Tag Archives: Donald Westlake

Review: Comfort Station

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“It is, in every way, a comfort station.  No, it’s sort of like the Oyster Bar — transplanted into a park.  It’s an inspiration for us.  It sets the gold standard for park comfort stations.”

Adrian Benepe, far-seeing New York City Parks Commissioner, quoted in A Resplendent Park Respite, Mosaic Tiles Included, The New York Times, April 4, 2006.

“Look, it’s a just a restroom.”

Daniel A. Biederman, myopic executive director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, quoted in same article.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, situated on the south side of West 42nd Street midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, stands on land once completely under water, back before the turn of the century when this was the Croton Reservoir.  But progress must come, even to reservoirs, and in the first decade of this, our fast-paced twentieth century, busy workmen from all over the civilized world and beyond gathered together, filled with high purpose, to empty the Croton Reservoir and erect on the site of its former standing the new central branch of the New York Public Library, and the leafy landscape called Bryant Park, and last but not least the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, a low granite structure of Greek Revival design, was designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hasting, who threw in plans for the library as well.  Approximately twenty feet square, the building is dominated by a large opaque oval window on its north face, facing West 42nd Street, and by a large rectangular door on the west face, surmounted by the stirring inscription MEN.  A stone filigree makes a tasty design about the upper walls, alternating ivy garlands with cow skulls, evocative of Death Valley: terribly meaningful in the architects’ overall planned impact of visual and tensile impact.

From Comfort Station, by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.

There are times when my deep admiration for Donald E. Westlake, fast-typing author of many a thrilling tale of adventure and intrigue, flags somewhat.  The scales of hero worship fall from my slightly blood-shot eyes, and I see the feet of clay that all we mortals possess, and encase in shoe leather to hide our shame and prevent blistering.

This was never more true when I read his shamelessly self-aggrandizing account of the creation of this magnificent literary edifice we are met here today to commemorate.  Note how he pretends to give someone else (namely his agent, the far-seeing Henry Morrison) the credit, while actually taking it for himself.  The shameless cad.

Henry Morrison was absolutely responsible on that one.  Because we were at dinner, and I said, “You know what would be funny?”  At that point I had never read Arthur Hailey at all.  I said, “You know what would be funny?  An Arthur Hailey book called Comfort Station, set at the men’s room in Bryant Park.  Crossroads of a million private lives.  Henry thought that was a terrific idea and went in the next day and drove his secretary crazy because he had her do a presentation letter on toilet paper.  Which he then sent in to Elaine Geiger Koster and Nina Finkelstein at Signet.  They took it into a sales meeting, and they all fell in love with the idea of a presentation letter written on toilet paper.  So about three weeks later, Henry called me and said, “I sold the book.”  I said, “You sold what book?”

Oh come now, Mr. Westlake.  Surely you can do better than that, if you wish to steal the credit for a great man’s brainchild, let alone such a man as the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Whose style clearly influenced you, since you kept repeating yourself all through that paragraph.  I suppose there might have been another influence in that regard–

The result was, I had to go read Arthur Hailey.  I read The Final Diagnosis–in paperback, that’s three hundred pages.  Hotel was four hundred pages, just almost perfectly, and Airport was five hundred pages.  He’s really a bad writer–really slipshod and slapdash–but it turned out I could read him as one twelve-hundred-page novel.  I’d read thirty pages of Final Diagnosis, forty pages of Hotel, and fifty pages of Airport, and go back.

Little is known about the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham (we don’t even know what the ‘J’ stands for, though I suspect the answer may yet be found in the New Testament).  My coveted first edition paperback (the hardcover has yet to materialize on ebay) does contain tantalizing references to earlier works of his–

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CarportHot ShaftWaiting RoomBig Liner.   No doubt epic tales of man’s ingenuity and ambition striving against the forces of chaos and disorder, not to mention churlish book reviewers who think they’re so damn smart.  Strangely, no trace of these books can I find in the libraries of the world, or on ebay (crossroads of a million private lives).  They don’t even appear in the electronic version of this book we are examining here today, but merely reading the descriptions, we can imagine the vast stirring tableaus they portrayed, apparently with Henry Kissinger (far-seeing escort to Playboy Bunnies, who dabbled in diplomacy at odd moments) perpetually lurking in the background.  Perhaps Henry would have copies?   No doubt inscribed.

It is surprisingly hard to lay hands on a physical copy of even this, presumably the greatest and best-selling of the vibrant Mr. Cunningham’s novels, which we’re told ran to at least ten printings–

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Strangely, no dates appending to the later printings are given, so presumably they were all printed in 1973?  Massive demand.  So why were there no later print editions, perhaps some of them illustrated by Darwyn Cooke?  It would certainly be a fine joke on the far-seeing ebay seller I got this from if he lowered the price on what is often a cripplingly expensive item to obtain, thinking this was a tenth printing, when in fact it was just a metatextual joke being played by the author and publisher, and the book only had one modest print run.   Apologies, my whimsical muse does like to run free at times.   As did that of whoever wrote the author bio, unless of course Cunningham actually was the progeny of two characters from Terry and the Pirates, which would certainly be noteworthy.   Personally, I never thought Dragon Lady was the marrying kind, but no matter.

Aside from Westlake’s glowing blurb on the cover (clearly you did wish you’d written this book, Mr. Westlake, having stolen the credit for it years later, don’t think we’re forgetting that), there were other breathless critical notices reproduced on the inner flyleaf, perhaps slightly edited for space considerations–

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As for the rest,  you can read all that in the ebook version, from the far-seeing proprietors of Mysterious Press (crossroads of a million rejected manuscripts), available now at your better internets.  I just wanted to share with you, in all their slightly water-damaged glory, the pages that are not contained in that electronic edition, for reasons no doubt pertaining to tedious legal considerations, or maybe they just forgot.

So as I may have mentioned, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham is a mystery wrapped in an enigma tied up in a puzzle skewered by a conundrum soaking in a solution of insolubility.  What then, can we know about this Arthur Hailey person referred to above, who we vaguely gather had some tangential connection to this work?  Rumor has it he was a writer himself, though there has been some controversy on that score.

Hailey’s fiction was not of the sort that inspired doctoral theses: “If Armando had been troubled before, Kettering’s pronouncement had the effect of an incremental bolt of lightning” was a representative sample of its style.

But secure in the knowledge that his books would dominate the bestseller lists (Airport was lodged on them for more than a year), Hailey was sanguine about their reception by critics. “I have never had a good review from the New York Times,” he admitted in 1990. To be fair, others were equally unimpressed.

Reviewing The Evening News (1990) for The Daily Telegraph, Martha Gellhorn, under the headline “Wooden Prose” complained: “it tells us everything at least three times. Solid-wood dialogue is tailor-made for the mechanical characters who, in turn, tell each other what they are doing at least three times … This is not a book you cannot put down; it is a book you can hardly hold up. It will sell in millions and be translated into 34 languages. Possibly it is more readable in Icelandic or Urdu.”

When reading this, one should take into account that it comes from Hailey’s obituary in the The Daily Telegraph.  A high-spirited parting shot, one might say.  The English do so love to jest in the face of death, the alternative I suppose being to die in the face of jest, which is far less enjoyable, as the Irish have long known.

I remember well my first encounters with  Hailey’s inimitably imitable prose when I was a mere boy, covertly leafing through overdue library books on my parent’s nightstand (crossroads of a million frustratingly vague descriptions of coitus).  I recall rugged manly protagonists, of many sturdy upstanding professions; invariably right (also invariably white), invariably victorious, invariably getting laid with improbable regularity.  The one I remember most was called Overload, and never was a title more aptly chosen.

What the young mind (which may at times be found in a decrepit aging body) most appreciates about Hailey is that he explains everything (except the precise mechanics of coitus, dammit); not merely once, but over and over again, until even the dullest reader is tempted to exclaim “Okay already, I GET IT!”  But in this regard, I believe he is surpassed, if only slightly, by J. Morgan Cunningham (forgot to say vibrant, never mind now, have to type out a long quotation)–

Rain.

Rain poured down like water out of the cloud-covered sky, which was above the city.  Every intricate individual drop of the hydrous stuff, composed of two-parts hydrogen for every lonely solitary part oxygen, fell on the already-drenched city like a cloudburst.

It was a cloudburst.

The rain fell everywhere on the city, on rich and on poor, on young and on old, on happy and on unhappy–but not on people inside their houses.  If the roofs were okay.  The rain fell on a tramp steamer of Liberian registry, Serbo-Croat captain and Siamese crew being loaded with rocking chairs for Tierra del Fuego, girlie calendars on a consignment to Ulan Bator, and cartons of Smucker’s strawberry preserves bound for the Cape of Good Hope, at Pier 46, downtown.  The rain fell on the Daily News trucks, gaily green, toting their wares hither and yon throughout the great city, bringing the daily news to the citizens of Metropolis: New York.  And throwing the bundles in puddles outside the candy stores, they should be more careful.

