, well, we do now. Mucho gracias, buddy.

(There actually was–and still is–a dirty magazine named SWANK, but for all I know the other two exist as well, along with SANK, SKANK, and SPANK. Presumably not SHRANK.)

There’s an earlier contribution from Mr. Dresner, but it’s less germane to our interests here.

So.  Let me see if I have this straight.

To pay the bills, in the late 1950’s, three men who were someday going to be successful writers were turning out what was then considered pornography, under false names.

And to pay his bills, a guy who was someday going to be a very influential music critic was reviewing their dirty books for a dirty magazine. Under his own name. (I guess that was considered more respectable?)

And this is how they became friends.

Well, I said it was an addendum.

Joe Goldberg passed in 2009.  Here’s a very informative obit with a link to him ably dissecting the Ken Burns Jazz history docu in 2001.  Nobody thought to do an oral history of him then?  Oh well.

Far as IMdB knows, Hal Dresner is still alive.  He’d be in his early 80’s.

What are the odds, you think, that he would be able to tell me which sleaze novels credited to which pseudonyms of which Westlake poker buddies contain uncredited Parker cameos written by Westlake, as attested to by D. Kingsley Hahn?

I’ve thought about asking Lawrence Block, but how the hell do you open up a conversation like that?  Trying to come up with a segue…….”Mr. Block, you’re probably the only member of your clique who expressed nostalgia over writing those things…..”  Well.  I’ll work on it.

 

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Review: David Murray and Class Struggle, Village Vanguard, 6/22/18

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Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the label and now its co-chairman and co-CEO, and his late brother Nesuhi were already jazz fans when they moved to the United States, and were fortunate enough to be able to invite jazz musicians to play at their home, which was the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., where their father was Ambassador. This remarkable life, and Ahmet’s ability to function on all social levels, are documented in an extraordinary two-part New Yorker profile by George W.S. Trow. (I remember that the mystery writer Donald Westlake and I had been discussing the articles when we walked into Carroll O’Connor’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ahmet Ertegun was sitting there. Westlake didn’t know who the elegant man in the blazer was, and when I told him, he called his wife in New York to tell her who he had seen.)

From an article by Joe Goldberg, in Billboard, 1/17/98

First they stopped at Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise Inn at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue and stood for a moment at the front of the circular bar.  They drank two whiskeys each and talked to each other about the caper.

The bar stools and surrounding tables were filled with the flashily dressed people of many colors and occupations who could afford the price for air-conditioned atmosphere and the professional smiles of the light-bright chicks tending bar.  The fat black manager waved the bill on the house and they accepted; they could afford to drink freebies at Small’s, it was a straight joint.

Afterwards they sauntered toward the back and stood beside the bandstand, watching the white and black couples dancing the twist in the cabaret.  The horns were talking and the saxes talking back.

“Listen to that,” Grave Digger said when the horn took eight on a frenetic solo.  “Talking under their clothes, ain’t it?”

Then the two saxes started swapping fours with the rhythm always in the back.  “Somewhere in that jungle is the solution to the world,” Coffin Ed said.  “If we could only find it.”

“Yeah, it’s like the sidewalks trying to speak in a language never heard.  But they can’t spell it either.”

“Naw,” Coffin Ed said.  “Unless there’s an alphabet for emotion.”

“The emotion that comes out of experience.  If we could read that language, man, we could solve all the crimes in the world.”

“Let’s split,” Coffin Ed said, “Jazz talks too much to me.”

“It ain’t so much what it says,” Grave Digger agreed, “It’s what you can’t do about it.”

They left the white and black couples in their frenetic embrace, guided by the talking of the jazz, and went back to their car.

“Life could be great but there are hoodlums abroad,” Grave Digger said, climbing into the car.

“You ain’t just saying it, Digger; hoodlums high and hoodlums low.”

From Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes.

It had been a long time.  In the nabe of thirty years.  I moved to the Bronx.  I went back to school.  I went into debt.  I fell in love.  I developed other interests. I got old.  I needed sleep.  I’m not saying any of these are good enough reasons. But whatever the reason, I stopped going to jazz clubs and following David Murray around like a stalker.

For a while there, though, I was going to see the greatest musicians on earth, playing in rundown bars and basements, sometimes every week.  Sometimes in tonier establishments.  Sometimes even in concert halls.  Or at the old Central Park bandshell, in Summerstage season (Olu Dara once changed the weather while I was listening to him blow cornet there.  Go ahead, roll your eyes.  I saw it.)

I’ll run down some of the names.  Dizzy Gillespie (past his prime, still a showman with few equals).  Benny Carter (his prime somehow never ended).  Sonny Rollins (once at the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, once at the Damrosch bandshell).  Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and McCoy Tyner–both at Mikell’s, one of many great uptown clubs that went the way of all things.

