Tag Archives: Chester Himes

Addendum: The Reading List


Okay.  Here’s the deal.

I have had a project in my mind for some time now.  Supplemental, though not subsidiary, to the one I’ve just completed.

When I started reading and then reviewing Westlake, I got interested in writers Westlake referred to, directly or indirectly.  One of the books that came my way was the Library Of America anthology entitled American Noir of the 1950’s.  One novel apiece, by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.

The best anthology of its type ever compiled (I have a few quibbles about the way it’s organized, but I’m a born quibbler), and the most puzzling–some of these writers had just gotten started in the 50’s. Willeford wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen by then, nobody had heard of him.  But retrospectively, right on the money.   Five powerful voices, five unique individuals, five novels that had been published, more or less, as trashy entertainment–then turned out to be a whole lot more than met the eye.  Because their authors were precisely that.

One way or another, Westlake made his appreciation of them known–and in some cases, his debt to them.  As I’ve said, if you wrote anything in the mystery field, and you really could write, he noticed you.  He marked you down as the competition–but also as allies.  To the extent prose authors can be allies.  And I think they can.

Because, you see, in any publishing niche, there’s a push towards uniformity, towards dumbing it down, not confusing the readers with unneeded complexity and (in the case of these five) downright perversity.  Towards formula.  They all worked within formulas, within molds–and they all shattered the molds they worked within.  Too large to be contained by them.  And yet, somehow, needing them as a starting point.  An incubator.

Of the five, only two could be said to have started out as genre authors–Goodis and Highsmith (Goodis in the pulps, Highsmith in classy hardcover mysteries, though she would go slumming now and again).

Thompson and Himes began as ‘serious’ novelists–Willeford started out as a sort of beat poet, though no bohemian he.  They washed out in that tonier arena, deservedly or not–many called, few chosen.  And they needed to write.  They needed people to read what they’d written.  So they found a second home in mystery, in crime, in ‘noir’–and somehow they found in the conventions of that genre the distancing mechanism that had eluded them in their more mainstream efforts.  And thus they made high art out of low.

If the price of great art is suffering, they can all be said to have paid their dues with compound interest.  I hope to never say of any friend of mine that his or her life is a biographer’s wet dream, but that could be said for all of these people.

Thompson was a child of the dust bowl, marked by the poverty and ignorance of his youth that he’d painfully risen above, that never stopped trying to pull him back down again.  An alcoholic okie; mystery’s answer to Philip K. Dick, some have called him.  I just call him a mystery, period, full-stop.  One that may not have a solution.

Himes bore the wounds of racism–and prison–and most of all, of being smarter, more perceptive, than everyone around him.  Loving his people, seeing their beauty and their flaws, knowing that White America never would give them an honest break, even while he yearned for some kind of rapprochement between the races, living in self-imposed exile in Europe.  One would like to say he was over-pessimistic about his native land, but evidence of that is thin on the ground at present.

Highsmith was rejected by her mother in a way that left her with permanent emotional scars, and although her sexual orientation was towards other women, she always preferred being around men.  Which didn’t make her any less of a misanthrope, and at times, a bigot.  People found her difficult to like–presumably because she never much liked herself.  She was at least an honest hater, and there is value in that.

Goodis, son of Philadelphia, had a comfortable enough lower middle class Jewish upbringing, made a decent living as a writer, left a substantial fortune when he died, but was a mass of neuroses, hopelessly divided between the life he wanted and the life that was expected of him.  The lyrics for I Can’t Get Started might as well have been written by him instead of Ira Gershwin, and well he knew it.  The Poet of the Losers, he would be called, but what better subject exists for poetry?

Willeford spent his adolescence as a Depression-era hobo, then had a long career as an NCO in the small peacetime army of the 30’s, leading to highly distinguished service in WWII–that he only dealt with in his poetry, because what really happened in that war was too painful for him to approach by any other route.  (It seems safe to say that Charles Willeford was one of the few great mystery authors who was a killer in other than the fictional sense, and many times over at that).  More than any of the others, he surprises, because even when he’s writing pure formula fiction, he can’t help doing the precise opposite of what you’d expect.  He wanted success on his own terms, or not at all.  And only achieved that success when he had just a few years left to enjoy it.  And he tried his best to sabotage it.  A real Willeford twist, that was.

Five edgy iconoclastic irritating underappreciated American geniuses–underappreciated to this day–and the thing about genius is, it’s always sui generis.  No two exactly alike, yet each will have points in common with the others.  To talk about who is the greatest genius is missing the point of genius.

(The other thing about literary geniuses is they don’t tend to play well with others.  Several of these five knew each other, at least in passing.  None were friends.)

Still, underappreciated though they be, rather less so than Westlake.  There are multiple scholarly biographies for Thompson, Himes, and Highsmith.  Goodis and Willeford have both had more idiosyncratic tomes devoted to them, and Westlake has yet to appear in any LOA collection.  They at least have attained the beginnings of critical respect.  I rather suspect part of the problem for Westlake, aside from the lack of a colorful biography (or, to date, any) is that he wrote too damn much.

To say Westlake was more prolific than any of them is understating the point–he was roughly as prolific as all of them combined.  That, in itself, proves nothing.  You judge writers by their best work.  The work in which they come closest to telling us who they really were.  And by that yardstick, I would say that if he ever had somehow spent an evening with the five of them, that would have been an assembly of equals.  An encounter that never happened, alas.

Or did it?

I could maybe arrange for that to happen here.

Thing is, who’s going to read it?  My reviews have been geared to people who read Westlake.  How many people out there have substantially read all these five?

And even though I have spent quality time with all of them, know the better part of their work (pretty much all of Willeford), does that qualify me to write about them?  I need more context.  Which means I’m going to have to read some of those biographies, and other things–flesh out my mental maps of each.  I figure I’ll be ready late next year.  Which is going to work out for me in terms of the pop cultural metaphor I’ve come up with to group these five together.

So in the meantime–if you’re interested–if you’ve got the time–here’s the beer.

David Goodis:

A lot of Goodis is e-vailable now, but not nearly enough.  Even reprints of some of his rarer novels can be pricey.  You can’t go wrong with the five-book Library of America collection, which covers the bases pretty well–one of his signature pieces, Down There, is in the 1950’s anthology I mentioned further back.  There’s an ebook for Cassidy’s Girl, one of his biggest sellers, and a pivot for him–the beginning of his mature style–also something of a confessional piece, with regards to his personal life.  For most of the rest, it’s up to you how many raggedy old paperbacks you want to spend too much money on.

His short stories are a very mixed bag, and I doubt anybody’s ever read them all. The collection Black Friday and Selected Stories is well worth obtaining. There’s a new e-collection, Caravan to Tarim, and I loved the title piece.  As for the rest, well if you dig WWII fables where the gutsy American fighter pilot says things like “Die, you Nazi rat!” you’re in for a treat.

Jim Thompson:

People can get into fights over which Thompsons are the best.  Or the worst.  I tend to prefer his western yarns to his eastern idylls, though Savage Night certainly is one of his classics.  His novels are never long, they’re always readable (if at times nigh-incoherent), and you’re pretty much on your own figuring out which to get.  Most are e-vailable (and not cheap, he’s got a serious following now, pity it didn’t come along sooner).

The Killer Inside Me, of course.  That’s the one the LOA put in that 50’s collection, and you’re never quite the same again after reading it.  Not for the squeamish.   The first real Thompson machine gun.

Other than the two I’ve mentioned, I’d focus in (a bit predictably, perhaps) on A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280.  But if you’d like to look past all the savage nights, sweeten the mix just a bit, glimpse the man behind the mayhem–can I strongly recommend South of Heaven?  Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, and he’s worth knowing.  Only a good man needs to know how much evil there is inside him.

Chester Himes:

One of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is reading his ‘serious’ novels, as well as his autobiographical work.  I look forward to both.  Now let’s get really serious.  If you love American crime fiction, and you haven’t read the Harlem Detective novels, you are missing out on the ride of your life, in a little beat-up black Plymouth sedan that moves faster than you’d imagine possible, takes corners like nobody’s business.

There is nothing in all of world fiction (please note the lack of qualifiers) that can surpass the investigations of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and the many-hued denizens of Himes’ Harlem Of The Mind that he conjured up in France.  Yeah, I said it.  So read it.

