Tag Archives: H.G. Wells

Review: Smoke, Part 3

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I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of  your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ralph Ellison

“Nobody has ever seen me,” she said.  “Seen me.  Neither of my husbands ever saw me; they both felt cheated whenever that trophy on the shelf acted as though it were an actual living creature.  The last time my looks gave me pleasure I was probably nine years old.  I can’t scar myself deliberately, that would be stupid.  But this?  Why not?  No one can see me anyway, so why not be invisible?  Make the rest of my life a phone-in?  With pleasure.”  That dazzling smile had something too shiny in it.  “Let’s hope your invention is a success, Dr. Heimhocker,” she said.

Donald Westake

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr. Nobody.

’Tis he who always tears out books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr. Nobody.

Nobody admits to writing this.

In writing about an invisible man, Westlake was primarily influenced by the first and best-known book on that subject, reacting to it, revising it, as I detailed last week.  But he could not possibly have failed to see the significance of a far more important book with virtually the same title, published when he was a teenager.

I don’t know when he first read it, but I would bet everything I own that he did.  Invisible Man is the supreme 20th century novel of human identity.  The fact that it’s specifically about the African American experience, black identity, does not in any way detract from its universality, any more than Shakespeare’s tendency to write ancient Romans, Danish princes, and medieval Scots as Elizabethan English people detracts from his universality.

We all know what it’s like to have people look at us and not really see us.  And in that moment of empathy, we can see past our own parochial little worlds, and feel the pain of Ellison’s nameless narrator, down in his basement, see his point of view, see him–and see ourselves in him.  That is something only a great novelist can do.  Regrettably, Ellison could only do it once.  Tough act to follow.  But it earned him a monument in my nabe, where he used to live.  Want to see?

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Westlake isn’t trying to compete with Ellison’s vision here, let alone revise it.  That would be a fool’s errand.  But it’s there in the subtext.  H.G. Wells wasn’t really looking at identity in his novella about the abortive rebellion of Hawley Griffin, though it crops up here and there, tangentially–his story was about a failed one-man revolution that might pave the way for more successful future attempts. There’s at best the faintest suggestion that Griffin’s failure comes from his inability to know himself.

It was the very essence of Ellison’s book–a man who finds out that the revolution that really matters is the one going on inside–can’t change the world if you can’t change yourself first–and it’s central to this much less ambitious book as well. Westlake liked to put deeper messages into seemingly light stories.  Spoonful of sugar, don’t you know.

See, if you are literally invisible, not just metaphorically, the question of identity changes.  You can’t even see yourself in a mirror anymore.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  The woman you love is starting to forget what your face looked like.  So are you.  So if identity is another term for self-image–what’s left? If nobody can see you, but you still get blamed for your actions, are you in fact Mr. Nobody?  Or is somebody still there, all the same?

Perhaps the closest thing here to a direct reference to Ellison’s book  comes in a brief episode where the two scientists who accidentally made Freddie Noon invisible try to do it on purpose.  They have two volunteers recruited by the tobacco company that indirectly funds their research.  One is a black man, George Clapp, who works as a limo driver for the company–he’s had a somewhat checkered past, and there are outstanding warrants out on him in other states.  His fingerprints are on file.  He’s one police stop away from getting arrested and extradited.  Invisibility sounds just fine to him (he probably hasn’t read Ellison), and they’re promising lots of money.

The other is a woman, a brilliant young nuclear physicist and theoretical mathematician, who has been cursed with extraordinary physical beauty.  Nobody can see past the way she looks. Nobody can ever take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job.  In spite of her considerable intellectual gifts, she’s been forced to work as a statistician for a tobacco company.  To her, invisibility would be like taking the veil.  She can finally escape the ogling eyes of men, the envious eyes of women.  She can finally just be herself.

So to these two very different people, invisibility is the answer to their prayers, or so they think, but they never get to find out, because the two experimental drugs that Freddie took in combination are unpredictable in their effects.  George just becomes lighter-skinned (as Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘If you’re brown, stick around’).  His scars vanish.  His fingerprints are simplified to the point where they can no longer be identified.  He looks years younger, says he feels like he did when he was nineteen.

And of course the company stiffs him out of his money, since they can’t use him as a spy, but he doesn’t care.  As far as he’s concerned, these are the best doctors in the world.  Free at last.

And the woman–Michael Prendergast–well, we can’t all be so lucky.

She was no longer the lushly healthy California-style beauty Mordon had met on Tuesday.  Her skin was pale and pink now, almost translucent.  A kind of ethereal glow surrounded her, as though she were an angel, or one of the lost maidens mourned by Poe.  She looked fragile, unworldly, un-carnal, and absolutely stunning.  She was ten times the beauty she had been before.

“Ms. Prendergast,” Mordon stammered, poleaxed.  “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!”

She burst into tears

Later, George tells his two saviors that Ms. Prendergast (also cheated out of the money she’d been promised for participating in the test) resigned from her position, taking a job working on the nuclear program of some middle eastern country (Iran, Iraq, George isn’t sure which), where she can hide behind a chador.  And there was some talk of her wanting to blow up the world, but I’m sure she got over that eventually.

There are basically two major antagonists in this story.  One is NAABOR, which stands for National American Allied Brands Of Raleigh–it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say they make cigarettes.  And they devote an enormous amount of money towards the growing problem of people increasingly associating cigarettes with life-threatening illnesses, for some strange reason.

They were funding the Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis’ work on  melanoma cures mainly to say “Look, we’re against cancer too and after all, cigarettes don’t cause all cancer, do they?   There’d be cancer anyway!  So light one up, where’s the harm?”  But when the good doctors report the strange case of Freddie Noon to Mordon Leethe, a lawyer who works for NAABOR, and he reports in turn to his employers, they seem to think that now they own Freddie Noon, or his newfound ability, anyway .  And it could come in handy for spying on people, couldn’t it?

Mordon relates the details of Freddie’s very literal disappearance to Jack Fullerton the Fourth, who inherited the title of CEO from his uncle (who died of heart disease because he smoked), who in turn inherited it from his cousin (who got lung cancer because he smoked), and etc.  Jack is himself dying of emphysema.  Well, I suppose that’s one way to get rid of capitalist overlords, except they keep reproducing–there’s always a nephew somewhere.

Jack IV, whose voice is described as sounding like ‘the wind in the upper reaches of a deconsecrated cathedral, possibly one where the nuns had all been raped and murdered and raped,’ goes around all the time with two medical attendants and an oxygen tank, a tube jutting from his nose.

Some users wear that tube as though it’s a great unfair weight, pressing them down, down into the cold earth, long before their time; on others it becomes a ludicrous mustache, imitation Hitler, forcing the victim to poke fun at himself in addition to being sick as a dog, but on Jack the Fourth, with his heavy shoulders and glowering eyes and broad forehead and dissatisfied thick mouth and pugnacious stance, the translucent line of plastic bringing oxygen to his emphysema-clenched lungs was borne like a military decoration, perhaps awarded by the French: Prix de Nez, First Class.

Charming fellow.  Anyway, he mainly just wants Freddie so he can spy on his doctors, who he is convinced are lying to him about his health, and apparently they were, because he dies a little over halfway through the book.  (His funeral is compared to that of famed Columbia Pictures exec Harry Cohn, and if you don’t know that joke, I’ll just let you discover it for yourself).  He is succeeded by (ta-dah!) his nephew, Merrill Fullerton, who does not smoke, and fully intends to keep as many other people on this planet smoking as he possibly can.

And now that he’s privy to the existence of Freddie Noon,  he wants to use him for a much more Machiavellian end than spying on a few demurely diplomatic doctors who were just trying to keep a mean old bastard happy.   He wants Freddie to spy on elected officials, congressional subcommittees, that kind of thing.  And he wants Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis to devote themselves to a different kind of cancer research.

He’s been reading about this Human Genome Project (I get the distinct feeling Mr. Westlake did not approve).  Soon we’ll be able to identify faulty disease-producing genes in advance, and abort imperfect infants (they’re already selectively aborting girls in some parts of the world, not that you need the genome project for that). We’ll be able to tell which of our impending offspring meet our exacting standards of perfection (that we have never lived up to ourselves) and stop them before they happen.

(Merrill brings up the gene for homosexuality in this exchange, which you might imagine is not a comforting thought to the two gay scientists he’s basically inducted into his cause, but also shows Mr. Westlake now subscribes to the Born That Way view of sexual persuasion.   Mr. Westlake, as we now know, was a sickly infant, born with an inability to digest his mother’s milk.  He only survived because of an experimental soybean-based formula just developed.  His sympathy for the oddballs in life is well known–and well-founded.  Only Life itself can test  your worthiness.  Genes are merely a roadmap–not the destination.)

But how, you may ask, would any of this assist an industry known primarily for producing self-administered carcinogen delivery systems?

Merrill leaned forward, his eyes now hot ice.  This was the gist, at last.  “I want the code for lung cancer,” he told them.  “I want the code for emphysema.  I want the code for congestive heart failure.  I want the codes that tobacco taps into.  And then I want a reeducation program, aimed directly at our consumers, not just here, but around the world.  Abort the lung cancer cases.  Abort the emphysema cases!  Never let the little bastards see the light of day!”

David and Peter both blinked.  Merrill sat back, as though after an orgasm, and smiled.  “We’ve spent the last forty years,” he said, “trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race and we failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!”

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.  And believe you me, it does.

Since NAABOR clearly can’t make more invisible operatives, their desire to find and recruit Freddie Noon–forcibly if need be–takes on a new urgency.  Mordon Leethe had already enlisted the services of possibly the most cheerfully corrupt and brutal New York City cop Westlake ever created, which is saying something.  And a restaurateur to boot.   Also our other major antagonist.

A restaurant can be a very satisfying business.  Barney Beuler found that so, certainly.  It had so many advantages.  For instance, it always gave you a place to go if you wanted  meal, but you it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  It gave you, as well, a loyal–or at least fearful–kitchen staff of illegals, always available for some extra little chore like repainting the apartment or standing in line at the Motor Vehicle or breaking some fucking wisenheimer’s leg.  It also made a nice supplement to your NYPD sergeant’s salary (acting lieutenant, Organized Crime Detail) in your piece of the legit profit, of course, but more importantly in the skim.  And it helped to make your personal and financial affairs so complex and fuzzy that the shooflys could never get enough of a handle on you to drag you before the corruption board.

The downside was that, in the six years Barney Beuler had been a minor partner–one of five–in Comaldo Ristorante on West Fifty-sixth Street, he’d gained eighty-five pounds, all of it cholesterol.  It was true he’d die happy; it was also true it would be soon.

To say his personal and financial affairs are complicated is somewhat understating things–“A man with three ex-wives, a current wife, a current girlfriend, a very small drug habit (strictly strictly recreational), two bloodsuckers he’s paying off to keep their mouths shut and himself out of jail, a condo on St. Thomas, a house and a boat on the north shore of Long Island, and a six-room apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson from eleven stories up needs these little extra sources of income to make ends meet, as any sensible person realizes.”

So Barney is quite open to collecting a fat finder’s fee for fetching Freddie.  His off-the-books employers don’t consider it necessary for him to know why they want to talk to this small-time burglar, but Barney’s a man who likes to play all the angles, and he fully intends to find out anyway.  Little extra sources of income, you know?

His first ploy–a fake lottery notice, claiming Freddie won over 200 grand, gets sent to his parents’ house,  and one of his brothers gets the word to him, but Freddie’s too wily a bird to fall for that old game.  All that means is that the law is after him, which is what triggers his and Peg’s exodus to the Hudson Valley.