I never got to the vocalists much (more of a night club thing, not my scene, stuck to records), but I saw Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton.  All yours for dinner and drinks, maybe a cover charge.  Hell, the Rollins concerts were free.

I caught Murray’s Big Band at the Town Hall Theater once (best acoustics imaginable in a venue that size).  Benny Carter at the Cooper Union with the American Jazz Orchestra and an ambitious new composition (good acoustics, tricky sightlines).

Mainly it was clubs.  I don’t remember all the names, and most of them are gone now anyway.  (The rent is too damn high).  Saw Murray with the World Saxophone Quartet at one place I couldn’t find on a map now.  There was this girl bending Julius Hemphill’s ear about what a great saxophonist she was.  I guess if you want to break in, you can’t be the shy type.

Sweet Basil was good if you wanted to see Murray’s Octet–more space, great acoustics and sightlines.  Decent food, too. Good beer for the time period (Becks). One time between sets, he sat down next to me to chat with a friend. They talked about his marriage and stuff. I just sat there and questioned the nature of reality.  I have never once tried to engage him in conversation, even though we’ve been inches apart.  Never figured me for the shy type, did you?

But the place I kept going back to was the Vanguard.  Down those stairs, to the most storied basement on earth (smaller than some apartments I’ve been in).

You weren’t necessarily going to see the very biggest marquee names there, during the 80’s.  If they were there, you’d have a hard time getting in.  But you saw the finest workmen–the ones who drew the people who wanted more than just marquee names. Don Pullen.  Kenny Barron.  Art Farmer.  Milt Jackson. Sonny Fortune.  George Coleman. Harold Mabern.  Lester Bowie.  George Adams.  Danny Richmond.  Jim Hall.  And David Murray.

Max Gordon was still alive when I started going there.  I’d see him in the back sometimes, by the bar.  Three sets back then, and I’d invariably stay for all three, getting home maybe three in the morning sometimes (these were weekday gigs–back when I could get up after eight and still get in to work on time).

I’d sneer at all the one and two set wimps, who filtered out as the evening went on, until sometimes the band outnumbered the audience.  But they still played like it was to a full house composed of crowned heads of Europe.  The last set is always the best. Because by that point, they’re playing for themselves.

And much as I might rant to anyone who’d listen about the sheer injustice of it–how musicians with not a tenth the ability had a thousand times the audience (or more)–I wasn’t really bitching so much as bragging.  ‘You think you know what music is, but I know.’  Just like I am now.  Well, that goes with the territory.

You can go see your rock god in some looming amphitheater, up there in the nosebleeds, far away.  Maybe as he ages, you can catch him at a smaller venue, showing his age more and more (I suppose if you’re rich enough, you can do better–a cheap victory, purchased at exorbitant rates, never really about the music.)

It’s the jazz buff who can worship his or her gods up close and personal, hear every nuance, be bathed in the music, lifted by it, know for a few hours what it is to stand atop Olympus–perhaps only pilgrims to Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem ever experience anything comparable.  But so briefly, after so arduous a journey. The Vanguard was my Kaaba, my St. Peter’s Basilica, my Wailing Wall. I can be there in 40 minutes if the trains are running right.  What took me so long?  Did I mention I got old?

I wonder if sometimes he was down there with me.  You know.  The guy whose name is up top.  If not those particular nights, then others–more than me, I’ll bet.  The Vanguard, once a speakeasy called The Golden Triangle, opened as a music/comedy club in 1935–not even two years after your man was born in Brooklyn.

It was a full time jazz venue by 1957,  by which time he’d come to live in the then-affordable Village, and was writing short stories and sleaze paperbacks to pay the rent.  He could have walked it.  Cover charge for one set today is thirty-five bucks.  I believe it was fifteen when I was a regular, in the mid-to-late 80’s.  So maybe a five spot in ’57?  When the biggest names in jazz were down there.  I think we can assume he was there.  (And at the actual Five Spot in Cooper Square, and the long-lost 52nd St. clubs–when he had the time, and the funds. Romance without finance–always a nuisance.)

But far as I know, he never mentioned it.  He didn’t write about jazz that much–I think maybe because it was too sacred to him, and (I’m guessing) because he didn’t feel qualified to cover the finer points–but it was part of everything he wrote.  Nobody ever valued improvisation more highly than Donald E. Westlake, master of the ‘push’ method.  And he was all about collective individualism, if that makes any sense (individualist collectivism?)

And here’s the analogy I can imagine him making: A jazz combo is a string.  A group of talented specialists, who band together in a loose-knit confederation to make a score, then go their separate ways.

Somebody has to lead, and some show more talent for that than others, but it won’t always be the same one leading, and it’s never an absolute dictatorship–maybe to some extent with a big band, which requires more regimentation, but that was a short-lived era (too expensive) and the best bands–Ellington, Basie–were never known for over-drilled martial discipline.  You don’t lose your identity in a great band, you develop it.  And everybody gets a chance to solo.  From each according to his means.

At that time in my life I hadn’t heard of him (and as the article snippet up top illustrates, having heard of someone doesn’t guarantee recognition).  He could  have been sitting behind me, or next to me, and I wouldn’t have known.  Though not in front of me, because I was always up front.  I don’t think he was living in the city at the time, so maybe our Vanguard eras didn’t overlap.  There can be no doubt at all that his ghost is one of many haunting that bass-ridden basement.  As mine will be someday, I hope.

So this is all very Jesuitical of me.  I want to review Murray’s gig.  I don’t have a jazz blog.  I don’t feel like starting one, or think there’d be any reason to read it if I did.  (I can’t even read music.)  So I’ve sought and found a way to justify posting my review here.  And having done so–the review.  (Not a long prologue by my standards.)

(It should be noted, I’m hardly the first Westlake buff to give Mr. Murray his due.)

So what happened was, I read that Lorraine Gordon died. I felt like paying my respects.  I checked the website (used to look in the back of the Village Voice to see who was playing, but you know,  most Bohemian institutions haven’t aged as well as the Vanguard).  Guess who’s coming to visit?  Used to be I just paid at the door, and if I could go in the middle of the week, maybe that’d still work, but I reserved online for Friday.  Both sets.  I may be old, but I’m no wimp.

Jumped on the #1, got there shortly before the first set began, grabbed a slice at Tivoli Pizza (still there!), burned the roof of my mouth wolfing it down , went downstairs, and displayed my virtual ticket on the screen of my smartphone.  Some things change, some don’t.

Sold-out house.  Would I mind sitting right by the stage?  Oh, I’ll bear up somehow.

Same pictures on the walls (maybe some new ones, but they all looked the same age).  Same beat-up tuba (one of these years, I’ll ask whose that was.)  Same wobbly circular tables.  Same Philip Stein mural by the bar.  (Did you know he studied at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico?  Same town Westlake wrote about in The Damsel?  Me neither.)

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(Taken between sets.  You are basically supposed to forget cellphones ever existed while the music’s playing, and make sure nobody else is reminded of their existence, all of which is fine by me.)

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(Taken from my seat.  Piano used to be a Yamaha.)

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(I checked for a dialtone.  Just to make sure I hadn’t gone back in time.  Not that far, anyway.)

So not much had changed since last I was there.  And then the band got onstage, and Murray hadn’t either.  He turned sixty-three last February.  Looked about the same as he did thirty years ago, carrying a bit more weight, not showing it much.

Craig Harris, Murray’s longtime collaborator, maybe the best trombone player alive, showed every one of those thirty years, though he is not even one year older than Murray.  He’d gone the other way, grown thinner, legs a bit shaky, and he needed to sit down catch his wind frequently.  Life is not fair.  His chops were strong as ever.  Jazz is.

And when he was between solos, he’d come over and sit by me on the long cushioned bench, apologizing when he jostled me a bit.  (Craig Harris stepped on my foot.  I can die now.)

When it was time for him to stand and deliver again, Murray would shoot him a meaningful look, and Harris never missed that cue.  I think I know now, in a way I did not before, what musicians meant when they talked about Benny Goodman giving them ‘The Ray.’  And why Harris, at that Town Hall concert I mentioned, referred to Murray as ‘The Little General.’

Though I was there to hear Murray, in some ways Harris’ performance moved me even more.  Every solo took a lot out of him, but he kept finding more.  That’s a tough instrument, the slide trombone.  As analog as a horn can be, sticking way out in front of you, demanding big moves, as well as a strong embouchure. Takes finesse and power to make it talk the way it should. It’s fairly high-maintenance (I know a guy who has become legendary in the ranks of brass and reed players for his ability to fix their ailing axes).  Harris would stop here and there to apply some lubricant to his ax.  Then back to the woodpile.

There were moments of unspeakable eloquence, when he teased at the bell of his horn with a plunger mute (the kind you get at the hardware store),  kneading it into just the right shape to get just the right note.  Sam Nanton never did it better.

(I was also reminded of the existence of the trombone spit valve.  Got a little on my foot–I was wearing Birkenstocks.  Anointed, you might say.  Jazz is not purely an aural sensation at the Vanguard.)

