Tag Archives: Ex Officio

Mr. Westlake and The Fuehrers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 12, 1933 (Wednesday)

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

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

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

Imagine you grew up knowing two things about yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard said, “There are clean bombs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 2

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They put him in the back seat of the Impala and drove away from the motel, Parker at the wheel and Grofield occasionally glancing back at Abadandi.  After several blocks, Grofield said, in a troubled and unhappy way “Goddamnit.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Now he’s bleeding from the ear.”

“Put some paper on it.”

Grofield opened the glove compartment.  “Nothing there.”

“Turn his head then.  We’ll unload him in a couple minutes.”

Grofield adjusted Abadandi’s head.  Parker drove away from the city, looking for a turnoff that might lead to privacy.  They were going to be late to Lozini’s, but there wasn’t any help for it.  Sunday morning traffic was light and mostly slow-moving; family groups.

“I feel sorry for the bastard,” Grofield said.

Parker glanced at him and looked back at the road.  “If I’d slept late this morning,” he said, “he could be feeling sorry for you by now.”

“An hour ago I was getting laid back there,” Grofield said.  “Jesus, his skin looks bad.”

Parker kept driving.

There’s no such thing as a Butcher’s Moon.  It’s something Westlake made up himself, responding to the old tradition of naming the full moons for each specific time of year–it’s something the first Americans started here, and the European settlers emulated and added to, but the idea seems to have occurred independently in many cultures.   Many variations exist.  There’s a Harvest Moon, a Hunter’s Moon–and a Wolf Moon (that’s in the dead of winter).  But none of these are a Butcher’s Moon.  Because a Butcher’s Moon is no moon at all.  Some things are best done in darkness.

I might as well mention here that somebody optioned this novel for a film version in 1996.  Variety reported at the time that Lumiere Films, which produced Leaving Las Vegas, had shelled out for the rights, attached Steve Shagan, the screenwriter for Primal Fear to write the screenplay, and that same film’s producer, Gary Lucchesi, to produce it (the film had not come out yet).  Lumiere CEO Randolph Pitts (it’s wrong to make fun of people’s names) said Butcher’s Moon was ‘one of Westlake’s grittiest efforts.’

“Lila Cazes, who’s head of production, and myself are developing a number of things with Gary and he suggested this book, which Westlake did under the pseudonym he used to write his hardest-hitting crime books,” said Pitts.  “Then, Gary suggested we meet with Steve Shagan after they’d done Primal Fear.”

We are further informed that Westlake (who is not quoted in Variety, because hey, he’s just the novelist), was repped by Gary Salt of Paul Kohner Agency.  And nothing more was ever heard of this film, nor shall be in all the eons to come.

Could be any number of reasons for that, but I’d certainly suspect one of them was that it’s one of the worst possible choices for a film adaptation (the worst possible choice probably being Flashfire).  It’s the least self-contained of the Parker novels, the one where the reader depends most on his or her memories of the books before it.  Now I would not say you couldn’t enjoy reading it if you’d never read a Parker novel before–but I can’t imagine how anyone doing so wouldn’t feel like dropping everything to find all those earlier books, and fill in all the gaps in his or her knowledge of that fictional world and its hard-boiled denizens.  That may be one of the reasons Westlake wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

I wonder if Shagan ever completed any drafts of a screenplay?  A treatment, at least?  I’d be interested to see what he did with it–how he tried to somehow collapse the plot into a film-able unit without having any previous films to refer back to.  He was a novelist himself (he wrote Save The Tiger, and then adapted it into the Jack Lemmon movie that I have yet to see).  He wrote the screenplays for a number of well known films, such as Voyage of the Damned, and he did some mafia stuff, and no, I don’t think it would have worked.  And if they’d stuck to the original ending, I bet film buffs would have accused them of ripping off The Outfit.  Which might not have been totally out of line.  But let’s get back to the synopsis.

We pick up with Mike Abadandi, one of Lozini’s trigger men in the mobbed up city of Tyler–we met him in Slayground, and the late Mr. Caliato, when he saw Abadandi was going to be helping him go after Parker at Fun Island, evaluated him with one word–“Good.”  He’s a very capable individual, probably the best hitter Lozini’s outfit has at the moment.  And he’s been sent to whack Parker and Grofield at their motel.

Why send one guy after two?  Because whoever wants this done wants it done quietly and professionally, with as little fuss and mess as possible.  And because Lozini doesn’t know anything about it.   This is not a properly sanctioned hit.   Meaning that the more guys they use, the more chance there is Lozini will find out before they want him to.

He uses a set of skeleton keys, and lets himself into the motel room, after he sees Grofield go in there, back from his highly athletic extramarital rendezvous with Dori the librarian.  We can sense his professionalism–he’s somebody Parker would be happy to work with, if he wasn’t an organization man.  Grofield is in the shower, singing (tunelessly, we’re told, so I guess he doesn’t do musicals).   Abadandi figures he’ll get Grofield, then look for Parker.  Bird in the hand.

But the other bird is in the closet–Parker saw Abadandi lurking around from his room, and set a trap for him.  Abadandi realizes Parker is coming at him, and is looking at his eyes, not the gun in his hand (which is pointed the wrong way), and he has just enough time to realize he’s up against somebody as good as him.  Maybe better, Mike.

What follows is a short violent struggle, and one of the few instances in twenty-four books that we see Parker have a prolonged physical altercation with a worthy opponent–he’s not the type to engage in pointless fisticuffs.   Abadandi doesn’t panic, he gives a good account of himself, but Parker is always a move ahead. Abadandi, who is wearing contacts, gets a hard kick to the head, then as he falls, Parker chops him in the neck with a huge veiny hand, and that’s the last we hear from Abadandi.

Parker hadn’t intended to injure the guy that badly–wanted to get some info out of him first (otherwise he’d have just shot him).  But one of the contacts has gone into his brain or something (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I don’t want to know).  He’s not talking to anybody, probably ever.  But a look through his pockets clearly shows his affiliations, and Parker and Grofield already have a meet scheduled with Lozini at his house.

Parker and Grofield (who is using the name Green, in a little nod to his alternate universe doppelganger in the Dortmunder novels) show up there, and give Lozini the bad news.  And it’s really bad.  The only way Abadandi could have found their motel is if they were followed from the last meeting they had with him and his closest associates, at the office.  Only his most highly placed people knew about that meeting.  At least one of them made sure there was somebody waiting outside the office building.  Parker can make a very cogent persuasive argument when he wants to–and his argument now is that Lozini can only trust two people in the entire city.

“You’ve got a palace takeover on your hands,” Parker told him.  “That means a group, maybe four or five, maybe a dozen  A group of people inside your organization that want you out and somebody else in.  Somebody who’s already up close to the top, that they want to take your place.”

Lozini took his sunglasses off and massaged his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes still closed, he said “For the first time in my life I know what getting old is.  It’s wanting to be able to call for a time-out.”  He put the sunglasses back on and studied them both.  Their faces were closed to him, and always would be.  “You’re right,” he said.  “You’re the only ones I can trust, because I know exactly where you stand and what you want.”

They discuss the possible suspects, eliminating them one by one–it comes down to Ernie Dulare, who controls offtrack gambling, and Louis ‘Dutch’ Buenadella, who runs the local porno theaters.  Lozini is surprised how much they already know, courtesy of Grofield’s research.  But they all missed a very big important detail, that comes out when Parker asks if Farrell, the mob’s candidate for mayor, would be in on it.   Lozini is bewildered–his candidate is Alfred Wain.  Farrell is the reform candidate they’re trying to beat.  And now Parker begins to see he’s badly misjudged the situation in Tyler.

Coming into town, Parker saw that Farrell had a lot more money behind him, more signs, bigger banners, and figured that meant he was the syndicate’s man–and that he is, but the new syndicate, not the old one.  They were, in fact, using some of Parker and Grofield’s money to finance him, as well as Lozini’s.  That’s part of the take-over.  With their man in place at city hall, they can push Lozini out, and there won’t even be a fight.   Lozini never even saw it coming–until Parker pointed it out to him.  But Parker is angry at himself for not seeing it sooner.  False premises.  Hasty assumptions.  They’ll get you every time.  You have to know the territory.

Is it a bit much, making Parker smarter about politics than Lozini, who has been controlling this city for decades, or even Grofield, who spent hours researching Tyler’s political scene, and has shown some knowledge of politics in past?  Should a wolf in human form really know so much about the way our power structures work?   Technically, wolves are all about politics–who has the power in the pack at a given moment–it’s a lot more complicated than people think.  It’s not just Alphas and Omegas.  Nobody knows better than a wolf how transitory power can be, how quickly it can change allegiance.

Watch two dogs smelling each other, sizing each other up, sensing subtle changes that we’re entirely oblivious to.  They know far more about us than we about them–always watching us, even when they seem not to be.  We are, after all, their source of sustenance.  But see, dogs give a damn about us.  Parker doesn’t.

Basically, Parker knows what he needs to know about us to survive in our world. He’s always evaluating the situation, the battlefields he makes his living upon, which happen to be our communities, because that’s where the money is.  His mind functions more efficiently without all the distractions that plague the rest of us–but he can still make mistakes.  He’s been too focused on what he wants (the money), and hadn’t given enough thought to what others might be wanting.   And now he’s off-balance, wrong-footed.  He’s got a new enemy, whose name he doesn’t even know.  He’s got to fix that, and quickly.

Next chapter is from the perspective of George Farrell, local furniture magnate, pillar of the community, who has become bored with the family business, and consequently developed a taste for politics (tell me if you’ve heard this one before).  To further this end, he’s made a deal with known criminals–they’ll get him into power, and he’ll do their bidding, but he figures once he has the power, he can handle them just fine. What he can’t handle is two guys pretending to be his new security detail, who turn out to be Parker and Grofield.  His self-assurance cracks quickly under the weight of Parker’s fists.   He blurts out the name of his patron–Louis Buenadella.

And now we’re with Harold Calesian, detective first grade on Tyler’s police force, and a trusted member of Lozini’s inner circle–he’s in with Buenadella, of course.  Having picked a side, he intends to do all he can to make sure everything works out as planned, and to that end, he’s the one who murdered Officer O’Hara, who knew too much about what happened that night at the amusement park, two years ago.  He’s just back from murdering Paul Dunstan, the other cop there that night, who tried (too late) to get clean, get away, get free.  There was about one chance in a million that Dunstan would ever have been a problem for Calesian.  One chance too many.   Some people really do make murder the answer to everything.

He gets to his apartment, and Lozini is there waiting for him.  Lozini knows whoever is behind the coup wouldn’t have made a move without getting their top cop on his side.  He wants Calesian to tell him who it is.  If Calesian won’t tell him, Lozini will start shooting him in various non-fatal areas of his anatomy.  Lozini is done fooling around.

Lozini’s arc in this book is interesting–he’s become aware, very suddenly, of how much he’s allowed himself to slip–too many years of playing the part of respectable citizen–over time, you become the person you pretend to be.  The old gangster has lost his edge.  This is the first time in decades he’s even held a gun in his hand.  But he’s still dangerous.

Lozini doesn’t like to be pushed, but he doesn’t really want a fight either.  This is his identity crisis.  He’s trapped between two versions of himself–the ruthless man he used to be, and the easy-going amateur chef who pulls the strings from a safe distance, and has long avoided any direct use of violence, because it didn’t make sense for a man in his position to take that kind of risk.  That man he used to be is still down there inside of him–as was the case with Bronson, when Parker came for him, years before–but the reflexes have dulled.  Memory isn’t enough.

He tells Calesian he’s just about ready to retire, leave town, play shuffleboard.   But he can’t accept being forced out by an underling.  He wants to make some kind of deal, come to an arrangement.  This is his mistake.  This is why he’s about to die.  Because you can’t have it both ways.   You can’t have absolute power, and then just bargain it away at your convenience.  In this kind of business, you’re all the way in, or all the way out.  Kings don’t get to retire.  A fellow named Lear could have told him that.  Different mob.

Calesian is finished if he tells Lozini he’s working for Buenadella, and a cripple if he won’t.   So he feeds him a lie, says it’s the other possible, Ernie Dulare.  That gets Lozini off balance, thinking about something other than Calesian, who says he’s got something in his bag that will prove he’s telling the truth–what he’s got is the same gun he used to kill Dunstan.  Lozini takes just a second too long figuring out what’s happening.  Well, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed shuffleboard much, anyway.  Stupid game.

So next we’re with Buenadella the porn merchant, get a bit of his background–he’s the new style of ganglord.  All business.   We’ve seen this dichotomy before in Westlake’s work (361, The Outfit, etc).  When gangsters start going legit, they stop being gangsters.  Difference is, Buenadella, who got his start in the mafia, never really was a gangster at heart.  The coup he’s planned is supposed to be bloodless.   He’s not out to whack anybody.  He really thought that could work.  Then Farrell tells him about Parker and Grofield–who suddenly show up at his house, armed.  So much for that plan.

Grofield can’t believe how tacky the house is–like a bad stage set.  It’s reminiscent of how Westlake described Vigano’s house in Cops and Robbers.  Too many clashing elements, the elegant alongside the vulgar, indicative of nouveau riche tastes.  But he’s got to focus on what’s happening–Parker is tired of the run-around.  He wants their 73 grand, and Buenadella, since he now wants to be the man in charge, is going to cough it up or die.

Thing is, Buenadella spent a lot of that money from the amusement park on this coup of his.  He didn’t need it to pull the coup off successfully, it was just a convenient piece of extra capital he didn’t want Lozini to get his hands on.  He wishes he’d never seen the money, but hindsight won’t stop Parker from killing him if he can’t pay.  Money is very tight in his organization at the moment because it’s supporting not one but two mayoral campaigns–but he figures he can manage to come up with the cash before the election, somehow.  Just to make these two very frightening individuals go their merry way.

Grofield is privately a bit critical of Parker’s negotiating skills here (if you want to call them that)–he’s thinking you can’t push so hard, or they push back.  He’s dealt with businessmen before, in his acting life.  Let Buenadella come around, see the sense of their proposal.   Between the good and bad cop approach, they get Buenadella to at least tentatively agree to give them what they want.  And as he and Parker are walking out the rear-facing french doors they’d come in through, Grofield gets shot in the chest by a guy he barely glimpses, who was waiting outside.

It spun him around.  Everything went out of focus as he turned, like a special effect in a movie.  He killed me! Grofield thought despairingly, and slid down the invisible glass wall of life.

That’s a death scene, if ever there was one.  Any other Richard Stark character, that’d be the last POV chapter he ever got.  The language is not at all ambiguous, but (spoiler alert) Grofield does not die. So what’s up with that?

Up to this point, you could say this was as much a Grofield novel as a Parker–the conclusion to both sagas–Grofield has been co-protagonist, and in this chapter, he’s even seeming to take control of the partnership for a moment.  In his mind, as has been the case since we first met him, he’s the hero, dramatic music playing in the background as he goes through his paces, rescues the maiden, defeats the bad guys (even though he’s technically a bad guy).  That’s how it plays out in his mind.

But not in Stark’s mind.  That’s the problem–Stark has always preferred Parker–Parker belongs in the world of Richard Stark–Grofield, as I’ve said before, is a Westlake character who wandered into Stark’s realm by mistake, and perhaps outstayed his welcome.

Grofield is respected, by Parker and by Stark, for his skills, his professionalism, his refusal to compromise his craft by working in television and film–but his entire life is a compromise.  Is he an actor or a robber?  A devoted husband or a footloose philanderer?   One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.  Which is what an actor needs to be, which is why an actor wrote that line.

I think Westlake, the former spear-carrier in summer theater, always had a soft spot for him–he represents some old fantasies, and is certainly based in part on Westlake’s first-ever series protagonist, the lusty young journeyman actor, Phil Crawford, who appeared in several of Westlake’s sleaze novels (only one of which I’ve read).

But in Stark’s world, Grofield’s been living on borrowed time.  He’s always on the brink of dying, in the Parker novels and his own, only to escape the final reckoning by the skin of his proverbial teeth.  Now the bill has come due.  He’s being rejected by that world, cast forth from it.  Westlake may not intend this, but Stark does, and in a Parker novel, Stark has the final word.

And even though Grofield is clearly referring to the man he saw shoot him when he says “He killed me”, he’s always seemed to me to have just an inkling of the fact that he’s a player on a larger stage, and maybe he knows on some level who really pulled the trigger on him just now.  Any actor knows, when the playwright says you’re dead, you have to lie down–but as Raoul Walsh once wryly quipped, when asked why James Cagney’s bullet-riddled character takes forever to die at the end of The Roaring 20’s, “It’s hard to kill an actor.”

This is all getting rather meta, I know, but the most Westlake, Vishnu to Stark’s Shiva, can do for Grofield is intercede quietly on his creation’s behalf, try to soften the blow.   And there’s only one ‘hero’ in this myth-cycle who can do that for him–Parker.

But Parker’s reaction, as he flees out the front door of Buenadella’s house, protected by the presence of a surveillance van manned by state police, is merely It was too bad about Grofield.  Soldiers die in wars all the time.  He’s got no intention of doing anything about it.   His objective at this point is still just the money.  73 grand would tide him and Claire over for some time.  For him to think about anything else, someone’s going to have to push that button in his head that makes him need to kill whoever pushed it.

Grofield’s shooter was Calesian, who had come to Buenadella’s to tell him about Lozini, saw the car, and realized what was happening–then realized too late that both Parker and Grofield were there, so he didn’t wait for them both to come into view as he lay in wait.   So Parker got away, and now he’s got to deal with a raging Buenadella, who is angry enough that a situation he was about to resolve non-violently has just been escalated.  He’s even more upset when he finds out Lozini is dead.   Killing a boss is a serious business–there’s people at the national level who will be angered by it, since they’re bosses too.

But Buenadella’s power, so newly achieved, is already falling away from him–his business as usual approach doesn’t fit the situation, and it’s not like he’s been elected to anything–he’s only boss if people do what he says.  Calesian begins to realize he can be boss now–he’s the one who took charge when things got tough.  So in spite of his seeming lowly status in the organization, he can take control of the whole shooting match now if he wants, and much to his surprise, he really really wants that.   A cop could be the boss of the local mafia.  Gee, no identity crisis there, right?

But this means he has to pin Lozini’s death on somebody else.  Parker will do nicely as the fall guy.  Buenadella fearfully agrees, not knowing how to do anything else.  He’ll make a good figurehead.  Calesian is making all the plans, and the other powers in the Tyler mob fall in behind him–and accept his story that Parker shot Lozini without question–that will also be the story they tell the national syndicate leaders, like Karns.  But that means they can’t cut a deal with Parker anymore.  They have to kill him to shut him up.  Which means they have to lure him in somehow.  Calesian knows just the way–and here comes the one scene people most remember in the book.

A meet is arranged over the phone–Parker makes very sure the emissary wasn’t being tailed.  Ted Shevelly, Lozini’s loyal consigliere (he was never even approached about the coup), who doesn’t know what’s really going on here, is delegated to bring Parker a token of their regard.   One of Grofield’s little fingers in a little white box.   To prove he’s still alive.  They’ll keep sending more fingers, and other things, until Parker agrees to come in and talk.   Then he’ll get his money, and Grofield, and an ambulance to take him away in.

Parker knows there’d be no talking if he took that deal.   But that isn’t the point anymore.  The button has been pushed.  The button nobody in this world can ever un-push.  The money has now assumed a secondary importance to him.   Or maybe it’s been inextricably mingled together in his mind with something else.  Something much older.

And you can imagine that very ancient fire kindling behind his unreadable onyx eyes, his facial expression not altering in the slightest as that thing inside of him is irreversibly triggered, as we have seen happen many times before, but somehow never quite like this.   If they had made that movie they planned, can you think of any actor who could have expressed that subtle yet unmistakable transition?  Lee Marvin, maybe.  Not an option in 1996.

He knows immediately that this isn’t Buenadella’s idea–that Calesian is in charge.  He tells Shevelly that.  Shevelly doesn’t understand.  Shevelly is being very obtuse.  Fatally so.

“It was a stupid thing to kill Al Lozini,” Shevelly said.

Parker frowned at him, looking at the coldly angry face.  “Oh.  They told you I did that, huh?”

Shevelly had nothing to say.  Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to make use of him.  He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying, “Get out of the car.”

“What?”

“Just get out.  Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me.”

Shevelly frowned.  “What for?”

“I take precautions.  Do it.”

Puzzled Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb.  He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head.  Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself shouting “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.

Parker spends the next few hours seeking a base of operations–he chooses Calesian’s neighborhood.  He’d already looked Calesian up in the phone book, broke into his apartment, found Lozini’s body.  He’s not interested in any of that now, he’s just aware of the fact that it’s the kind of impersonal upscale neighborhood where strangers will not be noticed.  He picks a large apartment building, uses skeleton keys (Abadandi’s?) to check the apartments that don’t have any mail downstairs.  He finds one belonging to a couple who just left on vacation.  He moves his and Grofield’s things there.  He makes some calls.  Some guys take longer than others to find, but he’s very persistent.  When he’s finished, eleven of the men he talked to are on their way to Tyler.

Now re-reading this, I was moved to wonder–does he have a little black book of fellow heisters, or their contacts, that he carries around with him?  That seems like a potentially dangerous piece of evidence to carry around.   Which would mean he’s got all those numbers committed to memory.   For just such situations as this.  In The Outfit, he used the mail–he sent letters to various heisters he knew, telling them these organization men had violated some unwritten law about leaving their kind alone, and as a result they should feel free to ignore the unwritten law that they don’t hit Outfit businesses, no matter how invitingly soft they look.  And surprisingly enough, it worked–they didn’t do it as a favor to him, but they did it, and it helped bring down Arthur Bronson.

There’s no time for that now.  And he’s not just out to bring down Buenadella, Calesian, or whoever else happens to be in charge.  This is not the same situation–they just owed him money then.  Now they owe him blood.  The entire organization is responsible for sending him that finger.   The entire organization has to pay.   Yes, it is rather reminiscent of Anarchaos, isn’t it?   But Parker is no neophyte, like Rolf Malone.  And Grofield isn’t his brother, not that we can be sure a mere genetic relationship would matter to him.  No matter how Parker may or may not feel about his fallen colleague, Grofield’s plight, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make Parker act this way.  But the finger was.  Why?

Leaving that question to one side for the moment, we now move through a series of chapters from the perspective of some characters from past books we haven’t seen in some time, and at least two we never thought we’d see again.   As the moon continues to wane over Tyler, eleven of Parker’s fellow ‘wolves’ (and one lovely little bitch named Brenda, and I only mean that as a compliment) descend upon Tyler, which as we were informed early in the book, never did build a wall around itself, to serve as protection from rapacious bands of brigands, and other beasts of the night.  Such things are in the distant past.  Not anything a modern American city needs worry about.

The 1927-28 New York Yankees line-up was famously known as ‘Murderer’s Row’, but they got nothing on this all star line-up.  Stan Devers and Philly Webb, from the Air Force base job in Monequois.  Dan Wycza, Frank Elkins, and Ralph Wiss, from the legendary Copper Canyon heist.   Mike Carlow, the ultimate getaway driver, sprung from jail after getting nabbed for his role in the Indianapolis coin convention score–as a neat bonus, we find out that Otto Mainzer, the loud-mouth Nazi rapist they worked with on that one had, with his usual fine-tuned grasp of the social graces, made himself so generally noxious to the law that they were practically begging Carlow to accept a deal in exchange for turning state’s.  No prisoner’s dilemma here, since the two loathed each other at first sight, and nobody wanted to give Mainzer a break.

But wait, there’s more!  Ed and Brenda Mackey who we met in Plunder Squad, are driving there, everyone’s favorite fun crime couple, exchanging saucy single-entendres, and not in any way discussing the fact that last time we saw Ed, he was supposed to be lying dead in a burning warehouse, after Parker left him there.  I’m sure that will be explained very shortly.

Just to remind us how this atypically long Parker novel got started, Ducasse, Dalesia, and the other Hurley (the one Parker and Grofield did not shoot full of holes for ratting on them) are coming as well.  Last and the precise opposite of least, there’s Handy McKay, the first and finest of Parker’s partners in crime, out of retirement at last, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s infrastructure upgrades that have made his little diner in Maine unprofitable.  With a few pertinent questions to ask of his old comrade.

Murderer’s Row, indeed.   Parker’s getting the band back together, except most of these guys don’t even know each other, except through him.   You realize what a deep bench of irreformable hard cases he’s compiled in his head over the years.   This is the dream team he always aspired to create, but somehow there was always a bad apple, a weak link.   Not this time.  And just as in Copper Canyon, there’s twelve of them (Grofield makes thirteen), and just as in The Score, you wonder if you’re supposed to be drawing some blasphemous inference or other.

Parker isn’t just calling in the reserves–he’s drawing up battle plans.   To that end, he hijacks poor Frankie Faran, who manages that club Parker and Grofield hit a few nights back.  Frankie is no great shakes in the Tyler mob, but due to his position–you might say he’s their social director–he’s had many an informal chat over drinks with all the major players, and he knows everything Parker needs to know about all the rackets in town.  Which Parker needs to know because Murderer’s Row doesn’t work for nothing.  Frankie is terrified of what his friends would do to him if they found out he’d spilled the beans to Parker, but we’ve seen this dance before, and in no time at all, he’s much more terrified of what Parker will do to him if he doesn’t.

In the meantime, the moon over Tyler has shrunk to a mere silver sliver–tomorrow night it’ll be pitch black out, or would be if some joker turned out the lights.  In that bit of remaining moonlight, we see Grofield, lying in a bed in Buenadella’s house, hooked up to tubes, breathing shallowly, his hands making the occasional spasmodic movement (Should I mention that this chilling tableau reminds me of the stroke scene in Ex Officio?  Probably not).   His heart stops.  Then starts up again.  Hang in there, buddy.   You’ve got Vishnu in your corner, and Shiva has bigger fish to fry.

That gets us about 212 pages in, and that’ll do for Part 2.  Just ninety-four pages to go.  And if you can point out a more perfectly paralyzing pulse-pounding ninety-four pages anywhere else in the annals of fictive crime, I’d be only too grateful.  But perhaps a mite skeptical.

So I just have to cough up Part 3 and we’re done.  In our dimension (in the Northern Hemisphere), the next Butcher’s Moon will occur this coming Sunday, September 13th.  I’m making no promises here, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark