Tag Archives: Harlan Ellison

Review: Get Real, Part Last


“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.  

“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”

“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”

“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.

“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”

Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.

I love John Dortmunder.

I mean, not that way.  I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here.  Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here.  And I’m hardly alone in this.  My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.

Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved.  Nor does he give a damn if he is or not.  Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him.  Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.

Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with?  We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.

And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true?  Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon.   You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not.  Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.

I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car.  No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories.  Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all.  (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)

Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy.  Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here.  With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.

One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy.  True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century.  Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it.  He must have known that.  Nor was this such a new sensation.  He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life.  Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.

But there are compensations.  To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them.  You may even get an inkling of things yet to come.  And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning.  So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.

All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work.  The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.

The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them.  We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing.  Must that always be true?  I could not say.

But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.

So what’s different?  This time they know about it.  I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger.  To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before.  Self-awareness is one thing.  Self-consciousness quite another.

And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched.  Most of all when you’re playing to a camera.  Playing yourself.  Instead of just being yourself.  Which was hard enough to begin with.

To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work.  What you do shapes everything about you.  He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.

Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs.  If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere.  (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.)  But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.

And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that.  Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it.  Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins.  The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself.  Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it.  To be is to be perceived.

This is normal for entertainers, of course.  That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?)  But how about a writer?   Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.

Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore.  B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either.  I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed.  Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.

If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.

Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it.  He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower.  Few can claim to be that focused.

Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him.  Maybe not even then.  In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be.  To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.

To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?

I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting.  As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool.  They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies.  They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.

Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars.  Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him.  That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.

So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system.  As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.

Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it.  (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)

Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing.  He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete.  He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff.  I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same.  Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work.  There is no Jobs, no CEO.  Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers.  An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.

It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow.  Creative anarchism.  (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates).  And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea.  No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.

Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it.  Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires.  So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer.  Here’s just one exchange from that process.  (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years).  Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”

Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “

Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”

His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.

Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”

“I got it.”

“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”

“You got it.”

“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”


“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”


Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “


“Start listening!”

“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—


The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”

“Can’t you hear anything?”

“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”

Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes.  Dortmunder accepts.  Graciously, if a bit stiffly.

Why is this work so good to watch?  Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment.  This, in a nutshell, is fiction.  (And life, or it ought to be.)

Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted.  There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions.  They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”

I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape.  Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.

Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty).  Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap.  But we watch it.  Because it’s fun!  Vérité be damned, we crave variety.

(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon.  Won’t even mention Keanu.  Too obvious.  Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity.  The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)

The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject.  They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.

And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros  in their own field–and what’s their job?  To make you look good doing your job.  Which makes them look good at their jobs.  One hand jacking off the other.   Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.

The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell.  This is not who they are.  If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived.  To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.

They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company).  They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it.  That’s how they get real.

They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all.  It’s not what they do.  Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know.  To thine own self be true.

Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a  huff, because really.  Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.

The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’  You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it.  There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars.  Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.”  Well, maybe if it’s a diner.

The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you.  Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops.  Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet.  Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere?  Andy?  Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom.  The internet is definitely not there.

But Doug is, and that’s even worse.  He doesn’t belong in the real OJ.  They shut the door in his face.  But he persists.  The corporate overlords love the new heist show.  They want to go ahead with it.  Please, please come back!  They’re kind of meh about it.  The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way?  Doug says that’s not how reality works.  John says “Why not?  How real is reality anyway?”  That is the question, all right.

But they come back.  Because money.  And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera.  Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene.  Very stiff.  But that’s okay, they can carry him.  They’re professionals.  They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.

So they pull the job.  The cash is there, just like they thought.  So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that.  Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it.  Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.

To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen.  This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway.  I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.

There’s a ton of cash in there.  Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is.  The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home.  The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again.  They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.

So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was.  They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left.  Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it.  $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.

“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.”  He smiles.  And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past?   The Avalon Bank Tower heist.  The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better?  Because it’s repeatable.  They can keep going back for more.   As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.

Except they don’t work there anymore.  Corporate moves in mysterious ways.  Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals.  They can’t be associated with crime!

(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again.  Westlake was still thinking about Trump.  Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.

Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building.  TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real.  And it’s TUI that cancels the show.  I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016.  Much as his insights may be missed.)

So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent.  Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs.  Everybody else is fired.  The show is canceled.  Shut it down.

Just in time, too.  They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news.  Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook.  “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place.  You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”

Like himself, but not himself.  Just like the others.  They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly.  Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio.  Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy?  You can dish it out but you can’t take it!

Marcy is so happy.  This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé.  The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play.  Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned.  Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.

Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one.  10k a hood, I mean head.  Plus they got some money upfront.  Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud).  Plus they got the money from the dishwasher.  Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out.  (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)

“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks.  Already snapping back to his old self.  You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it.  It’s a living.  We suppose.

Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate.  Dortmunder feels bad for her.  She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not.  She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something.  Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash.  “There’s an idea,” says Kelp.  He doesn’t stop walking.  Disappears around the corner.  Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.

John, stop.  Wait.  Come back, John.  Please come back.  You can’t leave us.  We love you. John?


Just like the man who first made him real.  I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right?  He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.

But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once.  The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage.  There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits.  And that’s us, get it?  We’re the fairies.  Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.

Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality.  Transcendent reality.  And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again.  (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).

Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming.  I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way.  The best way is to read the books.  Over and over.  Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it?  Which is what I re-read Get Real on.  Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind.  And share it with someone who loves you.  Then you’ll be real too.

Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what?  No more?  Well then.  Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself.  I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my  job.  It’s been real.  You know?  Open bar at the OJ.  Bourbon’s on me.  Tell Rollo Fred sent you.

PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words.  Uploaded it to YouTube.  You can view it here.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)


Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Tomorrow’s Crimes

And so we come to to my third Westlake anthology review (I’m counting The Getaway Car, even though it’s nonfiction).  Jut two more to go, unless something else turns up.  And frankly, I’m rather curious as to how this one came to be published in the first place. Donald Edwin Westlake was known as a mystery writer under his own name–mainly somebody who wrote funny crime novels.  Most of his straight science fiction had been published under the wry pseudonym, Curt Clark–and he’d terminated his relationship with the genre by writing a scathing polemic for a short-lived fanzine, aimed squarely at its shortcomings, and at some of its most influential figures.

The centerpiece (endpiece, really) of this collection is his only science fiction novel, Anarchaos, hardly a big seller when it came out in 1967 (I mentioned it was a science fiction novel, right?).  I’ve already reviewed it here, of course–my review was nearly half the length of the book (I mentioned I wrote that review, right?).  I consider it one of the most interesting things he ever wrote, and maybe the best mingling of the conventions of science fiction and crime fiction that anyone ever came up with.   Heinlein meets Hammett and Hammett wins by TKO was my summation at the time, and I see no cause to back down from that.

Tomorrow’s Crimes is not even close to being a complete collection of his science fiction (Westlake probably wouldn’t have wanted most of his early SF to be preserved for posterity), and most of the stories are rather dubiously of that genre anyway.  More in the Twilight Zone mode, I’d say–that nether realm between SF, fantasy, and straight-up horror).  “Anarchaos and Other Stories of Fantastic Suspense” runs the sub-title, and that’s about right.  The target audience is more mystery readers who dig a bit of SF/Fantasy, than SF/Fantasy readers who are in the mood for a mystery.  But readers can move back and forth between genres just as much as genre authors used to do.  And genres themselves can be surprisingly flexible.

Possible Anarchaos had developed a bit of a cult following over the years, and finding copies of the Ace paperback original would have been a challenge back in the 1980’s (no eBay yet).  So reprinting it for The Mysterious Press (since it is basically a hard-boiled detective story) made sense, but it was too short for a hardcover edition–less than 150 pages in this book–and the paperback original market had mainly dried up.  So take a smattering of Westlake’s more distinguished efforts for the various SF/Fantasy pulps (and other venues) to flesh the book out a bit. This is the result.

The main effect of which is to demonstrate yet again that there’s a reason Donald Westlake is mainly remembered as a novelist, even though he began with the short story.  He produced some exceptional work in that format, but it wasn’t his chief area of strength.  He needs time to establish character, room to run with a story.  Writing shorts helped him as a writer, gave him the discipline and economy he needed to pack a lot of plot into a relatively small space.  But he was never as good in miniature as he was with a few hundred pages to work with.  Even the novella was a bit confining for him.

And science fiction itself, as it was typically written for the pulps in the 50’s and early 60’s, was often equally constraining.  As a young man, he’d been powerfully attracted to the form, to the seemingly unlimited range of ideas you could explore with it, but he came to believe that the preoccupations of single-minded mavens like John W. Campbell were overly limiting, stifling even.  They were pushing their own ideas and personal philosophies on the young writers submitting work to them (while being paid mere pennies a word), and they were insufficiently concerned with character, story, motivation, or style–the things Westlake cared most about.

The best SF writers would find ways to transcend its commercially imposed limitations (still do, I’m sure–not keeping up these days), but Westlake had a family to support, a career to build, and couldn’t wait that long.  He busted out of that joint, and only rarely looked back.  And of course, the mystery genre had its own built-in limitations that likewise constrained him–a larger and somewhat more prestigious ghetto, is what it often amounted to.  No writer wants to believe he or she can only write one thing.  You want as many arrows as possible in your quiver.