This was the third day of rain, drenching the already-drenched city.  Odd items flowed in the gutters: Popsicle wrappers, good for stockings if you send them in with a quarter; tickets to hit shows; suicide notes; a bottle with a message inside, dated June 7, 1884; a one-inch-long spaceship from the planet Gu which had inadvertently crash-landed at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and West 49th Street and was now being inexorably swept toward its inexorable doom of both itself and its entire microscopic crew; and here and there the three-sixteenths-inch-long roach of a marijuana reefer, dropped by some doomed ten-year-old staggering through the rain in search of cheap kicks.  Oh, the stories those gutters could have told–fiction, perhaps, but a scant raindrop (or could it be a teardrop?) from reality–if only there had been someone, some artisan, some born storyteller, to crawl through them and pick up the nuggets within.

(You will scarcely believe it, but it is, at this very moment in time that I am typing this paragraph, raining heavily across New York City, crossroads of a million aesthetically convenient coincidences, such is the power of J. Morgan Cunningham’s epic prose-poetry: the already-drenched city getting more drenched by the moment, and a damn good thing I brought a rain jacket with me to work, but I got drenched regardless, such is the power of heavy rainfall.  The rain-soaked gutters were indeed overflowing with a multitude of sundry items, along with rainwater.  No sign of any tiny spaceships, but the search continues, the grieving widows of Gu deserving no less.  Picking up again a bit further in the chapter–)

And the rain fell on the buildings.  It fell on the new Madison Square Garden, the cupcake-shaped Hall of Culture where last night was seen Poundage, the new rock ‘n’ roll sensation, and where tonight world-famed Evangelist Billy Cracker would appear, before a somewhat older group. And it fell on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mecca of so many would-be suicides.  And it fell on the Bronx Botanical Garden, which was nice.  And it fell on Grand Army Plaza, with its green statues of the Civil War boys in blue.  And it fell on the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives.

And I already typed the next two paragraphs, up top.  Man, this review practically writes itself!   What were we talking about?  Oh yes, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham–given the near-total lack of information about him, I believe I will have to write some of this review as if Donald E. Westlake had something to do with this book.   It’s unfortunately unavoidable, but unavoidable nonetheless–unfortunately.  He may have played some peripheral subsidiary tangential minor supporting role in the writing of Comfort Station, and anyway this blog is supposed to be about him, so I do have to mention him here and there.  It would be disorienting if I did not.

So much as you, the far-seeing readership of The Westlake Review, and I, its far-seeing amanuensis, may see this book as an epic rumination on complex issues relating to the life’s blood of a great metropolis, and the functionings of a vital way-station within it, namely the Bryant Park Comfort Station (crossroads of a million private lives, lest we forget), we must pay at least some attention to Westlake’s opinion (to which he had a perfect right) that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels, so very popular in that time period (today, not so much). Hardly the first very popular author to be subjected to literary ridicule, and very far from the most revered.

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What is a parody, otherwise known as a spoof, a burlesque, a mimicry, a caricature, a send-up, a pastiche, a lampoon, etc?  What distinguishes it from a satire?  Well, all parodies are satires, but not all satires are necessarily parodies.  They may not be that specific–the satirist may be aiming his arrows of mockery at the foibles of human nature, politics, or religion, subjects that are notoriously difficult to copyright, though I believe Disney has tried, just for the hell of it.

Parody is extremely specific, by definition, and its humorous effect depends somewhat on the audience’s familiarity with whatever is being parodied.   Therefore, the most successful parodies will be of something everybody has read or seen, such as Star Wars movies and Star Trek shows.

But we all like Star Wars and Star Trek, don’t we? (cries of “NERRRRRDDDDS!” from the gallery shall be devoutly ignored).  Why would we want to see them be made into objects of ridicule, over and over again?   Is it true what some commentators have remarked, that parody is merely a means of expressing fond affection towards some form of cultural expression we mutually enjoy?   No, it is not.  Those commentators are wrong, and I will now tell you why that is, because that is a blogger’s primary function in life, one might almost say his (or her) Prime Directive, at least when The Force is with him (or her).

Yes, things people truly enjoy can be successfully parodied, but regardless, parody is not an expression of affection, but of contempt.  So it has ever been, since the days of Aristophanes (we can’t always know for sure what he was parodying because so much the Greeks used to enjoy in ancient times has been lost to posterity, along with their present-day economy, but rest assured he’s parodying something and it was hilarious back in the day).

When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, he was not aiming a backhanded compliment to the authors of the innumerable mawkish knightly romances that were plaguing his native Spain like a pestiferous pestilence; he was trying to put an end to them by dint of sheer mockery, and he largely succeeded.

When Alexander Pope began to draft The Dunciad, his intent was not to compliment the mercenary scribblers at whom he was directing his satiric barbs, but to tell them they should find other employment, perhaps in the area of public sanitation.  Scholars of that era in English letters lapse into suitably erudite guffaws whenever they read him, because they get the references.  The rest of us, posterity having long since forgotten everything Pope is making fun of, just nod sagely, and try not to look too perplexed.

This is a recurring challenge to the parodist’s grasp on immortality.   The parody can, in some instances, greatly outlive the material being parodied, without which the parody itself may become incomprehensible.  We today are still fairly familiar with the novels of  Arthur Hailey, even though most of us would sooner undergo eight hours of uninterrupted root canal than be forced to read them–but see, there were movies, and TV miniseries, and innumerable other terrible novels written by greedy wordsmiths influenced by those oh-so-lucrative novels, movies, and miniseries.  We know the overall format, even if we’ve never picked up a Hailey novel in our lives.

Clichés can be incredibly durable (that’s what makes them clichés)–so it is that Comfort Station, if seen as a parody (which I want to make it clear once more that I am not in any way suggesting it is), can still amuse present-day readers who are perhaps not vitally interested in the daily workings of a public restroom, though surely there could be no more diverting topic.

We all know what bad writing looks like, and it’s rather fascinating to see a very good writer pretend to be a really bad one.  Even the greatest writers know, far better than the rest of us, how fine the line is between clever–and stupid (to paraphrase one of my favorite film parodies).

So it is that even when we enjoy whatever it is that’s being parodied, the part of us that laughs at it is really laughing at ourselves, if you want to get down to brass tacks (so much easier to find as a popular expression than at the local office supply store).  At how easily we are taken in by bad writing, bad acting, bad directing.  We are laughing at how gullible we were to take this nonsense seriously for even one moment.  Then we go read and watch still more nonsense, and the circle of mirth continues.

That’s why really great writing is much more difficult to parody.  Because it’s harder to seize upon that aspect of it that is ridiculous.  Never impossible, of course.  Because of those feet of clay I mentioned several thousand words back.  Even Shakespeare had ’em.   Probably fleas as well.  That’s what those fancy lace collars the Elizabethans wore were designed to foil.   But I digress (don’t I always?).

So what’s the book about, anyway?  I should probably say something about that.  Basically it’s a day in the life of a great metropolis: New York, centered around (but not limited to) The Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, as I may have mentioned once or twice.    The dramatis personae are helpfully sketched out for us at the start of the book:

FRED DINGBAT–omnibus operative, proud of his position in interurban transit.  Too proud?

MO MOWGLI–custodian of the Comfort Station.  What was it about his past that haunted him?

ARGOGAST SMITH–plainclothes patrolman.  In responsibility he found anodyne–and the testing of his strength

HERBERT Q. LUMINOUS–bookkeeper on the run.  What happened to him was almost a cliche.

CAROLINA WEISS–onetime Russian countess now A & E mechanic.  In the arms of another man she sought forgetfulness.

GENERAL RAMON SAN MARTINEZ  TORTILLA–deposed dictator.  What was it he wanted to get off his chest?

FINGERS FOGELHEIMER–mobster.  Out of the thrilling days of yesteryear, he returns for vengeance.

LANCE CAVENDISH–Black.  With him and thirty-five cents you can take the subway.

(See now, I can almost detect a faint whiff of parodic intent here, but aren’t all names ridiculous if you look hard enough?)

The narrative’s purpose, seamlessly achieved (or so it seems), is to bring these eight people together in one place, the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, only that’s just eight people, and two of them never make it in there at all, but that’s nitpicking.  Okay, so six private lives intersect briefly, standing in for the other 999,994, like ships passing in the night.   We will not inquire what precisely they are passing there, because that would be indelicate;  quite possibly something that sounds like ‘ship’.

Fred Dingbat, intrepid city bus driver, picks up Mo Mowgli, dedicated custodian of the Comfort Station, on his way to work.  As Mo arrives at his post, we begin to meet the other characters, each of whom will inevitably be drawn to this way station on the road to their varied destinies.    Yes, just like the Arthur Hailey novels with titles based on public facilities of some sort or other, you picked up on that, very good!   Anyway, Mo is late for work.  Again.

It didn’t always matter if he was late.  Most of the time there was no one around at seven in the morning anyway, no one to care if the Comfort Station was open or closed.  But every once in a while Mo would alight late from the Crosstown bus and find some poor wayfarer hopping up and down on the sidewalk out front, his agony mirrored in his expression, which was agonized.  At those moments of emergency and crisis, Mo always acted with instinctive speed and precision, unlocking the door, switching on the lights, assuring himself there was sufficient paper in the stalls, and at the same time feeling deep inside the gnawing knowledge of his own failure, his own inattention.  He should have been here on time; it was his fault and no one else’s that the poor wayfarer had been reduced to hopping up and down on the sidewalk for ten  minutes or fifteen minutes or even twenty minutes.  At such times, Mo promised himself never to be late again, but his resolution never seemed to last very long: the next day, or the day after that, he would be late again.

