Gabe had a window seat on the train, but there hadn’t been anything to see for three thousand miles.
There had been green days: grass flats, fourteen Indians riding around the train in warbonnets chasing five spavined buffalo. There had been brown days: the occasional yokel on a horse and at intervals an excuse for a town–a few tottering shacks, buckboard wagons, tall idiots festooned with huge revolvers and silly hats.
He remembered the curl of Twill’s lip. “West of the Hudson River, it’s all horse manure.”
A wise observation, that. It smelled that way–even Chicago. Especially Chicago, stinking to high heaven of beef carcasses. It was only a thousand miles after Chicago that you started to remember the place with a certain wistful fondness. It wasn’t a city, but at least by God it was trying.
Don Westlake had a blinding-fast mind. He always seemed to have on the tip of his tongue the sort of wonderful witty rejoinders that occur to most of us a day or two too late. In 1970 we got the idea that it would be amusing to try combining our strengths in a Western comedy novel. We wrote Gangway!, and it turned out to be quite funny, I think. Henry sold it and it did fairly well. But our ambitions to sell it as a basis for a movie didn’t work out. And we’d done it in a silly way—each of us would write a draft, then turn it over to the other, who’d rewrite the whole thing and give it back. It was about four times as much work as either of us would have put in individually on a book. So we didn’t try that again. But it was fun, and we got to know each other’s working styles.
Brian Garfield, speaking to Levi Stahl.
They really did meet at a poker game, in 1965. That’s what Brian Garfield said in this interview, and I see no reason to doubt him. I’ve already spoken about the enduring friendship between Westlake and Lawrence Block, but there was yet another great literary bromance in Westlake’s life that stretched across the decades, and that was with this guy, born about six years after Westlake, in 1939. My significant other, seeing his name on a book I was reading, asked if he might have inspired Alan Grofield. The similarity in the names is an interesting coincidence, as are the parallels in the relationships (Parker to Grofield, Westlake to Garfield)–even the age difference is similar–but since Grofield first appeared in 1964, probably not. Too bad.
The game depicted in the above photo from the back cover of this book took place some years later, in 1972, when Garfield was hard at work on the book most people remember him for now, Death Wish. Arguably more famous than anything Westlake ever wrote, but that’s at least partly because of the Charles Bronson movie (screenplay by Wendell Mayes, who wrote a whole lot of better movies, but a nice bonus to get such a solid pro adapting you).
Garfield was born in New York City, like Westlake himself, but grew up in Arizona, about as far from upstate New York in climate and culture as you can get in this country. While Westlake got his start writing a mix of science fiction, mystery, and pseudo-porn, Garfield wrote mysteries and westerns–a lot more westerns than mysteries in the early days–over forty novels in that genre, many of the early ones under pseudonyms.
As a mature author, his wheelhouse would eventually turn out to be a mixture of crime and thriller/suspense, sometimes with a touch of espionage, but his roots were in the horse opera. His first published novel was a western published under his own name, entitled Range Justice, and came out in 1960, same year as The Mercenaries, Westlake’s first novel under his own name, but that’s a mite deceptive–Westlake had a big jump on Garfield, professionally speaking. Garfield would be catching up fast over the next decade or so.
Westlake was not a westerns guy. Like any American kid born in the first seven decades of the 20th century, he knew the genre–you couldn’t avoid it, any more than you could baseball. He wasn’t much interested in writing for it. He wasn’t that much interested in the west most of the time, if you get right down to it. He’d write stories set out west–Parker novels, for example, or novels about Hollywood–but in most cases, the setting was more or less incidental to the story, though always keenly observed.
Westlake was more about the city than the country, and if he wrote about the country, it was the way city people tend to do–somewhere you escape to, quiet and bucolic, a good place to relax (or hide out)–but still adjacent to the city, so you can get back to civilization quickly when you need it, and you will.
So according to Garfield, this book was written around 1970 (at least that’s when they had the idea), and their mutual agent, Henry Morrison (who also attended those poker games), got it published at M. Evans & Co., a few years later. It was right around 1970 (with the pseudonymous political thriller Ex Officio) that M. Evans had started its ten-novel run with Westlake (and one two-novella collection we’ll be getting to soon enough). All the subsequent books he produced for them were published under his own name, and no two are alike, or really much like anything he did before or since. But this collaborative effort was unusual even by the standards of his work for M. Evans.
Is it a true western? I’ve seen people suggest otherwise. I think they’re right as far as they go–the western novel is a fairly rigid form, perhaps the most conservative of all genres, and I don’t just mean politically. There are certain elements that have to be present, that the readership demands, and if they aren’t there, it isn’t a western–but the form is a lot less rigorously classicist in its other mediums, such as film and television, which is how most people have enjoyed it.
I think this book, set in 1874, in boom town San Francisco, falls very neatly into the comedy western genre that had become overwhelmingly prevalent in Hollywood films during the late 60’s/early 70’s (presumably there were a lot of books as well, but I wouldn’t know), as the western movie genre began to die out, along with the TV western. In fact, I would suspect Garfield and Westlake were thinking at least party about this 1969 release, and how they might improve upon it–
(Fun film. Very lightweight stuff, but still worth renting, or catching on late-night cable–Ossie Davis has a memorable role as a two-fisted wisecracking blacksmith, Clint Walker is sturdy enough, and Angie Dickinson is as you’d expect, only more so, because the S&P people were loosening up on sex a bit. Burt Reynolds is Burt Reynolds, as always, and what’s wrong with that?).
And as Garfield tells us in the interview, they weren’t just writing a novel together for a few bucks–they were hoping to sell it to Hollywood–trying to latch onto a trend. Seems like they were a bit too far behind the curve–Hollywood was rapidly losing interest in westerns, comedic or otherwise. But if they had sold the novel to the movies, that’s what the movie would have been sold as, no question. So yeah, it’s a western. It’s just not a standard ‘oater’, with the sixgun shoot-outs, the cowpokes, the schoolmarms, and the wide open prairie. It’s what you might call a sub-genre–‘the dude goes west’. Been a lot of those.
And it’s a comic caper to boot. Westlake was just then becoming the supreme master of those, with The Hot Rock. But this, sadly, is a lot closer to his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon? It’s actually not that bad. Enjoyable light reading, if approached with limited expectations. It’s a long way from the best work either man was capable of–when writing a novel, two heads are not necessarily better than one.
To be sure, there have been great writing duos in the mystery genre–“Ellery Queen” was actually the team of cousins Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee. The mystery novels of “Wade Miller” and “Whit Masterson” were written by the team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. Two people who work together often in this way can achieve a sort of synergy, each doing what he or she is best at, and the results can be impressive. But much more often, you get something written by committee. Prose fiction is not a team sport.
Westlake and Lawrence Block had co-written a few sleaze books, mainly alternating chapters, each getting to use his own distinctive style, make up the plot as they went along, each reacting to the other’s choices–Westlake and Garfield both worked on all the chapters in this one, going for consistency in tone. Which makes it damned hard to know who is responsible for what.
You can make educated guesses, but here’s the thing–each man was well-familar with the work of the other, and Garfield in particular was very influenced by Westlake, so even if you see something that strikes you as very much a Westlake plot twist, or a Westlake character, or a Westlake gag–could just be Garfield channeling Westlake. Less likely it would be the other way around, since Garfield’s style was still evolving at this point, but Westlake would have tried to make his stuff match-up with Garfield’s, and might have deferred to him more since Garfield knew this genre (and the geographic region it’s set in) so much better.
Westlake must have read some western novels, as well as gone to movies–in that faux interview of himself and his pseudonyms that I’ve referenced many times here, he makes a rather disparaging reference to Dirty Dingus Magee, and in the context of the discussion, it seems like he means the novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee, by David Markson, not the Frank Sinatra film based on it, even though he uses the movie title. The two may have gotten mixed up in his mind.
He had a pronounced aversion to genre writing that got too self-consciously joky and gimmick-laden–as you can see from last week’s book, if he wrote a sustained parody, it was probably going to be of something he didn’t like. So his intention here is not parodic, not even satiric–he’s going to try and craft an urban western farce, similar in tone and effect to his popular ‘Nephew’ books, with a protagonist who has much in common with Aloysius Engel of The Busy Body, and (less fortunately) Kelly Bram Nicholas IV of Who Stole Sassi Manoon? I don’t consider this a Nephew story, because certain key elements are missing, but you could argue this picks up where The Busy Body left off–a confirmed New Yorker forced to go west–only it’s the old west.
Westlake would have gone into this venture with mixed emotions–liking the idea of working with a friend whose abilities he respected; curious to see what he could do with a form he wasn’t experienced in; thinking maybe they’d score a nice payday in Tinseltown before the western movie’s last great decadent era came to a close. It would be different, at least.
But at the same time he’d be thinking he was too far out of his element–collaborating on a novel, something he’d only done a few times before, never producing results that were much to his liking–said book being set not only in a place he didn’t know well, but in a different time–a period piece. Westlake wrote in the moment–very rarely does he ever tell a story that isn’t set in the exact time it was composed in. He seemed to need that sense of immediacy to spur him on to greatness.
And I often seem to need to devote even more set-up time to the books I’m not that wild about. Weird, huh? Let’s try a very brief synopsis here, before this thing gets out of control.
Gabe Beauchamps, a French-American tough from Manhattan’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen district (where I lived for a time, and it lived down to its rep), is sourly gazing at the California landscape from the train. His former employer, a crooked political boss named Patrick Twill (Tweed was already taken) has kicked him out of New York for life, because of one minor screw-up (he muscled a pushcart vendor related to a local bigwig). He’s been given a choice of San Francisco or death. He’s reluctantly chosen the former.
(Sidebar: Why is Gabe French-American? We’re told Twill, more of a political boss than a crimelord–the implication being that the difference was largely academic at the time–needed a Frenchman to keep the locals in line. Either Westlake or Garfield had apparently read somewhere that Hell’s Kitchen used to be a French nabe. Maybe it was once. But it’s 1874, about two decades since the famine-stricken Irish came pouring off the ships into New York; there were certainly many powerful Irish street gangs in Hell’s Kitchen by then, so I don’t buy it. I can’t find any reference to a strong French presence in Hell’s Kitchen at all–there’s a few good French restaurants there, but they don’t go back that far.
Westlake would have been in charge of the New York stuff, and he probably skimped a bit on the research, as he sometimes did–found some obscure reference to French people in Hell’s Kitchen that appealed to him, and ran with it. Gabe doesn’t even seem to speak any French. His temperament seems more Gaelic than Gallic to me–but he does like to cherchez la femme. I suspect Westlake just wanted to remind us that New York’s ethnic make-up is always changing–he’d probably heard the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen bars, complaining about those damn Puerto Ricans. And the beat goes on.)
Gabe has an endearing and rather Nephew-esque little quirk–he gets seasick–doesn’t have to be on the actual sea–being on any kind of a boat on any kind of water will turn the trick (this would be a good sight gag for a movie). So he’s not happy when he finds out the railroad doesn’t go all the way to San Francisco yet, and he’s got to take a riverboat the rest of the way from Sacramento. And he does have to, because Twill says he’s going to get whacked (or whatever term they used then) if he doesn’t turn up there on schedule.
So on the boat, Gabe meets the lovely Evangeline Kemp, 24 years of age to Gabe’s 28, blonde, petite, perky as all hell, and a talented pickpocket to boot. That’s just one of her skills–she’s an extremely versatile petty thief in petticoats. I think you can guess how they meet (you’ve seen this movie before). Having gotten the preliminary jostling and jousting out of the way, they fall head over heels (well, Gabe is more like head over boat railing for a while there), and she being a native San Franciscan–the very first generation, in fact–and as bigotedly proud of her birthplace as Gabe is of Gotham (he’d never even left Manhattan before now, because water), there’s lots of bi-coastal bickering going on all through the book.
Gabe likes Vangie (as he insists on calling her) quite a lot, and intends to keep her–they bed down together in a purloined hotel room, shortly after getting off the boat (which would never happen to a true Westlake nephew). But Vangie’s undeniable charms aside, Gabe sees San Francisco as ‘a lumpy Newark.’ It is not, in fact, quite the urbane laid-back little burg it reputedly is today (I’ve never had the pleasure), but rather a rough-hewn rollicking good-time town, that’s already burned to the ground twice, and maintains a very efficient fire department that keeps nearly running the protagonists down on the street.
I’d say that’s the real pleasure of the book–the way we’re shown San Francisco in embryo, and the authors keep showing us hints of the city it is inexorably becoming–just as you might look at old photos of someone as a child, and see hints of the adult. And of course some things about a city remain constant from the start–
They moved into a narrow street, getting jostled. Something like grey smoke began to drift down off the rooftops, obscuring their view of things. “What’s going on? Something on fire?”
“Shh!” Vangie clapped a finger to Gabe’s mouth. “Don’t say fire around here. Ever. Unless you mean it.”
“But that stuff–”
“That’s just the fog coming in.”
It was coming in mighty fast. He could hardly see the end of the street, only a block away. “This happen often?”
Defensively she said, “From time to time.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well,” she said reluctantly, “Maybe once or twice a day.”
“We don’t mind it.”
“You get used to it.”
“All year round?”
She said desperately, “We like the fog.”
“All right then, tell me this. Does it ever get any warmer around here?”
“Once in a while. From time to time.”
“You mean once or twice a day?”
“Well, maybe once or twice a year.” She added quickly, “But it never gets much colder than this either.”
“I don’t see how it hardly could.” He shook his head. “And you call this a city.”
Just the same at least there was life teeming around them. The narrow street was overflowing with toughs, brassy girls, and drunken sailors. Among the buildings Gabe could see, two out of three were Melodeons and Saloons. The rest were whorehouses, opium dens, Cheap John clothing stores, ship-chandlers, and the kind of boardinghouses where you kept your boots on when you went to bed to make sure nobody stole them. It was a neighborhood not altogether unlike Hell’s Kitchen; even if it was a pretty limp imitation, it did show some promise.
One very big hint of San Francisco’s future comes when the newly minted couple meet an old friend of Gabe’s from the old neighborhood, one Francis Calhoun. Who is gay. And is not once referred to as such, partly because Westlake never uses that term to refer to same-sex oriented persons, for reasons nobody seems to have ever inquired of him (I think the language maven in him resented a very old multi-purpose word being made useless for any purpose save one).
But absolutely nobody, Francis included, would be using the word ‘gay’ that way in 1874–Westlake is perhaps taking a certain satisfaction in not needing any term at all for Francis, because it’s over fifteen years until the dawn of the ‘Gay 90’s’–to the extent the word has any sexual connotation at all at this time, it’s heterosexual–nobody will be using ‘gay’ to refer to men like Francis for at least another half century or so. They had lots of very impolite terms for homosexuals back then, but not one of them gets employed here. Okay, one sailor insinuates that Francis is ‘fruity’, but Francis retorts by bringing up certain well-known habits of sailors, and that shuts him up good.
Francis corresponds pretty neatly to the usual fictional (and sometimes actual) tropes regarding gay men, but can it be a true stereotype if it’s just in its formative period? He’s got a knack for decorating, he works in the theater (if you call music halls theater), is rather good-tempered, a bid timid, loyal to a fault. Gabe was one of the few neighborhood boys who didn’t treat him badly back in the day, so he sees Gabe as a friend–and understands him pretty well. He’s clearly leading a fairly active social life, and let’s just say he’s not alone out there, but he is, in his own decidedly un-rugged way, a pioneer.
Vangie, unlike the oblivious Gabe (can’t even grasp the concept of not liking girls) sizes Francis up at a glance, and treats him a mite frostily at first, but then realizes a man who knows about fashion and can be your friend without wanting to fuck you isn’t such a bad thing after all–well, that meme had to start somewhere, didn’t it?
Also in the mix is Ittzy Herz, who is a either a good luck charm or a jinx, depending on your interpretation–bad things never happen to him, but they frequently happen to people who try to do him harm, or just happen to be standing in the wrong place when he passes–he’s not consciously making anything happen, it just does. Like a guy fires a gun at him point blank, and the guy’s friend, who was standing over to one side, falls down wounded, and the shooter gets dragged off to jail for attempted murder. Gabe quickly decides that Ittzy will be useful to his plan.
Oh did I forget to mention the plan? Gabe intends to rob the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, the existence of which he did not learn about until he got there. It does not seem he has any experience at this kind of thing–he was basically a ward heeler for Boss Twill, an enforcer; tough and resourceful and more than willing to break a few laws, or a few heads, but not a guy who robs banks or payrolls, and as we’ve seen, his sex drive isn’t cyclical. He’s no Parker. He’s a bit more like Dortmunder (maybe the way Dortmunder was before he’d spent a few years in prison), but he’s an amateur at this, a beginner–with the corresponding beginner’s luck, that Vangie keeps warning him is going to run out.
And as a non-pro, he refuses to process that this job is too damn risky, the mint being less of a bank than an impregnable fortress, bristling with armed guards. Never mind all that. He needs the gold to go back to New York in style, replace Boss Twill, and rule over his rightful kingdom in splendor forevermore (with Vangie at his side, though she’s not too enthused about leaving San Fran). He needs the gold, therefore there must be a way to get at it, and then get away clean. He just needs to figure out what that is. Call him a proto-heister.
Vangie is opposed to the whole insane venture–she just wants Gabe to settle down with her in ‘the Paris of the West’ as she calls it (Gabe retorts that New York is the New York of the world). She keeps thinking he’ll realize it’s a dumb idea, so she waits around for light to dawn. He’s not what you’d call handsome, she’s actually supporting him by plying her various larcenous trades, and he keeps telling her the city she adores is a fog-covered collection of shacks compared to his majestic Manhattan, the only place any civilized being would ever want to live. And she just keeps trudging loyally at his side, only pausing occasionally for a bout of lovemaking.
They haven’t even known each other a week. This is the part of the story that’s hardest to understand. But then love always is. I’ve seen more unlikely couples on the streets of New York. Not a lot more unlikely, mind you.
Gabe decides they need a ship to transport the gold, once they’ve swiped it, and Francis directs them to a rather woebegone sea captain name of Flagway. He has a sad story to tell of having been shanghaied many years before, taken from his father and their apothecary shop in Baltimore as a boy, and no matter how many times he tried to get a ship back home, it always ended up going somewhere else. He finally ended up as captain of a ship that technically belongs to the Paraguayan navy (yes, Paraguay is a landlocked country–it would take too long to explain). But with no crew, and no money, he’s just sitting on the dock of the bay. Watchin’ the tide roll away. Hey, catchy!
Captain Flagway is no thief, but Gabe explains to him that the money in the mint is the property of all U.S. citizens, and they’re merely distributing it. The captain, who has witnessed many horrible acts during his time at sea, makes it clear to Gabe that he wants to play no part in any violence.
“No, no,” Gabe said. “you wouldn’t have to.”
“Not hold a gun,” the captain went on, “or stab anybody.”
Francis and Vangie both looked a trifle green. Gabe, patting the air in a calming manner said, “No no, not at all. Definitely not.”
“I couldn’t strangle anybody with my bare hands,” the captain explained earnestly. “Or cut them apart with an ax, or bury them in wet cement, or drown them in the sewer, or—-”
Francis and Vangie kept learning farther and farther away, out of the conversation. Gabe too was looking green by now, and his voice was somewhat loud and shrill when he said, “Nothing like that. I promise you, Captain. You don’t have to go on; I understand the kind of thing you’re talking about. It won’t be anything like that at all.”
“Well, that’s good, the captain said.
Ittzy said “We just want your boat.”
“That’s fine,” the captain said. He felt great relief. “Then I wouldn’t have to throttle anybody or—-“
Garfield may, for all I know, have written some heist stories before this. Maybe some western bank hold-ups or like that. Nothing like this, I bet. Westlake was the specialist in this area, though at the time he and Garfield were writing this, he was still learning how to make a heist funny and believable at the same time.
And he hasn’t quite figured out how to do that yet, not reliably, anyhow. Without going into detail, I can tell you that Gabe’s hastily worked-out, extremely contrived, and inexplicably successful (Vangie is dumbfounded) theft of all the gold from the San Francisco mint, which ends with them settling down in San Francisco and selling the gold back to the government, a few ingots at a time is–well–a mite hard to swallow. You aren’t really supposed to believe it, just go with it. It was going to be a Hollywood comedy western, remember. Those are not, by their nature, supposed to be realistic.
But then I think about it, and I realize that of course Hollywood didn’t buy this book–they get away with it. They rob the U.S. mint, and nobody gets killed, and they all get rich, and live happily ever after. Now you remember that Burt Reynolds movie I mentioned? You know what happens in that one? They take gold that was already stolen from the Denver mint by somebody else and put it back. I can almost imagine Westlake’s disgusted expression as he sat in the theater, but that’s how the movies tend to do it. You steal from bad people, or you get caught, or you get killed, or you fail to get the money, or you put the money back. Those are the options. That’s what Vangie (a movie heroine if ever there was one) keeps trying to tell Gabe, but Gabe somehow knows he’s in a different kind of story, and soldiers on.
And that isn’t the point, of course. There have been two themes in the book–one is luck–good and bad. Bad luck brought Gabe to San Francisco, but because Gabe was smart enough to get Ittzy involved, Ittzy’s weird mojo can be used to explain their remarkable Rube Goldberg-esque good fortune. It’s a pretty threadbare explanation, but it’s there. In future, with Dortmunder, Westlake will learn to balance good and bad luck, give with one hand and take with the other, so the karmic balance is maintained, and the story can continue.
But see, there’s another theme, and it’s the old one–identity. Gabe saw himself as a New Yorker, born and bred, immutable in his resolve to remain a Gothamite forever. All through the book, his only thought was to get back east. But at the end, having come back to terra firma in a ship laden with treasure, approaching San Francisco from the west instead of the east, his attitude has changed. He sees the potential now. This is where the action is, so this is where Gabe Beauchamps must be. The dude from the east is a true westerner now, heart and soul. If they actually had a baseball team there, he’d root for them (and when that team finally showed up, guess which city they hailed from?). His loyalties have changed.
And that’s as should be–identity has to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s no good to think of yourself as a New Yorker if you’re not in New York. When you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in–particularly when it comes with a girl like Vangie into the bargain. And this, of course, is the pioneer spirit, as well as the true immigrant experience. This is the spirit that made America, and remade it, over and over again, and may it ever be so. Home is where the heart is.
At the end, he’s looking across San Francisco Bay at Marin County, and saying he’s going to use his gold to buy land there. They tell him he’s crazy, nobody wants that land, you can’t get to it. He says they’ll build a bridge someday. Vangie and Francis say it’s impossible. They’re young–with a bit of luck, they’ll all be around another fifty-three years or so.
So that’s the book, and I like it well enough, but Garfield was right–it was too much work for the rather light-weight results they got. I don’t know who deserves the credit for what works, or the blame for what doesn’t, but I do know both of them were capable of much better–doesn’t mean they wasted their time. In fact, one of the scenes in this book reminds me a lot of a much better scene in Bank Shot–with much less happy results.
Garfield was right about something else he said in that interview– “It’s a mistake to write a book with one eye on the movies—you end up with a bad book that won’t get filmed.” Or at least a book that could have been a whole lot better. The two writers remained fast friends, but concentrated on writing their own books, some of which became good movies (Garfield was luckier in that regard), and next week I’m actually going to do a quickie review of one of Garfield’s novels (also published by M. Evans & Co), that was turned into a film I’ve long loved–published a few years after Gangway!, in 1975.
Next up in the Westlake queue is Butcher’s Moon, you see–that’s going to be a big one, and I need some time to prepare. And having read this book of Garfield’s, just to familiarize myself with his style, I found to my surprise that I was reading the best Richard Stark novel I’d ever encountered that was not written by Richard Stark. In fact, it might be better than at least a few of the books that were written by Stark (but not Butcher’s Moon). Anyway, get out some chalk, draw some numbers on the pavement, and rehearse that old schoolyard chant–
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
One of Friday’s Forgotten Books.