It’s a sextet, Class Struggle.  A mix of older and younger musicians, the senior statesmen being Murray and Harris, both well into their sixties.  The younger generation is represented by Murray’s son Mingus on electric guitar, Rashaan Carter on bass, and Russell Carter on drums (that must get confusing sometimes).  They all soloed ably, laid down the rhythm track with elan.  If I’m being honest, I don’t come to clubs to hear bass and drum solos, and my tastes in jazz guitar run more to the Jim Hall school.  But if you were napping (not that I ever was), Murray the Younger’s acidic biting licks would jolt you awake PDQ. Everybody solos in jazz, or it’s not jazz.

In the middle was the piano man, Lafayette Gilchrist, who is fifty.  As Murray himself says, it’s rare to have guitar and piano in a small combo.  I had never seen him play before, and I dug his style a lot (also his porkpie hat–wish I could pull that look off).

Murray tends to favor pianists who can go barrelhouse when the occasion merits it.  Gilchrist used his elbows some, as well as his educated fingers.  He’d play finely articulated arpeggios on the right, then come down hard with his funnybone on the left.  That’s a fine way to treat a Steinway.  If he anchors a group of his own at the Vanguard, I’ll be there.

But I was there to see the best tenor sax player of the late 20th, and I really doubt anybody has knocked him off so far in the 21st.  Bring back Lester Young, and we’ll see.

Back in the 80’s, Murray moved his shoulders while he played, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, which is what he is.  I saw less of that this time. (Rotator cuff trouble?  Maybe he just decided it wasn’t helping anything.)

But he still swung like nobody else.  This is a man who took a bite off of just about every great tenorman’s plate, though most often they talk about Gonsalves and Webster in his mature style.  He still retained what learned from Ayler and Shepp–that beauty comes in many forms, some of them outwardly dissonant, but melodic down deep.  Old, new, borrowed, and deeply blue.

He is the living embodiment of jazz history–all the lessons learned along the way, all the accumulated influences, distilled into something alive, thoughtful, questing–neither rejecting the past nor living in it.  Drawing upon it, like fuel, to provide the escape velocity into a better future.  (Westlake would have approved.)

He only picked up his bass clarinet once during the second set,  and man I missed that deep sound it makes.  A lot of sax players have used the bass clarinet as an alternate, including Dolphy and Coltrane, but none of them treat it like Murray–he recorded the best-ever version of Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz on that horn, and that’s what he does–he waltzes with it.

He didn’t play Jitterbug Waltz this time, or Morning Song, or Bechet’s Bounce, or Dewey’s Circle, or any of the numbers I remember from the 80’s (some of which are better suited to a larger ensemble).

I wish I’d taken notes about what they played, but then again, I really don’t.  A bit of Ellingtonia, a bit of Albert Murray (not related), and of course some compositions of his own.  He mainly didn’t even bother to tell us what they were playing, because after all, isn’t that what we have ears for?  Mine were rusty, after so many years.  But they appreciated the grease.

While Harris, for all his inspired blowing, needed to take frequent breaks, Murray played as hard as he did in his 30’s–and stayed on his feet the whole time (I think he did take a bathroom break at one point, but I didn’t ask.)  Some players, like Benny Carter, like Max Roach, just don’t seem to tire–age doesn’t touch them, at least until it’s time for them to go.

Each set ran close to ninety minutes, with very little in the way of verbal asides, because they were there to talk by other means.  To anybody who could hear them.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.   (Nobody agrees who said this first.)  Then again, why not dance about architecture?  Why not sing about novels?  Why not write poems about lovemaking? (Actually, isn’t that something most poets do?)

David Murray does all of that and more, and hard as I’ve tried to explain what he does, I didn’t come within a parsec of what Mr. Himes said in that little passage up top.  Jazz talks too much to us, and most of the time, we don’t listen that long, or well.

I watched, a bit smugly, a bit sadly, as most of the people at the first set (sold out) got up and left to make room for the people coming in for the second set (also sold out).  That hadn’t changed either.   (Though back in the day, the third set was never sold out).  They’d had their fill.  My appetite was barely whetted.

Well, the seats aren’t exactly built for comfort (as my ass was telling me by the end.)  The drinks aren’t what you’d call cheap (much fancier bar menu than I remember–no Molson Golden anymore.)  I had Pellegrino the first set, Wild Turkey the second.  Got to watch the alcohol lately.  Long story.  Aren’t they all.

Between sets, I briefly met one of Max and Lorraine Gordon’s daughters, and I suppose I should have said I was sorry for her loss, but she’d heard plenty of that already, and I was thinking more of  our gain–that there was another generation of Gordons to keep the flame lit a while longer.

Long enough for me to get down there a few score more times before my flame goes out, I hope.

Good morning to all of you, and here’s a song.  (And I’m pleased to say, that neon sign was a brief aberration–some change is for the good.)

 

 

 

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