Tag Archives: Adios Scheherazade

Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Final Mystery

From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

Thanks so much for your response to my previous missive, and for answering my question about Ambrose Bierce (a hero of mine as a boy, as perhaps he was for you as well).  So that’s what happened to him!  Curiouser and curiouser–like something out of one of his stories.  If I said which one, that would be breaking a confidence, of course.  His secret is safe with me.

I was sorry to hear that your hopes of chasing girls in the afterlife with Robert Benchley were thwarted by his current domestic arrangements, but am nonetheless strangely moved to hear of his rapprochement with Mrs. Parker–a vicious circle closed at last.   Anyway, there’s still Fred Allen, right?

So.  In my last letter, I covered the two epistolary novels written by your friends Dresner & Block.  I did not, as you noted, say anything at all about your own book–I have a much-noted tendency to beat around the bush (that’s what she said).

Dresner’s The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (1959), demonstrated to you and Mr. Block that your time spent writing sleaze paperbacks could be turned to good use.   Mr. Dresner had used his experience to pen a comedic romp of misunderstanding and identity confusion, that ended with the hero re-committing to his profession, and vowing to seek a more personally fulfilling way to practice it.

Mr. Block, who had never been the least bit embarrassed by his own dirty books (maybe the quality of the prose, nothing else), merely sought to write better and dirtier ones, hoping he could somehow revive the sleaze form without its publisher-imposed limitations–and he failed in his attempt, but Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (1970) remains highly entertaining, not to mention arousing.  There, the protagonist has never written any kind of porn, but having lived out sexual fantasies with libidinous teenagers and repressed secretaries that even the randy heroes of sleaze would envy, he’s going to just write about his experiences as if they were fiction (neat turnaround).

Both of these novels are available now as ebooks.  But your Adios, Scheherezade (1968), while it appeared in a variety of editions, in a number of languages, has long been out of print, and has not been digitally re-issued.  And I am moved to wonder why that is, given the ongoing rebirth of interest in your work.   Many far more obscure and less distinguished works of yours are currently available electronically.  I must ask–did you want this book to be reprinted?   Is there some reason your estate has not found a publisher for it?  While used editions are not impossible to find, they do tend to be pricey.

I don’t really know how you felt about it, but I can tell you that I consider it to be one of the best things you ever wrote.  And one of the most painful.   Lawrence Block thought highly enough of it to single it out in a short-list of his favorite books of yours, after your death.  It has a level of gut-wrenching honesty that is rare for any author, let alone one who mainly writes genre fiction.

Oh to be sure, there are many brutally honest writers in the crime genre (paradoxically enough), but the venue does demand a certain measure of glamor, seamy and gin-soaked though it be–even Jim Thompson had to make his most deplorable anti-heroes tough and sexy.  There’s always an element of fantasy in that form, which is why you didn’t employ it here, in this story about a man who specializes in fantasies of a different kind.   Over-specializes, as it turns out.

This one reminds me in many ways of Memory, the much longer third-person novel you put aside in a drawer and never made any later attempt to publish–I personally believe that’s because you were ashamed of the way you didn’t give Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist, a chance to make choices that might get him out of his predicament.   Even though that’s the point of the book, that his lack of memory has doomed him.  I still think it seemed to you that you’d treated him unfairly.   And that mattered to you, didn’t it?

Adios Scheherazade is a more focused work than Memory, from a writer with a few more years experience–it’s more personal as well, because while both are about roads you yourself might have gone down if things had been different, this is a road that runs parallel to the one you took.  It’s a book about a man who is–and isn’t–a writer.

I feel somehow certain that you must remember the events of this book more clearly than many others you wrote, but for the benefit of those who haven’t read it in a while, or at all (I’d advise the latter to read the book first), I shall assay a synopsis.  In one sense, Adios, Scheherazade has a very simple, easily summarized story–in another, it’s almost a summary of everything you ever wrote, a touchstone for your work as a whole.   It marks the beginning of your true maturity.   And nothing hurts as much as maturity.

Edwin George Topliss (har-de-har-har) is a graduate (with what he considers a useless degree in American Literature) of Monequois College–in this instance, very clearly and directly based on Champlain College in Plattsburgh NY, which as Ed informs us, is now a defunct school that got turned into a military base–just as Champlain College did, after Donald Edwin Westlake attended it.

You said in an interview that you based Mr. Topliss on one of those guys who was writing sleaze under the pen name of a writer who’d moved on, but his first name is your middle name, you gave him your precise educational background.  Seems safe to assume you gave him other things of yours.  And what’s more, you knew people who read the book would be assuming just that, drawing parallels between you and Ed, correct or not.   That’s a very deliberate choice on your part.  You even gave him a Smith Corona typewriter, and for you nothing could be more personal than that.

Now in a sense, this is an epistolary novel, but it is not mainly composed of letters, until the very end.  Each chapter is Ed’s attempt to write a sleaze novel that he has to submit to the literary agency he works for–a novel that will be published under the name ‘Dirk Smuff’ (seriously?), the former nom de plume of his former college roommate, the now successful author, Rod Cox, who doesn’t want to write sleaze books anymore (and, when he offered the lucrative opportunity to Ed, warned him “Nobody writes this shit forever”).

The manuscript is due in ten days.  Ed’s already missed two deadlines in the past, and has been put on notice that he better not miss another one, or he’s out.  The literary agent in question (‘Lance Pangle’, heh, good one) is not sympathetic to his personal difficulties–of course he isn’t.   He’s based on Scott Meredith, whose famous (and infamous) literary agency was the one commissioning these dubious books for equally dubious publishers–those who have read Lawrence Block’s just-released collection of non-fiction pieces The Crime of Our Lives (which I’m reviewing next week), will learn that Scott Meredith would literally not cut his own brother a break.