Barney has a meeting with Mordon at a parking garage (don’t ask me which one is Deep Throat), and tells him that Freddie’s been fingered–he left prints at his heists at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse.  Mordon muses this is because he couldn’t wear gloves.  Barney’s really intrigued now, and using the world-class intimidation tactics his career in law enforcement has equipped him with, he pressures the scared shyster into giving him the fully skinny on Freddie Noon.  (And as the plot progresses, he begins to think he could use Freddie’s talents himself–make him murder those blackmailing leeches clinging to him–hire him out to to the mob as a hit man.  Never mind if that’s in Freddie’s nature or not).

A game of fat cat and invisible mouse follows, which ends with Barney tailing Peg to a train station in Rhinecliff, through the use of a tracking device.  Whereupon Freddie and Peg turn the tables on Barney, and he not only loses them at the station, but gets four slashed tires into the bargain.  And now it’s personal.  Barney gets maybe a bit too involved in the case for his own good.  “The thing about anger is, it tends to overwhelm one’s sense of self-preservation, even if that one is such a one as Barney Beuler, whose sense of self-preservation had been honed for years on the whetstone of the New York City Police Department.”  He had to take a fucking Amtrak train home.  Vengeance shall be his.

And by all rights, this actor should have been his, but he died in 1989, and there was no movie anyway.

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(But if things had arranged themselves differently, then Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of Planet Giedi Prime would be only the second scariest sumbitch Kenneth McMillan ever played.)

The hunt goes on throughout the long summer, through private detectives, and taps placed on Peg’s phone in her Brooklyn apartment.  But for some strange reason, an invisible man can be hard to trace.  He even arranges a meeting with Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis, figuring (correctly) that sooner or later, an invisible man will want to make himself visible again, and who else would he turn to?  That meeting could have gone better.

Barney and the doctors were meeting for the first time, of course, and it was interesting to Mordon to see how immediate and instinctive the loathing was on both sides.  The body language alone was enough to set off seismographs in the neighborhood, if there were any.  Mordon was watching two herbivores meet a carnivore on the herbivore’s own ground, and the rolling of eyes and curling of lips and stamping of  hooves was thunderous.

Mordon, as though nothing at all were wrong, made the introductions.  “Dr. Peter Heimhocker, Dr. David Loomis, I’d like you to meet Detective Barney Beuler of the New York City Police.”

“Harya,” Barney snarled.

Loomis remained wide-eyes and mute, but Heimhocker looked Barney up and down, raised an eyebrow at Mordon, and said, in a you-rogue-you manner, “Oh, really.”

Yes, really.  And as the two doctors become increasingly aware that NAABOR is trying to get its hooks into their former test subject, they become correspondingly determined to get him under their own control–not to use him for espionage, but to study him, and figure out where they went wrong–or right–whichever.  David and Peter’s feelings towards Freddie are complex–a mixture of guilt, responsibility,  and a sort of proprietary professional interest.  Plus there’s one little thing they need to tell him about his, urm, condition.

“It’s a one-way street,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “Freddie Noon’s invisibility is irreversible.”

“Irreversible.”

“Think of albinos,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “That’s a loss of pigmentation in a different way,” and Loomis said, “Not as thorough, not as severe,” and Heimhocker said, “But just as irreparable,” and Loomis said “You can’t paint an albino and expect it to stick,” and Heimhocker said, “And the same is true, forever, of Freddie Noon.”

“In the movies,” Barney said, “once the guy is dead, you can see him again.”

Heimhocker curled a lip.  “I have no idea what the scientific basis for that would be,” he said.

(Another little side-reference to the H.G. Wells novel, since Hawley Griffin was born an albino, and he does famously become visible once more after his death, and there’s really no science in these stories at all, you know.)

The final crisis is triggered by an announcement from Peg that has been brewing for some time now.  Being the Invisible Man’s Girlfriend has had its moments, but on the whole, she finds the role limiting, and more than a little unsettling.  She figures he’s got plenty of cash now from all the heists (of which she asks no split for herself, even though her role in each operation was vital).  She says she loves him–that hasn’t changed–but she wants to go back to Brooklyn, work as a dental technician again, and maybe they can see each other later, um, awkwardly phrased.  And she doesn’t really mean it, anyway.  She’s letting go of him.

Peg was all that was anchoring Freddie, and without her, he starts to become unmoored.  Stuck in the rental house, with nowhere to go, he phones the doctors at their townhouse–only to find they’re spending the weekend with friends–just a short distance from where he is.  Peg has the van, but he borrows a bicycle, peddles naked down back country roads, and you can imagine how that works out, but he gets there.  And spying on them, as they unburden themselves to a circle of equally gay friends and general hangers-on (they know he’s coming to see them, but they don’t know he’s already in the neighborhood)–he learns the truth.

See, they’re trying to persuade the other guests to help them restrain Freddie, so they can talk sense into him.  They’re his only real option, otherwise he’ll end up in the clutches of NAABOR, or (even worse) Beuler.  It’s just that they think he’ll be understandably upset when he finds out–

“When he finds out what?”

“That it’s permanent, of course,” Peter said, and then looked up and frowned at everybody, to see them all frowning at him. “Who said that” he asked.

They all went on looking at him.

“It’s permanent?”

“Oh, my God,” David whispered, “He’s here.”

“Impossible!” Peter cried.

“Peter,” David whispered.  “Can he fly?”

“I’m never gonna get myself back?”

This is also the point in the story where Freddie finds out that his fingerprints are not invisible, and he’s wanted by the police in connection to jobs at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, ya know?

And so a merry chase ensues, with a very confused group of prosperous weekending gay men chasing a very agitated invisible man, who in his mental turmoil, drank a lot of (presumably excellent) champagne right in front of them, and it takes about two hours for food and drink to stop being visible inside of him, which is most upsetting to all, you can be sure.  He runs outside, breaking a four hundred thousand dollar Ming vase as he goes.  Peter and David are never getting invited back, you know.  (Oh, and can I recommend a friend of mine for the repair job?  Chinese ceramics are her specialty.  I have her card here somewhere…)

They finally have him trapped in the swimming pool, the retractable cover closed over his head, and he’s getting cold, and when all hope seems lost, a gray van comes roaring in, like Victoria’s Messenger Riding. It’s Peg. She came back to the house, figured out where Freddie was from the map he’d left behind, and she could have just said it was none of her business now, but then she wouldn’t be Peg, would she now? Freddie slips through the edge of the pool cover in the confusion and jumps in the van, which departs, leaving the lawn and the gardens in some disarray (the poor delphiniums), and Peter and David are very definitely never getting invited back.

And her courage and loyalty notwithstanding, she’s still going back to Brooklyn without him. She’s gotten him a car–an AMC Hornet with tinted bulletproof windows. It’s green. Don’t say it. And yes, we saw another green Hornet (damn, now I’ve said it) in Drowned Hopes. This one at least won’t end up at the bottom of a reservoir. Peg and Freddie end up in the pool at their rented house, having sex, and Peg seems to be warming up to the idea of an invisible man in her life (among other things), but she still needs some time to herself.

And so Peg Briscoe returns to her native Brooklyn, only to find Barney Beuler and some well-dressed thugs who work for NAABOR waiting for her. Barney intimates, in his usual disarming way, that she’s either going to help him get Freddie, or he’s going to start cutting her fingers off and mailing them to Freddie, care of his family, I suppose. And would you believe she actually tries to con him?

She gives him the address of a part-time smalltown lawman, who she and Freddie had a run-in with earlier. Lots of subplots, I can’t do them all, sorry. Only he wasn’t wearing his lawman hat when they arrived, and Barney caught him off guard, again in his usual disarming way. Barney’s really not kidding about the finger thing, and so Peg reluctantly calls Freddie at the house, and clues him in. Figuring it’s his choice whether he comes to rescue her or not. Not entirely sure what choice she wants him to make. But his choice is never in doubt.

Is this a problem with the book? I think so. We always know what Freddie is going to do. He’s one of Westlake’s most predictable heroes, and there’s a reason for that. Westlake was responding to H.G. Wells, and to a lesser extent, Ralph Ellison. Wells’ invisible man never really knew who he was, so invisibility breaks his already tenuous grip on sanity. Ellison’s nameless hero, invisible only to white people (and certain overly dogmatic black people), spends the entire book finding out who he is, and who he isn’t, losing the whole world, but gaining his immortal soul in the process.

But Westlake wanted to have as his starting point a man who had already gone through the long painful process of self-discovery before he became invisible–because he figured only such a person could survive invisibility, triumph over it. It challenged Freddie’s sense of identity, changed it–but he was coping very well, as long as he had Peg. Now somebody’s threatening to take her away from him forever. Bad idea.

But also, one might argue, a less than satisfactory protagonist–less interesting than Parker, than Dortmunder, than Tobin, than most of the Nephews. Because he was a finished product before we ever met him. That’s a weakness in the story–but its saving grace is that the normally obligatory romance angle you get in books like this becomes essential. Because like the song says, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You. Whatever her doubts about their future, Peg proved her love and loyalty to Freddie. Now it’s his turn to save her.

And he does. Spoiler alert. I see no reason to spoil it any further. True love wins out, aided by invisibility, low cunning, and an everpresent willingness to dissemble. Evil is punished, and the shooflies of Internal Affairs are getting Barney Beuler giftwrapped, all tied up in a nice bow. Mordon Leethe and our two madly gay scientists, having chosen their master unwisely, will be forced to serve him indefinitely, but the money’s good at least. Oh, and you’ll never guess where Merrill Fullerton’s apartment is!

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And Peg pays a visit to Freddie’s mother’s far more humble abode in Ozone Park Queens, telling her that Freddie can’t come to see her right now, he’s been sick–but he’s okay, and they’re going to stay together now, he and Peg, because Peg realizes now they need each other. They’re going to take a plane somewhere, and be together, and it’ll be all right. There is one kind of glance that can pierce the veil of invisibility, after all. And hey, blind people fall in love all the time.

Freddie’s mother, who has no illusions about her son’s true nature, but doesn’t hold it against him (you have nine kids, you have to figure on some variety), and she fully approves of Peg. An easygoing girl, just right for her boy. She is worried about how vague Peg is being, and asks fearfully if he’s dead.

“I’m alive, Ma.”

Peg Briscoe smiled a slightly nervous smile, said, “He’s fine. Bye.” and pulled the door shut.

Did I hear that? What was it?

Elizabeth Louise opened the door and watched Peg Briscoe cross the sidewalk to a little old green car. As Peg opened the driver’s door, the passenger door opened by itself. She got in and shut the driver’s door and the passenger door shut by itself. She waved and smiled, and drove away, and another wide-body jet’s shadow crossed over Elizabeth Louise and the house.

This one she noticed. She looked up, as the shadow went by. One of those would be Freddie, with his nice girlfriend. From now on, it could be any one of them, going over. One of those shadows is Freddie.

It’s a big, teeming, funny, angry, intriguing, detail-heavy, and somewhat messy book, with a protagonist a bit too easy to figure out. I have a sense that Westlake put several different ideas for several different books he never wrote into it. But it’s a grand piece of work all the same, though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by a novel that followed fairly close on its heels; shorter, darker, bloodier, more focused, more angry by far, and we’ll be getting to that one very soon.

But we have another book to cover before that, and let me say something before we do–I don’t plan for these little coincidences of timing that happen now and again here. I didn’t plan for my review of Adios Scheherezade to come along around April Fool’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Brother’s Keepers to come along around St. Crispin’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Good Behavior to start right around both the Feast of St. Dismas and Good Friday. The world is not simple enough to understand. We all need to understand that. So I can only assure you all that it just happens that my review of the next book in the queue has come up just about a month before Election Day. Serendipity trumps all, you know. And maybe it even trumps–well. Let me conclude with a snatch of poetry.

In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all, and in Las Vegas blind him.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.

It’ll be huuuuge. Believe me.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Smoke, Part 2

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

From To A Louse, by Robert Burns

“The more I thought it over, Kemp, the more I realised what a helpless absurdity an Invisible Man was,–in a cold and dirty climate and crowded civilised city.  Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages.  That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.  I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable.  No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.  Ambition–what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?  What is the good of the love of woman when her name must needs be Delilah?  I have no taste for politics, for the blackguardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport. What was I to do?  And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man!”

Slowly, stroke by stroke, the face began to appear.  It was like magic, or like a special effect in the movies.  Cheeks, nose, jaws, all emerging out of the air, the slightly woodsy tan color of Max Factor pancake makeup.  Freddie complicated matters by flinching away from the brush a lot, and even sneezing twice, but nevertheless, slowly and steadily, they progressed.

Partway along, with just the major areas roughed in, the forehead and on down, Peg reared back to study him, and said, “I don’t remember you like that.”

“Like what?”

“That that’s the way you look.  Freddie?  I think I’m beginning to forget what you look like.”

The parts of the face that now existed contrived to express surprise.  “You know what? he said. “Me too.  I was just thinking this morning, when I was shaving.  I’m not sure I really remember what I look like, either.  If I saw me on the street, I don’t know that I’d recognize me.”

According to Leon Stover, that indefatigable student of all things relating to Herbert George Wells, Hawley Griffin (H.G. get it?), The Invisible Man, was named after that winged mythological beast of yore, because the griffin/gryphon is the vengeful destroyer of greedy avaricious men, and furthermore preys on horses, symbols of the aristocratic ‘horsey set’ of England.

Nobody to my knowledge has ever devoted that kind of intense etymological scrutiny to this book, so I guess I’ll have to try.  Why is Frederick Urban Noon named so?  Well, Frederick could denote a conqueror, I suppose.  Frederick the Great.  But more likely, it’s just a name Westlake liked to use, and frequently did (Fred Fitch, for example).

The Urban thing is fairly self-explanatory, Freddie being a New York City boy, born and bred, from a good Catholic family in the Ozone Park section of Queens (no doubt that’s also significant).  His middle name is derived from one of eight different popes, so good luck trying to get any theological/historical/allegorical meaning out of that.  The second Urban famously started the Crusades, and a few of them were later made saints, and I can’t see any reference there to Frederick Urban at all.

Ah, but Noon.  Good Irish name, that, frequently ends with an ‘e.’  There a subtler meaning can be discerned.  Because Noon shares a common liturgical origin with None, referring originally to the prayers said at 3:00pm each day at meals. Which has the additional meaning of–well, you know that.  And I need hardly explain how it applies to our hero.  Hey, this subtextual scholarship isn’t so hard.  I might as well have finished my doctorate, but of higher degrees I as yet have noon.

Thing is, nobody ever paid much attention to Freddie or any other of the nine Noon offspring, all of them nobodies.  They grew up, we’re told at the very beginning of this story, next door to JFK Airport–

Throughout his childhood, the loud gray shadows of the wide-body jets swept across and across and across Freddie Noon and his brothers and his sisters and his house as though to wipe them clear of the table of life; but every shadow passed and they were still there.

But now Freddie Noon casts no shadow at all.  A burglary gone wrong led to his becoming the unwilling guinea pig of two madly gay (but not gaily mad) scientists working on a preventative treatment for melanoma on behalf of a company that makes and markets cancer sticks, of which we shall be hearing more anon.

The drug is supposed to reduce skin pigmentation, which would supposedly prevent skin cancer.  Through an unfortunate miscommunication, Freddie took both of the experimental drugs they were working on (prior to walking out of their nicely appointed townhouse with many of its appointments), which have now abolished all pigmentation from his body, leaving him imperceptible to the mortal eye, even the loving eyes of his girlfriend Peg.

He’s not sure how long this condition will last, and since you might as well make hay while the sunshine passes right through  you, we rejoin him and Peg as they make a foray into Manhattan’s famed Diamond District.  Freddie is invisible, not intangible, and items he picks up remain visible themselves, seeming to float in mid-air, so his native wit shall be sorely taxed in the course of pulling this heist.

But as Hawley Griffin discovered before him, perhaps the greatest challenge to an invisible man involves walking down a crowded city street.

All those bodies in motion formed a constantly changing woven fabric, a six-foot-high blanket of rolling humanity, and now it was Freddie’s job to weave himself horizontally through this fabric, slipping through the weft and warp without any of the textile becoming aware of his existence; to be, in short, the ultimate flea.  To do all of that, and to do it successfully, would require every bit of his concentration, leaving nothing for the careful self-protective study of this dubious sidewalk that the surface really deserved.  Freddie knew his bare feet were just going to have to get along as best they could.

Freddie took one tentative step away from the van, and here came hurtling two hooky-playing kids in big sneakers, waving cigarettes and laughing at each other’s dumb jokes.  Freddie dodged them, but then almost ran into a guy carrying a roll of tarpaper on his shoulder, coming out of the roofing-company truck.  A rollout in the other direction put Freddie in the path of three middle-aged Japanese women, marching arm in arm, cameras dangling down their fronts, forming a phalanx as impenetrable as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line.

Improvising his way past these and many other obstacles, Freddie gets inside one of the diamond merchant establishments, and uses a self-absorbed woman shopping for jewels to cover his exit with the loot.  Without a visible accomplice he can rely on, however (something the self-absorbed Hawley Griffin repeatedly failed to obtain), unlikely he’d be able to pull any of this off.  He’s so excited by his achievement, he tells Peg he’s going back for more.  As a thief, Invisible Freddie is a smashing success.

Freddie pulls two other scores in the book–a furrier’s warehouse in Queens gets burgled after-hours, but his only real problem there is that the place is heavily refrigerated, and he’s naked, so he ends up beckoning Peg in with the van so they can load it up with pelts while he’s wearing a fur coat and nothing else over his own invisible pelt, which freaks her out more than she let’s on.  Peg is just not adjusting well to Freddie’s condition at all.

In crafting the chapters involving heists, Westlake is, you might say, offering his professional criticism of Wells’ invisible protagonist, and his own attempts at thievery.  Griffin, who refuses to admit he even is a thief (because that would be so lower-class), is nonetheless constantly stealing from others, rationalizing to beat the band about how he has no other choice, he’s a revolutionary and all–but his actual technique leaves much to be desired.   He’s clumsy, careless, and often unnecessarily violent.  He doesn’t really ever think it through, and often has to abandon his loot, because he has no way of transporting it.  When he tries to get an accomplice, an indigent drunk, to hold the loot for him, the accomplice simply walks away with it (and at the end is hoarding a copy of Griffin’s scientific notes, while enjoying the expropriated fruits of Griffin’s larceny).

The most obvious point of comparison relates to Griffin trying to rob ‘Omniums,’ a London superstore, containing every imaginable item someone could want.  “A huge meandering collection of shops rather than a shop.”  Omniums is fictional, but the department store was already in its formative stages, in Britain and elsewhere, and Wells clearly found it an interesting capitalist development. Later, Griffin robs a much humbler establishment, representative of a dying form of commerce (that has actually taken a damned long time to die, since Westlake depicts a similar rundown shop in The Sour Lemon Score.)

Griffin gets in while Omniums is open, wanders around unseen  until it’s closed, and then helps himself to whatever he needs.  He intends to get food, clothing, and money, and then set himself up in an apartment, but having laid himself down to sleep on some quilts, clothed against the cold, he’s quickly discovered by the returning employees at dawn, and has to leave with nothing.  Though he does toy with the idea of mailing himself a parcel of goodies from the warehouse–he can’t figure out how.  He knows how to make someone invisible, but until he actually was, it never occurred to him how much work and thought was involved in making practical use of such an attribute, and thieving turns out to be much harder work than he’d imagined.

And what would the one writer most known for stories about thieves have said to all that?  “Amateur.”  And then he might say, “What would be the 1990’s equivalent of the department store?”

Wednesday, July 5, the day after the long hot exhausting holiday weekend, was a quiet one at the Big S Superstore on U.S. Route 9, the main commercial roadway on the east side of the Hudson River.  A few retirees with nothing else to do wandered the cavernous interior of this warehouse-type store, the no-frills successor to the department store, where mountains of items were piled directly on the concrete floor or stuffed to overflowing on unpainted rough wooden shelves.  Once you became a “member” of their “club” (not a hard thing to do), you could buy everything in here from a television set (and the unpainted piece of furniture to hide it in) to a goldfish bowl (and the goldfish) to put on top of the set for those times when there’s absolutely nothing to watch on TV.  You could buy canned and frozen food, truck tires, toys, books, washing machines, flowers, tents (in case your house fills up), small tractors, bicycles, benches, lumber to make your own benches, double-hung windows, storm windows, snow tires, dresses with flowers on them, blue jeans, and baseball caps honoring the team of your choice.

Here in the Big S (“the Big Sore for Big Savings!”), in other words, you could get everything you used to be able to get in the Sears Roebuck catalog, except now you have to go to the warehouse and pick it up instead of phoning it in and having them send it to you.  People enjoy a new wrinkle, and the warehouse you go to instead of phoning it is a very successful new wrinkle indeed.  Even the day after the big Fourth of July weekend, there were people in the place; not many of them, but some.  And in among the retirees with nothing better to do was an attractive young woman talking to herself.

And we need hardly be told who she’s really talking to, or why they are there. Freddie needs a really big score.  There are no end of re-saleable items here, but how can he get them in large enough quantities to give him the return on his labors he seeks, when he can’t make the goods themselves invisible?  This is the problem that thwarted Invisible Man The First (as Griffin modestly dubbed himself), but Invisible Man the Westlake Heister is made of sterner stuff.  If you want to effectively steal from large-scale shopkeepers, you need to understand and penetrate their bureaucracy, something wild-eyed revolutionaries tend not to do very well, visible or not.

At the top, he found the second floor was mostly one large room with a vaguely underwater feel.  The industrial carpet was light green, the walls and ceiling cream, the fluorescent lighting vaguely greenish, the office furniture gray.  The could be on the Nautilus, and out beyond those venetian blinds could be the deep ocean itself, with giant octopi swimming through the submarine’s powerful searchlights.

Instead of which, of course, this was the command center of the Big S, a long, low-ceilinged air-conditioned humming space full of clerks, mostly women, with an enclosed office at the far end for the manager.  Freddie looked around and saw, positioned atop the desk nearest the stairs, a small TV monitor showing the space in front of the desk below.  The woman seated at that desk was entering an endless series of numbers into her computer terminal, reading from a two-inch-thick stack of pink vouchers.  While Freddie watched, an employee appeared in the monitor and pushed the button; the woman at the desk never looked away from the vouchers but just reached out, pressed a button in front of the monitor, and went on with her typing.

Routine is the death of security.

Yeah, tell us about it.

Having learned to his pleasure that the Big S does not employ any guard dogs, Freddie figures out how to use one of the computer terminals to arrange for a very large shipment of valuable items to be loaded onto a truck by the loading dock, which he can just drive away with.  He and Peg return later, and carry the plan off without any significant hitches–the hitch comes when he drops the goods off with his fence.

This book has a whole lot of sub-plots to it, and I can’t possibly cover them all in any great depth.   One involves Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence Freddie uses, who is basically a more repellent version of Arnie Albright from the Dortmunder books–and who knew that was even possible?  Arnie has a famously unappealing personality and really bad breath; his idea of interior decoration is to paper his walls with old calendars–but compared to Jersey Josh, he’s George Freakin’ Clooney.

His apartment, where he keeps all his stolen goods, is right over by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and those of you who are New Yorkers know what a terrible place that would be to live (it’s getting gentrified never), but somehow it just suits him.  Dingy, gaseous, and toxic.  That’s Josh.

Long story short, Freddie phones Josh to say he’s sick and is sending Peg over with the gems from his first invisible score, and upon viewing her womanly charms, Josh immediately decides to rape her.  I mean, he doesn’t think of it that way.  He’s just going to hit her over the head with something to quiet her, and have a quick date, nothing wrong with that, guy has to have a social life, doesn’t he?  And of course, appearances to the contrary, Peg isn’t really alone, and Josh gets hit over the head with something while he’s eagerly groping Peg–he can’t figure out how she did it.

But Jersey Josh is a persistent fellow, and when Peg shows up with the furs from the next heist, he’s ready to try again, and by this time Freddie & Peg have had quite enough, so Freddie arranges for Josh to get a friendly visit from the Doberman Pinschers who guard the business establishment downstairs, and feel about Josh pretty much the same way everybody else who ever met him does.  (I do believe Westlake is starting to warm up to dogs just a bite, I mean bit.)

So this has been an enjoyable enough running plot thread, but it’s getting a bit more serious as Freddie and Peg drive to the arranged meeting place in the old meatpacking district of Manhattan, where Josh and some vaguely mobbed-up associates are going to accept delivery of the goods and hand over the cash.  If they feel like it.  I mean, it’s not like Josh has any bad feelings about being hit over the head, nearly ripped to pieces by savage dogs, and not getting past first base with Peg.  That would be petty, right?

As we’ve seen him do before ( Castle In The Air, that aside about the Paris canal system, which has since gone on to become a tourist attraction), Westlake focuses in on a neglected piece of industrial-era infrastructure that will, in the 21st century, become one of New York’s most-visited amenities).

A long long time ago there was an actual slaughterhouse in Manhattan, way down below Greenwich Village, near the Hudson River.  In the nineteenth century, they had cattle drives to Fifth Avenue, bringing the cows to the slaughterhouse, but then they built a railroad line that was partly in a cut between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, which is still used by trains from the north coming down to Penn Station, in the West Thirties.  Going down from there, the old train line was elevated, at second-floor level, and ran all the way downtown, the trains that carried the doomed cows trundling south and south, as buildings were constructed all around the track, and neighborhoods grew up, until here and there the elevated train line was actually inside buildings along its route.

Then it all came to an end.  The slaughterhouse shut down and there was less and less manufacturing of other kinds in lower Manhattan, and fewer and fewer cargo ships from Europe that unloaded there, so there was no longer a need for a railroad line down through Manhattan south of Penn Station.  But that old elevated line had been constructed of iron, and built strong enough to carry many tons of train and beef, and it was not an easy thing to tear that big old monster down, so for the most part it was left standing.  Here and there, when new construction was under way, it made ense to remove a part of the old line, but most of it is still there.  It’s there today, just above your head, black old thick iron crossing the street, out of that old building and into that old building, an artifact from an earlier and more powerful time.

And now a place to idly stroll with your sweetheart and drink lattes, surrounded by bars and restaurants.  Westlake lived to see construction on the High Line begin–wonder what he made of that.

The meeting place is in a deserted factory in the West Village, near the elevated tracks.  Freddie’s stolen truck has just enough clearance to get underneath those tracks (I’ve seen big rigs get stuck that way).  This time Freddie is wearing his Dick Tracy mask, and maybe this is why Josh acts like one of those grotesque Dick Tracy villains (maybe Mumbles, since he speaks in words of mainly one syllable, and sometimes just one letter–he pronounces the word ‘yes’ as ‘S’).  Pretty much on a whim, he decides he’s going to take the truck and all that’s inside it, and give Freddie nothing in return.  A very real chance Peg gets thrown into the bargain.

We have by now seen many examples of how stupid it is to doublecross a Westlake heister–how much stupider would it be to doublecross an invisible Westlake heister?  Not that they know he’s invisible–which just makes their situation more hopeless.

“Peg,” Freddie said, “go around the block,” and he was already ripping off the head and gloves when he dove down and went rolling under the trailer.

The henchmen shouted as Peg accelerated, and Josh missed her wrist by a millimeter.  The van went tearing away down the block.  The henchmen ran around both ends of the truck.  Josh bent to peer under the trailer, seeing nothing, hauling out his own very old and well-used pistol, just in case Freddie decided to come rolling back.

The henchmen met at the far side, and stood over a pile of clothing on the sidewalk there.  “He’s naked,” one of them said.

“Duhhh,” the other one said, and fell down.

The first henchman stared.  It was a brick, is what it was, a big dirty brick, waving around in the air all on its own, and now it was coming after him.  He backed away, stumbling over Freddie’s clothes, dropping to one knee in his panic, and took a shot up at the damn brick, and the bullet zipped away up into the infrastructure of the railroad, binging and caroming off the metal up there for quite a while.

With a moan, the henchman dropped his pistol, swung about, and tried to escape on all fours, which meant he didn’t have far to drop, when he dropped.

Josh had a whole lot of money there–for Freddie and for his two associates.   Freddie gets all of it–a hundred grand.  Josh gets to explain the loss of the money to his associates, after they all wake up (Josh doesn’t get knocked out–he faints dead away).  And that’s the last we see of Jersey Josh Kuskiosko.   But an invisible man with well over a hundred grand is still an invisible man.  Peg is about to tell Freddie that he’s lost something worth a whole lot more.

Yeah, I’m really skipping around, aren’t I?   My main interest here in Part 2 is showing how Westlake was riffing on the H.G. Wells novella, updating it.  I’d guess Jersey Josh is Westlake’s riff on Mr. Marvel, Hawley Griffin’s unreliable partner in crime.   But maybe the best riff of all occurred much further back in the book, Chapter 19, when Freddie and Peg, fleeing the city because they’ve become aware there’s people after them (more on that next time), are looking for a summer rental to hide out in, and have a brief stay at a quaint little Bed & Breakfast establishment in the Hudson Valley, just outside Rhinebeck.

See, probably nothing in the Wells novella is more fun than the humorous early chapters, where the people of the quaint little English village of Iping ,which really exists (as indeed does Rhinebeck) have to deal with a stranger who will not let them see his face (because he doesn’t have one anymore).  Wells used these chapters to mock the simple people of Iping, who remain unaware for a rather long time that there’s an invisible man in their midst, staying at a local inn maintained by a respectable older woman, who is rightly horrified by Griffin’s rude behavior.

So what would be the American late 20th century equivalent of Janny Hall, the late 19th century proprietress of the Coach and Horses Inn, catering mainly to urban tourists who want to experience the rural England they’ve read about in books; friendly, sociable, but an inveterate busybody who wants to know everybody’s business?

City people, they think they know it all.  Mrs. Krutchfield, a buxom motherly woman rather beyond a certain age, was sorry, but she just couldn’t help it, New Yorkers rubbed her the wrong way, they always had.    They were never impressed by anything.  You can take your tourist families from faraway places like Osaka, Japan, and Ionia, Iowa, and Urbino, Italy, and Uyini, Bolivia–and Mrs. Krutchfield could show you all of them in her visitors’ book with their very excellent comments–and you could show them your wonders of the Hudson River valley, and you could just happen to mention that this lovely old pre-Revolution farmhouse, now The Sewing Kit bed-and-breakfast outside Rhinebeck, was known to be haunted by a British cavalry officer slain under this very roof in 1778, and those people are, in two words, im pressed.

But not New Yorkers.  It was such a pity, then, since The Sewing Kit was a mere 100 miles straight north of Manhattan, into the most scenic countryside, that New Yorkers were so much more important to her operation than all the Osakians and Ionians and Urbinos and Uyunis put together.  Mrs. Krutchfield just bit her lip and kept her own counsel and tried not to look at the “wives” ring fingers, and did her level best to treat the New Yorkers just like everybody else.

(Including the ‘Briscoe snip’ as Mrs. Krutchfield’s privately thinks of our Peg, who gets checked into the General Burgoyne room, is blithely unaware of Mrs. Krutchfield’s opinion of her, and probably couldn’t care less.  Because seriously, rest of the world, we Gothamites don’t need to care what you all think of us, and I’m not saying that’s fair, but it’s reality.   We just don’t care.   And you know you’re going to come see us in your millions anyhow, so let’s  move on, shall we?)

As she heads up to her room, Peg, who has been regaled about the resident ghost, is informed that yes, there’s literature in every room, telling about him, and she sighs resolutely, saying “Well, we can only hope for the best.”  Well, we the readers certainly can.  Freddie Noon has had one hell of a practical joke played on him just recently.  Only fair that he shares the wealth.

That evening, the current guests are settled down in the parlor, watching television with Mrs. Krutchfield.  She’s got a satellite dish.  She controls the remote.  Or so she thinks.

At first, everything was normal and serene.  Then, at just about four minutes past nine, as everybody was contentedly settling in to watch a program broadcast from some parallel universe in which, apparently, there was a small town where the mayor and the fire chief and the high school football coach spent all their time joshing with one another at a diner run by a woman suffering from, judging by her voice, throat cancer, all at once the TV set sucked that picture into itself, went click and spread across itself an image of three people moving on a bed, with no covers on.  With no clothing on!  Good gracious, what are those people doing?

Some horrible corner of the satellite village, some swamp beside the information highway, had suddenly thrust itself–oh, what an awful choice of words!–onto their TV screen.  Gasping and shaking and little cries of horror ran through the room as Mrs. Krutchfield grabbed frantically for the remote control, only to find it had somehow fallen to the floor under her chair.

The channel keeps changing, one disturbing program after another.  Finally a refuge of black and white calm–TCM, no doubt–a woman is walking along the edge of a cliff.  With her clothes on, regrettably, since it happens to be–

“Gene Tierney!” cried a midwestern gentleman who had not shut his eyes.

She wouldn’t do things like that!” cried a midwestern lady, whose eyes were still firmly sealed.

“It’s a movie!” cried another midwestern gentleman.

Eyes opened.  On-screen, the action had moved indoors, into an extremely cute cottage not unlike The Sewing Kit itself, though perhaps a bit more cramped.  In this setting a recognizable Rex Harrison marched and harrumphed, dressed like a pirate captain or something, and behaving in a rough-and-ready way that didn’t at all suit him.  Also, you could see through him, which was odd.

A midwestern gentleman said, “It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

A midwestern lady said, “I remember that series.  But it wasn’t Rex Harrison.”

“No, no, no,” said the gentleman.  “This is the original movie.”

“There was a movie?”

A Canadian, somewhat younger, said, “There was a television series?”

A midwestern lady gave out a sudden shriek.  “It’s the ghost!” she cried.

“And Mrs. Muir,” said her companion on the sofa.

“No!  The ghost!  Colonel Pardigrass!”

That shut them up.  For a minute or two everyone in the room just sat and gazed at Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, finding love–or something–across the centuries.  So much pleasanter to contemplate than those other people.

This is all a great surprise to Mrs. Krutchfield, since she just made up the ghost out of whole cloth, or ectoplasm, whatever.  The real estate agent told her there were stories about ghosts connected to the old farmhouse that is now The Sewing Kit, and he was probably making that up to sell her the place, but all the fine details came from a newspaper story she’d read about a British colonel who had been murdered long ago in the general vicinity, and it might as well have been her converted farmhouse as anyone else’s this happened at.  A nice conversation piece for her hostelry.  But he’d always been such a respectable phantasm before now.  What could have possibly gotten into the Colonel?  Can you find an exorcist in the Yellow Pages?

Hawley Griffin is in too distracted and self-centered a mental state to really enjoy being invisible, you see.  His creator is having fun with these people, but he’s not.  He more or less inadvertently horrifies Mrs. Hall and her other guests with his bumbling invisible antics, terrorizes the entire village of Iping as the story goes on, and a short time later they terrorize him, in the process of beating him to death.  There are potential consequences to scandalizing small town people, you know.

But Freddie knows himself, he knows his limitations, and he knows how to have fun, and that’s all he was having here.  He and Peg leave the next morning, and she tells him that wasn’t very funny, and he asks then why is she still laughing?  Same reason we are.  Donald Westlake was not the social prophet Wells was, but he was a much better writer of comic fiction.

There may be other points of direct comparison between The Invisible Man and Smoke, but I can’t think of any offhand, and there is much in this book that owes nothing whatsoever to Mr. Wells, so I think I’m going to call this Part 2, and devote Part 3 to those remaining thematic elements of Westlake’s book.  Which is decidedly not one of the more tightly structured of Westlake’s books.  And consequently, this is not one of my  more tightly structured reviews.  Assuming you think I’ve ever written any tightly structured reviews.

See, this book isn’t named Smoke because its hero is a wraithlike specter who vanishes into thin air.  It’s named Smoke because its primary satiric target is the tobacco industry and its servitors.  And we’ll be talking about them next time.

(And yes, I’m horribly late with this, but let’s just say there have been distractions.  Personal and Political.  I don’t really know which is worse.)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Smoke

Except for Stella and the myth of Perseus (and the spoofery of W.S. Gilbert in his treatment of Old Peter), the usual moral is that an invisible man is bound to act without ethical constraint.  Plato in The Republic raises the question of why any man should behave ethically if he has the means to escape punishment for evil deeds, and he cites the myth of Gyges, who used a ring of invisibility to get away with regicide and so take over the kingship himself.

All such powers are the object of the same moralizing in Hollywood science fiction and horror films, in which a mad scientist always gets his just deserts by dying a horrible death.

Leon Stover, in his introduction to The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.

“But still,” said Kemp, “in England–today.  And the man was in his own house, and you were–well, robbing.”

“Robbing!  Confound it!  You’ll call me a thief next!  Surely, Kemp, you’re not fool enough to dance on the old strings.  Can’t you see my position?”

“And his too,” said Kemp.

The Invisible Man stood up sharply.  “What do you mean to say?”

H.G. Wells

Freddie was a liar.  Freddie was a thief.

D.E. Westlake

Donald Westlake didn’t write a lot of very long novels.  They weren’t really what he did best–his sweet spot generally lay somewhere between 150 and 300 pages, maybe under or over that sometimes, but not by much.  Enough room to get his points across, not so much that he’d have to belabor them to the point of tiresomeness.

It was a matter of the market he was writing for as well–mysteries tended to be on the short side when he started out.  You want to keep books in that genre fast-paced, don’t want to give the reader too much time to think about who’s dying or whodunnit, you want them to finish it quickly, then run off and buy another one.

As time went by, the market changed–the paperback original died off, hardcovers got a lot more expensive, and people wanted more kiss-kiss bang-bang for the buck, I suppose.  Ponderous tomes once more became de rigeur, and not just in the historical romance field–you might say the short pithy genre novel was gone with the wind.

It wasn’t all about the market by any means–sometimes Westlake just had so much to say with a given book, so much ground to cover, that he needed more room to run.  While these may never have been his most impeccably polished perfectly structured books, they all had their own virtues.  Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.  Of course, that was partly because he was mainly writing them as magazine serials.  Marathons are, of necessity, not so pretty as sprints.

Westlake’s first and fattest attempt at a really long novel (even the posthumously published Memory doesn’t quite qualify, at ‘only’ 365 pages) was Ex Officio, a bonafide airport novel, almost 500 pages of political thriller mixed in with social commentary and family conflicts, written under a single-use pseudonym (weirdly, this one is evailable, as some of Westlake’s shorter better books published under his own name are not).

Second-longest is probably Kahawa, a tale of foreign intrigue, adventure, and romance–with a bit of a heist angle thrown in, since that was not written under a pseudonym, and comic crime was expected of Westlake by that point, but the comedy was pretty thin on the ground in a story about African genocide, so that one was a hard sell.  Some people actually like it the best of all his novels, go figure.

He wrote one very long Dortmunder, Drowned Hopes, that is structured rather more like several short linked novels, but his longest novel ever in the crime/mystery genre has got to be this one, and it plays no structural games–you start with Chapter 1 and go on until you reach Chapter 57.  454 pages in my first edition–which is autographed.  Westlake was clearly doing a lot more signing events at bookstores than he used to.

So the signature doesn’t boost the book’s value much, but still a nice thing to see when you open it up, and it’s comforting for me to feel his presence here, as I try to figure out the twists and turns of this, the last of his epic-length novels, and in my opinion, the first of his signature works of the 90’s, though better were on the way by the time it was published.

A crime novel this certainly is, as the very first thing it tells us is that the hero of the piece is a liar and thief.  Seems like an oddly superfluous thing for this particular author, writing for this particular publisher, to feel the need to spell out right from the start.  Much quicker to list all the Westlake protagonists who were not liars and/or thieves.  What makes this book, this protagonist, any different from what we’ve already seen?

Mainly that he’s based on an H.G. Wells character–or is, to state it more aptly, a response to that character, to that novel (novella, really–it’s a much shorter book than Smoke).  I don’t need to tell you which novel I’m talking about, do I?  It had been a very long time since I’d read it, and I felt like I better renew the acquaintance.  And as it happens, the only copy we have here at the library is the edition quoted up top, heavily (I’m tempted to say excessively) annotated by Leon Stover (Ph.D),  perhaps the most painstakingly dedicated scholar of Wells’ literary output the world has ever seen.

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And perhaps the most fanatically single-minded.  His one goal in dissecting this novel (as he’d already done for several other Wellsian tomes) is to convince us that Wells, without any irony at all, intends the reader to see Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man, a clownish thief and liar (ultimately freelance terrorist and murderer), as the hero of the piece, a proto-revolutionary, a worthy experiment in overturning the old world order that Wells spent his very busy life fulminating against.

Re-reading the book, along with Stover’s many footnoted interpretive interpolations to it, I found many of his points very convincing–illuminating, even.  I began to see what he was getting at.  I read a lot of Wells growing up, but I didn’t know much of anything about him then.  I knew he was a socialist, but so many people were at the time, and most of them didn’t go around cheering a wraithlike thief and killer who didn’t have anything close to a realistic plan of achieving his ethereal objectives, and who mainly seemed to have gone off his nut.

Stover admits there is much ambiguity about the narrator’s true feelings towards the title character, but keeps hammering home a series of fine details embedded in the narrative, little bits of symbolism that do in fact seem to hint Wells saw Griffin as a sort of comi-tragic hero, a failed experiment, but one that might lead in time to a successful one–that is to say, in the total overthrow of bourgeois society, by any means necessary (Wells was partly inspired by the increasingly chaotic career of Sergei Nechayev, who also inspired Dostoevsky–imagine what he could have done if he were invisible), and the setting up of a one world state where all power would be in the hands of a scientific elite, and you know how Plato felt about Democracy, right?

That’s pretty much exactly how Wells felt about it.   Philosopher Kings don’t tend to like the common folk much.  They need a strong hand.  Don’t know what’s good for ’em.  (And who ever does, pray tell?   A counter-revolutionary question, I know.)

Does the late Dr. Stover (he died a bit less than two years before Westlake) overstress his points at times?   I thought so.  I think Wells wrote the book, to a certain extent, in a state of confusion, trapped between two modes of being, between who he was and who he thought he should be, identifying with and loathing both Griffin and his confidante/nemesis Kemp, who speaks for the existing order of things, for law and order and morals and good old English fair play and not hitting random passersby over the head with something heavy just because they annoy you (cathartic as that would unquestionably be, which is why the story in all its myriad forms has always been very popular).

(I must say, Stover does go overboard at times, working his way through an entertaining little genre novel, finding all these buried meanings in it, sifting through every paragraph for clues, acting as if he and he alone can plumb the inner mysteries of the author’s mind, and–hum.  Why does that remind me of someone?  Can’t quite seem to place who.  Well, it’ll come to me.)

Westlake couldn’t have read Stover’s edition, since it came out in 1998, but something must have impelled him to reread Wells’ book in some form.  Maybe he stayed up late one night and watched the brilliant funny little movie James Whale made of it, where as he did with Mary Shelley’s monster, he is once again making it all about his own closeted homosexuality and not telling anyone that’s what he’s doing (Wells probably didn’t even notice that, but he was reportedly deeply upset that Hawley was portrayed as a madman, to which Whale roguishly replied that only a madman would want to make himself invisible in the first place–now that’s a meeting of minds I’d have liked to see).

It’s not at all hard to imagine Westlake thinking to himself, “An invisible thief would be interesting to write about.”  And easy to pitch to a publisher, what’s more.  Ad copy writes itself.

So he went back to the source, viewing it with more insight perhaps than when he first read it, and he wouldn’t have had the same level of context as Stover–but he would have seen beneath the surface of the narrative, as he always did, would have known something of Wells’ beliefs, and what lay behind them (I find, as a general rule, the educated reader is well-advised to assume Westlake is at least as knowledgeable as him/her, and probably much more).  He would probably have known, for example, that Wells was heavily influenced in his thinking by Thomas Carlyle (Stover talks a lot about that).

Westlake’s attitude towards that scribbling Scot was made pretty clear in the opening quote for Up Your Banners.  Carlyle was an elitist, someone who felt the common people, and particularly those of certain types–blacks, Irish–needed to be kept down, put in their place and kept there, maintained in perpetual slavery or serfdom–for their own good, as well as society’s.  Well really, for the good of people like Carlyle, but it sounds so petty when you put it that way.

Wells had a very different set of prejudices and politics than Carlyle, and many other influences, people like Comte and Saint Simon–people who wanted to remake the world in their own image, impose their reality, their identity really, on everyone else, for the sake of universal order and well-being.  Westlake most definitely had a revolutionary thinker lurking around in him–nobody who disliked the rich as much as he could be otherwise–but you only have to read Anarchaos to know that he didn’t think you could ever succeed in making a good world by imposing ideas on people, by leaving everything behind and starting fresh.

He was more of in the Edmund Burke school in that regard.  He disliked change for the sake of change.  You need to shake things up, but you also need some things to stay the same.  More evolutionary than revolutionary.  And close enough to his working class roots to feel a strong irritation towards those who see the proles as mere pawns (as Marx certainly did).

Reading Wells’ book, seeing the confused thought processes of his title character, I was reminded of Dan Tynebourne, the tragically misguided young academic in Don’t Lie to Me, who gets sucked into a subversive scheme by a self-centered mentor who is only using his naive proteges to line his own pockets.  Mitch Tobin, casing Dan’s apartment for clues, sees many signs that Dan is someone with a split in his identity, torn between then and now, wanting to be something he’s not.  He’s wavering between two worlds, like a Walter Scott hero.  He’s not really the revolutionary type, but he thinks he ought to be.  And so many young people go through this phase.  I did.  Westlake probably did too.  Some never really come out of it.  (And some, to be sure, really are revolutionaries by nature, and they can be useful in some situations, enormously destructive in others.)

And might this be what Wells himself was expressing in The Invisible Man? Stover certainly knew him better than me, and his biography of Wells is still unpublished, but it’s possible he missed something that Westlake picked up on–Wells believed in being a revolutionary–yet he visited the Soviet Union, which certainly filled many of the conditions he’d laid out years before for a revolution–and he washed his hands of it, said it would never work out (and of course it didn’t).

He didn’t mind so much Lenin and Stalin killing all those people; that thing Lenin said about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs surely resonated with him.  But it just wasn’t quite right.  Would it ever have been?  Do people who imagine revolutions in their heads ever find precisely what they’re looking for in real life?  They either have to settle for a flawed revolution, or wait for perfection to come, and it never does.  Both approaches have shortcomings.  By the end of his life, Lenin saw his revolution had become Stalin’s, it was all going wrong, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  And of all things, as he faded from existence, his life’s work in ruins, he upbraided Stalin for insulting his wife, Krupskaya. How very bourgeois of him.  Trotsky no doubt had a good laugh about that, before the icepick.

Wells has his unseen protagonist declare against romantic love of any kind, say that he met a girl who had once meant a great deal to him just before turning himself invisible, and she was really nothing special at all–the idea expressed by Nechayev that the true revolutionary has no love, no friends, no attachments of any kind, no compassion for individuals, because this gets in the way of what needs be done.  But Wells himself had a great superfluity of women in his life, two marriages, many affairs, many friends.  And no doubt he sometimes felt this is why all he ever really accomplished in life was writing some very entertaining books.  Tolstoy was much the same way.  Geniuses can be awfully perverse sometimes.

He wanted to destroy the middle class, yet he remained very firmly a part of it all his life, sharing many of its attitudes, and pretty nearly all its prejudices.  His novella savagely satirizes English small town petit-bourgeois life–but that’s the precise life he was born into, the very people he’d come from.  I’d put him in that very large category of British social thinkers who dreamed of changing everything, and yet drew away in horror when actual change seemed to be on the horizon.  “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!”  And one way to deal with that, of course, is to write about revolutionary change happening in the far distant future, which Wells increasingly did over time. (I’d personally say Olaf Stapledon did it better, more insightfully and compassionately and believably, but nobody ever makes movies out of his books, somehow).

(Oh, and not to be picky or anything, but Wells was a pretty nasty anti-semite, which comes out rather obviously in The Invisible Man.  That’s not hard to spot at all.   Oh certainly there are some decent ones, but really the Jews should just assimilate, don’t you think, give up their collective identity–if they don’t–well–you know that thing about the omelette.  In his defense, Wells felt rather badly about some things he’d said and written, after certain events in Europe became clear shortly before his death in 1946.  He meant well.  We all do, right?)

So it’s Wells’ own identity crisis being laid out in the pages of that short novel, and Westlake would have seen that like a shot.  Why does Hawley Griffin fail? Because he doesn’t know who he is.   He can’t see himself, any more than anyone else can.  He becomes visible after his death (which even on the basis of the dubious fictive science that created him, makes no sense) because death has resolved his identity crisis, as it ultimately resolves everyone’s.

Seeing all of this and more, Donald Westlake resolved to write a book that would pattern itself after The Invisible Man, borrowing many of Wells’ ideas (as Wells had borrowed from still-earlier stories), elaborating on them, revisiting them in very different (and oddly similar) settings, fleshing them out quite a bit (there’s no market for a novella in the Mid-90’s), and utterly subverting this highly subversive book.  Because his invisible man won’t be a failure.  He won’t be alone.  And if you called him a thief, he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin, not that you’d see him do it.   He knows who he is.  His main identity crisis was over before the story began.

Frederick Urban Noon was the fourth of nine children born to a working class family in Ozone Park, Queens.  Most of his siblings were honest folks like his parents, but in that large a family, there’s always going to be a black sheep or two.  His sanitation worker father’s salary couldn’t buy him everything he wanted, so he took to stealing, took a few falls, took to drugs, stole even more to support his habit, and finally got sent away for two whole years.  And since an improbable coalition of Muslim and Born Again inmates made damn sure no drugs got into that prison, he had to get himself straight, and when he did, he made an odd discovery–

And here Freddie met a new self.  He hadn’t made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he’d become.  He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him.  He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong.  He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way.  He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back.  It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs.  He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way.  He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn’t stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together.  And Freddie went back to being a thief.  Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

(So that’s twice in three paragraphs we’re told Freddie is foxy, and between Parker the wolf and Dortmunder the coyote, we’ve got a matched set of cunning canids in human form now.  In the last Dortmunder, Westlake had referred to Kelp as fox-like, so no doubt something of Kelp went into Freddie, and something of their creator into both of them.  As the saying goes, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows One Big Thing.”  Westlake was a fox.  Wells perhaps falls into the same category Isaiah Berlin put Tolstoy into–a fox who believes in being a hedgehog.  But I digress.  Foxes always do.  No need to get all prickly about it.)

Some time has clearly passed since Freddie got out of prison, so he’s nearing thirty years of age–which I really shouldn’t need to mention by now is the age Donald Westlake thought people become true adults, and their mature identities emerge–for better or worse.  Hawley Griffin’s disastrous rebellion begins and ends at that very age, same age as his fellow student and mortal enemy, Dr. Kemp, so maybe Wells agreed with that.

A character every bit as significant to the story as Freddie himself is introduced in that quote, also somewhere in her mid/late 20’s, but we don’t actually meet her right away.  First, Freddie has to do his fade, and not being a scientist himself, let alone an albino (as people tend to forget Hawley Griffin was, prior to his disappearing act), he’s got to meet up with some scientists before that happens.  Not mad scientists, by any means.  Though they are a tad–unconventional.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers.  They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research.  Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople’s testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded.  (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.)  David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world.  Their coming together strengthened both.  They’d been inseparable ever since.

I believe these two are the last of Westlake’s really significant gay characters, and he may spend more time on them in this very long book than he did any previous pairings of that persuasion (his most interesting same sex coupling will be making a rather grim return in the near future).

They’re not the villains of the piece, nor are they heroes-they have both sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects to their characters, and you like them without necessarily admiring them. I find they have much in common with the gay couple dabbling in art smuggling, from High Adventure, that Westlake never had time to develop much.  Like that duo, they have a lawyer friend, also gay, who proves to be smarter and and more professional than either of them, and tries to keep them out of trouble (a motif that goes all the way back to A Jade In Aries).

Their main problem is that they are corporate servitors, much as they delude themselves about it, though it becomes increasingly clear to them as the story winds on, just what kind of a devil they’ve made a Faustian deal with.  It’s not the central identity conflict of the story, but it’s important, all the same.  And that kind of conflict, as we all know, is very far from being a gay thing.

They are, in essence, a plot device to explain how Freddie turns invisible, it being important for Westlake’s purposes that this not happen by Freddie’s own choice, as it did with Griffin.  I rather think he agreed with James Whale that only a crazy person would want to make himself invisible, and he figured the romantic days of heroic proto-scientists experimenting on themselves were long gone, necessitating a guinea pig.

And I suspect Westlake made Messrs. Loomis and Heimhocker gay as a backhanded reference to Mr. Whale’s (and Claude Rains’) own sub-textual cinematic take on Wells’ story.  Wells’ dour and sexless Mr. Griffin, we can be sure, was never going to skip happily down the lane in borrowed trousers, singing to himself–he had more important things to do.  More’s the pity.  At least Whale’s Griffin has some fun along the way.

So Freddie breaks into their townhouse/laboratory, hoping to find some valuable stuff he can sell, and as mentioned above, there’s an expensive silent alarm system that alerts them to the break-in at dinner.  Peter, the stronger of the two, insists on going down there with a gun and apprehending the burglar.  He’s got an idea.

Westlake is going with Wells’ idea (adapted in turn from Charles H. Hinton’s Stella, a largely forgotten novel about a girl made invisible by her father to make a rather obscure left-wing political point), that if you could remove all pigmentation from a living creature, and reduce its refractive properties to zero, it would then be imperceptible (Wells knew this would also render the invisible creature’s own sense of sight unusable, and for the purposes of his story, he didn’t care).  But in this case, invisibility is an unforeseen complication resulting from a badly done experiment.

David and Peter are trying to find a way to prevent skin cancer.  They figure reducing the skin’s capacity to absorb sunlight might do the trick.  They’ve already got several translucent felines roaming about the house (a reference to Hawley Griffin first experimenting on a neighbor’s most unwilling cat in Wells’ story).   They have two experimental drugs, one in the form of an injection, and the other is taken orally, in the form of what looks like an after-dinner mint.

Held at gunpoint, Freddie reluctantly agrees to sign a release and allow himself to be injected with the first drug, in exchange for them not calling the cops on him.  They lock him up in a room, after getting his promise to stick around a while for them to monitor the results–but maybe they should have considered the fact that he’s a professional thief.  Not to mention a liar.

(There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word.  I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes; like you’re a straight guy with a nice voice and you want to sing This Heart of Mine, a great little number, and you get to the part where you dream of gay amours, and good thing Fred Astaire got to that one before the transition was complete, or Lucille Bremer would have gotten the wrong idea.)

So they come back from a reheated dinner (David is most upset, dammit he worked hard on that meal), only to find Freddie Noon is gone, having taken the door off its hinges.  And believing, due to a misunderstanding of his they did nothing to discourage, that the after-dinner mint is the antidote to the drug he was given (being an ex-con, he’s well familiar with the potential drawbacks to being a test subject), he’s eaten it.   And left the premises.  With a whole lot of valuable office equipment.  Like that’s their main worry now.  Because those two drugs were never meant to be taken in tandem, and as they compare notes, they realize, to their horror–well, let’s cut to the fade.

Freddie returns to the apartment he shares with Peg, she wakes up after a bad dream about oral hygiene, to find his hand on her breast, and I mean they’re in love and in their 20’s, obviously–

“Mmm, nice,” she whispered, feeling that gentle pressure, feeling him find his way home.  Her left hand reached out in the darkness, toward the bedside table.  “Oh, let me see you,” she whispered, and her fingers found the pull chain.  She pulled, and the light came on, and she SCREAMED.

“Wha?”

Her eyes snapped shut.  She thought, Take me back to the dream!  Back into the mouths, anywhere, anywhere but here!

Thrashing on top of her. “Whasa matter?”

She opened her eyes, wide, and stared at the ceiling.  “There’s nobody there!” she screamed, “Oh, my God, I’m going crazy!”

“What?  Whadayou–Holy shit!”

Indeed.  After a few more supplemental expostulations, a story follows, Peg is brought up to speed, and since there’s nothing else they can do right now, they become the first couple in history to have half-visible coitus.  Peg, we are made to understand right away, is no ordinary woman herself.

This isn’t really one of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ stories, since Freddie has already found both himself and The Girl, and merely has to avoid losing them in the wake of this disturbing new development in his life, but Margaret ‘Peg’ Briscoe (the family name of a famed Dublin-Jewish political family, as Westlake surely knew), blonde, very attractive in a practical non-ostentatious sort of way, good-humored, level-headed, flexibly ethical when it comes to such matters as larceny,  and gutsy as all outdoors, may in fact be the only other among Westlake’s numberless young female love interests to be ranked with Chloe Shapiro, that heroic hard-driving hippie chick from his very first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. She’s that great.

And this time through the book, I finally managed to head-cast her.  Shouldn’t have been that hard, really.  Peg is a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  For most of the story, she’s struggling with her feelings for this shameless reprobate, knowing he’s a thief and a liar, knowing she’s enabling his life of crime, and now he’s fuckin’ invisible?   The actress I have in mind was out of her 20’s by the time this book came out, but she’d already played a rather similar character in a little indie crime film. And a while later, she played an older, more prosperous, and rather more tragic version of the same character on The Sopranos.

But Peg is no tragedian, and Freddie proves himself worthy of her in the end.  Ms. Falco could have had a lot of fun with Ms. Briscoe, exercised comedy chops she’s rarely been given a chance to flex in her career.  It’s kind of a tragedy that never happened.

Peg is increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s appearance, or lack thereof.  He manages to hide from her a while the fact that for about two hours after he eats, the masticated food is visible in his gut, before absorbed and somehow rendered invisible as well (another idea that comes from Wells, and neither writer seems much inclined to dwell on the subject of whether it becomes visible again upon excretion, best not to ask).  But if he’s naked in the house, she feels like she can’t know if he’s looking at her, which is creepy.  If he’s dressed, there’s all these gaps where hands and head and such ought to be, which is creepier.

She goes out and gets a collection of Halloween masks for him to wear–Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (it was marked down).  And he’s got to wear rubber gloves.  And he’s got to go out for a walk sometimes, totally naked, and call her so she knows he’s gone out, just so she can feel she’s got some privacy.  (Hawley Griffin inexplicably chose to make himself invisible during an English winter–Westlake, more compassionate and practical-minded, has given Freddie this cross to bear at the start of a New York summer).

During one of these walks, Freddie steals some businessman’s cellphone to call Peg, and with no way to conceal it, ends up being chased by a mob until he throws it away.   Another scene out of Wells’ story, the difference being that Griffin uses it to fuel his growing ressentiment towards all humankind, and justify his bloody crusade.  Freddie just thinks to himself that people are weird, and goes back about his business.

Which is stealing.   It’s actually Peg who brings his attention to the fact that whatever personal drawbacks there may be to invisibility, it’s the precise opposite of a professional disadvantage to him.  He starts devoting some thought to how he can make use of it.  True, he can’t be seen, but anything he picks up still can be.  He can still be felt if someone brushes up against him.  And bare feet on a New York City sidewalk (in summer!) are never a good idea.  But fox that he is, he can usually figure out an angle, given a bit of time.

Before Hawley Griffin takes to murdering people, his primary activity as an invisible man is theft–in fact, before he was invisible, he stole from his own father to buy the materials he needed to fund his experiment, which led to Griffin Sr.’s disgrace and suicide, since the money his son took from him was not his.  He’s stealing all through the book, feeling no guilt over it, but not really owning his actions, or processing the rather obvious fact that those who steal are, by definition, thieves.  He’s a respectable English gentleman, educated, industrious, with a great destiny to achieve.  To each according to his needs and all that, don’t you know.

So as with a funhouse mirror, we’re going to go on viewing Wells’ strangely amoral morality play, Westlake style, played out in a whole new light, with a protagonist who probably couldn’t murder anybody (this being a comic caper), but who could never deceive himself about who he is, or cling to any class delusions, or cherish any revolutionary fever dreams.

And that adamantine sense of self, combined with the love of a good woman, is all he has to anchor himself against a sea of troubles.  And a slew of enemies.  And we’ll see how he does that in Part 2.  And possibly 3.  We’ll see about that too.  But nobody will ever see Freddie Noon again.  See you next week?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Mr. Westlake and The Psupermen

Now let me tell you a very sad and very funny story.  A while back, Randy Garrett was staying at my place.  We worked in the same room, and we were both writing stories aimed at Analog.  Enjoying ourselves in the process, we both included private jokes for the other guy’s benefit, and one thing I did was make a minor character, an Air Force Colonel who showed up in the last three pages of the story, the spitting image of John W. Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it.  I described the guy as looking like Campbell, talking like Campbell, and thinking like Campbell.

We brought our respective stories in at the same time, handed them to the great man, and both went back the next week because he wanted revisions on both stories.  I forget what he wanted Randy to change in his story, but I’ll never in the world forget what he wanted done with mine: He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character.  I did it.  Eighteen thousand words.  Four hundred and fifty dollars.

(P.S. That’s the story he wanted a sequel to.  He really liked that Colonel.)

(P.P.S. It was a better story the first time, when it was only fourteen thousand words.  If I was going to rewrite, I wanted more money, so I padded four thousand unnecessary words into it.  It makes for duller reading, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)

From Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You, by Donald E. Westlake.

The major nodded, unruffled.  He’d known Jim Brice for twelve years.  He understood that the colonel’s abruptness wasn’t so much the result of a nasty personality as it was the result of his single-minded desire to get the job done.  The major realized that no offense was intended, and so no offense was taken.

“I’ll do the job,” he told the colonel.  “Or at least I’ll take a healthy stab at it.”

“A healthy stab isn’t enough.  I want that boy’s ability out on the surface, where I can get some use out of it.”

“You talk as though you owned him,” the major chided gently.

“I do,” said the colonel.  “I own his ability, at any rate.  Or I will, once you dig it out for me.”

“Own it?

“I’ll get the use of it,” said the colonel.  “I can’t teleport myself, but I don’t have to, not if I have someone else who can do it for me.  I’ll get the use of his ability, and what’s that if it isn’t ownership?”

“If I didn’t know you better,” the major said, “I’d think you were power-mad.”

“Not power-mad.  Power-hungry.  That I am.  I have a job to do, and a tricky job, and I need all the power I can get in order to do that job.  And I need the power locked up in that boy’s mind.”

“Us slaves do okay,” said Ed Clark, grinning.

“I own his ability,” said the colonel, pointing at Ed.  “I get to use it through him, and he doesn’t feel as though I’m some sort of evil mastermind.  Do you, Ed?”

“Sure I do,” said Clark, the grin even broader than before.  “But it’s worth it, to get to wear civvies and eat in the BOQ.”

“It’s a pity,” said the colonel, “that brains and psi-talent don’t always go together.”

“Simple Simon met a psi-man,” said Clark.

Look Before You Leap is an 18,000 word novella by Donald Westlake, that was first published in Analog in May of 1962.  It’s only recently become available in ebook form (if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free, otherwise it’s $2.99).  Westlake goes into some detail about its origins in that passage up top, taken from his bile-laden polemic against the entire genre of science fiction that was published in the fanzine Xero (which I will again remind you can be read in The Getaway Car), and which I talked about in more depth in my review of Anarchaos.

This is not a review of that story.  You want a review?  Okay.  Not terrible.  Kind of dull.  Westlake said as much.  He was right.   It was probably a much better story when he first submitted it to John W. Campbell, but still far from a classic (honestly, I think Anarchaos is the only really first-rate straight-up SF Westlake ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it as a hard-boiled detective story, as well as a savage critique of anarchism/libertarianism).   Purely on its own merits, this story is not worth going over in any great detail.

But having finally read it recently, I feel like it sheds quite a bit of light on the next novel I’m reviewing, one of Westlake’s longest works, certainly one of his most complex, and, you know, look before you leap.

Analog: Science Fiction and Fact began as Astounding Stories in 1930, piggybacking off Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926.  It was under the editorship of John W. Campbell that the title was changed to Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, and to say that Campbell was the single most influential figure in the SF genre overall might be something of an understatement.  He might be the most influential figure in genre fiction, period.  Not so much for what he wrote himself (though every time you watch the latest remake of The Thing, he goes there), but for what he got others to write on his behalf, and perhaps most of all for what still others wrote in reaction to him.  He was the kind of man who inspired extremely strong reactions in people, and they weren’t always positive.  To say the absolute least.

(Mr. Campbell was the first truly powerful figure in the SF genre to insist that his writers know something about science and technology and incorporate that knowledge into their stories–his own knowledge in this area can perhaps be gauged by the fact that he renamed his magazine Analog in 1960, getting rid of the juvenile ‘Astounding’ he’d always hated–doing this at the very dawn of the digital revolution in computing that he was probably largely unaware of to the day he died.  But it sounded cool.  And I guess you could argue all fiction is analog.  I don’t think Campbell ever made that argument, though.  He strikes me as a very digital personality.  Not someone who went in for middle grounds, gradations of truth.)

The patriach.  The father figure.  Rigid.  Demanding.  Overbearing.  Domineering.  Egocentric.  Yes, more than a bit power-mad (even though his only real power was over struggling wordsmiths trying to pay their bills).  Perpetually endeavoring to impose his own personal Weltanschauung on every single writer who ever submitted a story to him.  Also a fierce advocate for pseudoscience of all kinds;  spiritual father to both Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, a committed apologist for racial supremacism and slavery (a much misunderstood institution,  in his view).

(Gee, you think this might possibly be a guy who’d rub a young Donald E. Westlake the wrong way?)

Basically, when you see a story, in any medium, that deals with some elite group of specially talented people fighting the forces of evil or whatever, you’re probably seeing the very long shadow of John W. Campbell to a greater or lesser extent.  He didn’t invent the idea of The Superman (superheroes were already a thing before he took the reins at Astounding, and of course Nietzsche was a thing long before that), but he popularized it, systematized it, normalized it.

And a whole lot of very good stories came out of that, along with many more bad ones, but to him in particular probably goes the credit/blame for our cultural obsession with outsider groups, splinter cells of ultra-nerds, at odds with the mediocrity of everyday society in some way, plugging into The Matrix in order to upend it.  “Fans are Slans!” was the slogan boldly chanted at the conventions (very different from what we have today–lots of ideas, no Hollywood whoring or cosplay), and A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, about a telepathic mutant super-scientist, who begins as a lone rebel, and ends as leader of a triumphant revolution that overthrows homo stupidicus, was instigated and overseen by John W. Campbell, first saw print in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940.  Frank Herbert’s Dune began as a serial in Analog in the early 60’s.

A very long shadow indeed.  And all relating to Campbell’s personal obsession with finding ways to convincingly portray supermen (highly evolved humans, not beneficent aliens in tights) in fiction.  He was particularly interested in supermen with psychic abilities–telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc.  ‘Psi-talent’ was the kind of term he’d use when drumming the need for more stories of this nature into his writers.  And for this reason, Westlake took to using the derisive term ‘psupermen’ to describe the classic Campbell-type character.  The ‘p’ is silent, of course.

(You can read much more about Mr. Campbell and his Psupermen in a chapter from Brian Attebery’s deceptively titled Decoding Gender in Science Fiction–I say deceptively because the book is actually well worth perusing, in spite of the pernicious whiff of post-modernism that title emits.  Maybe the publisher pushed it on  him.  The market for something like that is pretty much entirely limited to college campuses these days.  Google Books leaves out a few pages, as it so annoyingly tends to do, but most of it’s there.  I couldn’t get the link quite right, but just click on Page 62 and you’re there.)

Now there were different ways to respond to Campbell’s obsession–one was to agree with it, become a disciple sitting starry-eyed at his feet.  Another was to pretend to agree with it, pander to it in order to sell a story to pay your rent (which Westlake self-admittedly did, and he did this with other pulp editors as well, such as Frederick Pohl).

A third path, which Westlake didn’t take back then, (because he was frustrated with the SF genre, tired of the lousy pay-rates and overbearing editors, and increasingly convinced he didn’t really know how to write a good story in that genre) was to satirize it. Turn it on its head.  Take it to its illogical extremes, show how absurd the whole psuperman thing really was.  Philip K. Dick often did that–suppose the psuperman was actually a corrupt morally inferior being, who just happened to have superpowers, but otherwise had no real value to society, and was actually a destructive and/or oppressive force within it?

Even Isaac Asimov, a lifelong friend and admirer of Campbell’s, created perhaps the ultimate evil psuperman in The Mule–the main villain of the Foundation Trilogy, who temporarily derails the Foundation’s work of rebuilding galactic civilization with his ability to exert mass mind control over vast distances.  His psi-tyranny is only ended by the fact that he’s unable to procreate, making him an ultimately doomed pathetic creature.  Superior abilities won’t necessarily make you a superior being.

In fact, they never do, because there’s no such thing.  Darwinian evolution, which Campbell, like so many before and since, blindly worshiped without really understanding how it works, isn’t about creating superior beings, superior races.  It’s about adapting to change in the environment, and change never stops.  There is no final perfect form, for humanity or anything else.  Social Darwinism is a corruption of evolutionary science, no matter what futuristic finery you dress it up in.

Octavia Butler and other non-male non-white authors went another way that Campbell would have hated most of all–what if the first real ‘psuperman’ was (for example) a black woman?  (I’m thinking here of the Patternist novels, particularly Mind of my Mind.)  What if the overseeing mentor who created her was a diabolical disembodied psychic vampire who preyed on his own children?

Butler, a profound and complex intellect, never thought that kind of development in human evolution would mean the dawning of some golden age.  It would just mean change, for change’s own sake, and much of that change would be for the worse, if not necessarily all of it.  The psuperhuman might well be impossible to categorize as good or evil.  But good and evil would still  mean something.  Might doesn’t make right.  All life matters.  Not just life that has satisfied some biased evolutionary meddler’s artificially arrived at standards of perfection.  Eugenics is the worst pseudoscience of all.  Because nobody is qualified to say what adaptations are beneficial over time.  Only evolution itself can make that determination.

The best stories John W. Campbell inspired, I would say, were the stories that were rebelling against him, deepening and subverting his borrowed ideas, while still working within the general set of fictional tropes he’d helped establish.  Using the tools he’d given them to tear down the prison he’d built for them.  The old story.  Fathers and Sons (and frequently Daughters).

Man, I really do not want to talk about Westlake’s story, do I?   Well I do, but again, not at length, because it’s not the point.  The point is that he threw in a John W. Campbell caricature at the end of a story he submitted to Analog as a joke–and Campbell took it seriously, insisted that this character become the real hero of the piece, that his POV be shown to be the correct one.  He did to Westlake what he’d done to countless young authors before.  Force him to get with the program.  Change his vision in exchange for a few hundred bucks–after all, Westlake could already wear civvies, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to eat at the Bachelor Officers Quarters (what BOQ stands for, in case you didn’t know).

All I can read is the version that Campbell published.  A young man named Jeremy, doing a stint in the Air Force, lonely and homesick, placed in a situation of extreme stress during a training exercise, suddenly finds himself at home–then back at the base.  He reports the experience, not entirely believing it himself.  But Colonel Brice, the Professor Xavier of military intelligence (only without any extra power of his own, unless you count hubris), was monitoring him and all the other guinea pigs, and knows he really did disappear for a moment.

So for most of the story, the young hero, so clearly modeled after Westlake himself, his own conflicted feelings about his time in the Air Force, is manipulated, not told that he really did teleport, prodded and tested by ethically conflicted military psychiatrists (under orders from Brice), forced to question his own sanity, until he finally discovers how to use his untapped mental powers (which he reasons were a product of evolution, and that his uncle had them as well,but most people never discover them, because teleportation is so frightening and disorienting).

At which point he joins Brice’s little cabal of psuperman (a telekinetic and a remote viewer), all of them destined for a mission of vital importance that is never really spelled out.   If there’d been sequels, probably it would have been.  Campbell would have doubtless shelled out for more, as long as his crusty alter-ego was in the mix. But no sequel to Look Before You Leap was ever written.

Westlake wasn’t interested in enabling the old man’s fantasies any further. He wrote his polemical farewell to the genre for Xero, which certainly made it impossible for him to ever submit anything to Analog until Campbell’s death in 1971, and possibly afterwards.  The money just wasn’t that good.  Insufficient compensation for him to go on writing what he didn’t remotely believe, that being Westlake’s precise definition of a hack.

It was a decision made for both creative and economic purposes, as he said in that piece.  Writing mysteries, he was able to appease his need for self-expression while still meeting the demands of magazine editors and publishing houses.  He wasn’t very good in either genre to start with, he knew that.  In the Mystery genre he was able to gradually progress towards a more three-dimensional mode of storytelling.  But when it came to science fiction, as he discussed in his response to reader letters reacting to his original piece–

On those few occasions when I thought I’d taken a small step forward, I was immediately returned to Start, either by a No Sale, or a slant-oriented revision.  The Campbell story about the Colonel is a fine instance.  (It was in the May issue of Analog, to answer the questions).  In the original the Colonel showed up at the end of the story.  There was no secret organization of psupermen in the Air Force.  The point of view never deviated from Jeremy.  It was a story about a person.  God knows it was no masterpiece, but it was a story.  (In this connection, Harry Warner Jr’s idea that the Colonel was a “real living characterization” just ain’t so.  Analog is full of Secret Societies with Strange Powers, and the Colonel  under one name or another, runs them all. You will find this same character in spy stories.  He’s the chief of Counter-Intelligence, the hero phones him in Washington every once in a while, and his name is Mac.)  At any rate, I for one am more interested in a person, who suddenly and shatteringly learns he is a teleport, who doesn’t want to be a teleport, and who more than half suspects he’s lost his mind, who struggles through the problems thus created–aggravated by the fact that he can neither control nor repeat the initial teleportation–and works things out to some sort of solution or compromise with the world, than I am in all the Secret Societies and Mystical Powers in the Orient.  But the writing and rewriting of the story kept me vigorously marching in place, back there at stage one.

I have a small quibble here–that character he refers to, that the Colonel quite certainly is one form of (and 007’s ‘M’ would be another)–isn’t yet another to be seen in the Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett?

Hammett was possibly Westlake’s supreme literary model, certainly his biggest influence in this stage of his career.  The Op was Hammett’s most important contribution to mystery fiction, and the Op has to report back to The Old Man, head of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (frequently referred to throughout Westlake’s fiction).  To a certain extent, the Op is merely The Old Man’s sometimes-rebellious pawn–who nonetheless never quits the agency, as Hammett eventually quit the Pinkertons.

The Op hates and to some extent fears The Old Man.  He fears he might become his boss someday, thinks of him as a mere simulacra of a human being, all identity subsumed by the company they both work for.  The Old Man certainly isn’t a hero of the Op stories, we don’t see a lot of him, but he’s always there, and to some extent, that makes the Op a more believably flawed figure than Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont (and Nick Charles, as Westlake knew well, is a former company man who has lost his identity by quitting his job, driving him to depression and drinking–maybe there’s no escape for a company man, not even a beautiful heiress who adores him).

He’s not a true independent, the Op.  He’s not merely wedded but welded to his job.   Westlake, of course, wanted to write about independents.  Mere hirelings tend not to fare well in his stories (neither do private detectives, as a general rule–hmmm).

And it may well be that it was, in part, his experiences with Campbell and similarly controlling editors in the 50’s and early 60’s that confirmed him in this predilection.  However, it’s not only Campbell he’s reacting to here.  He’s also rebelling against Hammett.  He doesn’t want any Old Man pulling the strings in the background, even though that conflict adds depth to the Op that Hammett’s other detectives mainly lack.

To be a true Westlake hero means to pull your own strings (and in some cases, thwart or destroy anyone who tries to pull them for you).  But in a way that is more believable than in Hammett’s later stories about independent operators.  He’ll have to find other types of conflict for his heroes, to make them more credible.  Because he can’t write about company men, cogs in a machine.  Not unless it’s to mock them (as in I Gave At The Office).  Because he could see too well how close he’d come to being a cog himself.  Because he was always afraid it might still happen to him, if he didn’t find a way to succeed as an independent.

As few science fiction authors have, I might add–the other half of Westlake’s beef with the genre.  Many authors succeeded as he had not, in working past the constraints that frustrated him, creating brilliantly individual work that satisfied both the genre’s demands and their personal muses–but rarely were they able to make a good living doing so.  Philip K. Dick, whose literary estate is now highly lucrative to his heirs, lived at the edge of indigence for most of his adult life.  To be sure, Jim Thompson had the same problem.  Being an independent always comes at a high price, regardless of occupation.  It’s for each independent to decide for him or herself how that price shall be paid, and in what coin.

And years later, having escaped the coils of Campbell and his cohorts, having created many amazing books, made many a compromise along the way to pay the bills, finding himself in a bit of a slump in the 80’s and early 90’s–Westlake made a very odd decision.  He wrote a very long comic crime novel (his established niche) about a man who suddenly and shatteringly finds himself to be invisible.  Who doesn’t want to be invisible (though it has certain short-term career-based advantages for him).  He can’t control his newfound ability, and struggles through the problems it creates for him.   He knew who he was–now he’s not so sure anymore.

And even though no Colonel-type figure knowingly created him, there are several aspiring Colonels in his life.  And he’s got to escape them all (in which he shall have the aid of one hell of a woman).  As Jeremy, in Look Before You Leap, could have quite easily escaped his Colonel, by simply vanishing into thin air, free as a bird, and I wonder if that’s how the original version of the story ended.  If so, small wonder Campbell wanted it changed.  Slaves should know their place.

Westlake’s primary model/antagonist in that novel was not John W. Campbell, though–it was a much earlier father of Science Fiction (much as he preferred the term ‘Scientific Romance’).  H.G. Wells, like many a progenitor before and since, had nothing but contempt for his bastard stepchildren, loathed the science fiction of the pulps, wanted no credit for it at all.  Frankenstein recoiling from his monster.  Wells did that a lot.  Idealists are born to be disappointed.

But in fact there was much that Wells and Campbell had in common, philosophically speaking.  And much that Westlake wanted to say in reaction to that.  And he did, under the guise of comedy, which is in fact the very medium Wells himself had employed in his book.  A seemingly superficial adventure story may contain hidden depths.   Appearances can be deceiving.  What you see is not always what you get.  Oh there’s going to be so many puns along that line.

“A Grotesque Romance” is the subtitle for the book Westlake used as a template for the next adventure in our queue.  And Westlake’s book is all of that, and more.  I have no idea how long this review is going folks.  I’ll try to get Part 1 up sometime next week.  In the meantime–Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(Thanks once again to the Official Westlake Blog, for providing the artwork from Analog that accompanied Westlake’s story.  A resource any independent operator like me can only thank the beneficent gods for).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, science fiction