I have visited the odd few New York City Parks comfort stations in my time, and I can assure you with great authority that dedicated public servants like Mo Mowgli still staff them, and yeah, they show up late some of the time.  Or in some cases, not at all.

These chapters, you should know, are all time-based–the next is entitled 8:00 A.M., and introduces us to Arbogast Smith, undercover policeman, assigned to the Comfort Station.   He spends most of the book staring moodily into space in front of a handy urinal, brooding on unknown sorrows.  I’m sure we have no idea what crimes he is there to prevent.  It’s 1973, and we don’t talk about that kind of thing openly yet.

(Sidebar: Is it, in fact, 1973 in this book?  That is the year of publication, but it should be noted that due to certain pressing social concerns that might afflict any great metropolis like New York [but New York in particular], the Bryant Park Comfort Station was shut down sometime in the Mid-1960’s, and not reopened until 1988.  The renovated structure on 42nd Street now services both men and women, in adjoining rooms, I hasten to add.   The structure on 40th Street that once served the ladies and their sensitivities [to repurpose Sondheim] is now a parks storage facility.   So at the time this book was written, nobody was going to the bathroom there, though certain unsavory elements were doubtless attending to nature’s call al fresco.  More on this when this review concludes, if it ever does.)

In the chapter chronologically designated 9:00 A.M., we meet Herbert Q. Luminous, embezzling bookkeeper, now fleeing the long arm of the law, due to all the embezzling, which he, a typically honest and upright functionary, performed out of love.  For a woman, I once more hasten to add.

She said her name was Floozey.  She was young and blonde and desirable, and he found himself buying her drinks, telling her his life story (it didn’t take long), and trying to impress her with his ability at shuffleboard bowling.  It was almost a cliché, but it seemed to him he knew from the instant he had seen her that they were going to be very important to each other.

After that first meeting, there had been others.  He went to her apartment in the city.  He went again.  He went some more.  He had gone again and again.

And she was expensive.  She liked the finer things in life: nightclubs, dancing, expensive restaurants.  And gifts: perfumes, clothing, false eyelashes.  Whatever she wanted, Herbert got it for her, because she was what he wanted. It was almost a cliché, really, his falling for her like that.  But he did.

She went through his savings fast, and when he had no more money he was afraid to tell her.  He knew it was almost a  cliché to think a thing like this, but in his heart of hearts he was afraid  that if she knew he had no more money she would leave him.  And he couldn’t stand that, to lose her.

And from here, we launch into a brief but informative aside on white collar crime, an issue of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, which the author has no doubt researched extensively, or maybe he just read about it in the papers, but either way it establishes the upstanding moral value of this work, and is not in any way a paper-thin excuse for its readers who feel embarrassed to be reading about sex, so they can tell themselves these are issues of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, that they, the morally upstanding citizens need to be informed of, and they can always just skip ahead to the sex if it gets too dull.  It’s almost a cliché to say that, but I felt it needed saying.

The general public, of course, is unaware of how common this sort of thing is in the world we live in.  It’s almost a cliché to say so, but white-collar crime like that perpetrated by Herbert Q. Luminous costs the taxpayers every bit as much as the much more publicized and dramatic sort of crime performed by the Mafia, or what is known as grimy-collar crime.  The white-collar criminal, more often than not, doesn’t even belong to the Mafia, as, for instance, Herbert Q. Luminous didn’t belong to the Mafia.

And there are other differences.

Good to know.

Later (4:00 P.M., to be specific), we meet Lance Cavendish, black, as you may recall from the character descriptions up above.  He appears in just one brief and somewhat puzzling chapter in this puzzlingly short book (there is a prefatory note from the publisher explaining the original manuscript ran to over three million words, but the edition posterity has willed us only runs 124 pages, with fewer than 200 words per page, often much fewer.  I’d say it’s about a 20,000 word novel, in its extant form.  That seems a rather drastic reduction.

The publisher explains there was a “slight trimming of the manuscript, removing only those passages that were unanimously agreed to be extraneous or redundant or in any other way unnecessary to the completed work.”   This is, we can all agree, most unfortunate, and a violation of artistic freedom, but then again we all have lives to lead, don’t we?  It must be said, the book flows very nicely in its existing form.

So as we meet Lance Cavendish (who is black, as mentioned, and has an afro in the shape of  a flamingo standing on one foot, and is dressed as one might expect Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson to be dressed in a film from this era that might well be playing on the same 42nd Street that is the primary setting of this book), we learn that he is a man of many accomplishments; architect, musician, social activist, entertainer, and no doubt many more occupations than could be detailed in a four page chapter.

He realizes that he is in need of personal relief, (as any African American male of the period would delicately phrase it), and seeing the Comfort Station before him, he strides purposefully in its direction, only to discover, to his dismay, that there is no entrance for him, upon which he shuffles away disconsolately.

Okay, what the hell is that about?   A reference to segregated restrooms?   That was in the south, and was an issue largely resolved by the time of this book’s publication, and indeed probably before the (happily temporary) closure of the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

On further contemplation, I am forced once again to resort to the unwelcome and thus far unproven thesis that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels.  And I do seem to recall those being rather–white.  Particularly the early ones.  Yes, African Americans were referred to in them, always in complimentary terms, avoiding racial epithets of any kind, and expressing a fond desire that people of all races creeds and colors live together in peace and equality, and high mutual regard.

And I do likewise recall (courtesy of my parents’ nightstand) that at the end of Overload (1979), the virile two-fisted power company executive is about to adjourn to a nearby hotel room with the sexy black female journalist who has spent much of the novel trying to nail him in a less pleasant sense of the term.  So that’s progress.   I guess.

But most of the time, the black characters would get shuffled offstage right after they got on, because the audience for these books was 99.9999999999% white; black people having better things to do with their time than read some muthafuckin honky Englishman’s jiveass 500 page book about white people who never get to the point about anything.   You feel me?

So this could be a roundabout manner of saying Hailey (Arthur, not Alex) would pay lip service to the idea of equal treatment, but marginalize actual black characters after giving them a big build-up, because he and most of his audience were more comfortable that way.  Hence there being no entrance to the Comfort Station for poor suffering Lance, who was merely introduced to add a splash of color to the proceedings.  It is conceivable that even Westlake himself, (were we to posit that he did write this book), would shamefacedly cop to having occasionally done the same thing in his own work.  Well, thankfully we don’t do that kind of thing in our popular entertainments anymore.   (Okay, that was irony, you caught me).

I am now over 5,000 words into a review of a ~20,000 word book.  Much as I may revere the legacy of the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, enough is enough already.   Let me conclude with a passage that I sense contains some coded message for the literary cognoscenti.

To set the scene, Fingers Fogelheimer, smalltime mobster, wrote a novel, pure fiction you understand, about a typical day in the life of your typical organized crime outfit in your typical great Metropolis that sounds a lot like New York, and his old cronies are a feeling a teensy bit sore about it.  To dispel this ill-feeling that has come between them, they’d like to ‘bump him off’, as I believe is the technical term, before he can get said book to the publisher that eagerly awaits it with ink-stained fingers, expecting it to be a mammoth best-seller, more on the basis of its tell-all nature than its actual quality as a book.

He is hiding out at the Comfort Station (along with three other fugitive characters, plus the distracted melancholy Arbogast Smith, plus Mo Mowgli, who is wondering why these people don’t finish their business and move on), when in come three intimidating gentlemen, who (our readerly expectations thwarted once more!) are not his erstwhile colleagues.  They are, in fact, his prospective colleagues, and none too pleased about it.

The stocky one is named ‘Norman’, carries a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special, and is requesting (without apparent irony) a copy of A Farewell To Arms.  Another, tall, elegant, and epicurean, answers to ‘Gore’, carries a pearl-handled pistol, and is asking for Swann’s Way.  The third member of the trio, bald, aristocratic, and known only as ‘V’, carries a Luger, and he wants a translation of Boris Gudonov, but it has to be a recent translation because you see the older ones are not good enough (::rimshot::).

It’s all playing out rather like the restaurant scene from The Killers, which I really don’t think I should have to post a link to, because we all read that in school, right?  Okay, I took some heat here a while back for assuming everybody read O. Henry in school, so fine, here it is, happy now?

These considerably better educated killers, having abandoned all pretense of thinking the Comfort Station is a lending branch of the library, swiftly locate poor Fingers quavering in his stall, and prepare to dispatch him with all due dispatch.  But why?

Within, Fingers Fogelheimer stood cowering against the back wall.  “Don’t!” he cried, clutching the attaché case containing his manuscript to his chest.  “I tried to explain it to the mob, I tried–”

“We are not from the mob, as you phrase it,” the bald-headed one said coldly.