Rod Cox would, of course, be the successful Donald E. Westlake, farming out his porn name to a college buddy with a wife and kid, and a dead end low-paying job at a beer distributor–except you muddy the waters still further.  Because Rod Cox isn’t you.  He’s Richard Stark.  Yeah, I figured that out.   You weren’t trying to hide it, really.   It’s there for the people who pay attention.

See, Rod Cox doesn’t write hardcover mysteries for a major respectable publisher like Random House.  He writes paperback spy novels for an outfit called Silver Stripe (as opposed to Gold Medal, where you’d just started publishing the Parker novels).   He’s getting them published all over the world, in various languages–Ed even mentions them getting published as Gallimard Serie Noires, with those striking black covers.   He’s pretty hot stuff.

Rod’s got a sexy girlfriend named Sabina Del Lex (basically all the names in this book are porn names), with milky white thighs Ed can’t take his eyes off when they come to see him and his wife Betsy at their home out in the sticks.  Ed fantasizes about Sabina coming on to him, which of course she never does.  Ed is seething with envy towards his old friend Rod, who always knew he wanted to be a writer in college, but Ed never took him seriously.

Now wasn’t this the beginning of the time period in which you later sourly remarked that Richard Stark was outselling Donald Westlake?   So you’re playing one hell of a double game here–you’ve placed yourself in the position of a loser who is writing books under the assumed name of an established writer, and the established writer isn’t even you–he’s a poorly disguised version of this Stark guy whose books you’re writing at the same time you’re writing this book–you’re his Edwin Topliss.

And a lot of people, then as now, prefer Stark’s books to the books you’re writing under your own name–Ed even mentions the 20 grand Rod got for selling one of his books to Hollywood–a pointed reference to Point Blank, which Ed and Betsy go to see later in the novel, though that isn’t based on one of Rod’s books. This is very inside baseball, even for you–how many people are there who are going to pick up on all these in-jokes?   If jokes they are.

So by making Ed envy Rod Cox, a character you never flesh out much, you’re hinting that you envy and sometimes even dislike your own alter-ego, Mr. Stark.  Who isn’t really you–just another mask, like Alan Marshall, only better paid and somewhat more respectable.   But then who are you, Mr. Westlake?   Who is Ed Topliss?   Where are you going with this?

Couldn’t be this is another of your beloved identity puzzles, could it?   My paperback reprint says this is ‘The World’s Dirtiest Book’, but it seems like the dirtiest secrets revealed here are not mainly erotic in nature.  I’m guessing we aren’t going to get any naked horny Catholic school girls here.  Quelle dommage.

So anyway, Ed has to write this book in ten days.   He’s done it before–it’s possible.   The plot formulas are well-established, the characters need not be deep (it’s better they not be, really).   He’s expected to submit a book of ten chapters, each running 5,000 words.   He just has to start working, and the book will write itself.  Unfortunately, the book turns out to have a mind of its own.

Ed keeps veering off on tangents, all of them in some way related to his life, his relationships, his regrets, his secret sorrows.  He’ll start typing a nice piece of smut, and then the characters start talking back to him.   They aren’t content to just rip off each others clothes and go at it, like good little genre stereotypes.   So he finishes 5,000 words, but almost none of it is usable, and he puts the chapter aside, and starts over again.   He’s got six Chapter 1’s, before he manages a Chapter 2, and then he does two more 2’s before he gets to 3.   Come to think of it, this would be a challenging work to translate into ebook form.  Those things always have a clickable index menu, don’t they?

Now Ed is, self-evidently, an unreliable narrator–he’s a stranger to himself, and he’s trying to write fiction, so true and false are seamlessly blended together in his typewritten stream-of-consciousness narrative, and you never know when he’s being straight with you, or himself.  Man doesn’t know his own mind, let alone heart, but in the process of writing (and he is writing, and writing well, whether he thinks so or not), he is starting to come to terms with himself, and with the wreck he’s made of his life.  He’s learning how to tell the truth, in prose form–which is, as always, stranger than fiction.

But nothing he’s writing about his life could be the basis of a good living.  He can’t support a family live-blogging his own existence, decades before anybody knows what that means.   Like most people asking “how can I be a writer?” Ed is really asking “how can I be a writer and still eat?”  Ay, there’s the rub.

You remember how you (oh sorry, that was Rod Cox) had that police detective Parker confronts at his house in The Seventh lament inwardly that he doesn’t dare try to draw down on Parker, because his wife and daughter are nearby.  He thinks to himself that a cop with a family has given hostages to fortune–well, in a less dramatic way, so has an aspiring writer.  If you have a family to look after, you can’t just live on cheap food, share an apartment with a few other guys, and work on establishing yourself as a writer, figuring out how to best express what’s inside of you.  You have to pay the damn bills.  So you have to write what you can sell.  Whatever that happens to be.  Like, I dunno, maybe crime fiction.

Ed married Betsy Blake, a local girl attending Monequois College while he was there, who he got set up on a date with.  She was pretty enough, and after a bit of early resistance, a willing sex partner–he took her virginity, they burned up the sheets for months, and he was nuts about her–until he wasn’t.  And they parted ways after graduation, and he was relieved, and he thought maybe she was too–then she phoned him to say she was pregnant.

And he did the right thing.   Which he’s convinced now was the wrong thing.  Except he does love her, and their three year old daughter Elfreda (Fred for short–hmm).  Except he doesn’t.  Except he does.  Well, what is love?  How do you ever know if it’s real, if you don’t even know who you are?

Betsy has been increasingly angry and frustrated with the life they’re now leading in New York City, where she takes care of the kid and shops, while her husband hammers away each day on the typewriter and sulks whenever he takes a break–making a very nice living for the time, but they somehow keep finding a way to spend it all, so no savings to fall back on.