So he would have eventually decided he’d been a bit too hasty–there were still things to say with this form, sometimes called speculative fiction–but he’d do it his way, and nobody else’s.  In fact, he’d publish at least two more novels that could be lumped into that category.  We’ll get to those pretty soon.  Worth pointing out that of the nine short stories collected here, six were written after he wrote that infamous polemic for Xero.

Anarchaos, as I mentioned in my review of it, was pretty clearly referred to in that polemic (though not by name).  He hadn’t finished it by then, and he thought he never would.  And yet he did, and got it published, and probably got paid a few hundred dollars for it.  Why bother?  Because he could never quite let go of his love for the limitless vistas of science fiction and its various fantastic cohorts .

The stories we remember him best for were rooted more in the prosaic (even if they were about heists and murders), but there’s always something a bit uncanny about them.  If he’d been raised in Latin America, perhaps he’d have written magic realism.  In a sense, he was always doing that.

Maybe we’re never told in so many words that Parker is a wolf born into the body of a man (because that would ruin it, somehow), but there’s something in him that doesn’t fit the genre he’s in.  Because his creator never quite fit in anywhere either.  The best writers always defy categorization.  And yet, so many of them wrote genre stories.  A paradox I doubt I could ever explain.  But I can review these particular stories, and you can pigeonhole them as you please–or not.  My job is to decide how good I think they are, and what they’re trying to say.  Shall we begin?

The Girl of My Dreams: An unusual provenance to this one, which was first collected in 1979, in a British anthology, The Midnight Ghost Book.  And it is a sort of ghost story, but not in the usual sense.

The narrator is a perfectly ordinary fellow, bit of a Caspar Milquetoast type, working as a clerk in a department store, harassed by his overbearing ambitious boss Mr. Miller, living with his mother and sister at home.   But he starts having these dreams–very real, he tells us.  Not at all like the usual disjointed perspective-switching narratives we experience in our sleep.  Very sharp, vivid, coherent, and he remembers them in complete detail when he awakes.  They all involve this girl.

He saves her from a mugger in the first dream.  Her name is Delia–derived, you should know (and Westlake surely did), from the island of Delos, where the goddess Artemis is said to have been born.  Oddly popular among the Irish, that name, but still quite uncommon.  She’s exquisitely lovely, as you would expect.  So grateful for his help.  And he’s at ease with her, confident, manly, as he never would be with any girl in real life.

They start seeing a lot of each other–each and every dream is solely concerned with the time they spend together.  Every single night he dreams of her and her only.   And more and more, his waking life becomes the dream, and his dream life is reality. He can easily withstand the abuses of his supervisor, the petty humiliations of working life, knowing Delia is waiting for him in his sleep.  He also starts to become attractive to women he meets in real life, due to his newfound confidence–he pays this no mind, since he has Delia.  He and Delia never do get around to making love, but he knows it’s going to happen, there’s no rush.  Then Delia starts to become distant with him; cold, abstracted.  What’s wrong?

She tells him.  She met Miller at the country club.  He seduced her.  She doesn’t love him, he makes her skin crawl, but she can’t resist him.   She’s meeting him in a sleazy little motel room–she tells him which motel, and he goes to see it later, while awake–it’s exactly as she described it in the dream.  She tells him exactly what she and Miller have been doing there in that motel room.  In excruciating detail.  She says she loves him, not Miller.  But she can’t stop seeing Miller.  He’s got a hold over her.  She doesn’t sing her dejected beau that song from Porgy & Bess, but it’s there in the subtext.

So, as he informed us in the opening line of the story, he’s bought a gun.  He’s thinking about leaving his bed in the middle of the night while still awake, going to that motel, and seeing what he finds there.  And if he finds Delia and Miller there, he’s not honestly sure what he’s going to do–or who he’s going to kill.  He’s not honestly sure anymore who–or what–Delia is.  And that being the case, how can he know what he is?

It’s very much in the same vein as One Man On a Desert Island, from 1960, which was collected in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution, and which I thought was the best story in that anthology–and I think the same about this one (excluding Anarchaos, of course).  In that story, a man marooned on an island by himself imagines his perfect female companion–then starts finding fault with her and imagines murdering her.  In a state of deep irremediable remorse, he confesses his crime when he’s rescued, and the absence of a body is easily explained.  He sticks to his story throughout his trial, and is executed.