I haven’t read the last one.  The one he didn’t publish.  I guess I’ll have to now.  I will never accept the ending I’ve read about.  I want to believe he didn’t either. But maybe it’ll look different when I get there.

Patricia Highsmith:

She’s not likable.  That doesn’t mean you can’t love her.  My significant other, a gentle soul, goes nuts over everything she writes.  I see the value in all of it, but at times it does seem a chore, slogging your way through her densely worded over-analytic prose, her needlessly repetitive plotting, to the nigh-inevitable downfall. And the evil mothers. Oy, so many evil mothers. Being a misogynistic lesbian must have been very painful. But of such dichotomies is great literature often born.

As a devotee of the Parker novels, I’m more into the Ripliad, her most optimistic work (probably not the best adjective), and the major point of connection between her and that side of Westlake that was Richard Stark.  That will be my primary focus.  I will, however, devote some time to some non-series novels and to her short stories, a form I suspect she was better at than any of the others on this list.

The thing about Highsmith is–she’s best in small doses, particularly at first.  Like a poison you build up a gradual resistance to.  Perhaps no other writer better exemplified what A.E. Housman wrote about in that section of A Shropshire Lad that begins “Terence this is stupid stuff.”  Though to be sure, she didn’t die that old.  Just a bit younger than Westlake.

As with Thompson, you might want something to leaven the dough.  In her case, that would be The Price of Salt–and perhaps also The Tremor of Forgery. There’s a dog in it.  She’s always a bit gentler with animals.  Which does, in fact, make me love her.

Charles Willeford:

It would take very little time, really, to read his entire body of work.  He didn’t produce that much.  It’s all extremely readable.  The trick is to obtain it.  The Hoke Moseley books are easy to get–maybe too easy.  I admire them, but don’t agree with Westlake that they constitute his best work (if that is in fact what Westlake thought they were).  They’re his most commercial work.  Once you have read them, you’ll recognize what a bizarre thing that is to say.

Cockfighter is e-vailable.  You have to read that, but it can make The Killer Inside Me seem humane.  He is not gentler with animals.  He’s not gentle with anybody.  His favorite among his books, and I’ll tell you why someday.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has no ebook, but isn’t hard to find.  Many think it’s his best–I would neither agree nor argue.  It’s the most perfectly balanced thing he wrote, which isn’t quite the same.   The ideal gift for the art-lover in your life. Tell him/her I recommended it.

His two volume memoirs are e-vailable, and unforgettable, and let’s just call them extra credit.  His metier was fiction.  It was good of him to leave some clues as to what inspired it.

If you can get his short western novel, The Difference (aka The Hombre From Sonora), then do.  The Black Mass of Brother Springer is essential Willeford, and that’s e-vailable (and I yearn to know what my friends who happen to be black would think about it, but I have so few friends of any color–don’t want to scare any of them away).

The Woman Chaser has maybe the worst title of any of his novels (a large statement), but it’s one of his best.  Pick-Up is in the LOA 50’s collection.  That is a problematic book to talk about.  On many levels.  But by all means, pick it up. An early gem, that shows the influence of Goodis, I think.  Willeford also noticed anybody who could write.  And often improved upon them.  Knowing, of course, that nobody would notice he’d done so.

His story collection The Machine In Ward Eleven is a collectible.  I collected it. You don’t have to.  I’m just now reading a collection of stories, articles and poems by him, entitled The Second Half of the Double Feature.  I would rank him higher than Westlake with regards to the short form–not by much.  He also needed more room to run.  But when he got a piece of that ball, he’d knock the stuffings out of it.  The more you read him, the better you know him, but that’s true of anybody worth reading.

With Willeford, all I can really say is, if you’re one of the people I’m hoping to reach with these articles I’m hoping to write, once you start reading him–you’ll keep going.  All the way to his meandering misbegotten monstrosity, The Shark-Infested Custard.  Which gets more socially relevant–and less socially acceptable–with every passing moment.

So maybe a year from now, we can talk.  Or, if you’ve read some of this already, we could talk here.  Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.  Anyway.  I’ve got a present for you guys.  I’m just starting to write it.  It won’t be ready for Christmas, but I’ll try to get it to you by New Year’s.  Many happy returns.


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Review: Dancing Aztecs


Greater New York is in some ways like a house.  Manhattan is the living room, with the TV and the stereo and the good furniture, where guests are entertained.  Brooklyn and Queens are the bedrooms where the family sleeps, and the Bronx is the attic, full of inflammable crap that nobody has any use for.  Staten Island is the backyard, and Long Island is the attached garage, so filled up with paint cans, workbenches, and a motorboat that you can’t get the car in it any more.  Hudson County over in New Jersey is the basement, with the furnace and the freezer and the stacks of old newspapers, and the Jersey swamps are the toilet.  Westchester is the den, with paneling and a fake kerosene lamp, and Connecticut is the guest room, with starched curtains and landscape prints.  The kitchen is way up in Albany, which means the food is always cold by the time it gets to the table, and the formal dining room was torn down by William Zeckendorf and friends back in the early fifties.

Jerry Manelli had spent most of his life in just one corner of this house, and he was only now beginning to realize it.  The last twenty-four hours had been frustrating, but they’d also been interesting, catching his attention as nothing had done for years.  While he’d been moving in the small circle of the family and Inter-Air Forwarding and a succession of Myrnas, the world all around him had been full of strange neighborhoods and even stranger citizens, and if they weren’t people you’d want to be around every day of your life, so what?  They were new experiences, and it had been a long time since Jerry had had any new experiences.

Dancing Aztecs is the only book Donald Westlake published in 1976, the bicentennial year of his nation’s founding.  The last time this had happened was 1964, when his sole contribution to literature was Pity Him Afterwards, which he wrote in eleven days–that it was his only book to come out that year was probably more a matter of publishers’ schedules than him producing less work in that time period.  In 1965, he published The Fugitive Pigeon, one of his biggest sellers ever, and established himself as a comic crime novelist, a niche he created almost from scratch, and then dominated for decades afterwards.

The Fugitive Pigeon is about a young New Yorker living way out in Canarsie, who is forced by circumstances to traverse a large part of the greater New York area (even Staten Island), to try and clear his name before the mob puts a hit on him.  In the process, he learns a lot about his city and himself, finds true love, and accepts adulthood.  It’s a short book, written in the first person, with a lot of fascinating detail built into it, and it’s still a lot of fun to read.  But as I said in my review of it, it isn’t really laugh out loud funny.  And its perspective is fairly limited, since it’s basically a romantic picaresque with a crime angle, and we see the story solely from the protagonist’s point of view.  Also, basically everybody in the book is white.  Even the gangsters seem pretty vanilla.  And there’s a lot of pop cultural references.

Dancing Aztecs is written in the third person omniscient (and this narrator is as about as omniscient as they come).   The first edition from M. Evans & Co. is 374 pages, which was not a record for Westlake–Ex Officio had been much longer.  But unless you count Smoke as a comic novel (that one’s a bit harder to peg), it’s the longest humorous work he ever published, and in its original form was reportedly even longer, with a character we don’t see at all in the published work; an insane Federal agent who was fired twelve years ago, but thinks he’s just in really really deep cover.

It’s hard to sustain a comic plot over a long stretch.  Westlake had a very large story to tell, with a lot of characters, a lot of side-plots, a lot of detail.   He solved this problem by basically making the book into three books; The First Part of the Search, which is the length of one of his usual comic novels (he tells the reader to go to bed after finishing it), then the novella-length Second Part of the Search, and The Third Part of the Search is really a long short story, 73 pages in all.  Each part, you see, gets more focused and intense, as the search begins to narrow, and the once widely-dispersed cast of characters start coming together for the big finish.

It’s not aiming to be a tightly plotted little mousetrap of a book, like the books we know him best for, Parker, Dortmunder, Tobin, the Nephews, etc.   There is a mystery in it, but it’s even less the point of the proceedings than is usually the case with Westlake.  The story is basically a chaotic treasure hunt, with one fairly obvious influence–


But I’d say this was in the mix as well, along with the type of comic theater that inspired it–


That being said, this is first and foremost a reworking of The Fugitive Pigeon, greatly expanding on the basic idea of that book, and employing the vastly superior comic techniques Westlake had mastered in the ensuing decade.