Fingers Fogelheimer blinked.  “You’re not?”

“We are from Literature,” the elegant one said.

The three guns roared.

(*No doubt most of you deduced the identities of these three cold-blooded literary assassins right away, but for those who didn’t, you can find their identities at the bottom of the review, right under the segue.  Hey, this is just like Encyclopedia Brown!   The Case of the Hardboiled Hardcovers.)

The mystery surrounding the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham may never be solved, but this book remains, and is back in print, even if only in electronic form, for which we must thank The Mysterious Press, which you’d think would be better at solving mysteries, but perhaps they know the answers, and just don’t want to share.  The work of Arthur Hailey likewise endures, but in sadly reduced form, most of his formerly vast readership having abandoned him, and in many cases, this mortal coil as well.   He did not hold up to extended scrutiny, but I say without the slightest parodic intent that this book does, and remains a tremendously enjoyable read.

I would have gone to greater pains to compare the vibrant one’s prose with that of Hailey, and in fact there are three very weighty tomes of the latter on my work desk awaiting my critical gaze, and they shall await forever, because I decided life is short, and those books are really really long.

Something else remains, and I trust shall remain for all time, and that is the Bryant Park Comfort Station itself, risen from the ashes (among other substances) like a phoenix from the flame, as perhaps even the far-seeing Donald E. Westlake could not have anticipated when writing this, if he had in fact written it, which remains mere speculation at this juncture.

It was only a few years back that the very facility which was immortalized so vividly in this book was voted The World’s Best Restroom, an honor it well and truly merits (not that I’ve ever been inside that shithole).   The park it serves, once a monument to urban decay, has a 4.5 Star rating on Yelp (look it up)!  And what’s more, being the world-famous Shrine to Hygieia that it is, the Comfort Station now has a full-time attendant, and a security guard posted nearby.   So if you ever get there, please give Mo and Arbogast my fond felicitations.   Officium Eu!

Although we could not answer the question of whether Mr. Westlake collaborated on this book with the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, next week, we look at one of Mr. Westlake’s very rare accredited collaborations, with one of his favorite poker-playing buddies.   It’s a western.   This bodes not well, consarn it.  But it’s on the list, so what the hell.  Go West, young fans.

(*The three hit-men from Literature were Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Vladimir Nabokov.   Bugs Meany is so ashamed of you now.  Eh, google it.)

(Submitted to Patti Abbott’s blog, Friday’s Forgotten Books–which may be a misnomer in this case, since to forget something, you have to have known it existed in the first place)

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Review: The Crime of Our Lives

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I haven’t really discussed Westlake’s colleague, sometime-collaborator, and close lifelong friend, Lawrence Block very much at all here, and there’s a reason for that.  I haven’t yet read enough of his work to feel comfortable discussing it.  I’ve read several Matthew Scudder novels, some of the Kellers, and three of his standalone books.   I’ve read enough to know that 1)He’s more than interesting, prolific and diverse enough to merit a blog just like this one here and 2)I probably won’t be the one writing it.   Well really, isn’t one blog like this enough for one person?   I’d welcome the flattery of imitation, so anybody who wants to set up a Block Blog devoted to reviewing everything he ever wrote should feel free to launch right into it.  I’d be a regular visitant.

I’m not quite 100% sold on Scudder yet, but I get the allure of the character, and I’ll come back to him.  I rather liked Keller–my personal favorite in that very tiny crime fiction sub-genre of the Hitman as Series Character (I think Max Allan Collins’ Quarry might be the only other contender?)–but lost interest after the second book, at least for now–though let me say, I’d have wholly supported Mr. Block had he chosen to sue the producers of Grosse Pointe Blank for plagiarism.

I am increasingly intrigued by the Evan Tanner series, which sounds bloody fascinating–I have to get some of the books.  I tried to start reading Bernie Rhodenbarr.  He’s a bit too cozy for me.  Like Westlake, Block has a lot of different fanbases, who don’t necessarily have that much to say to each other–they are both large writers, containing multitudes.  I don’t yet feel personally motivated to get to learn each and every nook and cranny (or crook and nanny) of Block’s work, as I have with Westlake.   As Block himself demonstrates in this book,  how one responds to this or that crime fiction author is very personal, and there’s no point getting worked up about it.  It is what it is.

Strangely, given that Block, perhaps more than any other contemporary hardboiled crime fiction author (Westlake included) is known for a variety of series characters, I’ve been most taken with his solo efforts, particularly The Girl With the Long Green Heart, which I consider a small masterpiece, and I hope there’s more like it waiting for me once I can start working my way through his oeuvre in earnest.  You understand, needing to reread several Westlake books a month does take its toll on one’s discretionary reading time.

Like Westlake, he hides behind a variety of masks (some of them female–Westlake never took it that far).  He’s even harder to pin down, in many ways.  But he’s also a great deal more confiding, and, I now discover–gossipy.   The man likes to spill the beans–but he waits until you’re dead before he unloads the really juicy stuff he knows about you.

This book is self-evidently a reaction to and something of a companion piece for The Getaway Car, which I’ve already reviewed, some months back.  Mr. Block was a most impressive and welcome presence at an event touting the publication of that book at The Mysterious Bookshop, down on Warren Street.   Probably The Crime of Our Lives was already in the works back then, or at least it was in his mind to put it out there.

It wouldn’t have taken long to compile, because as Block cheerily admits, there wasn’t that much to compile–it’s mainly just forewards he wrote for various reprint editions of books by writers he admired.  Donald Westlake wrote quite a variety of non-fiction in his life, for an editor like Levi Stahl to pick through–Lawrence Block mainly stayed in the fiction column.  But it’s an equivalently long book, though from a stylistic point of view, not quite so substantial.  Westlake put a lot of interesting spins on his non-fiction–for example, the piece he wrote explaining the origins of the third Dortmunder novel, which is itself a cunning work of meta-fiction–or his interview of his various pseudonymous selves–nothing half so clever here, and nothing so frustratingly evasive either.

Block isn’t playing mind-games with us.   He’s just going to tell us what he thinks, and he’s going to give us the skinny on a lot of very famous names–again, only those who are safely in the grave.   To Lawrence Block “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a stupid maxim–those are the only people you can’t harm by speaking ill of them.  Not that all or even most of what he has to say about his deceased colleagues is bad, by any means.  It’s mainly complimentary, but some of it is damned near scandalous in nature, and he’s not pulling any punches when that’s the case.  And far as I’m concerned, that’s the best part of the book.   There’s not a lot of material like this out there, and it fills in a lot of blank spaces for those of us who are curious about the people who wrote the books we’re reading.   And I’m guessing anybody reading this blog is at least a bit curious about that.  Inquiring minds want to know.

See, he has this brilliant insight, expressed once or twice in the pages of this volume–mystery/crime writers mainly like each other, enjoy each others company.  And that’s weird.  Because writers typically hate each other.  ‘Serious’ writers, I mean.  Oh, they may hob-nob at fashionable parties, give each other complimentary book jacket blurbs and such, but mainly they just sit around longing for any writer who ever got better critical notices or an award they didn’t get to shut up and die already.

He writes about how Saul Bellow (who I’ve yet to read a word of, shame on me), was furious when some Chicago bookseller (not even a critic!) called John Updike one of the finest writers of his generation in an interview–just one of the greatest, mind you.  Bellow called the poor guy–on the phone!–and said he was never going to speak to him again.  That’s normal.   For  ‘serious’ authors who get front page write-ups in the book review section of the Times.   Literary lions behave much the same way as actual lions, it seems.

But as Block explains, mystery writers are different.  For one thing, they pretty nearly all started out as fans of that genre.  They attend conventions devoted to that genre together.  And really, they have no reason to resent the success of other writers in their field.  Because see, when a mystery writer sells a lot of books, that’s new converts to the Church of Mystery–the reader who loves that book will look around for more, and eventually find yours.  There’s rivalry, sure, but it’s mainly friendly in nature.  Same for Science Fiction.   Same, I’m sure, for westerns, romances, horror, etc.  The larger the genre, the chummier it will be, I’d guess.

In his introduction to an edition of Chester Himes’ Harlem Detective novels, Melvin Van Peebles talks about how Himes could have been a voice of his generation, on a par with anyone in the mainstream–except there was only room for one Great Black American Author at one time, and the spot was always taken.   So at his French publisher’s sage suggestion, he went over to mystery, where there was plenty of room for everybody–more the merrier.

Now, perhaps the shared burden of oppression kept Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin from hating each other’s guts, at least some of the time, but other ‘serious’ writers, though they may have more spots to compete for, have no such bonding point–above a certain level, they are fighting for that Pulitzer, that Nobel, and that most elusive prize of all, Immortality.

Mystery writers just figure people will keep reading their stuff as long as they’re having fun with it.  And that having read one mystery author with pleasure, they’ll go looking for others.   Hammett wasn’t worried about Chandler; Chandler had only good things to say about Hammett (while still subtly suggesting he was better).  The rising tide lifts all boats, whereas there’s no logical reason, as Saul Bellow well knew, for somebody who liked a John Updike novel about that Rabbit guy to think “Hey, I should read some Saul Bellow now!”  Genre fiction is more–collegial.   I think that’s the word.  But even the most sincere collegiality has its limits.

Block’s approach to writing about fellow mystery authors is different than Westlake’s–Westlake was more interested in trends, different waves of mystery/crime fiction, as opposed to saying “This writer I like–this one–eh.”  Westlake occasionally produced a sort of grudging list of favorites, but you can tell he’s rushing through it, not relishing the exercise at all.  Block loves it.

Early in the book, we get a list of his favorite mystery authors (all deceased, so he doesn’t have to explain to living friends why they aren’t on it), and it’s not what anyone would call even-handed.   In the (alphabetical) order they are are dealt with, they are Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Ellery Queen, Jack Ritchie, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford–a decent list, you’d have to say.  He seems to have Boucher in there mainly out of gratitude for his services to the genre as a whole than for his specific contributions as a writer, but what of it?

His priorities are his own, all the way through–Chester Himes merits only two brief paragraphs, with no real explanation of why he’s even on the list (one reason comes to mind, but maybe it’s too obvious)–polite praise, but still something along the lines of “I liked this a lot when I read it, and haven’t read it since.”   Westlake didn’t go into a lot more detail when he mentioned Himes, but he did say he thought Himes was writing better 1960’s crime novels in the 1950’s than anybody (himself included) was writing in the 60’s, so his brevity is more eloquent by far.

Block and Westlake both love John D. MacDonald–many still do–so far I don’t, and who cares?  But given MacDonald’s huge influence, it makes sense Block goes on at such length about him, even though I think he lays it on a bit thick at points.  I guess maybe I need to try reading something besides Travis McGee, because that guy gets on my nerves something fierce.   Him and his damn houseboat, and his girlfriends who conveniently die so he can move on to the next one (Travis, you could just break up with them, you know).  But still, a uniquely important writer in the genre.   Who somehow gets a longer write-up from Block than Dashiell Hammett.

So does Ross MacDonald–he even gets more ink than Chandler, who he was directly imitating.  Block agrees with Westlake that the later Lew Archers got awfully repetitive, but there’s nothing with the deliciously acidic ring of Westlake’s remark that “He must have terrific carbon paper.”

So Block plays favorites–as do we all.  He also holds grudges (as ditto)–he loves Jim Thompson’s work, and clearly learned from it–The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is a novel about grifters–much like Thompson’s The Grifters (1963), though going in a very different direction with the material–more optimistic and survival-oriented, which I think is a hallmark of both Westlake and Block.   I’d want to reread both grifter books before deciding which was better–seriously, it’s that close–but no doubt Thompson’s book is far more lauded, and got that great film adaptation, and I guess it’s not only the heart that’s green at times.

He seems peeved at Thompson for becoming so posthumously celebrated.   To which I’d respond,  “Mr Block, if the dead are insensible to the bad things people say about them, my guess is they don’t read their good reviews either–nor can they cash royalty checks where they are now–there’s a lot to be said for outliving all your contemporaries in any field of fiction–ask Stan Lee.”

There are like three pieces in the book where he talks about Thompson, spending much more time on his weaknesses than his strengths,  and concludes by saying “Just remember–it ain’t Shakespeare.”  Well no, but for a century or two after his death, neither was Shakespeare, and most of his stuff was likewise cranked out in a hurry to pay the bills, and was certainly not regarded as high art when it first appeared–nothing Thompson wrote was ever half as bad as Troilus and Cressida.  At least Thompson came up with his own stories.  Somewhere, I’m sure, Christopher Marlowe is grumbling that Shakespeare was pretty good, ‘but just remember–it ain’t Sophocles.’

Posterity does as it wills, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.   Thompson is not nearly as overrated now as he was underrated when he was alive, and Block’s resistance to giving that particular devil his full due because the critics went mad about him once he was safely underground seems a bit petty.  It’s not that his criticisms are wrong–Thompson did often write his books too quickly, and not do enough drafts, as Westlake also remarked once or twice.   It is undeniably stupid for him to be treated as the only crime writer who wrote ‘real’ literature.  And Thompson would have heartily agreed with that, so the proper target is the critical establishment–not the author.

Block acknowledges indirectly that the flaws he’s pointing at may be part of Thompson’s appeal now–the rough unpolished feeling of the work.  But he doesn’t develop that enough–his longer piece on Thompson doesn’t come up to the level of Westlake’s now-classic essay on the novels of Peter Rabe–which probably helped revive interest in Rabe, and which Rabe himself was still alive to read.  Rabe’s main reaction to reading it was that Westlake had been so thorough in analyzing his mistakes that when he got around to saying what Rabe had gotten right, he knew it was sincere and well-earned praise.  Westlake is, in short, a better critic.   But it was never the goal of either man to be a critic, so perhaps something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Block likes Raymond Chandler a lot more than Westlake (he likes detectives a lot more than Westlake), which I imagine was an occasional source of discord between them.  Perhaps not as serious as an incident Block vaguely alludes to that involved a woman and them not speaking to each other for two years.  One would like to know more, but it seems that Mr. Westlake is still too alive for Mr. Block to write about in that way–no major revelations.  Would it be too much to hope for that Mr. Block has a volume or two of memoirs in him?

Much of the really good stuff in the book revolves around Scott Meredith.   I don’t want to give too much of it away here.  Read the book.   His essay on Meredith is just revelatory.  I was geeking out over it all the way through.   What an utterly inimitable asshole Scott Meredith was!   No wonder Evan Hunter/Ed McBain was over the moon with delight when he died.   If I’d worked for or with him, I’d probably have been dancing in the streets for a week.  Or at his funeral.  Or on his grave.  He was that awful.

And I nearly did work for him, Lord help me–back in the early 80’s, I unsuccessfully applied for one of those reader positions Block tried out for and got, so that he could read untold numbers of bad stories, then tell the writers of said stories they showed promise–while pretending to actually be Scott Meredith telling them this, and encouraging them to send in money for proper representation and guidance (basically, the only people who became famous writers because of Scott Meredith were the ones working for Scott Meredith–and they learned their lessons by observation and osmosis).  The test for applicants Block describes hadn’t changed at all by the time I got there.  And I never suspected what a scummy job I was trying to get–and nearly did–they called me back once, but somebody else must have better understood what was being asked of the applicant–I wonder how it worked out for him?

The Scott Meredith Literary Agency was, in certain respects, a mail fraud operation on a par with anything ever dreamed up by J.C. Taylor of the Dortmunder novels–and now I know where Westlake learned about that kind of thing.   God bless you for the scuttlebutt, Mr. Block.   Mr. Westlake obviously preferred to keep his reminiscences oblique and fictional, but you spun them into nonfiction gold–and acknowledged that as scurrilous as Meredith could be, he did provide a training ground for one hell of a lot of good writers, yourself included.   But he did it for himself, so no need for gratitude–merely acknowledgement.   There are useful assholes in this world, one must confess it.  Another was Raymond Rohauer, who single-handedly preserved many of the films of Buster Keaton–and then sat on them like Smaug on his golden horde, for decades.   But we have them now.  Thanks to a complete and utter asshole.

Some of the essays I had to put to one side until I’ve read the authors they’re dedicated to.   Edward Anderson, Gar Haywood, Henry Kane–I just don’t have the context.   The field is too large, and time is too short.  And much as he may urge us to read all of Erle Stanley Gardner (even though the books are, as he tells us, all basically the same), I think I’d probably have to be serving a long prison sentence to ever find the hours.  But I know, reading this, that I must somehow find the hours to further explore the work of Lawrence Block.  And I intend to do so while he’s still with us, so that I can send him a fan letter, or perhaps an appreciatory email.  However, I still have maybe two years of steady blogging about Westlake ahead of me.  Maybe I could manage some kind of minor felony conviction?   What kind of internet access do they have in minimum security prisons these days?

A lot of the pieces in this book are about Westlake–and Stark.  Block seems to have most appreciated Westlake’s comic crime novels and his Parker novels (and The Ax, but who doesn’t?).  He doesn’t have too much to say about Westlake’s straight whodunnit mysteries (that being more Mr. Block’s purview).

There is no mention at all of Tucker Coe.   But years before Matthew Scudder, there was Mitch Tobin.  And next in the queue are two of his best mysteries–two of the best mysteries anyone ever wrote.  And two of the strangest.

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Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

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

From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure you can,” she said.

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

“You mean, where would you be?”

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

“You’d be you,” she said.

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

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

“Everything stops,” he said.

“You mean, you die?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fred’

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

::snigger::

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Adios Scheherazade–Chapter 1

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

From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades.  He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.

But two things prevented that from coming to pass:

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

2)The book isn’t that good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fred Fitch’

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, erotica, sleaze paperbacks

Mr. Grofield and the Artists

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I just wanted to do an overview of the cover art for the first three Grofield novels published by MacMillan (and others). Because they’re so good? I wish. Grofield had terrible luck with cover art. It seems like they just didn’t know how to visually depict novels about an actor who supports himself through armed robbery, but isn’t working as an actor or a robber in the first three books he’s the protagonist of. In all fairness, I’m not sure I’d know how to depict that either, even if I could draw worth a damn.