I found some parallels between that story and a Twilight Zone episode, and I do so here as well, but not the same one.  This one reminds me of Miniature, written by Charles Beaumont.  One of the hour long episodes, this one featuring Robert Duvall as a lonely man living with his mother who starts seeing a beautiful woman in a dollhouse at a museum–just a doll, but to him she’s alive.  She’s being treated badly by a man, is lonely and sad like himself, and he wants so badly to get in there with her, join her in the dollhouse, comfort her, and finally he does.  Forever.  Happy ending.  For The Twilight Zone.  For Beaumont.

Westlake wouldn’t have liked that ending.  To him, that’s the wrong kind of escape (Beaumont’s tragically failing health would have made it hard for him to see any other kind–checking his bio, I see he got sick right around the same time he wrote Miniature).  But he could have had any number of stories besides Beaumont’s in mind–including his own earlier less paranormal attempt–when he wrote this one.  It’s less directly suggestive of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 story, Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, and of course you can trace it back to mythology–Circe, Succubi, Lorelei.

The point is the same in both stories Westlake wrote–don’t get trapped in your own dreams, your false ideals.  You have to see the world as it is, and yourself as you really are.  You have to accept imperfection.  Falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist is bad.  Falling in love with someone who does exist but not in the same reality as you (the dream world or cyberspace, not that Westlake knew about that yet), and is enticing you to your doom–much worse.   Real lovers can be hard to deal with, fall short of expectations, but at least they’re real.

And I feel strange saying this, but pretty sure I met Delia once in a dream.  Or someone like her.   Haven’t seen her since.  Maybe I wasn’t her type?  (Oh God.  Do you suppose Beaumont was?)

But at least in that story, your imagination can only harm you.  Not so in the case of–

Nackles:  The narrator tells us about his brother-in-law, Frank.   A former football star, turned insurance salesman.  Frustrated with his life, he became angry and abusive, took it out on the narrator’s sister Susie, but the narrator, armed with a baseball bat, adequately made the point that this would not be tolerated.  Feeling like this somehow made them friends, Harry confided in the narrator afterwards, they hung out, even though Frank quite frankly remained a jerk.

As the years passed, and his family grew, Frank, feeling the burdens of fatherhood a bit too keenly (but probably thinking about that baseball bat), began telling his frightened children awful stories about Nackles, the evil opposite of Santa Claus.  The point was to make them stay quiet and well-behaved, and it worked–they’re even more frightened of Nackles than their dad who constantly screams at them.  However, no matter how well they behave, Frank keeps telling them they’re awful, and Nackles is going to get them soon.

He’s tall and skinny, dressed in black, gray face, black eyes.  He lives beneath the earth, travels in tunnels, in a sled pulled by eight goats.  He likes to eat children.  As long as the children in a house are good, Santa Claus can project a shield that keeps Nackles from getting in.  But when children are bad, Santa’s magic weakens, and Nackles will appear, stuff them in a sack, and take them below the earth to be devoured.  The Grinch, before his heart grew three sizes, would find Nackles a mite extreme.

There are many versions of this kind of story, and they all end the same way.  Frank disappeared from an upstairs room one Christmas, and was never seen again.   He did not take his car with him, and his car was the only part of his life he liked. Nor did he berate his wife before leaving, and tell her it was all her fault.  Which he would have done.

The police just assume he ran off on his responsibilities, and the narrator wants to go along with that, but he can’t.  See, Frank made his children really believe in Nackles.  And he told many other dads he knew, some of them salesmen from out of town, about Nackles, and how well the story worked as a way of making the rug rats keep quiet, and of course some of them tried it, and their kids believed.  Spread by both parents and children, the story of Nackles grew, promulgated itself, became an urban myth–and Nackles became real.  And what was Frank himself but an overgrown spoiled child?

It all depends, you see, like the chicken and the egg, on which came first.  Did God exist before Man first thought of Him, or didn’t He?  If not, if Man creates his gods, then it follows that Man must create the devils too.

With the possible exception of a Dortmunder tale penned much later (the one he got an Edgar Award for), this is probably the best-known and most influential short story Westlake ever wrote.  And that’s purely down to the idea itself, because well-written though  it is, taken simply as a story, it’s not that much.  I’d call it more of a dramatized thought experiment.  Jung would have enjoyed it, I’m sure.

It’s hard to trace the lineage of an idea, and certainly an idea in genre fiction.  The genome is too complex.  The basic idea that you can bring something awful to life by believing in it has undoubtedly occurred independently to many unconnected persons.  But I can’t, at least so far, find a story quite like this that predates Nackles.