It also has maybe a touch of Comfort Station in it, believe it or not, that tiniest of Westlake novels, a mere parody of Arthur Hailey (I have since reconciled myself to this fact), but in creating a mock-narrative of a handful of mismatching strangers brought together by circumstances in New York City (crossroads of well over seven million private lives in the mid-70’s, not counting commuters), Westlake may have felt like this was worth revisiting in earnest–still comedic, but granting the characters actual human dimensions, and the capacity to learn, to grow.  This book would not be a parody of anything–why let the Arthur Haileys of the world be the only ones to paint grand tableaux?

I’m not just guessing here–Westlake dropped a substantial clue when he had one character walk right by the Bryant Park Comfort Station (closed to the public at that time, but no matter).   He also used the same tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae device to open the book.

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But he refers to quite a few other past comic novels of his as well.  There’s a moment where that same character walks into the same midtown office building where Art Dodge’s greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, from Two Much, is located–the V.S. Goth cab company from Somebody Owes Me Money is there as well.   There’s something called Nebula Musical Attractions, and I don’t know what book that’s from.  But I assume like the others, it’s a book about New York.  Building up to Westlake’s ultimate book about New York.

There are those who think this is the funniest book Westlake ever wrote.  One interviewer called it his masterpiece.  Liking it as much as I do, I can’t go that far.  For my money, it’s still not as funny as the best of the Dortmunders, nor as original and insightful as some of his other works, comic and otherwise–it’s an inspired mess, when you get right down to it.  But it’s a larger more vivid book than most writers could ever claim, and not just in terms of sheer length.  It’s an epic picaresque.  And its hero, you might say, is not a person, but a city.

Time to synopsize?  That’s what I generally do at this point in the review.  Well, how do I put this?

There is too much.  Let me sum up.

The Dancing Aztec Priest is a solid gold statue with emerald eyes.  It is from Descalzo, another of Westlake’s fictional Latin American countries, this one situated over the spine of the Andes (where there were no Aztecs, but somehow Dancing Incas doesn’t have quite the right ring to it).  Some Descalzan ne’er do wells and some equally shady New Yorkers conspire to steal the statue from the state museum and replace it with a souvenir replica, sending the original to New York in a crate that is supposed to contain 16 souvenir replicas, but one will be the genuine item.

The crate will be intercepted at the airport by Jerry Manelli, a young hustler from Queens, who has created a fictitious company called Inter-Air Forwarding.   He pretends to be legitimately picking up various items from JFK Airport, when in fact he’s stealing them, for himself and others.  The airport is so huge and busy, nobody ever notices (this I believe). He doesn’t know what he’s picking up, and he doesn’t care.

But in this case, because of a regrettable oversight regarding the way the letters of the alphabet are pronounced differently in Spanish, he picks up the wrong crate, entirely full of replicas, while the crate with the original and 15 copies goes to a diverse group of people called The Open Sports Committee, as self-awarded prizes for having successfully bugged the city into opening the Stokely Carmichael Memorial Squash Court in a Harlem Park, regardless of the fact that Stokely Carmichael is not dead yet.

This group is straight and gay, black and white, rich and poor, united mainly (not entirely) by their desire to bring squash to Harlem (this multi-cultural devotion to squash I had a harder time believing in, but I’ve heard stranger stories, and so have you).  And having accomplished their goal, they scatter to various parts of the city and points beyond with the statues, one of which is worth over a million dollars to a local museum that will ask no inconvenient questions.

Jerry, picking up on the fact that the people he delivered the crate to are really really unhappy about something, talks to some in-laws of his–Mel Bernstein, who is married to Jerry’s seductive sister Angela, and runs a hustle of his own that sounds a lot like the Scott Meredith Literary Agency on a small scale–and Frank and Floyd McCann, two Irish brothers who are hustlers in the sense of being union workers who don’t actually have to work that much.

They figure out that the real statue was in there.  In discussing this at Mel’s house, they inadvertently alert Wally Hintzlebel, a pool salesman who was just having sex with Mel’s wife Angela (Jerry’s sister) and is hiding in the closet upstairs.  Wally lives with his mother.  He’s never lived anywhere but Long Island, never done anything but other men’s wives.  He wants that money so he can broaden his horizons.  The people who set up the original hustle also understandably want it to pay off for them.  And once they are alerted to what’s going on, so do certain members of the Open Sports Committee, who demand their own cut.   But nobody knows who has the real statue.  And the game is afoot, Watson.

Most of the book is these disparate groups racing around desperately, breaking plaster statues right and left, trying to find the gold one.  Their problem is that because of the unusual diversity of the Open Sports Committee, the searchers are going to have to venture into places they are not familiar with, interact with types of people they have no real experience with.  You’d think New Yorkers would be used to anything, but in reality, as our all-seeing narrator informs us–

Almost nobody lives in New York, and that’s especially true of those born there.  They live in neighborhoods, the way small-town people live in small towns, and they very rarely leave their own districts.  The average citizen of Ozone Park, say, in Queens, has probably never in his life been to the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and why should he?  It’s just another neighborhood, exactly like his own, with churches and stores and movies and schools, and with nothing in particular to attract the interest of outsiders.  And though most citizens of both Ozone Park and Midwood are likely to have been to Manhattan–because they work there, or they’ve had an occasional special night out–they don’t really think of Manhattan as being part of their hometown.  “I’m going to the city,” say the people in the outer boroughs.

(I used to say that all the time when I lived in The Bronx, and this was after I’d lived in Manhattan first.  Well, when Londoners say ‘The City’ they just mean an area of about a square mile where a bit over 7,000 people actually live–we’re not that bad, anyway).

How many people are there who really know New York?  All five boroughs.  Who have visited each and every neighborhood–not necessarily walked every block, but could find it if they wanted, without referring to a map or asking directions?   I’m far from convinced any such person has ever existed, at least not in the past century (I’m sure there were lots of people who had a strong working knowledge of Old New Amsterdam).   I think there’s probably not a person in this city, native-born citizen or immigrant, who could make that claim.  But what a claim to be able to make.  Even Eustace Tilly might be impressed by such a person.

There’s not a part of this city you can’t reach by train or by bus.   I’ve been to many of them, probably more than the average New Yorker.  And whenever I get to a new place, I end up thinking “I can’t believe this was always here, and I never knew about it.”  And if I said that maybe ten thousand times, I’d be getting somewhere.   But I seriously doubt I’ll live that long.

I really do not want to synopsize the plot of this book, because the fact is, it just doesn’t pay.  It would take too long, because the story keeps going around and around in ever-tightening circles.  The plot, the characters, the premise itself, are all MacGuffins.  The real point of the enterprise is to give us a tour of Greater New York, and a highly philosophical overview of same.  And to suggest that people are nutty when it comes to money and sex; hardly an original observation, but I’d call this a fairly original presentation.

Usually, when I review one of Westlake’s books, I do a thorough synopsis, because it’s just such a pleasure to walk through the story again, and doing so brings certain aspects of the book into greater focus.  Here, it simply makes my head spin.  The comings and goings, and goings right after comings (I’m talking about sex here), and enough already.  What items of particular interest may be found within this maelstrom of human activity?

Item One: The Race Thing

I’d say nearly half the people in this book are not white.  The major protagonists all are, but because the POV of the book is constantly shifting, we get a large number of chapters written from the perspective of African Americans and Latinos.  The chapters dealing with black people are written more or less in the style of Chester Himes, with a wily funeral home director named F. Xavier White filling in for H. Exodus Clay–Westlake’s not even trying to hide the influence here (he thought Himes was just about the best thing that ever happened to the mystery genre after Hammett, and he was probably right about that).

However, some of the chapters in Harlem are written in broad ghetto dialect–something Himes’ omniscient narrator never stooped to in those Harlem Detective novels, which were dialect-heavy for sure, but never in the third-person, and never half as broad as here.  Somehow, the all-seeing narrator in this book can turn into a black man when he’s looking down on Harlem.   Who is the joke supposed to be on here?  Is this even in remotely good taste?  You tell me.  This passage is about a jazz band on a truck in a funeral procession given in honor of a slain gangster from Down South (paid for by the dude who slew him).

Now this band playing, and what they playing, it funeral music.  Jazz funeral music.  Very low, but syncopated.  Lots a looooonnng looowwww trombone notes, full a growl.  Lots a piano left hand.  The clarinet, it tootle and teetle, but it don’t make no fuss about it, and even when the trumpet, it stride, it stride soft.  Same as the bass, it walk slow and stately, it go bum dum bum dum bum, like a fat man carrying a crown on a little red pillow.