The first MacMillan cover, seen above, is a head-scratcher–yes, the book is set in Mexico, and they play guitars there (and everywhere else on earth). And there’s a woman in it, and she does wear a bikini. Grofield is always interested in sex, so pretty women are pretty nearly always on these covers, but as we’ll see, there’s rarely anything terribly specific about the art–you could stick it on a thousand other mystery/suspense books, and it would work just as well–or poorly.

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First American paperback reprint–not bad. This was the first Grofield I ever collected, because I liked the artwork. Grofield looks a bit more somber and square-jawed than I’d imagine him, and you kind of have the feeling that something tragic is going to occur–the redheaded girl dies maybe, and he’s haunted forever by his failure to save her.  Would you know from this cover that the book is a lighthearted romp, nobody important dies, and the girl is a blonde? Nope. Next slide, please.

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Now somebody obviously took some trouble to draw this, and I don’t like to complain, but why didn’t he/she take the trouble to read the book, or at least skim it?  It may not be the artist’s fault–Grofield may have sometimes gotten leftover artwork originally intended for other books.  As one would hope was the case below–

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Okay, seriously–Elly Fitzgerald is described as a blonde over and over in this book!  There are no other female characters of any consequence.   Why is her hair a jumble of black wires, and why does Grofield look like he’d rather be doing his taxes than making out with her?  Does anybody here know how to play this game?  Let’s try the European continent–they appreciate a nice blonde over there–

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I just do not get it.  And this is nice cover art (lovely graphics on the first one, from Portugal), and some of it really seems geared towards the book–the last cover, from Italy, in particular.  And yet over and over–brunettes.   And there are no brunettes in The Damsel.  A mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.  As will the mystery of how, if that’s Grofield on the cover of the Swedish edition (with a brunette, obviously) looking like a black-haired cross between Michael Madsen and Rutger Hauer, anybody would ever want to work with him.  I think Parker would find him too creepy.  On to The Dame.

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American and British first editions, and basically the British artist took his cues from the American cover, without slavishly imitating it.   It says a lot for the Grofield covers that these are two of the better ones, but they still don’t tell you a damn thing about the story or characters, and could easily be repurposed to many other unrelated books.

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The continental European publishers usually did the best job with the Grofield artwork, but of course the artists would often not read English, and might not have been given a translation to read either (this is assuming book cover artists working in the crime genre always carefully studied the books they were illustrating, and I make no such assumption).  So here we have really nice looking artwork, a pleasure to the eye, that seems to have been drawn for entirely different books. 

The German cover in particular is great, but I think the artist just knew that the book was set in Puerto Rico and had guns in it, so here’s a guy shot dead in the jungle–must be in there somewhere, yah? Explains the other one as well–there must be a sexy girl, and since the book is set in Puerto Rican, she’d be Latina, so of course brunette and curvy–now I think on it, this is probably what happened with The Damsel covers making Elly a brunette–the artist just knows where the action of the book takes place, and gears the artwork to that. And this is what comes of artists not reading the books.

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I really can’t decide which of these is worse.

Let’s try The Blackbird–this is the era of blaxploitation movies, so obviously we’re going to see a tough-looking black chick with a gun–

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And here’s the same odd parallel between the completely different illustrations on the American and British first editions–scary black woman holding automatic rifle.  Both have full afros, even though Vivian Kamdela is described as having very close-cut hair.  And as being extremely beautiful, and if you want to know how I’m seeing her at present–

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(Lupita Nyong’o looked absolutely sensational at the Oscars on Sunday.  Not that there’s ever going to be a movie version of The Blackbird, but it’s nice to have her to mentally replace those scowling afro’d women with, isn’t it?)

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Countryman Publishing reprinted all the Grofields, often in more than one edition, and I’m sure Westlake was happy to have the royalty money, but their covers were invariably the worst.  The one on the left is depressingly literal, isn’t it?  A highly schematic black woman, and there’s the silhouette of a bird (black of course), as done by a five year old who flunked art class.   And I really don’t know what the other one is supposed to be–some kind of ice gremlin?  If they couldn’t afford good artwork, why did they keep commissioning new covers for the same book?  I really wish this publisher had just decided to emulate Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint here–

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I know they’re just being cheap, but dammit, that WORKS.

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Okay, neither of these women look at all like the woman in the book, and do I care?  Not when they look this good, I don’t.  Of course, the German edition on the right is using a live model, and somehow one would like to know her name–was she in any movies I could rent?   I’m not going to mention all the various title translations, but this one I find rather amusing as a birder who has been to Germany–in Europe, blackbirds are grouped with the thrush family.   The German word for blackbird is Amsel.   But for whatever reason, they decided to give the German language edition the title Die Singdrossel, which means The Song Thrush–which is an entirely different species of thrush.  That is not black.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The edition on the left is Swedish–obviously.  Because of the nudity–and the (obviously male) artist’s touching assumption that all sexy women, regardless of skin color, have tan lines.  Not that I have any particular problem with tan lines.  Again, there is no attempt being made to illustrate anything specific from the plot–but wait–Italy has yet to be heard from!

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Does this look like a beautiful dark-skinned black woman with short nappy hair?   No.  Does her wearing some kind of poncho in the snow (I guess it could be a blanket) make any sense?  No.  Does this illustrate a scene from the book?  Kind of yeah–where Grofield and Vivian are being buzzed by the plane.   They’re in a snowmobile, and they aren’t using pistols, but I think this one merits an ‘E’ for effort.   If only because Vivian isn’t buck naked in northern Canada in the wintertime.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And the award for the most generic Grofield cover of all time (and quite possibly the most generic book cover of all time) goes to–

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It’s almost masterful in its way.   Try to imagine any novel, short story collection, play, sex manual, that this could not serve as the cover for.   Probably wouldn’t work for a cookbook, but you could just draw a chef’s hat onto one of them.

The most recent reprints were from University of Chicago, and they aren’t too bad.  Or too good.  Or too easily distinguished from each other if you happen to be colorblind and don’t have your reading glasses on.

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The Grofield covers are, with few exceptions, a vast assortment of sour lemons, but ironically enough, the very last book, which references sour lemons in the title, and was from a different publisher, didn’t do too badly in that department.   But I’ll save those for the review, still some time off.

Our next book has had an even greater variety of covers, and frankly most of them aren’t so hot either.   And it doesn’t matter a damn.  Because the rock is hot, and the people seeking it are so damn cool.  And funny as all hell.

(If you enjoyed looking at these highly inappropriate book covers, as I know I did, you can find all of them, and many more besides, at the Official Westlake Blog–this link will direct you to the Richard Stark wing of the cover gallery.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Addendum: 361 Revisited

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“This thing about family,  now, he said.  “It’s an important thing with a lot of people.  All kinds of people.  And I’ll tell you a group of people it’s important to, and that’s the people who make up the mob.  Particularly in New York.  You don’t think so?  Hard cold people, you think.  No.  There wasn’t a two-bit gun carrier on the liquor payroll didn’t take his first couple grand and buy his old lady a house.  Brick.  It had to be brick, don’t ask me why.  It’s in the races, national backgrounds, you know what I mean?  Wops at the national level, mikes and kikes at the local level.  Italians and Irish and Jews.  All of them, it’s family family family all the time.  Am I right?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I had planned to post my review of Up Your Banners this week, but between rereading the book itself, and researching its background, I fell behind schedule.   And in the process of researching it, I came across an article I wish I had known about when I reviewed 361, last April, because it sheds some light on aspects of what I think is now widely agreed to be Westlake’s best book written under his own name in the first half of the 1960’s, and one of the best crime novels of any era.

It fell along the wayside for a time, I think, because of the notion, still prevalent in some quarters, that Donald E. Westlake wrote comic capers, and his alter-ego Richard Stark wrote hard-boiled heist stories.  It was never that simple, but it was an appealing meme–here’s this guy who writes funny lighthearted criminal romps with sad sack protagonists like Dortmunder, but sometimes he’s this other guy who writes about a cold-blooded killer named Parker.

The implied dichotomy was even turned into a best-selling horror novel by Stephen King, who had named his alter-ego Richard Bachman partly out of homage to Richard Stark, and then borrowed the other half of the name–but it’s hard for me to see how Richard Bachman is any darker or more ‘visceral’ than Stephen King.  He’s just a bit harder to pigeonhole, which I assume was the point.   Westlake is a far better example of a writer doing radically different things under different names, but under his own name he might do almost anything–and he nearly always did it well.

In any event, 361 was hardly ignored when it first came out, even if it was no best-seller.  It was reprinted in many countries, many languages, and inspired some of the most interesting cover art I’ve seen for any book, as well as a variety of new titles (though the original title proved fairly durable).

Mexico and Portugal:

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British hardcover and paperback:

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French Serie Noire and Italian Giallo:

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Japan and Germany:

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Finland and Sweden (sharing the same publisher, if not the same title):

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Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without the Official Westlake Blog’s cover galleries.  But please note, every single one of these editions came out in the 1960’s.  This was a forgotten book for quite some time after that, until Hard Case Crime put out the first American paperback edition, which is how I first came to read it, and probably many of you as well.

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So now that we’ve all rediscovered the glories of the early hard-boiled Westlake, before the Nephews, before Dortmunder, and quite a long time before The Ax proved beyond all doubt that he could still write the hard stuff under his own name–what do we make of this book, and its odd multi-ethnic pre-Godfather take on organized crime?

Ray Garraty and I have had many discussions here and elsewhere about why Westlake seems determined throughout the 1960’s to not make the mob an exclusively Italian thing.  Italian mobsters do show up (Italian by name only, it often seems), but so do lots of Irishmen, Jews, and some guys with generic ‘American’ names.  I’ve put forth a variety of explanations for this.  Was he trying to avoid offending Italian-American readers, sensitive to the assumption that they were uniquely responsible for racketeering in America?  Was it just a convention of the genre as a whole, going back to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures that had inspired so many crime writers, Westlake included?

Well, it may not have been any of that.  I now enter into evidence Exhibit A–a New York Times article, dated April 13th, 1980–Donald Westlake: Larceny and Laughter, by Sheldon Bart (himself a novelist).  It was printed right next to a review of Westlake’s latest novel at the time, Castle in the Air, and is mainly devoted to an interview with Westlake (after first mentioning that he was working with Joan Rivers on a script for something entitled A Girl Called Banana). 

The reader of this article is informed about the Westlake/Stark thing, and further told that “His style is bright and zingy and his books abound with clever twists and fast dialogue.”  Well I guess you’re supposed to say stuff like that when you’re interviewing a writer.

Bart kicks off the interview with the usual “Where do you get your ideas from?” sort of question, only it’s got a somewhat odd spin to it–why does Westlake write so much about crime?  I guess Bart never heard of the mystery genre before? Or is this something pre-arranged between them?  Either way, he opens by asking “Was your father a criminal?”  

Now in Bart’s place, I personally would not have gone there, but instead of taking umbrage, Westlake tells a story–I’d copy/paste it, but you can’t do that with the database I found this on, so I’ll just have to type it out.

Sometime before I was born, my father and mother and another couple were in a speakeasy in New York, and a tall skinny man in a shiny black suit came in, followed by two tough-looking guys with their hands in their topcoat pockets.  They headed toward the rear of the place, but as they passed by my parents’ table the skinny man looked at my father and said “Hi Al.”  My father said, “Hi, Bill.”

Bill pulled up a chair, sat down and called for a bottle of champagne for the table, on his tab.  The two guys with him didn’t sit down or look at anybody in particular.  My father didn’t introduce Bill to the others at the table.  Bill and my father talked baseball for a while, my father being a very passionate Giants fan, the Giants being at that time a perfectly respectable Major League baseball team in Upper Manhattan and not a lot of padded psychopaths in a Jersey swamp.  Then the champagne came.  Bill had a taste, and then he got to his feet and said “See you later, Al,” and he and his two friends went away through the door in the back.  My mother said “Who was that?” and my father said, “Bill Bailey.  I’ll tell you about it later.”  But he never did.  Now Bill Bailey was a prominent gangster and bootlegger, Dutch Schultz’s right-hand man who took over the Schultz mob for a while after Dutch was killed.

My mother told me this story after my father was dead, so I couldn’t ask anybody any questions.  Then later on, after my mother died, I found something very curious in a trunk in the basement.  A packed-away trunk is in geological layers, the most recent stuff on top, the oldest on the bottom, and that’s the way it was with this trunk, working on down all the way to my father’s World War I uniform on the bottom.  But then under the uniform, out of proper sequence, were a lot of newspaper clippings about the death of Bill Bailey, which took place in 1931.  It was a strange death; he walked into a hospital, and was admitted, and by midnight he was dead.  The death certificate said advanced pneumonia, but doctors I’ve talked to tell me nobody walks around like a healthy man seven hours before dying of advanced pneumonia.  Anyway, those are the only newspaper clippings my father ever saved, and he went out of his way to  hide them, and that’s all I know about it.  Except that for a while my father was a bookkeeper for a sugar company, and I know the bootleggers needed a lot of sugar in making their booze, so maybe that’s the connection.  Anyway, the mysteriousness of it, the completely impenetrable aura, if that’s what I mean, has occasionally gotten into my books, particularly the early ones.

Hard to say how much research he did into the history of organized crime in response to this–some, certainly–but based on the bit of research I did via Google (hardly an option for him back then), I think we can say that Westlake never made much attempt to master the subject.  William ‘Bad Bill’ Bailey was the right-hand man of Vannie Higgins. Higgins was a bitter rival of Dutch Schultz during the Prohibition era, who exchanged shots with The Dutchman on more than one occasion, and was eventually fatally wounded (perhaps by Schultz’s men), several years before Schultz himself was killed.

There’s not a lot of information about Bill Bailey out there.  That’s him standing (appropriately enough) to the right of Vannie Higgins, in the photo up top–in a dark topcoat–Higgins is in the trench coat.  And before you ask, the song “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” is not about him.  I checked.  That must have been another Bill Bailey.   But if there’s one thing we can know for dead certain, it’s that this Bill Bailey couldn’t have taken over for Dutch Schultz, because he died (of natural causes or otherwise) in 1931, and Schultz was famously (or infamously) murdered on October 24th, 1935.   Westlake wouldn’t have needed Google to find that out.  He didn’t give a damn.  He was writing fiction, not history.

So why all the mob stories?  Because to him, the point of that little anecdote about his dad was that all your parents have secrets, lives they lived before you were even born.  Mostly those secrets stay buried, though if they live long enough, maybe they’ll tell you some of them (my dad’s shared some real corkers with me in the last decade or so–no ganglords so far).  Westlake lost his father when he was still a very young man, his mother not long after, and there were questions he was never going to get to ask them, answers he was never going to find.

He’s writing in a genre where stories about organized crime are de rigeur, but how does he put his own unique spin on them?  His most important literary role model, Dashiell Hammett, wrote mainly from the detective’s point of view–saw criminals only from the outside, though he had the advantage of actually knowing a whole lot of them from his work as a Pinkerton.

His more contemporary influence, Peter Rabe, used mob stories as a way of dissecting character–strong willed, resourceful, but ultimately chaotic individualists, striving for power in an organization, and eventually undone by a combination of hubris and emotional vulnerability.  Psychological case studies, from a future psychology professor.  The only ones who survive are the ones who just give up the game they’re playing before it’s too late, let go of their ambitions, learn how to live for the sake of living.

Westlake probably never made the acquaintance of any real crooks until he started getting fan mail from them, mainly for his Parker novels–in the article I quoted above, he says he got a letter from one guy who was about to start serving a long stretch in prison, and he was hoping Westlake could fill a few holes in his collection of Parker novels, because he wanted to take the whole series into the joint with him.   Westlake doesn’t say if he provided the books–the guy only needed two of them.  I’m guessing Westlake helped him out.

But while he clearly got some ideas from these letters–I see references in that interview to missives he received from criminals that almost certainly inspired Help I Am Being Held Prisoner and Bank Shot–his knowledge of the criminal class remained primarily second-hand.  He maintained a certain distance between himself and his subject material, which was certainly prudent.  And he had to start writing crime novels before he could get fan mail from criminals–361 can’t be based on correspondence he hadn’t received yet.

No, he was mainly working from pre-established fictional models–Hammett, the Gold Medal novelists (Rabe, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes), the Warner Brothers pictures of the 30’s and 40’s.  And many others.  But he’s going to make this old subgenre new and personally relevant, by linking it up to his belated discovery that his father was connected, however peripherally, to the world of organized crime.  As so many Americans were, during Prohibition.  Perhaps the majority, in the sense that most Americans never really accepted the 18th Amendment, went right on drinking what they damn well wanted to drink, and came to admire many of the colorful characters who supplied their illicit hooch.   That goes on to this very day, of course–but never to the same extent seen in the 20’s and early 30’s.

The Italians (chiefly but not entirely Sicilians) were gaining ever-greater power in the gangs of that period, because of the syndicate subculture some of them had brought from the old country, and the fact that it was harder for them to assimilate into the mainstream (the most talented individuals from other groups would more often find other outlets for their talents).

But they were joined by German, Russian, and Eastern European Jews (who also had assimilation issues), the Irish (troublemakers wherever we go), and quite a few poor WASP’s–basically every group that was on the outs with society in some way.   And that’s a lot of people.   And while some members of these groups would fight Italian control, others were quite happy to go along with it, as long as they got their slice of the pie.  The ethnic boundaries were never that clearly drawn, and certainly not back in those days.

At their peak, these racketeers were so politically and socially well-entrenched that Vannie Higgins could land his private plane at a state prison in Washington County, New York–and have a nice public tete-a-tete with the warden there, an old friend of his.  This was widely reported,  and the warden didn’t even lose his job.  You absolutely could not trust the police and many other authority figures of that time, so many were on the payroll.

That’s why Elliot Ness and his men were called The Untouchables–because a cop who couldn’t be bought was such an oddity.  But in the end, the Prohibition mobsters made themselves too visible, too obvious a source of public corruption, and a lot of them went to prison, often on tax evasion charges.

The most important Chicago organization was called The Outfit–and was heavily Italian, but to Westlake that was never the point–the point was that it supplied things people wanted–liquor first, then gambling, prostitution, etc–and was run like a business–and as time went on, a modern corporation.

In 361, you see a war between the old-era Prohibition guys getting out of jail, and the new corporate-style mobsters, who have assimilated more into the mainstream–and learned to keep out of the public eye most of the time.  Ed Ganolese, introduced in The Mercenaries, is the boss of this faction in New York–and Eddie Kapp, the biological father of 361’s protagonist, Ray Kelly, is the old-school boss who takes him down, with Ray’s help.

From this one glimpse into the elder Westlake’s past, we see the genesis of these early books.  Westlake imagining an alternate family history, where his dad had been a smart lawyer who got enmeshed in mob politics, and was good friends with Eddie Kapp.  Westlake himself, who we gather didn’t look much like his dad, could ask himself what if his father was somebody else–what if the mobster buddy was his true genetic forebear–though Ray makes it clear that he considers Willard to be his father either way.

The most powerful emotional moment of the book comes between Ray and Willard Kelly, very early on–Willard meets Ray in the city, after a long separation, and they’ve clearly missed each other a great deal.  “We cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.”   It’s hard not to think this is based on a reunion between Westlake and his father after he got out of the Air Force.  And very shortly before Albert Joseph Westlake died.

Westlake had powerful but mixed feelings about his father, and fathers in general–he never forgot the way his father had intervened on his behalf when he was arrested for stealing a microscope at college, pulling every string to get the case squashed, and his record scrubbed clean.   And then, as he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, his father apologized to him for not being able to better provide for him.  Love mingled with gratitude and guilt–always a heady mixture.

And always behind that–in just about every parent-child relationship that ever was–is that underlying realization that comes upon us as as we mature, if we mature–that we never really knew our parents completely.  That they used to be these other people, who will always be strangers to us.  That they had their own identities, completely apart from being ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, which most of us ignored until it was too late.

And the less we know about our parents, the less we know about ourselves.   Many an autobiographical work has been devoted to someone’s quest to better understand his mother or father, in order to achieve self-understanding–the current President of the United States wrote a rather good one.  I wonder if Westlake read it?

So maybe a good alternate title for 361 would be Schemes From My Father–or fathers, plural, since Willard Kelly wasn’t as innocent as he seemed.  We never get to hear Willard’s side of the story–just like Westlake never got to ask his father what his connection to Bill Bailey was.  Some mysteries are never completely solved, even in a mystery novel.  Let alone a blog about mystery novels.

Still, I think I’ve stumbled across a big piece of the puzzle here.  Westlake wrote about organized crime the way he did in the early days because he didn’t see it as this separate exotic world, cut off from the rest of us, the way many others in the genre depicted it as, full of strange codes and foreign rituals–its roots might be foreign, but its genesis was entirely American and familiar–it was made up out of our fathers and uncles and brothers and cousins (and occasionally Nephews).

He knew that perfectly ordinary decent ‘respectable’ people had roots in that world, whether they cared to know it or not.  He went digging for his past in an old trunk in the attic, and he found out some things his father maybe didn’t want him to know–or maybe he did on some level, and that’s why he didn’t just destroy those newspaper clippings.  It’s hard to let go of your past–it’s like turning your back on a part of yourself.

He also wanted to point out that dishonesty was not something unique to criminals–there are other kinds of ‘Outfits’ in the world, many of them quite legal, their methods sometimes even more contemptible.  The corporate world was something he despised on a very deep level, but he also knew it was unavoidable.  He may not have been an employee of any corporation, but he still worked for them.  Publishers, movie studios, etc.  Increasingly all just one big conglomerated mass of mendacity and mediocrity.

To be sure, that was part of the point Mario Puzo later made with The Godfather–the book that at least temporarily made non-Italian mobsters seem quaint and old-fashioned, and that was about the time Westlake started writing more about the mob as a specifically Italian thing.  The fashion had changed, and he’d mainly gotten mafia stories out of his system anyway.  It wasn’t going to be a major thing for him–he was about the independent operators.

And this is a sort of symbolic rebellion against his father, who may not have been any kind of mobster (maybe he and Bailey just knew each other from school or something), but who had been a loyal company man all his life–a cog in a machine, never really getting anywhere, never making it, doing everything he could to see his son got a better shot than he did.  And his son was grateful, but he had to try it his own way–he didn’t think his dad’s way had worked out so well.

At the end of 361, Ray Kelly is alone–his family erased from existence–but he’s his own man.  He’s learned the whole truth about himself, and he can build on that, if he wants.   That’s very much how it was with Westlake himself in the mid-1950’s, with both parents dead, and a younger sister he seems to have never been close to.   Like Ray, Westlake is going to have to make a life for himself–standing on the shoulders of those who came before him.  But free to make his own mistakes, instead of just repeating theirs.

And standing on Albert Westlake’s shoulders, Donald E. Westlake became his own man, never holding a steady job for most of his adult life, making his living a book at a time, which wasn’t an easy way to live, we can be sure.  He was never 100% secure, never had the kind of big seller that makes a writer’s fortune.  But he was free.  Of everything but the past.   Nobody’s ever completely free of that.

Case in point–there was another group involved in organized crime–Kapp, talking about how it takes three generations for the children of poor immigrants to become ‘respectable’, mentions them–

This is about Cheever again.  The Negro.  He wants to be respectable too, same as everybody else.  But he can’t be, and it don’t matter how many generations he’s been here, you see what I mean?  So he’s liable to wind up in the organization.

Already, Westlake was feeling some curiosity about African Americans–they keep turning up in 361, and other novels, but just as minor characters–he’s nibbling around the edges of something.   He’s got some opinions on The Race Question, but he’s not quite ready to share them.

In our next book, he’s going to tell us what he really thinks.

(Addendum to the addendum–I should have checked earlier, but according to the New York Times, William Bailey died of pneumonia on December 1st, 1934–not 1931. Westlake got that wrong too. He still died before Dutch Schultz. Westlake really didn’t give a damn about the fine details of mob history.)

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Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.

cast

The real world never never impinges on the entertainment side of television, so fully realized private eyes continued to perform their pulp kabuki all over the tube. Mannix and Cannon and all those fellows, of whom the best was by a long shot Rockford. Rockford didn’t try to break out of the rituals, but used them in a very knowing and able way. His relationships with society, with the police, with his clients, with women, were all very much in the tradition, and yet Rockford was an individual, a human being you could believe in rather than a cardboard figure in a trench coat.
Donald Westlake, The Hardboiled Dicks

That quote, along with much else of interest, may be found in The Getaway Car, Levi Stahl’s soon-to-be-published anthology of Westlake’s nonfiction writing, which I’ll be reviewing in the near future (spoiler alert–I liked it). So there’s a quick plug, but this is a tribute–to somebody in the entertainment biz. Which this blog isn’t mainly about, and I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a lot more of of the same here, if I were you. But Garner was the exception to so many rules in his world, I’ll make an exception for him in mine.

I grew up on The Rockford Files–I knew nothing back then about who wrote what. I never noticed the names Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, Meta Rosenberg, until much later. All I knew about James Garner besides this show was that he did those Polaroid commercials with this sarcastic blonde who then showed up on The Rockford Files. Which was confusing. Maybe they should have hired Gretchen Corbett for the commercials, though that might have been even more confusing.

There aren’t a lot of big name stars who can remotely live up to their hype. Garner may have been nearly unique in that he far surpassed his (because in spite of his long popularity, he was never really an A-Lister). People who worked with him just couldn’t get over how un-full of himself he was. If he had an opinion he’d share it, but at the end of the day, if the writer or director said “This is what I want”, he’d back off and do it their way. And if it didn’t work, he might avoid working with that writer or director again, but he believed in letting people do their jobs. I don’t know if Westlake ever met him–tend to doubt it–but I think it’s a shame they never worked together. Garner would have been ideal to play many of Westlake’s protagonists (for example, the protagonist of the novel I’m reviewing next here).

He did a whole lot of quality work over the years, on television and in the movies, but it was in The Rockford Files, above all, that he hit that sweet spot, found the perfect venue for all the aspects of his talent. He wasn’t in the best physical shape by that point in time, and the show ended mainly because he couldn’t handle the demands of the role anymore, but for five years, he and his collaborators proved that commercial scripted genre television wasn’t crap because it had to be. If you cared enough, you could make it more than than gimmicks and posturing for an Emmy. You could make it truly great storytelling.

In one of the Sam Holt novels Westlake wrote under the not terribly convincing pseudonym of Sam Holt (I don’t have time to leaf through all four to find out which one right now), Holt, a former TV series star himself, hears a reference to The Rockford Files, and thinks to himself “The Gold Standard.” And it was. It was the epitome of television that entertained and illumined, at the same time, without ever putting on airs, or selling itself out. And it’s held up for around four decades now. No reason to think it won’t hold up another four decades, and beyond.

But Garner couldn’t. More’s the pity.

Anyway, back to the books.

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