De Maupassant’s Horla?  Bierce’s Damned Thing?  Perhaps the idea is latent there, but we can’t know that the haunted narrators in those stories created their own monsters. So many stories that came after Nackles, though.  The implicit became explicit.  With a vengeance.

Westlake had been stationed in Germany while in the Air Force, so very likely he’d heard about Krampus.  I’m guessing he did not approve of this aspect of Teutonic parenting.   And there had been a story in the 50’s EC comic, The Vault of Horror, that later made its way into 1970’s Tales From the Crypt, but though that also deals with a murderous Santa, that’s got quite a different point to it.  And about as much depth as a mirror (great artwork, though).  Robert Bloch published a story in 1968 called The Gods Are Not Mocked, which made the precise opposite point–irreverently disbelieving in folkloric beings–like Smokey the Bear–can lead to horrific consequences.

Nackles really seems like something Harlan Ellison could have written (he would have made a much freakier trip out of it), and I have to say I thought about Ellison a lot while rereading Tomorrow’s Crimes.  Westlake and Ellison are connected in many strange ways.  Perhaps the best short story writer science fiction ever produced–he was as much Westlake’s superior in that form as Westlake was his at the novel.  Ellison was just starting to really hit his stride in 1964, when Nackles was published (under the Curt Clark handle) in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, co-founded by Anthony Boucher in 1949, but just then being edited by Avram Davidson.

Ellison also tended to believe we make our own devils, one way or another.  He expressed his admiration for Westlake on more than one occasion.  I have more than just a vague inkling to convince me he was influenced by Nackles, and here it is.  Serling-ized.  Or really, Harlan-ized.  And a damn shame that segment never aired.  And at the same time, do we really want Nackles on television?   I don’t mean the story.  I mean Nackles.

But perhaps the ultimate homage to this story and its title character came in a more real–and horrifying–form.  What are his primary attributes?  He’s very tall.  He’s very thin.  He’s gray-skinned.  He preys on children. He gets stronger and stronger the more people believe in him, the more they spread belief in him–he’d absolutely love the internet. I’m not going to link to the Wikipedia article for Slender Man.  Look it up yourself, if you want. You can take thought experiments too far.  Westlake died the year before that one started.  Coincidence.  Sure.  If Rod Serling steps out of the background now…….

Frankly, the rest of the short stories are not so interesting, and I’m going to give most of them short shrift.  And most particularly–

The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter:  A very short spoof, published in the New York Times magazine, in 1975.   A hardboiled detective is approached by a mysterious fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet, or if he’s not available, Robert Morley) on a quest to find the fabled lost letter of the European alphabet.  A bit like the stuff Woody Allen used to write when he wasn’t making movies.  And quite a bit like Comfort Station as well, but not as good.  And a little over three full pages in length in this book, so how good does it need to be, really?

“No one has pronounced that letter,” the fat man said, “in over a thousand years.  Some think it’s the sound in a man’s throat on the third day of Asian flu when watching a rock record commercial during the six o’clock news.”

“Gutteral,” said Staid

The fat man, whose real name was Gutteral, frowned at Staid through narrowed eyes.  “It seems I’ve underestimated you,” he said.

The title is a bad pun, and so is the final line.  Everybody who reads Hammett or watches John Huston movies knows sneaky fat men never find the dingus they’re looking for.  Westlake had fun writing it, you might have fun reading it, but it’s no fun at all to review.  On to the next story, which like the two after it, is actual science fiction, huzzah!

The Spy in the Elevator:  When the high-rise apartment complex showed up, science fiction writers got very interested.  Could this be the new social unit?  Might people someday live entirely in self-contained environments, and stop going outside?   To sum up–no.  Extrapolation from isolated trends is not a reliable means of predicting future trends.  But the stories still got written, and this is one of them.

A man living in a  futuristic post-apocalyptic complex (called ‘Project’), is prevented from going to his sweetheart’s apartment some floors below him by a malfunctioning elevator.  He intends to propose to her that night.  He’s told by a friendly telephone operator with nice cleavage (it’s one of those phones where people can see each other, well that happened anyway) there’s a spy from another Project in the elevator, and they’re having a hard time getting him out.

So our narrator, worried his girl (who has a major thing about punctuality), will dump him if he’s late, tries taking the stairs, something nobody ever does anymore.  And with good reason–the spy is in there, and he makes the narrator take him back to his apartment at gunpoint.  And it turns out he’s not a spy at all–he’s from another Project, yes.  But his mission is to try and make people understand that the radiation from WWIII that drove them all into these horrid techno-caves is gone now, they can go outside, they can be free again, walk in the sunlight!

In reaction to this insanity, the narrator, well-versed in martial arts, gets the drop on the spy and kills him.   Why would anyone want to go outside?   That’s just nutty.  His girl does dump him for being late (even though he’s a hero for killing the spy), but it’s cool, there’s plenty of other girls who want to meet him now, like that busty operator.  Life is good.  Why would anyone want to change it?

If you were to collect all the science fiction stories about this particular idea in one book (including that J.G. Ballard novel I have a copy of and keep meaning to read), you might well end up with a book you’d need a forklift to carry around with you.  There’s nothing particularly special about this one.  It was published in 1961, in Galaxy, and entirely possible it was one of the first stories of this type, but I don’t know how you’d go about finding out.

I do know Westlake disliked the new high-rise apartment complexes–felt like they were a threat to individuality.  He later wrote a story called The Sincerest Form of Flattery, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, that covered some of the same ground (and that I’ve reviewed here).  It’s a better story than this, I’d say–as a story–but philosophically speaking, this one is more interesting (Westlake used science fiction sometimes to get into a more philosophical mode, and so did many others).

The ‘spy’ asks the narrator if he knows how long it took for primitive man to leave his cave and go outside (and this is terrible anthropology, but I’m probably being too literal)–

“I’ll tell you this,” he said belligerently.  “A lot longer than it took for him to turn around and go right back into the cave again.” He started pacing the floor, waving the gun around in an agitated fashion as he talked.  “Is this the natural life of man?  It is not  Is this even a desirable life for man?  It is definitely not.”  He spun back to face me, pointing the gun at me again, but this time he pointed it as though it was a finger, not a gun.  “Listen, you,” he snapped.  “Man was progressing.  For all his stupidities and excesses, he was growing up.  His dreams were getting bigger and grander and better all the time.  He was planning to tackle space!  The moon first, and then the planets, and finally the stars.  The whole universe was out there, waiting to be plucked like an apple from a tank.  And Man was reaching out for it”  He glared as though daring me to doubt it.

One hates to nitpick, but wouldn’t going to the stars mean spending untold generations enclosed in hermetically sealed–sorry, being over-literal again.   The basic point is sound–we’ve turned from outer space to inner space–this blog itself is evidence of that.  Netflix alone is proof of that.  But isn’t that what Westlake himself did when he went from science fiction to mystery?  1961.  Probably written a year or so earlier.  He still had some growing to do.

But always, with him, the emphasis on the rugged individualist over the organization man, and while that didn’t work out so well for the individualist here (because he wasn’t rugged enough, talked too much, cared too much about making other people agree with him), it works out rather better for the independent in a longer story, published the same year in Amazing Stories (the very first SF mag, founded by Hugo Gernsback, a writer of enormous cultural significance who nobody can stand to read anymore).

The Risk Profession:  This is the one story in the collection that had already been collected–in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions, from Random House.  I didn’t really want to deal with it in my review of that collection–in fact, I said I’d deal with it when I got to my review of this collection, so I guess I have to do that now, huh?  I’m just not that enthused about it.  And yet Westlake must have been, because he knew it had already been collected, and here it is, collected again.  He must have liked it.  I more or less forced myself to reread it.

It’s a murder mystery.  That may be the reason it’s in this anthology from The Mysterious Press.  As such, it’s fine.  The mystery is simple–an asteroid miner is dead. He had a policy with an insurance company–an annuity he paid into over the years, that was supposed to pay off after he retired, if he lived that long, which most of these miners don’t, or at least not very long after they retire.  The asteroids are low-g, so they fall apart once they come back to earth.  The company makes lots of money off the poor schlubs.

So his partner came into a mining town on a nearby planetoid one day, said his partner got himself killed in a stupid accident–they’d made the big strike all these miners are waiting for, they both got drunk, his partner got careless.  No body, because no gravity–he went up into space and never came back.  He left all his worldly goods to his partner, and since he had just applied to get his money from the policy refunded, that counts as worldly goods, and the partner gets it.  The insurance company suits smell a rat (other than themselves, I mean).

So they send an investigator.   Our narrator.  His name is Ged.  I can definitively answer one question–no–this is not a Wizard of Earthsea ref.  That book came out seven years after this story.  Ged is a real English first name, that non-wizards used to have.  I’ve never met a Ged, but maybe there’s still some of them out there.

So our Ged, who hates his boss, and his job, and outer space, goes out there, sniffs around.  In spite of his dislike for his job, he’s exceptionally good at what he does, and his gut instincts tell him the miner is lying–that he did in fact somehow murder his partner.  But he can’t figure out how to prove it.  Then he does.  When you see how, you think “damn, I should have noticed that!”  Just like you do when reading all the other mystery stories you’ve ever read based on a small easy-to-miss detail.  There is a certain element of masochism in the average mystery reader, I’ve often thought.