(Later on, coming back from the cemetery, this band gone wail.  Then you gone hear something.  You gone hear that trombone waa-do-du-deedle-du-do, and that trumpet climb up la-bat-da-badda-bah, and that clarinet skeetlee-dee-titty-dee, and them drums fa-bot-ba-ba-boo-budeh-bah, and that bass go thun-thun-tha-thun-thun, and that piano triple-skipple-dipple-whipple-fipple-ripple-roo.   You gone see that piano player smile under that bowler hat, and that trumpet man’s eyes, they gone pop right out he head, and that trombone man’s glasses, they gone steam up like in a Turkish bath.  Because this is the idea, on the way the cemetery you got to think about him what dead, so you can play the long slow music with the heavy walking beat.  But on the way back from the cemetery, it time to think about the living, it time to come up out your sadness, come up to happiness again.  At least that’s what them handkerchief-heads from Down South, them Dundershaft relatives, that what they think.)

It was hard work just to type that out from the book, and I can only imagine how much long loving labor Westlake lavished on writing it up from scratch.  I know he means no disrespect–quite the opposite, jazz freak that he is–and Faulkner gets away with worse in his novels–but he’s Faulkner, and Twain is Twain, and they grew up in the country this language comes from.  I guess sometimes it’s just hard to know where the line is, so just pretend it isn’t there, that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we can like the way different people talk differently, and be grateful for it, and it’s not like anybody’s wearing blackface.  But he’s still cutting it pretty close here in these chapters.  And I don’t for one minute believe he didn’t know that, but since the critics never take him seriously anyhow, and there’s never going to be a movie version, what’s the harm?

F. Xavier White has a fat jealous wife named (I kid you not) Maleficent, and she’d blend into any Tyler Perry movie ever made like she was written for it.   And she comes across as a total caricature–until she gets her own chapter, and she’s feeling so sad and lonely, and all of a sudden you feel this wave of sympathy and love for her, and because the two Irishmen (I’ll get to them) break into the funeral home to try and find the statue, and scare the living daylights out of her, she is dissuaded from committing suicide (thinking she’s had a vision), and decides to become a better person.  So does the compassion make up for the caricature?  The sympathy for the superstition?  I dunno.

There’s a black ganglord named Mr. Jeremiah “Bad Death” Jonesburg, and one gets the feeling Westlake likes him much better than any of his white ganglords.  And maybe takes him a bit less seriously than the ones in the Stark novels, but this is not a serious book, is it?

He’s the Man, the Main Man from 96th to 155th, east side and west.  Them Italians downtown shake when they hear the name Bad Death, because he’s the one run them out, run them right out of Harlem and the whole patch.  He’s the meanest the baddest, the biggest, the toughest, the coolest and the hottest son of a bitch ever to hit the street.  Where he walks tombstones grow, and where he sits the sun never shines.  His bed is made of politician’s bones, and for lunch he eats policemen’s orphaned children.  He wears Datsuns when he roller-skates, and his toilet seat is lined with pussy fur.  His hand can crumble bricks, and his piss cuts through solid steel.  He stacks his women three at a time like cordwood, and makes love to them all at once.  The Queen of England irons his shirts, and his Cadillac runs on Dago blood.  When he’s angry bullets melt, and when he smiles trees die.  He’s so mean he can’t look in a mirror, for fear he’ll annoy himself.  When he speaks transistor radios give up the ghost, and when he farts entire neighborhoods turn into deserts.  He is the Man, and nobody forgets it.

Rap music was already a thing when Westlake wrote this, but I doubt he’d listened to any at the time–he’s drawing on the older oral and literary traditions that spawned rap, and on Himes again (except Himes was never much impressed by ganglords, and most of the time neither was Westlake).  Frankly, I doubt there’d be a New Orleans style jazz band in a funeral procession in Harlem in the mid-70’s, but that’s quibbling.  Himes’ Harlem wasn’t exactly up-to-date either, seeing as he was writing it as an exile in France.

So Bad Death is the Man, and it’s impossible to scare him, but he’s tickled pink when Frank and Floyd show up at the Funeral Home, and Frank, in a burst of inspiration, cons him into thinking they’re government agents armed with guns cunningly disguised as pencil flashlights. Bad Death is so delighted that Washington is taking an interest in him that he lets them go.  Now even the Feds know he’s the Man.

Not all the black characters are in Harlem.  There’s a level-headed domestic named Mandy Addleford who works for an actress on Broadway, who Frank and Floyd have to kidnap to keep her from spilling the beans (Frank works on Broadway too, and she recognizes him), and she ends up becoming an integral part of Mel and Angela’s household–part of the family, even.

There’s a beautiful (we’re talking Beyonce-level) school teacher named Felicity Tower, still a virgin in her early 30’s, desperately wanting to stop being one, and not having the foggiest notion how.  There’s a hulking ill-tempered football player named Wylie Cheshire, who Mel assumes is white, because he lives in a mainly white suburb, and it’s such a genteel-sounding name.  There’s two good-natured street urchins named Buhbuh and Leroy, who don’t have much to do except sit and watch the craziness unfold around them.  What links all these people together?   They all got statues.   And they’re all New Yorkers.  And that, to this book, is a vastly more important detail than skin pigmentation, or speech patterns.

The most important black character is Oscar Russell Green, who led the Open Sports Committee to victory over The System, and then retires to his high-rise apartment in Harlem to get drunk, as he does on rare occasions, just to blow off steam.  And then he realizes there’s these two Irishmen burglarizing his place.  We’ll get back to that.  Oscar seems to me to be a character who needed a bit more narrative time, and maybe he had it in the longer version of the novel.  Westlake had an unfortunate tendency to create black characters with a lot of potential and then not do much of anything with them, and again I wonder if that one black character in Comfort Station who couldn’t quite find his way into the main narrative was aimed at Westlake’s deficiencies as a writer as much as Hailey’s.  The best writers know their limitations better than anyone.

But the Latinos in the story have no statues (even the ones who originally stole the original statue).   That part of the story relates mainly to Pedro, a peasant-type from Descalzo, who was forced to participate in the art-theft hustle, then forced to hijack a plane to New York (to avoid the consequences of the art-theft hustle, which would involve being hung by the tongue until dead), and then avoids the consequences of said hijacking by virtue of people just forgetting he’s there, and then he wanders around JFK until a sympathetic fellow Latin (probably Puerto Rican, we’re never told, and it doesn’t matter) who works there takes him home to meet the family, believing him to be a political refugee (which is sort of true).  And Pedro thus becomes the newest of New Yorkers, without even trying, and things turn out rather well for him, and at the end he still has no idea what’s going on, but it sure beats hanging by your tongue in Descalzo.

Pedro is basically our back-door into what Westlake recognized as a growing network of Spanish-speaking New Yorkers who were forming their own society within the city (comprising about a third of the city by the time he wrote this), and he heartily approved.  As we saw in Brothers Keepers, he had a very warm regard for Latinos in general, felt like they had as much of a right to be here as anyone, and that they would in the main be welcome if sometimes chaotic additions to the ever-expanding crazy quilt that is America, even as his own wild Irish ancestors had been.   And it’s kind of sad that four decades later we’re still arguing that point, but not very surprising.  Ethnic stereotypes are durable buggers.  And this brings us to–

Item Two: The Stage Irishmen

Damn, it just occurred to me–Frank McCann, elder brother of Floyd, actually works as a stagehand–on Broadway. Another of Westlake’s patented implicit puns.  Westlake knew very well what he was invoking with those two bumbling bellicose bigoted brothers, and he enjoys every minute of it–they’re a lot of fun.  For him, and for us.

It’s not 100% clear whether Frank and Floyd are Irishmen in the sense of having been born in Ireland and immigrated as young men, or in the sense of just being of Irish stock and not having fully assimilated yet, but that’s neither here nor there.  They are there to remind us that 1)Not all ethnic stereotypes relate to non-white people and 2)Not all ethnic stereotypes are entirely unfair, though the reality is always so much more complex than the stereotype, and all ethnicities have their little quirks (Westlake has fun with a rich inbred WASP here as well, but he’s a mite unsympathetic with that one, as you might expect).

Anyway, the McCanns are big florid-complexioned redheads (rather reminiscent of how Westlake described Ray Kelly’s father and brother in 361–hmm), and much as they’re supposed to be out there looking for the original statue separately, covering more ground, they’re both scared to death of the non-white neighborhoods they’ve been assigned, and being very close, just have a natural inclination to stick together, so they work as a team, going places they’d normally stay the hell away from, dealing with people they’d just as soon leave the hell alone.

“Harlem,” Floyd said, and either through fright or by contrast with his assignment his face had never looked whiter.  “I’ve never been in Harlem in my life!”

“What about me?” his brother Frank demanded.  “I get the South Bronx.  That’s worse than Harlem.”

“I can’t do it,” Floyd said.  “That’s all, I just can’t do it.”

“You think you’ve got troubles,” Mel said, “look at my list.  I’m all over the place, I’ve got Long Island and Connecticut and New Jersey, it’ll take me a month.”

Then everybody talked at once, until Jerry shut them all up by banging the pot on the dining room table–“Dents!” yelled Angela, but whether about the pot or the table she didn’t say–and when the bong-bongs had startled everybody into silence Jerry said “We worked out those four bunches together.  Nobody complained ahead of time, so nobody should complain now.”

“I can’t go to Harlem,” Floyd explained.

Jerry was unsympathetic.  “You want to drop out?  If you want, you go home now and you don’t get a split and no questions asked.”

Floyd stood there blinking, stuck between the rock and the hard place, and his older brother Frank clapped him on the back, saying “You can do it, Floyd.  Any good Irishman is worth ten niggers.”

“There’s more than ten niggers in Harlem,” Floyd said.

The classic Stage Irishman is a mixture of braggadocio and cowardice, cunning and credulity–Amos & Andy would have worked just as well with Irishmen, back in the day.    And just as with black stage stereotypes (and present-day entertainments as well, I already mentioned Tyler Perry, and he’s just part of a very long line), you had the objects of the mockery themselves contributing mightily to the mix (because poor people always love to laugh at themselves, as long as they get some say in how it’s done, and a chance to get a bit of their own back in return).

Any of you ever hear tell of a lad named Ned Harrigan?   I will bet you a week’s salary Westlake had.  In many ways, this novel reads like a late 20th century take on what Harrigan was doing on the New York stage in the late 19th century.  And just like in those plays, the Irish have beefs with everybody–Frank and Floyd are still bitter about their assignment, and wondering if they got screwed over somehow when it came to dividing up the territories–

“But us micks got it again,” Floyd said.  “Every damn time.  I’ll tell you something, Frank.  There’s times you can get ahead of a guinea, and there may even be times you can get ahead of a sheeny, but there isn’t an Irishman born that can get ahead of guineas and sheenies working together.”

“A million dollars is still a million dollars,” Frank said.

So that being unquestionably the case, they cover their territory, and in the process of doing so they–

  • Burglarize a very large black man’s apartment in Harlem.
  • Terrorize poor Felicity Tower, who thinks they’ve come to rape her (and is mainly relieved when they don’t, but still doesn’t know what to do about the virginity thing).
  • Abduct an older and wiser black woman who recognizes Frank, taking her to the wilds of Queens, from whence she never returns (because she finds a better job there, as already mentioned).

And never once do they perceive any ironic reversal of dramatic expectations in any of that.  Not even when Floyd, seeing Oscar Russell Green (who is drunk as a skunk by that time, but still a large black man in Harlem), shouts in mortal terror, “F-f-f-feet do your stuff!”  But really it’s not a reversal–it’s just an intentional anachronism.  They’re taking back the jobs their ancestors did, before those tasks got assigned to other groups.  Everything old is new again.

And perhaps now is a good time for the intermission.  This is a rather long book.  I’ve got several more items to discuss.  And speaking of old things that never really get old, here’s a song from the aforementioned Mr. Harrigan (and his song-writing partner, a Mr. Brahm (who was Jewish, of course, you think multi-culturalism was invented in the late 20th century?).  Yeah, New York New York is a great old song, and Sinatra does it proud, but to me this is the official Gotham Anthem.  And still, at heart, what this city I’m typing in is all about.

(And Mr. Moloney cleaned up a few of the more offensive racial epithets in the original lyrics, but the spirit of the piece remains the same, as does that of the city that inspired it).

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Dancing Aztecs, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Up Your Banners, Part 2


There is a typical piece of dialogue between Herzen and Louis Blanc, the French socialist (whom he respected greatly), which Herzen quotes, and which shows the kind of levity with which Herzen sometimes expressed his deepest convictions. The conversation is described as taking place in London somewhere in the early 50’s. One day Louis Blanc observed to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society.

‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc]–but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’

‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

‘You are playing with words.’

‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.

From the essay Alexander Herzen, by Isaiah Berlin.

“That school is hell, don’t you understand that? The school and all those people and the television and all, that’s a bad dream, except it’s a kind of bad dream that can hurt people. But this is real, this rotten backyard and that swing. When I kissed you, that was real. The only time you’re real is when you’re doing your own thing, when you’re being absolutely yourself. Society is something somebody made up, it’s a fantasy, and when you start working as a social creature you make yourself part of the fantasy.”

She stared at me. “Do you really believe all that?”

“Definitely,” I said. “Just as I believe the entire universe began with the instant of my birth and the whole damn thing will snuff out at the instant of my death. I believe that people should work for the general good, I really do, but it should never be anything other than secondary. Once you start thinking that humanity is more important than you are, you’ve become the worst kind of traitor in the world, because you’ve betrayed yourself.”

From Up Your Banners, by Donald E. Westlake

This is a truly unique book in the Westlake canon (and I know I say that a lot, but it’s not my fault he wrote so many unique books).  It’s his only book that directly addresses racism, or poverty, or the educational system.  But more importantly, it’s his only book that is devoted almost entirely to a love affair between two people–indeed, one of very few books where his hero meets a girl, has (frequent) sex with her during the course of the plot, and clearly intends to marry her by the end, if she’ll have him.

Actually, this kind of story was featured pretty often in his early ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms to pay the bills, but that’s just him adhering to the conventions of that short-lived genre–a dollop of morality to excuse all the hijinks, so the book doesn’t get labeled as porn–have lots of sex with lots of people, then settle down with The One.

In his books written under his own name (and several others), the sex angle is almost invariably present, romantic subplots abound, but in this one the romance almost perversely insists on being the A-plot.  The story hinges on whether this boy makes it with this girl, making it by far Westlake’s most romantic book ever–and it’s an interracial romance.   At a time when they really weren’t common at all in any fictional medium.   Today, we’re pretty much over it.   But it was still fairly taboo back then.

Eugene O’Neill famously broke that taboo back in the 20’s, with All God’s Chillun Got Wings (people were getting the vapors that Paul Robeson actually touched a white woman’s hand onstage) but that story ended tragically.   The marriage is perfectly legal, no crosses are burned at their doorway, but society’s mores, ingrained at an early age, won’t let this mixed-race couple be happy, any more than society will let Romeo and Juliet be happy, or Othello and Desdemona.

Later on, Chester Himes wrote a novel about a similarly doomed interracial relationship, The End of a Primitive–rendered a bit ironic by the fact that Himes himself made a success of his second marriage to a white woman he met in Paris, a relationship that began in 1959 and lasted until his death in 1984.   But no doubt Himes felt the pull of society just as strongly.

And this book is basically Westlake telling society to go screw itself, and creating two characters with enough mutual attraction, self-understanding and strength of character to pull it off.   It’s nobody’s damn business who loves whom.  An opinion, by the way, that he shared with Malcolm X, at least towards the end of Malcolm’s life.  They would probably have had some heated debates on certain other subjects.

But let’s give Westlake some credit here–he’s not going to write a whole book just to defend interracial love–not in 1968, roughly a year after the Supreme Court had ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Nor is he really that interested in public education, though as a father with young children, he knows it’s important, and that parents should band together to insist their children be properly schooled, and parents from under-served communities most of all.

Very little of the book takes place inside a classroom–contrary to all the best-selling ‘heroic young teacher’ books I mentioned in Part 1, Westlake carefully writes the story in such a way as to make sure his heroic young teacher never works one full day in an actual school in his entire life.  He’s got a big point to make here, one that matters to him a great deal, but it’s neither racial, nor political, nor pedagogical–it’s philosophical.   Mr. Westlake was an individualist above all else, and the target he has in his sights here is collectivism.   Anyway, let’s get back to the book.

Oliver Abbott has shown up for work on the first day of school at Schuyler Colfax, in the fictive Brooklyn nabe of South Romulus, only to find that community activists have mobilized the locals to boycott the school–because he, Oliver Abbott, was hired in preference to a qualified black teacher currently working in a white school nearby.   It takes him a long time to figure this out, though–because everybody and his uncle assumes he already knew about it.

He did not.  His dad never told him.  A variety of journalists from publications ranging from the Times to the Village Voice, all of whom have names that sound to him like ‘Bibble’ (one of Westlake’s beloved running jokes), keep calling to get a comment from him, and hard as he tries, he can’t get any of them to let him know what the story is they’re asking him to comment on.   They already know who Oliver Abbott is (one seemingly far-right publication thinks he’s a hero of the white race), and he can’t seem to convince any of them that he’s been badly misunderstood.

The only one he can convince of this–with some difficulty–is the beautiful and self-assured Leona Roof, a black phys-ed instructor, who is involved in one of the activist groups pushing for local community control (her group is integrated–not looking to push out white teachers who actually want to teach).   Trapped in the school by a raging mob of protesters (waving banners, hence the title), he convinces her to drive him home, which she does so that the police won’t have to crack people’s heads to get him through.

She assumes he’s lying about his innocence at first, but he’s so obviously bewildered and clueless, she finally realizes he’s more worthy of her sympathy than her disdain–and anyway, he makes her laugh.   He also makes her very aware from the start that his interest in her is anything but platonic.   Oliver figures out early on that if he lets Leona friend-zone him, he’ll never get anywhere, so he keeps making passes, which she, being a judo expert, easily deflects–but she’s flattered, all the same.  He’s appealing to some part of her that’s tired of living for everybody but herself.   And she, by contrast, starts making him question his own life choices–or lack thereof.

He only meets two of his home room students (nobody else shows up on the second day of school)–one is Henrietta Clark, a young black woman with a fiercely determined expression, who firmly states that she’s only there because her mother told her she can’t afford the risk of being expelled after the protests die down.   She needs a diploma to go to nursing school, but she thinks that’s the only reason anybody would ever have to go to Schuyler Colfax.  “If it wasn’t for TV and movies and comic books, there wouldn’t be one person in this school knew anything at all.”   Kids never change–just the slang, and the available technology.

The other is James Meegan, a young man with a sort of bobbing walk that Oliver tells us he himself used to practice in front of the mirror when he was younger, because of course the coolest thing in the world to a white kid is black urban culture, and that hasn’t changed either, has it?  James has no family, and supports himself by running an illegal bookmaking operation inside the school–he’s there because he sees no future for himself without an education.  He seems barely literate, and Oliver writes him off as a moron.

Then as both students leave (because all he’s there to do is certify who showed up), he suddenly realizes–James is running a large bookmaking operation all by himself–all those names and figures–he’s got to be really smart!  He runs after him, but it’s too late.  He had a moment there, where he could have reached out, made a connection, and he blew it.

And this is one indication that Leona is right in what she tells Oliver–that he’s not a teacher–he’s been routed into the wrong profession. He lacks the temperament, the instinct for it. “Those who can’t do, teach” may be correct in the sense that a lot of rather unimpressive people end up in the teaching profession–but the fact is, being smart and capable, in and of itself, doesn’t make you a good teacher.  Oliver has taken the path of least resistance, laid down for him by his father (who for all his flaws is a good administrator, and probably a good teacher in his day).   But this isn’t who he is.

Oliver is what you might call a belatedly reliable narrator.  He keeps jumping to conclusions about the people he meets, black and white, just as they do about him, and he keeps realizing after the fact that he’s misjudged them, or at least that they’re more complex than he’d given them credit for being–he constantly gets it wrong, but he never stops trying to get it right–his good instincts are constantly thwarted by his social programming.  And this is basically the human experience, isn’t it?   We have prejudices for a reason–they save us a lot of hard work.   And that will probably never change.   But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting it.

The school is shut down entirely, until some kind of compromise can be hammered out between the various groups.  And over the next week or so, temporarily liberated from adult responsibility, Oliver and Leona start going to the beach together–she wears a yellow two piece bathing suit (her favorite color), and he loves seeing her in it–but when he ogles a blonde in a bikini, Leona is hurt and offended–only to have Oliver point out that she was looking at a young black man whose physique puts Oliver’s to shame.  The revelation of their mutual insecurity somehow brings them closer.

What’s going on between them started out as curiosity, but it’s evolving into something more–frankly, if they were both working at the school, the speed at which their relationship develops would be impossible (the entire story unfolds over maybe three weeks).   Westlake has deliberately put them into a sort of speed-dating mode–so they can learn more about each other in a week than many couples do in years.

Wanting Oliver to learn more about the young people he’d be teaching–and about himself–Leona manipulates  him into teaching some classes held at a local church, thrown together as an emergency measure by community groups and teachers, so Schuyler Colfax students who want to go on being educated don’t miss out too much during the strike.

He asks her what if they recognize him as the hated ‘Junior Abbott’–with much amusement, she tells him to wear sunglasses. He ends up organizing them to do a live reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus–because that’s one of the few things they have enough copies of to go around–the events of the play, and the enthused reaction of his students to it are, to say the least, unsettling for him–well, the Bard does speak to all generations. I feel this scene merits an extended quotation.

I lowered my eyes to the book. “Act one. Scene one,” I read aloud. “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

Silence. Nobody said a word. I didn’t dare look up. I jut sat there and stared at that one sentence while a fog of paranoia crept over me on little cat feet. Or were those little cat feet not the fog?

“Oh, yeah!” somebody cried. “It’s me, I forgot.” He cleared his throat and began to read, and once again I will not attempt to reconstruct the dialect, but will stick with Shakespeare’s spelling:

FIRST CITIZEN: Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.

ALL: Speak! Speak! Lay it on us, Daddy! Tell it, man! Give us the word, baby!

I raised my head and looked at them, and gradually they settled down once more. My First Citizen gave me a pained look, as though to say that he and I were the only mature adults in the room. I nodded at him, and he went on.

FIRST CITIZEN: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?

ALL: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!

ONE SMART ALECK: You bet your ass, baby!

It’s tough to glare through sunglasses–if the sun can’t, how can we expect people to? Nevertheless, I tried.

FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.

ALL: We know’t, we know’t.

SECOND CITIZEN: You mean Junior Abbott, don’t you, baby?

ALL: You know it, you know it!

I lowered my eyes to the book, I shielded my face with my hand.

FIRST CITIZEN (with gusto): Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?

ALL: No more talking on’t! Let it be done! Away, away!

Away, away. Would I ever get to say exeunt omnes?

But he sticks with the class over the coming week or so–who fail to recognize him, and of course these are the students who chose to go to school when they didn’t have to, so really unlikely they’d have done him any harm–sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But in spite of everything, he can’t help liking them.  And they’re fine with him–not knowing who he is.  But that can’t possibly last.

He comes home one day, and there’s a protest rally–banners and all–marching outside his house!  And they’re all holding glasses of cold lemonade–where’d those come from?  He goes inside, and finds his mother with the leader of the protest, Mrs. Letitia Quernik–squeezing lemons!   Well, you can’t expect people to march in the blazing September sun without refreshment, right?

The situation he’s in keeps getting more and more insane, but he has to keep updating his opinions on it every other minute.  Mrs. Quernik is maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer–neither is his mom–but they each have something to contribute to his understanding of what’s going on.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  And at the end of the day, people of similar temperaments understand each other, no matter how society tries to divide them.

Next, Leona drags him to a meeting at a small black church, where a variety of factions (including the small integrated activist group she’s a part of) are going to discuss strategy and objectives–and it quickly becomes clear the black community is far from monolithic on this issue–and very passionate about it.   And like people of all races who are passionate but not necessarily well-informed, they fall prey to a con man–one Prescott Wade Sinclair (“Pres” for short, and I can’t believe a jazz fan like Westlake gave him the same nickname as Lester Young), the tall thin sardonically grinning fellow with the Lucifer-beard, who told Oliver’s home room school was out.

Playing on racial divisions, mocking anyone of either race who wants real dialogue, he quickly fixes things so that his group–which just wants social chaos, so, you know, the revolution can come–is in control of the process.   Most of the people just want compromise, will settle for incremental change, but that always sounds so weak–whether you’re on the left or the right.   It’s much more fun to be extreme, and Pres is having the time of his life.   Leona is disgusted–but it’s starting to be noticed how close she and Oliver are becoming, and it’s compromising her position in the movement.

Things are now very serious between her and Oliver–who she starts calling “Matt”, because he’s always wished his name was Matthew–and one night they go out to the then-deserted beach, and make love.   Actual sex scenes are rare in Westlake’s books that aren’t about sex (he usually cuts over to the post-coital scene), and this one has a lyric quality you’d almost associate with Hemingway–

There was no stopping this time, and no hurry.  And no surprises.  Only the slow rhythm of the surf to guide us, and everything else already familiar and known, as though this was where we had been for a thousand years and we’d only forgotten for one brief hour.

While we were still joined she whispered in my ear, “It’s so hard to trust you.”

“I love you,” I whispered, having no idea whether it was true or not, whether she could trust me or not, whether I could trust her or not, whether I could trust myself or not.  “I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing else exists.”

She sighed, and her body relaxed into new softnesses, and I realized belatedly she’d been controlling herself against me, reining in, not wanting to let go and be vulnerable.  And now she had, and my immediate fear of the responsibility she was thrusting on me was smothered in the luxuriousness of her unfettered self, and for a while we couldn’t hear the surf at all, and when at last we could hear it again, it was a lullaby.

And then it all starts to unravel.  They both start getting threatening calls–from black men, there’s no Ku Klux Klan in Brooklyn, though an agitated Oliver snaps at one caller that he’ll sic the Klan on him–just looking for a way to hit back.

As the black community sees it, Oliver has trespassed where he is not welcome, and Leona is betraying her people. As Jacob Abbott’s son, him dating her is a bit too much like the young master having his sport. Never occurs to anyone this affair might be serious–and neither of the lovers is 100% sure it is, yet.

If he weren’t a symbol for every crappy thing that the establishment ever did to black people, and she weren’t a public spokesperson for the movement to give the community more control over how its children are educated, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  Leona’s female roommates all think Oliver is okay–but that’s because they’ve met him.  He’s going to learn now just how much it sucks when people prejudge you on the basis of things you can’t help.   When your skin tells them all they think they need to know about you.

Then Oliver’s parents start to talk to him, and that’s much much worse–his mother seems to have no racial prejudices to speak of–she wants everybody to get along–but she’s upset that her new friend Letitia is angry about Oliver and Leona being together.  She’s also worried her husband’s career will be ruined–a very real possibility.

His father, who in spite of their many differences, Oliver respects the hell out of–well, he’s a disappointment.   A lot of us have experienced that kind of disappointment, haven’t we?  Oliver finds out that even though his father genuinely wants to do right by the minority kids he’s responsible for, he believes he has to keep tight control over the school in order for it to receive major funding from a private foundation.

And he has very limited expectations of his pupils–Leona has it right again–the elder Abbott doesn’t believe black children are teachable.  They aren’t a fire to be lit or a slate to be written upon–they’re a problem to be controlled.  He makes a lot of very nasty sexual assumptions about Leona (never occurs to him his son might have been the pursuer), and you can imagine how well that goes over with Oliver.   But there’s worse coming.

Oliver’s car is stripped and burned by black kids–he and Leona get into a fight with another group–and then Oliver comes home one night and finds a group of white kids trying to burn a cross on the lawn of his family home.  The tension between the communities is getting out of control, and he and Leona have somehow ended up at the center of it.

Oliver shows up at Leona’s house and finds what I think in modern terms we’d call an ‘intervention’–a contingent of black people who know and work with Leona, bearing a ‘Dear Oliver’ note from her–she’s breaking it off.   She’s been made to understand that anger over their relationship is making negotiations impossible–so she’s choosing the common good over what she personally wants.   Oliver takes this the way any young man in love would take it.   He refuses to believe she wrote the letter–but he can see that she did sign it.

He hangs around the house for the better part of a day, hoping she’ll come back–then he walks home through the South Romulus slums, wishing to hell he’d come across some Nation of Islam organizer handing out “White Man is the Devil” pamphlets, so he could start a fight.  He just badly needs to strike out at somebody–but the enemy isn’t any one person, black or white.   The enemy is group-thought.  How do you fight that?   He tells his parents it’s over, sees their relief–and then proceeds to get drunk, and stay drunk for some days.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oliver is the hero of this book, but a decidedly flawed one–his quest is for self-actualization, not social justice–and Westlake wants us to know that the poison of racism is very much alive in him.  In his anger over being jilted, he calls Leona every name in the book inside his head–yes, including that one.  He feels betrayed, even though he knows on some level she wasn’t being given any choice.   He doesn’t want to hear any Humphrey Bogart speech from Casablanca.  The problems of two little people mean a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans to him–as they should to everyone.

How did E.M. Forster put it–“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”   But suppose your country is more than just some state structure–suppose it’s a group of people who have fought and bled and died for equal citizenship, over hundreds of years?   How then, Mr. Forster?

Oliver sobers up, and goes to a meeting in midtown Manhattan with his father (who has been atypically considerate and downright apologetic to his son, who he can see is in mortal pain).   The meeting is at one of those little surviving brownstone townhouses in an area full of big glass office towers, which invariably signify enormous wealth and power.  They’re meeting with the men who have promised a big financial grant to Schuyler Colfax, and who have been wondering if their money should be invested elsewhere.  Oliver is there with his father to reassure them that this unpleasantness is coming to an end.

Westlake’s deep-seated hostility and outright contempt for the very wealthy is on full display here.   Oliver sees his father walking a fine line between begging for money and maintaining his self-respect.  He’s little more than a trusted servant in this company–the actual servants are all black, of course.   Phantoms, flitting in and out with trays of refreshments.   They get no lines.  Nobody worries about what they might overhear.

What we overhear from this assemblage of social pillars (only one of whom, Mr. Butler, is from the south) is basically warmed-over Thomas Carlyle.  Westlake did not preface this novel with that lovely little bit of vintage racism from him just to offend people.   Again, I feel a lengthy quotation is called for.   This is an unusually clear political statement from a man who generally avoided them in his fiction.  And I suspect few of his more conservative readers (or, for that matter, the liberal ones) have ever seen it.

Mr. Duncan, the corporation lawyer, said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.  I judge every man on the basis of his ability as a man, and I always have, and I always will.  Many of these people have a great deal of natural ability, singers, for instance, athletes.  I want to make it absolutely clear that for my part I do not believe in denying any man the right to fulfill his own abilities to the best of his, uh. But if any of these people prefer to stay in their own areas, I believe they have the right to decide that for themselves.  I don’t want to push any man into any situation that he knows or believes himself not to be ready for.”

Mr. Whitney said, “It is a question of education, of course, education and diet.  Members of minority groups aren’t inherently unable to compete on an equal basis, but they do have two strikes against them. Fourth-rate education, for one thing, the very problem we’re here to try to do something about.  And diet.  I don’t know if you gentlemen are aware of the neurological studies that have been made on the effect of low-protein diet in the formative years, but a great deal of the answer to the problem of minorities lies right there.  And it is up to us, to the affluent, to make it possible for these people, or if not this generation then at least the next generation, to upgrade themselves to the point where they can participate, where they can be accepted on equal terms.  You might say it’s the affluent man’s burden, and I’m sure we all shoulder it gladly.”

General Winterhilff said, “Of course we do.  And our experience in the military is that these people can be trained, they can even be placed in positions of responsibility.  Give a man the proper incentive, don’t push him along too fast, and he won’t let you down.  And we didn’t do it by bringing them all along to the Officers’ Club, I assure you.  I shudder to think what that would have done for morale on both sides.”

“My point exactly,” Mr. Butler said softly.  “In any social situation where one side is uncomfortable and feels out of place, you can usually be sure the other side is just as troubled.”

“I’ve certainly seen that to be true,” Mr. Duncan said.  He wore an earnest face as though he’d just bought it at Lord & Taylor.  “Now, the golf club I belong to in Maryland integrated recently, and I want to make it perfectly clear I am absolutely in favor of integration in principle, but our colored member is not at all comfortable at that club, and everyone knows it.  I suppose he feels he has to prove a point, and I respect his position, but there are times when it seems to me he’s putting himself to a great deal of trouble for very little gain.”  He chuckled, not as though anything were funny but as though some counting machine in his head had told him it was time to chuckle now, and said “With the condition of the greens the last few years, I’ve been expecting members to be fighting their way out, not in.”

Mr. Butler said, “Fred, that’s exactly the point.  That man isn’t gaining anything, and deep down inside he knows it, but he feels he has to make a gesture.  Too many of these people have been convinced they’re somehow missing something by not being allowed on those shaggy greens of yours–” everybody smiled, in comradely fashion–“and the result is embarrassment and inconvenience for everyone.  But I believe it’s a phase, merely a phase, and it will pass away.  In fact, it’s already started to pass, these people are beginning to realize they’re much more comfortable with their own kind.  As in this current school controversy, for instance.”

Then a servant shows up with the coffee, and this spirited exchange of identical views subsides.  And I can’t help but think similar exchanges are going on in similar townhouses, even as I type this.  Maybe they’ve gotten a bit more well-encoded.  Of course, now they’re probably talking about that poor well-intentioned man in the White House.  And perhaps the sorry state of the gardens there.

So it all goes well enough, and the money for the school seems assured, and Oliver, who has been pretty quiet up to now, decides to tell a really disgusting racist joke.  Something about Rastus and the watermelon–he doesn’t want to go into details with us readers about it.  He says it’s some gremlin inside of him–some imp of the perverse that won’t leave him alone.  The money men all laugh politely, but uncomfortably–you don’t say those things out loud anymore, doesn’t this young fellow realize that?  His father asks him afterward why he told the joke–Oliver says “I thought it was funny.”

So with Oliver and Leona broken up, the factions work out a compromise (Oliver can go on teaching at Schuyler Colfax, though he has no intention of actually doing so, because he’s decided he’s not a teacher after all), and the community activists schedule a big meeting at a grand old movie palace in some part of Brooklyn white people just do not go–but Oliver manages to get himself there, because this Candide has decided it’s time to become David Copperfield (no, not the one in Vegas), and be the hero of his own story.  Though the only one he really wants to be a hero to is Leona.  Who he knows will be at the meeting.

He gets up on stage, and he tells the sea of astonished black faces that they were right to fight for their children, that nobody is going to fix the problems in their schools but them, but they’re going about it the wrong way–that the path to a better future doesn’t lie in answering hate with more hate.   Honestly, it’s a good speech, but it does feel a bit like he’s talking to the wrong people.  Not likely anybody there slashed his tires, or made obscene phone calls, or tried to beat him up.

But again, the only one he’s really talking to is Leona–she’s the only person, black or white, who is real to him in that moment, and he’s calling out to her, telling her that she has to be true to herself, and to what he and she have found together, and it’s all very Matthew Arnold.  And she answers him.   And if you want to know how, read the book.

This is the longest novel Westlake had published up to this point, and the most complicated.  It’s been a struggle to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.   The thing is, it’s an easy book to  misunderstand.   I wish I could have found some reviews of it written by black people–it seems to have mainly vanished into the racial foment of the late 60’s/early 70’s with nary a ripple.  I think most people didn’t know what to make of it.

It was more warmly received overseas, I think–there was a brief but  glowing notice in the Times Literary Supplement.   The reviewer (anonymous, as were all the TLS reviewers back then) said “You would hardly think it possible at this stage of the game that an American could write a funny and intelligent and fundamentally loving novel with black-white strife as its background.”  He (or she) seemed confused as to why this ‘novelist of romantico-sociological bent’ (whatever that means) was being put forth as a writer of thrillers.   TLS didn’t review much crime fiction back then, I guess.

It got a much longer and very negative review in the New York Times (not written by Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s champion there), which so badly misses the point, it’s almost laughable–the reviewer–whose name is not Bibble, but one feels somehow it ought to be–indignantly asks how Westlake could possibly not know about what happened in the Brownsville public schools just recently, somehow failing to grasp that the novel is a direct commentary on that battle that divided so many well-intentioned people from each other.   Westlake was saying everybody was to blame there, because they were too busy waving their goddam banners to listen to each other, give each other at least some benefit of the doubt.

And in the process of letting themselves be divided, by the likes of the cynical Preston Wade Sinclair (whose comeuppance is brief but satisfying), they were only making themselves perpetual victims to the people with real power–the Duncans, Whitneys, Winterhilffs, and Butlers.  As we all still are, to some extent.  To a very great extent, actually.

There’s genuine respect in the novel for those Westlake considers the true activists, black and white–the ones who are trying to build something, not just destroy–the ones who bridge the gaps, learn to understand each other, work together.   Leona is one of them, and even though she’s somewhat giving way to Oliver’s more individualistic philosophy, she doesn’t surrender her principles at the end, doesn’t abandon her people–she’s just going to take a break, come down off her pedestal.   She reclaims her sense of self, her right to choose who she loves, a choice without which freedom and equality are quite quite meaningless.

And Oliver, the most serious of the Westlake Nephews, conquers his fears of adulthood and commitment, even as he abandons the life plans his father had made for him.    Because you’re only real when you’re being absolutely yourself.  And being real is all there really is, isn’t it?   The Velveteen Rabbit would certainly say so.  Eh, google it.

Obviously the book in its entirety doesn’t begin to address the black experience, the undeniable facts that made black activism in America necessary then, as it is necessary today.   But there were an awful lot of other books coming out on this subject–Westlake hardly had to say it all himself.   He wasn’t equipped for that, and he knew it.  But you can’t tell me Westlake, a lifelong jazz buff (ie, a worshipper at the altar of African American genius), wasn’t reading the black authors of that general time period–Invisible Man is the supreme novel of identity–I don’t just mean black identity–Westlake must have devoured it hungrily, and understood its points perfectly.   And had a few points of his own to make.

Not long after Westlake finished this book, Chester Himes, a writer Westlake admired very much, started work on the abortive and posthumously published Plan B, the last of his Harlem Detective novels–in which (spoiler alert) he vividly imagines the race war everybody thought was coming back then, and in the process kills off his two greatest creations, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, those great intercessors between black and white America, in a sort of despairing gesture–what hope is there for America, for humanity?   We’ll never work this shit out. Just too far gone to care.

And his despair was understandable–we still feel it, sometimes.   But it was wrong.   He knew that it was.  That, I think, is why he never published the book in his lifetime.   And of course, he lived most of his life as a writer in a loving if troubled relationship with a white woman–in Europe.   Safely away from the fray.   Cultivating his own garden, like Candide.  And suffering from survivor’s guilt.

My favorite work about racial turmoil from this period was written by somebody who really didn’t have a tribe of his own–the novel Chien Blanc (White Dog), from Romain Gary.   In that deeply painful (and only partly factual) account of his and his wife Jean Seberg’s experiences with a German Shepherd conditioned to attack black people on sight, this supremely alienated French Jewish writer (who wasn’t really French, or Jewish, and often didn’t even seem to want to be human), saw us Yanks with objective clarity, like Tocqueville before him–he said the main thing about us is that we can’t ever leave things alone.

We have an image of how we’re supposed to be, an ideal we need to live up to, and no matter how racist we undoubtedly are at times, we simply can’t accept that’s how it will always be.  We keep fighting the conflict, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, trying to resolve it.   In a time where many thought America would tear itself apart, Gary said we’d find some way to fix it, seek some way out of a shared nightmare.   On November 4th 2008, we proved him right–not for the first time, or the last. E. Pluribus Unum. Damn straight.

But see, Gary also made it very clear that the toxins of race hatred linger in our collective bloodstreams, passed from one generation to the next.   George Orwell would agree, and might add that the only way to fight the smelly little bigotries vying for your souls is to recognize them for what they are.   To confess to their existence, and allow for them, because they only get more dangerous when you pretend they aren’t there–that it’s just those other people who have a problem.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a racist–early in the book, Oliver talks to a policeman guarding the school, who talks quite soberly about how black people have thicker skulls than white people–that’s why they’re a bit less smart, but can take a much harder crack on the head.   He says he’s got nothing against the colored.  And neither did the policemen who choked Eric Garner to death, and left him to die in a public sidewalk, for selling loose cigarettes.

And man, this was a long review–my longest yet–took me three weeks to finish, and I broke my self-imposed rule over never letting a single post go over 6,000 words (the long quotes really killed me here), and that’s not including Part 1.   But all in a worthy cause.

And now I really feel the need for something less worthy, more frivolous.   What would you say to two Grofield novels in a row?   Well as it happens, that’s what’s up next in the review queue.   Though I should mention there’s a lot of black people in the second book, one of whom Grofield ends up in bed with, but he ends up in bed with everybody, sooner or later.  So, having set the scene, exeunt omnes. 


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance