Tag Archives: comedy of manners

Review: A Likely Story

As for The Christmas Book, that continues apace.  I have actually received three submissions, one of which I unfortunately had to reject:

      Dear John Irving,

      ‘The Stars Wink,’ your short-short story about a bear whose eyes are put out by feminists on Christmas Eve, is certainly a powerful piece of writing, right up there with the rest of your work, and I for one would be proud indeed to publish it under any circumstances at all.  Unfortunately, I don’t always have final say on these matters, and the feeling at Craig, Harry & Burke was that the date of Christmas Eve in the story was merely happenstantial (apparently typed in later once or twice, in fact), that the story had very little to say about Christmas qua Christmas, and that all in all the tale was rather more depressing than we prefer for the contents of The Christmas Book.  Your suggestion that Tomi Ungerer illustrate your story would be an excellent one were we to publish the story, except that we already have approached Mr. Ungerer to do something rather different and more Yulesque.

Otherwise, Isaac Asimov’s piece about the aerodynamic qualities of Santa’s sleigh, and Andy Rooney’s piece about how there weren’t all these different sized batteries when he was a child, were both slight but puckish, and I was pleased to take them.  That is, I’ve sent them on to Jack Rosenfarb for approval and payment, and have no doubt he’ll accept them.

“How much?” letters have now been received from Russell Baker, William F. Buckley Jr., Truman Capote, Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut, and have been answered.  And this came from Mario Puzo’s secretary.

     “Mr Puzo has asked me to tell you that he is tired of people trying to capitalize on his alleged relationship with the Mafia.  He has not the slightest interest in writing about the Mafia’s view of Christmas, nor if he did have such an interest would he be willing to share his thoughts with you.” 

Well, I just sent him the regular form letter, didn’t I?  I never mentioned the Mafia!   Enraged, I sat at my typewriter and wrote:

     Dear Mr. Puzo:

     Thank you for your prompt response to my query letter concerning The Christmas Book.  If you have nothing at the moment about the Mafia vis-a-vis Christmas, perhaps you’d like to give us a few words on Christmas in Las Vegas (though we do have a shot at Carol Doda on that topic), or maybe even a thinkpiece on the Christmas presents exchanged by Superman and Lois Lane.  Or it could be you have in the trunk something about Easter or the Fourth of July that could be adapted.  Looking forward to your response. 

One of the reasons people are always more complicated than you expect them to be is that they are always sillier than you expect them to be.

The least likely element in the story of A Likely Story is that Donald Westlake ever got to publish this story at all–and in the form of a 248 page novel, to boot.  He’d struck up what would be a mutually beneficial friendship and professional partnership with Otto Penzler, who had started his own publishing house, The Mysterious Press, in 1975, and his own matching bookstore to boot (Westlake helped build the shelves).

But Westlake’s first book for The Mysterious Press had been a collection of six short stories about that mortality-obsessed police detective, Abraham Levine.  The first novel of Westlake’s that Penzler published was under a different imprint, Penzler Books, and this is it.  And it’s hard to see how The Mysterious Press could have handled this one.

This is not a crime novel.  It is not a violent heist story, a comic caper, a criminal picaresque, a police procedural, a spy thriller, a mob melodrama, or a murder mystery–a coffee table book about Christmas gets pretty well slaughtered, but there’s no question about whodunnit.  No person appearing in this book is physically harmed, nothing is stolen (though there is an allegation of theft), no one is kidnapped and held for ransom, and in fact no laws at all are broken (there’s a minor mugging, but it’s offstage and not important).

True, those venerable and little-enforced laws against adultery are repeatedly violated here, but in the main with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, however reluctant–lot of partner-swapping going on (it’s the 80’s, not that you couldn’t find similarly libidinous tales from previous decades, or centuries, or millennia).

Nobody ends up on the run from the law for any crime he didn’t commit.   Nobody even gets amnesia, or comes to a bad end through the vagaries of fortune.   Nary a gun in sight.  Nobody gets so much as a paper cut.

There are no genre elements at all here, whether from mystery, science fiction, fantasy (maybe male fantasies), or westerns.  Though I will say, there are aspects of the pseudo-porn sleaze genre here, much as Westlake despised it–he did have a knack for sex comedies, rarely though he chose to pen them under his own name.  There’s even a brief cameo by Scott Meredith, the suitably sleazy dean of that short-lived publishing niche that gave Westlake his start.

This is as far outside the lines of what was expected of him as a writer that Westlake ever got, and he obviously loved every minute of it.  And re-reading it,  I can’t for the life of me see how anyone wouldn’t. It’s one of his funniest Non-Dortmunder books, and only a few of the Dortmunders could be honestly said to top it.

But to fully appreciate its humor, it may be that you need a certain grounding in the subject matter being spoofed here–referential humor is, by its nature, off-putting to people who don’t have the right frame of reference.   You don’t need to know much about bank robberies or police work to enjoy a comedy about either–in fact, the more you know, the more likely you are to be nit-picking the story, instead of enjoying it.  The subject matter of this book is books; the people who write them, the people who publish them, and in particular the poor schmucks who broker deals between those two opposing camps.  And I don’t know a whole lot about that general subject, but I do know a little.

I worked very briefly in publishing as a young man (jack of all trades….), in the 1980’s, the very period this book is set in.  Paragon House.  Ever heard of it?  No disgrace if you haven’t.  It was and I believe still is owned by the Unification Church.  No, I never saw the good reverend, and I gather all he cared about was that the place turned a profit.

Primarily non-fiction, some solid scholarly stuff mingled in with a lot of new-age nonsense (and the occasional techie book–there was one about how Steve Jobs was an over-hyped has-been whose best days were behind him), and that still seems to be the case, going by their website.   They do have one new offering that seems eerily on-point for this week’s review.

9781557789198

(I’d make the image smaller, but WordPress won’t let me unless I put some other image next to it, and nobody’s volunteering.)

They fired me after a few months.  I have no nostalgic feelings at all about that job, except the receptionist was cute, and it was walking distance from my building.  I also applied to quite a few more respectable houses (and the Scott Meredith Agency, as I’ve already mentioned elsewhere), figuring that somebody who liked books as much as I did might enjoy working in the business that produces them.

In retrospect, I believe the reasoning that lay behind this theory was not entirely sound–just because you like sausages doesn’t mean you’d enjoy working in a factory that makes them–but you have to start somewhere.  I work in a college library now, so all I see is the finished product, and sometimes that just makes the sausage analogy seem even more apropos (Polish or Perish?), but never mind that now.

Where did the idea for this book come from?   First of all, Westlake had just gone through a terrible experience with Viking Press.   He shared some details of that experience in the introduction he wrote years later for the Mysterious Books reprint of Kahawa.

The original publisher of Kahawa, in 1982, was in the midst of an upheaval.  My original editor was let go before publication to be replaced by an oil painting of an editor; pleasant, even comforting to look at, but not much help in the trenches.  The publisher moved by fits and starts–more fits than starts, actually–and though the book received good reviews, no one at the publishing house seemed able to figure out how to suggest that anybody might enjoy reading it.  So it didn’t do well.

Hardly his first bad experience with a publisher (nor his last), but he’d put a lot more time and effort into that novel than was the norm for him, he was proud of it, and it must have been painful–and Westlake was of that temperament that often converts pain into laughter.

Secondly, he was now on his third (and mercifully final) marriage, to a woman with three children from a previous marriage, while he had four sons from two previous marriages, and the second of his prior spouses also had a spouse before him, and let’s just say family life had gotten extremely complicated for him, as it had for many others, and still is today–but it was still enormously important to him.  He even reportedly packed up a great portion of this army of children and ex-spouses and future spouses for an extended European junket, which must have been a memorable experience for all concerned.

He had rarely written about married life; even more rarely had any of his protagonists been married men with children–children were rarely seen in his books, let alone heard.   Somehow this kind of subject matter didn’t fit the hard-boiled literary milieu he was associated with, but it would work fine for a comedy of manners, set in 80’s Manhattan, about a man working in roughly the same profession as himself.

It’s not autobiographical fiction–or a ‘roman a clef’, as it’s sometimes been accused of being–but it is heavily informed by the author’s own personal and professional life, that we’d love to know more about, but those memoirs remain forever unfinished and still mainly unpublished.  You can try to guess which experiences of the protagonist were directly experienced by the author (probably more than a few), but you can’t know for sure, and you don’t really need to.  A likely story is a story, nonetheless.

I would think Westlake read the ‘real-life’ segments of his friend William Goldman’s The Princess Bride with great interest.  Those chapters are no more fact-based than the ones about giants, father-avenging Spaniards, and Miracle Max.  They read like a confession, when they are merely a distraction–a way to make the fantasy segments more rooted in reality.

I’ve theorized that Goldman might have been influenced by Adios Scheherazade, Westlake’s 1970 novel about the ‘sleaze’ publishing industry–one of his few other books with a protagonist who is married and a father.  My theory about Goldman could well be wrong, but it is nothing more than a statement of fact to say that Westlake was using the raw materials of the 1970 book to create this one.

Both are novels written in diary form (something the protagonist of this book says upfront you should never ever do), both are about an abortive book project and its author’s troubled relationship with a publisher, both have the hero agonizing over his relationship with his wife and his daughter.  (He’s got a son as well, but the daughter gets a lot more attention, as does the younger daughter of the protagonist’s girlfriend, who also has a son, who also doesn’t get much attention–methinks Mr. Westlake, much as he loved his boys, rather yearned for a girl).

And both novels have a character named Lance, though the similarity goes no further–doesn’t need to, since it’s only there as a sly acknowledgment of the earlier work, that only his most devoted readers would even notice.  Okay, I’m over two thousand words into this, and if I don’t publish soon, people will think I’ve perished.   Clearly a two-parter.   Let’s get started on the synopsis.

Tom Diskant is a freelance writer who produces mainly non-fiction books and articles.  This is not what he always wanted to do.  He wanted to write fiction, novels, and he did get his first book, a slice of life reminiscence of his idyllic childhood in Vermont, into print– and he thought it was great, and maybe it was, but the publisher didn’t know what to do with it, and it got a very small printing, and his dreams of authorial glory died on the vine, as they so often do.

Truth is, he was working so hard just making a living as a writer, cranking out whatever he could sell (which was mainly nonfiction), he didn’t really have time to come up with any more ideas for a novel–and since his book was drawn entirely from his life–and his life hadn’t been all that interesting–he was out of material.   Without a genre to sustain him or her, provide plot templates he or she can come up with variations on, it’s tough for most writers to come up with a second act, particularly when nobody showed up for the first.

How did Eugene O’Neill put it?  You don’t even have the makings.  You just have the habit.  But for some people out there, the habit can be awfully habitual.  And at least you get to be your own boss–kind of.   Sometimes it isn’t that simple, which is a big part of what this book is about.

So Tom writes whatever there’s a market for, as professionally as he knows how, and this leads to his name appearing on such highly esteemed works as Golf Courses of America, The Ins and Outs of Unemployment Insurance, Hospitals Can Make You Sick, and The Films of Jack Oakie.  Somebody’s got to do it.

Diskant is a real name, that real people actually have.  But it’s also a term in music–spelled with a ‘c’ in English, but a ‘k’ in German–that refers literally to ‘singing in two’–an intended disharmony.   And that’s Tom, whether he knows it or not.  He’s divided against himself–he wants to be creative, to express something real and true–he has that impulse.  He’s not a hack, but he makes his living as one.

And as he goes about his mercenary trade in public, he expresses his inner doubts to us–through a diary he keeps, and this book is composed of about one year of that diary–from one Christmas to the next.  Since as we all know, we think of our lives in this western world of ours as a succession of Christmases–each of which makes us question where we are in life, and what the hell we’re doing with ourselves.

And his professional disharmonies are nothing compared to his personal ones. About a year before this book begins, Tom left his wife Mary, with whom he has an eleven year old daughter Jennifer and a slightly younger son Bryan, both of whom he adores. He used to adore Mary, a very good looking girl and there was nothing wrong with the sex life, but for reasons he has a hard time explaining–but which probably had more to do with his dissatisfaction with his career than with their relationship–he got restless. He felt like she wasn’t taking him seriously enough.

He’d have affairs, more or less to get Mary’s attention, and she’d act like it was no big deal, just a phase he was going through.   Mary is herself a professional photographer, but not a very successful one–like Tom, she feels the need to be creative, even if her temperament is too warm and sympathetic to cast that cold eye on life that an ‘artistic’ photographer needs–but too discerning to just do sentimental schmaltz for calendars and such.  Like Tom, she’s stuck in the middle somewhere, and perhaps that’s why she assumes they’re meant for each other.  Tom is not willing to concede this point.

Not long before he moved out, he took up with Ginger, separated from her husband Lance (I told you there was a Lance), and they live together now, with her two children from her own failed marriage–Ginger, we gather is quite a hot item herself (there is little in the way of physical description in this book, particularly with regards to Tom and the two women in his life–we never even find out what color their hair is, though I guess with Ginger you could make a guess–as you could guess what first name Mr. Diskant would have if this new pairing was going to work out longterm–a fine romance indeed).

So now he’s in this impossible financial situation–he has to support his wife and family–Mary makes very little money as a photographer, and she absolutely refuses to ‘get a fella’, as Ginger keeps putting it, because she is waiting for Tom to come back to her.  But he also has to contribute to the household he’s currently a part of, which the absent Lance is contributing to as well, but Lance has got to contribute to the upkeep of the woman he’s living with now, who also has kids that are not his, and you get the picture.  The 80’s were the decade where the price of the sexual revolution started to express itself in dollars and cents, and the accounting got more creative all the time.

So Tom has a Big Idea–he’s tired of writing stuff he doesn’t believe in–he wants to try being an anthologist–which is to say, somebody who compiles stuff he does believe in, that doesn’t happen to be his.  A different kind of creativity–organizing more creative people along some unifying principle that you came up with.

(I should mention that this is one of the things Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s former editor at Pocket Books, did after his downfall as a novelist brought about by the McCarthy Witch Hunts–he compiled an anthology of short fiction for Doubleday that came out in 1962.  The last significant piece of work he produced in his life, unless you count the Parker novels of ‘Richard Stark,’ that he  played a significant role in fostering, which also began in 1962–Westlake never forgot that debt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moon was one of the people he was thinking about here.)

Tom’s idea is simple–every Christmas, a big publisher has to have a Christmas Book.  That is to say, a book people can give as a Christmas present, which by its nature has to be bigger and fancier (and more expensive) than a normal book, and can be displayed proudly on coffee tables and such.

Okay, suppose this year’s Christmas Book was about Christmas (and was, in fact, entitled The Christmas Book)?  What it means to different people, and particularly what it means to famous writers and artists, who Tom will contact by mail, and solicit from them stories, essays, fact-based articles, and works of art. And he will then compile these contributions into a book, supplemented by a variety of public domain writings and works of art that won’t cost the publisher anything.

He manages to sell this idea to Jack Rosenfarb, an editor at the publishing house of Craig, Harry & Burke–Jack has worked with Tom before, trusts his professionalism, but is dubious about Tom being ready for such an ambitious project, with such a high overhead–still, you’ve got to get that Christmas book ready, and if it’s going to be ready for next Christmas, you need about a year.

So Tom’s chosen his moment well, and with the aid of his elderly, endearingly irascible, and just slightly absent-minded literary agent Annie (who occasionally calls him Tim), he gets a guarantee of a big advance–that he will have to pay the contributors with, keeping what remains for himself and his blended family–but now he’s got to procure the raw material for him to shape.  He starts sending out letters to what seems like a list of every well-known author in the country, as well as numerous artists  (and Roddy McDowell, who when not playing urbanely sarcastic future-chimps, was actually quite a well-regarded photographer ).

This is the most enjoyable part of the book by far–the answers Tom gets from these legendary literary lions (nearly all of which begin with some variation on ‘how much?’).  And Westlake is having entirely too much fun with these much more famous colleagues of his, nailing each one’s style and preoccupations–he’s so wickedly on-target here that he had to put in a disclaimer in the front of the book, saying that he’s not sending up the actual human beings behind these famous names, but merely the public image that has accrued around each–which is true.

But since that image is precisely what makes their work worth more on the open market than some equally good work from some less famous writer or artist, the distinction is, you might say, academic.  When you become famous enough, the line between your true self and your reputed self becomes blurred, a theme Westlake returned to time and again in his fiction.   Westlake himself never got that famous in his life, and I think he alternately regretted and rejoiced over this–that his work, popular though it often was, mainly got to speak for itself, because most people didn’t have a very clear image of him, personally.   He never became a celebrity.  There are no Al Hirschfeld caricatures of him in the New York Times.

That passage I typed up top, describing the John Irving story that Westlake just made up himself–Irving’s obsession with bears has been such an enduring cliche about him–that is amply justified by his actual work–that he just recently spoofed it himself, on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.   Personally, I read The World According to Garp not long after it was published, and that was all the Irving I needed for the rest of my life–but he’s got this enormous media profile, that sells a lot of books–and defines him as a writer.  Love him, hate him, you know he’s into bears, and is really scared of feminists.

And this literary meme has endured over three decades from the time Westlake wrote that passage.  Irving can laugh about it, but he can never escape it. Westlake never got that famous, but he can relate–and subtly suggest that maybe mainstream authors are as constrained by cliches as lowly genre writers like himself.

Not that genre writers are immune from his satiric lash.  Isaac Asimov sends, as you see, a perfectly nice piece in about Santa’s sleigh–the kind of thing he used to produce all the time, when he wasn’t expressing fascinating influential ideas in slightly stilted prose, in the form of science fiction.  So Tom writes back and says the article is accepted.  And Asimov sends him another article, and another, and another–all Christmas-themed, all clearly composed in direct response to Tom’s original solicitation–he can’t stop himself.  Tom has to start sending the pieces back unread.

Asimov was one of the very few well-known writers of the 20th century who could make Donald E. Westlake seem laggardly and slothful in his rate of production.  I suppose this could be seen as a backhanded homage, but I think Westlake’s actual point might have been more along the lines of “If you’d stop vomiting out all this damned extemporanea, you might produce some more good science fiction stories, which is what people really want from you, and is all you’re going to be remembered for anyway.”  And really, there may be somebody out there who has read all of Asimov, but it’s never going to be me.   I’ll take the Foundation Trilogy, The Gods Themselves, the first two Baley/Olivaw detective novels, and the best of his short fiction. The rest will just have to wait for the hereafter, if they have libraries there.

But really, the only point is that we know Asimov through the public perception of him as somebody who never stopped writing, had opinions on every subject imaginable, all of which were disconcertingly well-informed.   You’d almost think the man was some kind of  writing robot–um–he wasn’t, right?   Did he ever allow a human to come to harm?  Never mind.

And then there’s the little dig at Mario Puzo, who wrote one of the great best-sellers of all time–which ate his career.  Nobody could ever think of him as anything other than the Godfather guy from then on.  And he’s understandably peeved, but what did he expect?   That’s the inherent risk to writing a book that gets too big (even though everyone who even imagined writing a novel has dreamed of precisely this happening), and all the bigger because of a hit movie based on it that has basically taken its place in popular culture.

So he takes it out on Tom, who writes that rather nasty rejoinder–then doesn’t send it.   He sends a very polite follow-up letter, explaining the misunderstanding, and hoping that Mr. Puzo can contribute something about his personal relationship with Christmas–which he does, and it’s excellent, and has nothing to do with the Mafia, Las Vegas, or Superman.  Though really, those would all have been worthy Yule-themed topics to address.  Tom is just happy to add another big name to his list.

It gets complicated, dealing with those big egos–Norman Mailer and Truman Capote each send in a piece about Christmas on Death Row.  Tom doesn’t know what to do–they’re just about the same exact length, both extremely powerful and well-written, each quite an individual expression of its respective author’s style and sensibility–what to do?  He wants both of them.   So he writes to them, explaining the problem, and the first thing each of them wants is to read the other’s piece (and perhaps show it to their lawyers).

The compromise arrived at is that the two submissions will be printed together–on alternating pages, Capote on the left, Mailer on the right (alphabetical order), in different fonts, with a little introduction from Tom himself, about how this came to pass, and how it graphically demonstrates the way two such unique literary talents can have such contrasting takes on the same subject, great minds think alike yet differently, etc.  Genius.  Tom’s actually putting together a book worth reading here.   He’s living out his dreams of authorial glory through these glorious authors.  He’s so excited.   But shortly before he gets the Capote and Mailer submissions, his editor quits.

When the editor who bought the book leaves the company before the book is published, the winds blow very cold.  In the trade, such a book is called an “orphan” and the word barely suggests the Dickensian–nay, the Hogarthian–horrors that await such a creature. Who shall defend these pitiful pages?  Who shall raise this tattered banner from the Out basket?  No one.

A new editor is “assigned” to the book, the way homework is assigned to reluctant schoolchildren, and the futility is evident in the word iself.  What commitment has this assigned editor in this book?  None.  How much time and thought will he divert to it from the books he chose for the company to publish?  Guess.

And it turns out the new editor assigned to his book is this rather attractive thirty year old named Vickie, quite tall (I’d cast her as a young Allison Janney in the movie that will never ever be made), who made her reputation by pushing through a book by a retired prostitute about how to lose weight by having lots of sex–and who never stops talking about her terrible relationship with her mother, who never stops talking about how Vickie should be married by now.   And who, as a consequence of this and other personal distractions, is doing precisely nothing to nurture and develop Tom’s book.

So they finally have a big fight over lunch, and feeling apologetic, Tom takes her home, and then he kisses her.  He didn’t plan it, it was spontaneous.  And then she looks at him with this strange expression in her eyes, and says maybe they should just fuck.

He’s got two women in his life already.  Mary may not have been the jealous type, but Ginger more or less defines that type.  She has this way of narrowing her eyes at critical moments that sounds quite frightening.  But Vickie has put herself in the position of offering sex to a colleague who desperately needs her help, and if he refuses, she will be terribly hurt and offended, and all future communication between them shall be rendered impossible.  As he explains it to us, “I just couldn’t be that rude.”  They fuck.

So now Tom Diskant, man of many disharmonious identities, has a wife who wants him back, a mistress who wants him faithful, and an editor/girlfriend who wants him, period.  And if he jilts the girlfriend, he loses the editor, and The Christmas Book shall be twice-orphaned.  And if the wife and mother of his children finds out about this burgeoning harem of his, she’ll lose all respect for him (and that matters to him, much as he wishes it did not).   And if the mistress finds out, he’s dead.  Alas and alack-a-day, what’s an aspiring anthologist to do?

For the answer to that and many more questions, dear reader, please tune in next week (or failing that, the week after), for the next  thrilling installment of The Westlake Review.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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