And it’s pretty clear most of Betsy’s anger comes from knowing that Ed didn’t really want her, that he just married her because he had to, and she married him for the same reason.  Ed realizes as he goes on that her future was blighted as much as his by their shared misfortune, which happens to be a little girl they both care about.   But early on, he’s still feeling like she trapped him, and that she’s so much less than he was hoping for in a mate.  Even her name bugs him.

Betsy.  Is that a great name?  Betsy Blake.  She sounds like something out of Archie Comics.  The Blake part she couldn’t help, of course, and Blake by itself isn’t a horrible name, but Betsy?  Of the six thousand different things that Elizabeths are called, Betsy is the absolute worst.

You know, that’s true.  Two out of five girls are named Elizabeth, and they all wind up with one of the Elizabeth nicknames, and it tells you an awful lot about the individual girl which one of those nicknames she gets for a label.  Like Liz is almost always a real whory swinger, a gutsy good-time girl, unless she’s very bony and has the clap, in which case she’s Lizzie.  Bess is respectable but she puts out but she feels guilty about it.  Beth saves herself for one man and works in the library and is very square but also reliable and intelligent and a rock in an emergency.  Bett is bitchy and expensive, but also a great lady.  Elsa is a ski-weekend swinger, but when she gives her word she keeps it.  Eliza hasn’t been seen since the ice floe broke up, but before that she was a whiner.  Elsie is lower class, cheerful, big-mouthed, big smile, she doesn’t get laid much because nobody wants to take advantage of her.  Ella has a lot of female complaints and can’t hold her booze and is very quiet and if things go right she’ll mother you.  Lisa has the self-image of a D.H. Lawrence heroine and likes horses and night clubs.  Betty is an all-American girl and gets married and has two point four children and lives in one of those crappy suburban developments like where I am right now and it’s her kitchen where the kaffeeklatsch is held and she collects for muscular dystrophy.  Betsy is a moron.

(What freaked me out most when I first read this passage is that there was at that time an Elizabeth at the library I work at, and everybody called her Beth.  As to the rest, I couldn’t say.  You were making all that up, right?  Right?)

So of course Ed feels very guilty about that and the other nasty things he says about his wife, and he knows it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and it’s precisely what he meant to say, and rather well-written, but that doesn’t make it right.  He starts trying to be nicer to Betsy, and they start making love again, and the marriage seems to be getting on a firmer footing, and then he finally gets to Chapter 2.   And hey–it’s starting to feel like a real book.

See, there’s this guy named Paul Trepless, he’s coming home from work, and he’s married to this wonderful girl named Beth, and they have a daughter named Edwina, and the marriage has been a bit rocky for a while, but it’s been going so much better of late, and he’s happy with her, but just like any man might, he kept a secret diary of his sexual fantasies, none of which were true–he was totally faithful to Beth.  And he gets home, and Beth and Edwina are gone, and he realizes–Beth read the diary!   She’s left a note saying that if he tries to come after her, her brothers will kill him.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, if I may be so bold as to inquire, what was it with you and the name Paul?   Your two most personal-feeling early books, Killy and Memory, both feature protagonists by that name.  You later gave one of your sons that name.  It obviously meant something to you.  Did you, like Oliver Abbott in Up Your Banners, hate the name you’d been given, and have a secret name for yourself?  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far you’ve only answered my question about Ambrose Bierce, and I can’t even tell anybody what you said).

So yeah, Betsy read the discarded chapters, which Ed had left in his desk drawer.  Which included a totally fictitious account of how Ed was having sex with their teenaged babysitter, who just barely knows Ed is alive.  And now Ed is alone, and still trying to finish the damn sleaze book, seeing if he can turn his real-life tragedy into a book, because he doesn’t know what else to do.   She really does have two brothers who are very tough customers–they combine a Christmas Tree business with a smuggling operation, and they do come after Ed with the pretty clear intention of putting him in the hospital if not the morgue, and Ed’s life is suddenly a lot more like a Rod Cox novel than a Dirk Smuff.

And this won’t do, because he’s still got a sex book to finish.  So he goes and does some research in Times Square–picks up a black hooker.  And what follows is the most unsexy sex scene in the history of the sleaze genre.   He knows this woman despises him, and she won’t even take off her bra when he asks her, and when he tries to draw out the act, she just exercises certain pelvic muscles and finishes him off.   And then brushes him off.  And while he’s angry at her about this, and thinks about writing a version of the encounter where he gives her an orgasm, his main reaction is to loathe himself even more–and not just himself.   His entire race.  His entire gender.   His entire civilization.  And the New York Times.

He tells us he was reading the Times book review, that most prestigious place for a writer to get written about, trying to figure out what makes you an author, and not just a cheap hack, and what he noticed was that really, nobody seems to know.  He just knows that the books he writes are not in there.  Then he notices something else.

But I’ve saved the best for last.  Way in the back of the Book Review, page 76, there’s a review of a book of photographs of Africa called African Image.  Some of the photographs are shown, and do you know what is the main central photograph taking up almost one-third of the whole page?  A bunch of female spades with their tits hanging out.  Right.  In the Book Review of the New York Sunday Times, November 26th, 1967.  Not 1867, and not the National Geographic.

So I guess I am in there after all.  No matter what the hard news up front, no matter what the self-image we’re all pushing this week, back in the back of the Book Review there am I.  All the grubby old attitudes are still alive, all the sneaky little scatological sniggering nastinesses, all the little-boy-pulling-his-wee-wee dirtiness is still inside your head and mine and the head of the New York Times, and it always will be.  Because if those had been white women they would not have run the picture.

Now I know why that hooker wouldn’t take off her bra.

Why do I say that’s me back there, weeping and sniggering on those dusky boobs?  Because it is out of the adolescent garbage in men’s heads that I have made my living for almost three years.  The adolescent garbage in my head feeding the adolescent garbage in their heads, a real meeting of minds, a real communion, so when you come right down to it what I have been doing is closer to the definition of art than anybody in that jazz section will ever get in his whole life.

Phooey.  That’s garbage, too.  I have never risen above the material any more than my readers have, and if you can’t rise above the material you ain’t an artist.  And it’s tough to rise above quicksand.

(You mention in this book all the little tricks writers of cheap paperbacks have to fill up pages–us bloggers have similar tricks, often involving long quotations from books we didn’t write.)

So anyway.  Ouch.  Direct hit.  Well played, sir.  And now let me say something you may or may not want to hear–there have been a number of semi-obscene books about men’s sexual problems that were huge sellers–I’ve got images of two of the  most famous up above, and I know you read both–Portnoy’s Complaint came a few years after you wrote this, and see how the publisher reprinting your book in paperback tried to make the cover look similar?   Yeah, that didn’t work.  You know why?

Because Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy are not Everyman.  They are very specific men, with very specific problems, and very specific pains, and very specific sins, and we can read those books, and maybe get some vicarious enjoyment out of them, and still say “Well, that’s nothing like me.”   And we don’t get that escape valve with this book.   It hits its target dead square on center, and that target is the reader.

Personally, I didn’t care much for either of those books, if you want to know.  I suspect I’m never going to get all the way through Lolita, which I find to be a meandering melange of mendacity, and screw what the critics and lit professors think.  Portnoy’s is intermittently moving and honest, but it’s basically just one successful promiscuous Jewish boy complaining to his shrink about how successful, promiscuous and Jewish he is.   I can’t relate on any front, sadly.  Few of us guys can manage more than two.  So we can admire him, feel sorry for him, be entertained by him, and not be terribly upset by him (particularly since the whole thing ends with a classic punchline).  And as for the other half of the world’s readers, wouldn’t you know, even the misogyny in Roth’s work (and in Roth himself) can turn some women on.  He’s no Everyman.

But, you see, Edwin Topliss is Everyman, as odd as his personal situation may be.  He’s speaking for all of us.  And he’s speaking very well, but in such a way as to offend and turn-off nearly everybody.   My girlfriend, who loves your Parker novels, put this book down a few chapters in, and wouldn’t go on.   And I’d say why I thought that was, but she reads this blog sometimes, and regardless of what Mr. Topliss thinks, there are valid life lessons one can learn from American literature.

(Mr. Westlake, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about when I tell you I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves, “Oh dear, Fred’s in one of his moods.”  Hey, I don’t charge you guys to read this palaver.  Not even 35 cents.  I’ll get back to Dortmunder & Co. soon enough.  Humor me, willya?)

Anyway, even after all of this self-revelatory insight, and after being chased out of his own house, and then out of the apartment of a (surprisingly) intimidated Rod Cox by his two semi-homicidal in-laws, Ed is still trying to finish the damn sleaze book!   He’s sneaking into stores that sell typewriters and hammering out more pages, and then leaving when some salesperson asks if he want to buy anything.  We don’t even get an explanation of how this confused narrative has been conveyed to us, no framing device, ala Lolita–Ed tells us his earlier chapters are lost, yet we can still read them.   But that’s quibbling, isn’t it?

Betsy, who completely disappears from the story, though not Ed’s confused consciousness, after she walks out with Elfreda, told the police he’d committed statutory rape with their babysitter, which he didn’t, and the babysitter said so, but her father had her medically examined (ew!) and turned out she wasn’t a virgin (teenagers had sex back then? who knew?), so they don’t believe her.  So the cops are after Ed as well.   Not merely his writing career, such as it was, but Life As He Knew It, is over.

And I must say, he seems mainly relieved.   Sad, chastened, still deeply ashamed of having failed  to understand Betsy’s pain because he was so focused on his own, but still–relieved.  And somehow empowered, odd as that sounds.   As he starts to bid farewell to everything, we realize–he’s lost the whole world, and gained his immortal soul.

He’s trying to write a chapter about this guy named Brock Stewart, who Beth Trepless (Paul’s estranged wife, remember?  Of course you do) picks up as she’s escaping, and there’s supposed to be a sex scene between them, but he can’t bring himself to write it.  So Brock gets off at a crossroads where there’s a small diner, empty but for a pretty young waitress.  Per the ‘La Ronde’ form of the sleaze novel that Ed told us about earlier, Brock is now supposed to seduce this girl, or she him, so the mating square dance can continue and instead we get this–

“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “you have to do, don’t you?  You can’t just give up, can you?”

“Sure you can,” she said.

“Well, I’m not going to,” he said.  “Who would I be if I gave up?”

“You mean, where would you be?”

“No, I don’t.  I mean who would I be?  Whom would I be?”

“You’d be you,” she said.

“I can feel the ground crumbling away beneath me,” he said.  “I’m terrified.”

She said, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you?”

“Everything stops,” he said.

“You mean, you die?”

“No,” he said.  “I mean I don’t get the book done, and Betsy doesn’t come back, and I don’t live in that house any more, and all of the things that I have been and roles that I have played and personas that I have assumed will come to a stop.”

“And what is left,” she said, “‘will be you.”

You won’t believe this but a third-generation (!!!) TV writer named Joss Whedon who did this show about a teenaged vampire slayer wrote basically that same exchange for her and a vampire she was fighting, thirty years after you wrote this, and people were over the moon about it, and comparing him to Shakespeare on the internet.   He’s making untold millions now doing comic book superhero movies.  And in a few more decades, nobody will remember him.  Such is fame, for a writer.   Many called, few chosen.  Or chosen, then forgotten.  You knew all about that.

Nobody will remember Edwin Topliss.  The book he’s the hero of (and he is that, strange though it seems to say so), may never get republished, though I hope it will, someday.  And yet, I consider this a hopeful ending, by the standards you upheld in life, because he threw away all the masks and pretensions, took a good hard look at himself, and decided he preferred his real face, homely though it might be.

And you went on writing popular books (never too popular, but durable as all hell), and rising above the material, and trying to find yourself in it.   As some of us are still trying to find you in it, but you could have left us a few more clues, Mr. Westlake.

And I passed my self-imposed limit of 5,000 words–I guess maybe all formulas have their limits.  Still, I’d best bring this epistolary review to a close.  Au revoir, connard.  Give my regards to Ambrose, and tell him I said these things will happen.  Oh, and April Fool’s.  Like that needed mentioning.

‘Fred’

PS: I bet you thought nobody would ever check, but I did.  And there it is, dusky boobs and all.  Page 76 of the New York Sunday Times Book Review, November 26th, 1967.  African Image, Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95.  Photos by Sam Haskins.  The review is fittingly entitled A Feeling for Africa.

::snigger::

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Review: Adios Scheherazade–Chapter 1

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Great Beyond

From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

I hope I am not interrupting any conversations/drinking sessions/amatory exploits you might currently be engaging in with O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, or Ambrose Bierce (parenthetically, did you find out what happened to him in Mexico? Given the circumstances of your passing, you had a perfect excuse to raise the subject).  But I have a problem I hope you can help me with.

As you might have gathered, I publish something called ‘The Westlake Review’ (I had to call it something), under a pseudonym derived from a book of yours–the objective is to review everything you ever wrote.  Yes, I know, but it passes the time.  This is an internet thing, in case you were wondering.  Our correspondence shall be shared with other people.  Not a whole lot of other people at present (though it might please you to know you still have readers all over the planet), but I wanted to make that clear.

I am about to embark on a review of your novel Adios, Scheherazade, in which I also intend to discuss The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, written respectively by your longtime friends and colleagues, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block.  Mr. Block I know is still among the living–Mr. Dresner seems to have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least the internet), but has no NY Times obit, so I guess he’s still with us as well.  I could probably contact Mr. Block via email, but somehow one hates to take up people’s finite personal time.  You, by contrast, have all of eternity on your hands, and it never hurts to ask, right?

Since the more elevated plane you now inhabit (I’m assuming you’re not in Purgatory, though us lapsed Catholic boys should probably never assume anything) may have blurred certain details of your mortal existence, let me refresh your memory.  To put it bluntly, you wrote a quite a lot of books that could be described as pornography, though few people nowadays would consider them to be that.

The ‘sleaze’ genre, as it is now called in collector’s circles (yes, people collect them, and they’re usually a lot more expensive than your other books, sorry to tell you), was basically a bunch of aspiring writers–many of whom went on to greatness, you not least among them–who to pay their bills wrote a lot of quickie novels featuring a lot of sexy goings-on, that were nonetheless not explicit enough to warrant being confiscated by the law.

In Prohibition terms, they were ‘near-porn’, like the near-beer that often is sold where real booze is illegal.  They could be displayed in public places of business–newstands, drugstores, and all the usual places cheap paperbacks were sold.   They had racy covers, suggestive titles, and sold for maybe 35 cents or so.

They were probably not as obscene as Henry Miller or James Joyce; no more so than best-selling potboilers of the period–the sex acts were described euphemistically, and young people hoping to learn valuable techniques from them were invariably disappointed.  But what made this a viable publishing niche was that the books were short, and there was sex all through them–you didn’t have to keep turning pages to find the good parts.   Sex was basically the entire point of the endeavor, not merely a side-attraction.

While many if not most were badly written, because so many of the authors employed had genuine talent, and were basically using this as a venue to hone their craft while they sought more legitimate outlets, you could often find some decent quality prose in them.   Certainly none of them were as bad as E.L. James.  Oh wait, you don’t know who that is, do you?  That does sound like heaven.

You got into this racket via the famed Scott Meredith literary agency, and it’s never been terribly clear how many of these things you wrote.   You employed several pseudonyms, most notably Alan Marshall.  But as opposed to your other non-porn pseudonyms, there’s always been some controversy as to which of the books published under these names were actually written by you.  Some we’re sure about, others are more ambiguous.   Apparently your first wife wrote some of them.  That must have been an interesting conversation.

And as the years passed, you never seemed much inclined to help anyone figure out who wrote what.   You seemed to mainly want to forget the whole tawdry episode ever happened.  This gentleman here, who worked for Scott Meredith at the time, doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t proudly embrace your pseudo-pornographic past.  He’s rather indignant about it, in fact.  But once you’d reached the point where you could make a good living without the sleaze books, you stopped writing them, and were never terribly eager to discuss them–except, indirectly, in the book I’m reviewing here.

Probably the turning point was reached when you started publishing the Parker novels at Pocket Books–a few of those a year, combined with your book-a-year contract with Random House, combined with short stories, articles, and sales to Hollywood–by that point you had more than enough income to turn your back on the flesh pits forever.  Parker got you out of it.

However, like many others in this field, you seem to have briefly farmed out your porn names–letting other people write the books in your place, then taking a commission.  This didn’t last very long, and neither did the sleaze market itself, which dried up and disappeared as the 60’s ended.  A transitional stopgap, that was no longer relevant in an era where those who wanted porn could find the real stuff with increasing ease.  Also, I suspect the male libido prefers images to words.

And these days we have internet fanfiction–people writing stories and indeed entire novels, featuring famous fictional characters, often performing acts that would scandalize the relatively demure characters in your books, and the people writing these things aren’t even getting paid (except for E.L. James, but she had to change the names first).  So to sum up, sleaze is eternal, but the sleaze paperback book market is dead (perhaps someday to be followed by paperback books themselves).

While it lasted, there was a lot of money in it, though, and some pretty classy writers taking their turns at the trough.   You, Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (as he came to be called), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson–the list goes on and on and on.  Charles Willeford seems to have written sleaze under his own name, which was typically atypical for him.  It’s more a question of which prominent genre writers did not write sleaze.  I don’t think Patricia Highsmith ever did, which is a mite ironic, no?  It was a big big thing, and now it’s gone.  And you didn’t miss it one tiny bit, did you, Mr. Westlake?

I think Hal Dresner agreed with you about that.   He was one of your group, your poker-playing porn-writing practical joke playing gang of aspiring wordsmiths who bonded in the 50’s.   And earlier than many of you, he seems to have decided he had to escape the sleaze market.  He went into writing for film and television, and had a pretty decent career–few of us haven’t seen something of his, at some point.  But I get the feeling from his one novel of any repute–the one I’m going to look at briefly now–that he once aspired to be a ‘serious writer’.  Whatever that is.

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The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (aka This is a Plain Brown Wrapper) is a very funny novel, written in epistolary form–the entire text is letters and memos going back and forth between a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Mason Clark Greer (aka Guy LaDouche), his publisher, his lawyer friend Michael Westlake (we’ll come back to him), Mason’s mother (Jewish, of course), various other male and female acquaintances, and (most importantly) Lt. Commander E.B. Dibbs, a demented former naval officer, who wants to sue and possibly horsewhip Mason for (as he thinks) defaming his daughter Barbara’s morals under a slightly altered name in a recent book, and also for referring to her parents in a less than respectful manner.

Although he had a character with a somewhat similar name in that book, and coincidentally described the real Miss Dibbs with a fair degree of accuracy in his book (including a birthmark in an embarrassing location), Mason has never met the daughter in question–though many other lascivious scoundrels have, judging by the way her father keeps coming up with new boyfriends of hers to accuse him of being.   Dibbs finally settles on referring to Mason as Karl Vechtenmeisser, a former Nazi officer from Austria, who is related to the Habsburgs (or so Dibbs insists), and had a brief liaison with Barbara.

Mason, who is holed up in a cabin in Vermont, trying desperately to finish his next dirty book, assumes this is just a prank his friends are pulling on him, but as he starts to get letters from the law firm of Berry, Lock & Gru, it sinks in that he really is being sued for defaming people whose existence he was totally unaware of at the time.   Mason tells Dibbs his real name, and (rather imprudently) gives him his selective service registration info, which only incites the Lt. Commander to try and have him investigated for impersonating an American citizen.

(As the story goes on, it is revealed that the United States Navy had its own problems with Lt. Commander Dibbs during WWII, and had to find ways to distract him from the war, so he wouldn’t lose it for them.)

The lawyers Dibbs has hired are quite willing to believe Mason is Vechtenmeisser, as long as they see a good cash settlement in the offing, and likewise keep referring to him by that name.  Mason, suffering from cabin fever in a nasty Vermont winter, with no companionship other than a Weimaraner named Bastard, starts playing along with the gag, and referring to himself by that name as well.   He starts vindictively sending heavy boxes full of rocks to the law firm–C.O.D.   They inquire how he wants the rocks to be stored.   His missives to his friends become increasingly odd and off-kilter (and funny, but his friends mainly don’t seem to get the joke, or to understand what’s going on).

And as all this is going on, we learn the true reason for Mason’s mental distress–he’s been trying to write a serious novel, and he keeps ripping the pages up and burning them, because they’re terrible.  He’s worried that all he’ll ever be able to do in his life is write dirty books–which it turns out a lot of the people he meets in the course of this story have read.   He’s a very successful near-porn writer.  It’s just not what he wants to be.   It isn’t who he is.

He complains that his imaginary sex life has put an end to his real one–his own romantic resume seems limited to a few brief flings.   He’s been making it all up from Day One, but people keep asking him if this stuff in his books really happened–and they don’t want to hear it when he says it didn’t.   His fiction, bad as it is, has eclipsed his actual life.  Then a frustrated young FBI Agent shows up at the cabin to investigate Dibbs’ accusations, and it starts to get really weird.

Before long he’s sending farcical responses to a questionnaire sent him by a psychiatrist friend of Dibbs who specializes in delusions, and seems to be pretty deluded in his own right.   And no matter how crazy any of his responses to various communiques are, people insist on taking them all seriously.   And on believing he’s an Austrian Nazi jet setter who seduces gullible maidens in his spare time.   His life has become one of these bad novels he’s been writing.

The defamation lawsuit actually ends up in front of a judge, with predictably chaotic results.   I’d remind you how it’s all wrapped up, but I don’t want to spoil it for my readers–the novel is available in ebook form–maybe you could get it up there?  I mean, you’re literally in The Cloud, right?   Regardless, I think it would have made a good movie.  Or perhaps a staged theatrical reading, ala Dear Liar.   But maybe a bit dated now.  Very much of its era.  Still a lot of fun to read.

In the end, it’s Mason’s former frat buddy and present-day lawyer, Michael Westlake (I told  you we’d come back to him) who tells Mason that he can’t worry so much about not having lived up to his dreams of greatness.   Good or bad, Mason Clark Greer is a writer, and his letters prove that.   Maybe he can’t write The Great American Novel, but what really matters is to do what  you’re meant to do, and let other people worry if it’s any good or not.   If he doesn’t want to do the porn anymore, he can do something else.

And Mason decides that’s what he’ll do.   He informs his publisher that he won’t be finishing the book he was working on (and never got past the first chapter of), and starts thinking about maybe writing a play–it seems like dialogue is more his forte than descriptive prose.  And yes, this does does seem a trifle autobiographical, but I would assume not very.  You’d know better than me.

And as you already knew, this book is not about pornography, smut, or even sleaze.   It refers to it, uses it as background color, but it’s really about how people are nuts, and how youthful aspirations don’t always work out as you hoped.  Mason does talk about how flabby actual women he meets seem compared to the vixenish viragos he populates his fiction with (and he has no illusions about his own appearance), but you get the feeling he’d take flabby reality over fulsome fiction any day.   Still and all, this takes up a very small part of the book, which is mainly about his running duel with Dibbs, and his unfulfilled literary ambitions.  And apparently FBI men say ‘fut’ instead of ‘fuck’, because of some directive from J. Edgar Hoover, but that would take too long to explain.

I don’t know how well this book sold (it got more than one edition), but I don’t need you to tell me that you and Mr. Dresner’s other writing buddies liked it a lot, enjoyed all the in-jokes tremendously, and were pleased to learn that their tiresome apprenticeship in the porn pits could actually serve as the raw material for a funny book.

Working for Nightstand Books or one of the other publishing houses that cranked this stuff out, they had to stick very closely to established formulas–but as the form died out, they had a chance to write something reminiscent of sleaze, that was no longer so–constrained.   And another of your friends, Lawrence Block, who had rather enjoyed writing these books, bad though he knew they were, was moved over a decade after Dresner’s book, to write something directly inspired by it–and this book really is porn, I think.   If it isn’t, I’m not sure what porn is, and Judge Stewart did say you know it when you see it.

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It’s hard to know what to say about Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, except how did this guy not get arrested?   I mean the protagonist, but also quite possibly the author.   This is also available as an ebook now, and Block wrote an excellent afterward for that edition, explaining its origins.

By 1970, he was, as you know, a well-established writer of crime novels, like yourself, with most of his best work still ahead of him.  But the fact is, he missed writing about sex.  You and he had collaborated on several sleaze novels, most notably A Girl Called Honey, in which you took turns having protagonists modeled quite clearly after your own lustful selves seduce the titular seductress (an honest hard-working prostitute), and compete over her, and kill each other off, and drive her to madness and drug addiction in the process, and honestly you should both be ashamed of yourselves for what you did to that poor girl.  I suspect you actually were a bit ashamed of it, Mr. Westlake.

Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades, and perhaps other kinds of escapades, I couldn’t say.  He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.

But two things prevented that from coming to pass:

1)The publisher chose that moment in time to go under.

2)The book isn’t that good.

I mean, he wrote it in four days–he says so in the afterward.  So I tend to take it with a grain of salt that he really believed he had a huge seller here, but as the publishing scene changed, it was hard to know, really.  I mean, who would have believed E.L. James would become so wealthy from writing  a bad Twilight fanfic?   Okay, I know I’m losing  you here, but trust me–nobody could have possibly predicted that.   You writers just never do know what’s going to hit big, do you?  We the reading public like to keep you guessing.

He didn’t write it to make money–that much is plain–it is, you  might say, a labor of lust.  Primarily lust for girls in their middle teens.  And any heterosexual post-pubescent male who claims not to feel that lust is a goddam liar.   But few men would cop to it as cheerfully as Mr. Block, and while I may disparage this book’s merits, I also read it with a great deal of prurient interest, which was of course the entire point of the endeavor.   It’s not badly written–Block doesn’t do bad writing–it’s just too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  With a thinly-disguised rendition of the author himself at its center.

Laurence Clarke, failed poet and 32 year old editor of a children’s magazine called ‘Ronald Rabbit’s Magazine for Boys and Girls’, is laid off from his job–the reason being that there is no job.   The magazine folded shortly after its previous editor was found to have committed (thankfully) unspecified improprieties with an 11 year old boy (who the man swore he thought was 14), and they hired Laurence (we’ll just call him Larry) as a replacement, before realizing the scandal couldn’t be hushed up.  Because this is a very large publishing business, they forgot to fire him–forgot he was even there–and as a result, he never did any actual work for over a year–just came into the office every day and did nothing but read, collect his paycheck, wait for somebody to give him something to do.

Clay Finch (something of a clay pigeon in this book), the President of Whitestone Publications, only came to realize they were paying Larry for nothing when he noticed Larry had never used his expense account (that would be dishonest, Larry explains to him).  So Larry is fired.  Obviously.  And his ex-wife is demanding her alimony.  And in his letter to her, explaining why no alimony payments are forthcoming (this being yet another epistolary novel), he goes on to say that on returning home, he learned that his current wife had just left him for his best friend, and they’d absconded to Mexico, with every penny he had in the world.  Seemingly oblivious to what a tired narrative cliche they were perpetuating.

Larry goes on to write another letter to his friend Steve (the one who went to Mexico with his wife), describing his current situation in depth–and he relates how he was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, stone drunk, and singing Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (the one that says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, remember?), when he hears two youthful female voices singing along with him–and the miracle happens.

See, the youthful female voices are coming from a station wagon full of teenaged girls–six, to be precise.  Escapees from The Convent of the Holy Name, a Catholic Girl’s School in Darien, Connecticut.   Which is quite clearly based on The Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated in Greenwich, Connecticut.

He calls them the Daughters of Lancaster (a sort of riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III).  They dub him “Mad Poet”, and proceed to abduct him to Darien, necking with him in the back all the way there, hide him in a tiny apartment they rent on the sly, and in the ensuing weeks he ends up having highly inventive and unbridled sexual congress with all of them, there and in New York.  Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have forgotten that.

His first conquest is ‘Merry Cat’ (real name Mary Catherine O’Shea, and I can’t help but think her nickname is a winking homage to We Have Always Lived in The Castle–would you know if Mr. Block is a Shirley Jackson fan, perchance?).  Though really, she conquers him–the little black-haired colleen slips into bed with him the next morning, and this is what follows–

“Oh God,” she said.  “Oh, you’re ready.  Oh, how nice.  Don’t wait, don’t even touch me, just get in me.  I want you inside me, I can’t wait.”

She wasn’t exaggerating.  She got off the minute I was inside her, coming in a sweet soft pink dissolve.  She came twice more and then it was my turn, and then we clung to each other while I waited for the earth tremors to quit shaking hell out of the room.

This is one of the tamest erotic passages I could find to quote from in the book.  He gets a lot more specific as things progress.

Five of these girls are sixteen.  The youngest (‘Naughty Nasty Nancy’ Hall) is fifteen, and the wildest of the bunch (she likes being spanked during intercourse).  It really doesn’t matter what the age of consent was then, you know–he’s in his 30’s.  At no time in the 20th century was any of this ever not a felony in the United States.

But all through the book he is fucking them ragged, with their hearty and full voiced consent that would matter not a damn in any court in the land, and they are minors, and their parents are rich, and there are supposed to be nuns watching over them, and they are trading filthy letters back and forth, and nobody ever gets wise, and no policemen ever materialize, and he’s never the tiniest bit worried that they will.   This book makes Lolita look like a documentary.    And no Clare Quilty to spoil the fun, naturally.  Guilt, as a concept, does not exist within the pages of this book.

(Maybe we better pause now to give some of my male readers a chance to download this book to their digital devices.  All done, fellas?)

Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that Lawrence Block had two major inspirations for the story of this book–one was an acquaintance of his who actually did spend many months sitting around an office with nothing to do before they got around to firing him (with a nice severance package, though not as nice as the one fate gives Larry), and the other was a member of your little poker-playing group of writers, who related one night a story about he himself hitching an impromptu ride to Connecticut with a bunch of errant Catholic school girls, only that was presumably as far as it went.  That wasn’t you, by any chance, was it?  Oh like you’d admit it if it was.  I withdraw the question.

And just to remind you, we are learning of these experiences through letters he is writing to his friend Steve, to his former and current estranged wives, and even his former employer–and he’s sneaking into his former place of business to Xerox them and send copies to seemingly everyone he knows, though Mr. Finch keeps remonstrating with him to stop doing that.

And at first, the assumption is that he’s making it all up, which would seem the most likely supposition, except we see that when he writes to the Daughters of Lancaster, at camp and such, they write back to him.   They are real.  There is no ambiguity about that.   The book is fiction, but Larry Clarke is not an unreliable narrator–whatever he tells us happened, happened, as far as his reality is concerned.   He is, if anything, excessively honest and forthcoming.

Then he manages to seduce Rozanne, the personal secretary of Mr. Finch, who has been typing Finch’s letters to Larry.  She is Italian American (why should Irish girls have all the fun?), beautiful, with a truly magnificent bosom, and is of course a repressed 26 year old virgin who needs to be rescued from her fear of sex.   Which Larry does by way of anal intercourse she had not previously given consent to–it’s not exactly rape, because they were doing stuff, and he just had this sudden impulse to go there, and Rozanne is incredibly happy about it afterwards, even though she was screaming bloody murder while it was going on.  And I am not typing that passage out.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, I must again make an inquiry–Mr. Block mentions two specific literary influences on this book–the first being Hal Dresner’s novel I just talked about, but the other is a book I have not read–Wake Up, Stupid, by Mark Harris.  Both are composed of letters written by various people, which add up to a story.  I don’t doubt these are the primary influences, but I also feel like somewhere in Mr. Block’s apartment in New York where he wrote this there must have been a heavily thumbed-through copy of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  There’s a lovely repressed virginal spinster who needs sexual healing in that one too, you may recall.)

His relationship with Rozanne becomes serious, and they live together, but that does not in the least impair his relationship with the Daughters of Lancaster, because the women in his life are all (who would have guessed it?) bisexual to some extent, and they come over and have sex with him and Rozanne, and everybody is just having this wonderful Bonobo-esque polyamorous experience, with Larry at the center of the scrum, except isn’t Bonobo society matriarchal?  Oh never mind.

Obviously Larry does not have sex with other guys the girls like (remember whose fantasy this is), and there are a few mildly slighting references to genuinely homosexual persons (it turns out Larry’s ex-wife–the one who stole his money and ran off with his friend–is a dyke–the exact word used), but I think you’d have a hard time making the case this book is homophobic.  It’s just very very hetero-centric.

Having had this amazing reversal of fortune through meeting the Daughters of Lancaster on MacDougal St., due to the good graces of Joni Mitchell, Larry Clarke seems to go letter-mad the same way that Mason Clark Greer did–but his madness is not merely a satiric overrreaction to the (much more pleasant) situation he finds himself in, but increasingly a way to manipulate everyone around him.   He eventually realizes that he can make anyone do anything he likes through the power of epistolary suggestion.

By the end of the story everything is going his way.  The wife who left him for his best friend dumps the friend–who ends up marrying the first wife, who Larry cunningly sets him up with, so she’ll stop dunning him for alimony payments.  And Mr. Finch agrees to buy a book he’s writing about his recent sexual exploits–he’ll change the names, though I don’t know why he even bothers.

So this is porn, and I have to say, pretty damn good as porn goes (emphasis intended).  It achieves the desired result, which is sexual stimulation, mingled with laughter (though it’s not nearly as funny as Dresner’s book).  The characters are not fully fleshed out (well, you know what I mean), but they are not mere stick figures either–he goes to some pains to give each Daughter of Lancaster her own personality and interests (and I’d assume he had some real-life models for them).

It’s quite clear that Larry Clarke cares about all the various women in his life, and feels no sexual jealousy when the girls relate their entanglements with boys their own age to him (but of course mere boys can never compete with a grown man who happens to strongly resemble the author).   After all, the teenagers seduced him, and the secretary self-evidently wanted to be seduced by him–matters have been arranged so that he has absolutely nothing to be guilty about.  Because sexual guilt has no place in true pornography.  Neither does reality.   And neither does emotional honesty.  And that’s the trouble with porn, isn’t it?

And that’s why you wrote the book I’m going to review now, isn’t it?  A far better book than either of the two I’ve been talking about.  And a much harder book to read, and review.  Only I’m actually going to review it next week.  Because in an homage to that very book, I’m going to call this Chapter 1, and end it when the little counter-thingy at the bottom of my computer screen says I’ve got exactly 5,000 words.

So until next week, Mr. Westlake, I remain your humble servant,

‘Fred Fitch’

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, erotica, sleaze paperbacks