So that’s all the usual boilerplate–from two genres absolutely packed solid with boilerplate–so what’s interesting about this one?  That Ged uses the fact that he solved the mystery to get rich, and retire, and go lie on a beach somewhere, collecting interest.   It’s like a Continental Op story where the Op tells the Old Man at the Home Office to go screw himself.  Which is kind of cool, but to my way of thinking, not enough to justify the story.   Which has never been anthologized again that I know of, and honestly–once was enough.

I would like there to be more Westlake story anthologies in the future, and I would like even better for this story to not be in any of them. It’s not bad or anything.  It’s a fine professional piece of work.  It’s just not that interesting.  If this is what Westlake thought his best science fiction writing looked like, small wonder he mainly stopped writing science fiction.   The next story in this book is no masterpiece, but I liked it a lot better.

The Winner:   From 1970, first published in Nova 1, edited by Harry Harrison (a writer who had many things in common with Westlake, not least an affection for intrepid thieves).  Not very far in the future at all, political prisoners have been implanted with a small black box that causes them to feel unbearable pain if they venture too far away from a signal transmitted inside their unwalled and mainly unguarded prison.  It’s a pilot program, that may soon be used in all prisons, for all crimes.

A poet has been imprisoned for unknown crimes.   He refuses to accept his imprisonment, and tells the warden (named Wordman) so, before he walks out into the field surrounding the prison, in ever greater agony, until he collapses.  His screams can be heard from the warden’s office.  Wordman feels every scream in his soul, but he wants the poet to learn his lesson.  Then the screams stop.  They search for the poet.  They do not find him.

The poet was picked up by a farmer, who not understanding what was going on, took him to a doctor, who does understand what is happening, and thoroughly disapproves.  He removes the black box.   But by then the authorities have found them, and both are now imprisoned, with black boxes inside of them.  The poet says he’s sorry.  The doctor says not to be.  At their earliest opportunity, they both intend to go walking into that field again, together.  Wordman thinks they’re both insane.  But the madness may be catching.

Now this reminds me a lot of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Tick-Tock Man.  Harlan Ellison turns it into a fairy tale, a fable, and it works better that way.  The story, as Westlake writes it, isn’t of the proper style to accommodate characters with names like Wordman.  It’s heavyhanded, but extremely sincere.

Wordman’s hands gripped the foot of the bed.  He said “What’s the matter with you?  You can’t get away, you have to know that by now.”

“You mean I can’t win.  But I won’t lose.  It’s your game, your home ground, your equipment; if I can manage a stalemate, that’s pretty good.”

It could be a lot better, but again, the main value of it for us is to get a less filtered version of the author’s own beliefs than you’d normally find in his novels, where he covers his tracks a lot better.  And makes his points more powerfully, I’d say.  And that’s it for the straight SF short stories in this book.  Up next is–

Dream a Dream: First published in 1982.  A young woman who married an older archaeologist she feels no passion for, simply because she wanted to explore Mayan culture, has a dream while they’re on a  dig together.  A Mayan priest brandishing a stone knife says they’re going to sacrifice her as a virgin.  She protests she’s no virgin, but he says she might as well be, since she’s never really given herself to a lover.

Waking up feeling oddly chastened, she proceeds to seduce a handsome young man working on the dig with them, though she’s not in love with him either.  She goes back to sleep, feeling quite pleased with herself, and dreams again of the Mayan priest, who says “Now what we do with adulteresses…”   Rimshot.  Man, what macho haven of misogyny published this Feathers or Lead fable? Cosmopolitan.  That figures. The worst story in the book.  Not worth another word.  But the next one is to die for….

In at the Death: First published in The 13th Ghost Book, 1977, another British anthology, same publisher as the first story.  The narrator informs us he’s a ghost.  But he’s not haunting anyone but him.  He hung himself, because his wife was unfaithful.  He wanted her to feel as badly as he does.  But as soon as he kicks the chair away, he wishes he could take it back.  Too late.  He vividly describes the sensation of death by hanging.  He tells us how he found himself a spectral presence, trapped in the room, forced to look at his corpse, with its bulging eyes and distorted features, and his only physical sensations are those he felt while he was dying.

He wants more than anything now for his wife to never see him like this.   But she does.  It destroys her.  She loved him.  Her affair meant nothing–her lover is actually bisexual, leaning towards gay–he was just comforting her, because her husband was emotionally distant.  The narrator finds out in bitter detail just how wrong he was, how much harm he’s done, how much he did in fact have to lose.  The police come, his wife is taken away, his corpse is taken away, and he’s alone.  And then he sees himself come into the room, with a rope.  The entire scene begins to replay itself.  He knows what hell is now.

I could compare this ghost story–not at all unfavorably–to James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.   That has a science fiction gloss to it, but it’s the same basic point, and I don’t believe either influenced the other.  Just a shared fear that the failures of one’s life could haunt you after death.  To die, to sleep–to sleep, perchance to dream.

Westlake had very strong feelings about suicide, as the first Levine story, The Best-Friend Murder, made clear.  But in that story, the emphasis was on his contempt for those who give up on life.  Here, it’s more about the damage suicide does to the survivors.  He was, of course, raised as a Catholic with the belief that self-murder is a mortal sin.  But I don’t think his dislike of it is specifically Catholic.  It’s more the sense of a man who very nearly died as a baby, whose health may have been shaky at times, who died suddenly at the age of 75, that the real sin is to not take every bit of life–and love–you can grab a hold of.  And to throw love back in the face of those who offer it–no forgiveness.  Not in this life or the next.

And I almost forgot to mention the dead narrator’s name.  Ed.  Presumably short for Edwin.

And that brings us to the last short story in the book, which I’d call more eco-fiction than science fiction–an unusual sub-genre for Westlake.    It’s called–

Hydra: From 1984 (heh), first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.  A man and his wife have returned from Latin America, where the man’s work for a corporation that manufactures chemicals had taken them both to live a while.  They’re showing slides, which they provide a sort of running narration for, very condescending towards the natives, bordering on contemptuous.

Their guests are curious, and one in particular, named Fay, is a bit more questioning of the husband’s attitudes.  He’s a company man, through and through.  Yes, there have been unfortunate excesses, that thing in Brazil was awful, but that was Europeans, multinationals–they know better than to go that far now, and these people should be grateful for the work they’re getting, all the modern improvements they can’t really appreciate, being so backward.

He’s a bit vague about what his company was doing down below the border, free of pesky government intervention that’s holding America back, keeping it from being competitive in the world economy.  There’s a mention of a company lake that everybody swims in.  A man named Julio who made wine from flowers he somehow grew from the poor soil.  There are slides of children with strange birth defects.

Then Fay goes to have a look at Vickie, their new baby, gestated down below the border.  Beautiful child.  Green eyes.  Forked tongue.  Well, her mother says from the doorway, so what?   They can fix that surgically later on.  So many children back around the company lake have them.  Don’t tell anyone about it.  Fay promises not to.

The only way you’d know this was a Westlake story is that there’s a mention of how they used to go swimming in Lake Monequois.  Somebody mentions it’s all covered in algae now. Well, that’s progress.

Westlake loved Latin America.  He loved the people, he loved the countryside, he loved the sense of the past there.  And he was ashamed of the way other Americans behaved there.  And he hated corporations, as few writers ever have, before or since.   He had a strong feeling that those who figured what we did in the so-called third world could never come back home to bite us were a bunch of damned fools.  And this is a nice little cautionary tale.   And it probably didn’t do any good, and he probably didn’t expect it would.  But slight as the story is, again, it does contribute to our understanding of him.  A man of many parts, Mr. Westlake.

And that’s Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t like having to say, over and over, that somebody else did the same idea only better.   I rarely ever feel that way, reading his novels.  I definitely don’t feel that way reading Anarchaos, which is the last story in this book.

There, in that very short novel, all the different threads you can see in the earlier stories in the book (some of them written years later) come together seamlessly–the influence of Hammett and other classic mystery writers.  The admiration for tough-minded individualists who refuse to compromise with the system.  The hatred of corporations (which leads to the paradoxical awareness that true individualism requires laws and governments to enforce them, to protect you from the money men, inconvenient though that may be for the libertarians among us).

Above all, the hunger for human connection–the sense that the only real wealth we have in this world (or any other) is each other, mingled with a sad understanding that we throw that wealth away, get lost in fantasies, forget what’s real.  It’s all there, and it all works beautifully.

Westlake just wasn’t a great short story writer.  Anymore than I’m a great short review writer.  Over 6500 words about nine stories.  Yeesh.  This was a book on tape, as you can see above.  Same as the earlier anthology.  Theodore Bikel, huh?  That’s all I’ve got.

Anyway, we’re almost through the 80’s now.  Thank God.  Just two more novels.  The next of which is about an actor.  Yeah, another book about an actor.  A movie star, no less.  But with a difference.  Westlake’s just been playing with his actor books up to now.  He’s ready to get serious about this obsession of his.  And then put it behind him, forever.  Time to slay the monster.  Or be slain in the attempt.


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories