Tag Archives: Humans

Review: Humans, Part 2 (It is finished)

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

John Milton

Here is a thing I’ve learned about the humans.  Everything they do is motivated by a crazy quilt of reasons.  Almost never do they perform an act merely because it’s the most sensible thing to do at that moment.  There are always political reasons as well, or social reasons, or emotional reasons, or religious reasons, or financial reasons, or reasons of prejudice.

Oh, who knows?  They wind up doing the wrong thing, usually, is the point, even though that small rational part inside them will briefly have shown the right road to take.  A human who can’t ignore common sense to leap firmly into the saddle of the wrong horse is a pretty poor example of the species, all in all.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

Did Westlake really believe he had a bestselling novel here?   That’s how he originally conceived of it, if Lawrence Block is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt him.  But that was before he’d written one word of it.  When the time came to actually tell the story, when his muse took over, when each character began to speak imploringly to him, when he’d done all that research into the horrors afflicting so many parts of the world–including his own–did he really type it out thinking “I’m gonna make a fortune off this one!”  I’ll answer that one–no.   He couldn’t dance on all those graves.  He hadn’t with Kahawa, and he wouldn’t this time either.  He’d write the book he had to write, and it would sell or it wouldn’t.

Originally, he possibly intended something a bit more cynical and lighthearted (sure you can make an end-of-the-world story lighthearted; Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did), and then his social conscience, always tugging at him, took control of the enterprise.  But now that he’s got a real message to get across, he’d still want it to reach a lot of people–would he expect it to?  I can’t answer that one, but I can surmise that what the book was originally supposed to be and what it ended up becoming were not totally in synch, which may explain some of the problems with it.

Donald Westlake was many things.  A romantic and a cynic.  A realist and a fantasist.  He loved people and despaired of them.  He valued individuality above all else, but was bitterly aware that even the most rugged individualists can never prevail long against machines–repressive state structures, multi-national corporations, organized crime.  Massed mediocrity wins out; a boot stamping on a human face forever.   But the individual does even worse in chaos, with no structure to rebel against or rely upon.  Who to root for here?  God, the Ultimate Authority Figure?   Or Satan, the Ultimate Anarchist?   Feathers or lead much?

There’s a conflict here, and he can’t resolve it–perhaps no one could.  Like Larry Slade, in The Iceman Cometh, he can always see the two sides of everything (and often more than two).

Why shouldn’t God destroy humanity, and the world along with it (just to prevent any possible repeats of the original failure)?  What have we done but waste every gift showered upon us?   We never learn from our mistakes.  We just make bigger and deadlier variations on them.  He had Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment say that man’s nature is violent because man is part-animal–but we have to learn to move beyond that, to evolve, to finish our journey towards civilization. The 60’s ended, and that project did not seem to be advancing much, if at all.

We always seem to be going back towards the animal, but animals with a capacity for evil and self-destruction no other ever had–it’s a bit harsh, I’ve long thought, God destroying all other life as well, but you could argue that the other species wouldn’t care–they achieved their potential–we didn’t.  And we’re destroying them all now, anyway.  So what difference does it make if they go a bit earlier?

Trapped between two modes of being–between Darwin and Jesus.  A built-in identity crisis.  What we want to have is always in conflict with who we yearn to be.

But one might say it’s the very complexity of humankind, our persistent flaws, our contrarily consistent contradictions, that attract the storyteller in Westlake.  Would you want to be a storyteller in a world of perfect people?   A storyteller best known for stories about criminals?  God the perfectionist wants us to achieve our potential–Satan the materialist just wants us to go on being what we’ve always been, because to a devil what could be more delightful than a being at perpetual war with itself?  That’s where all the interesting stories are.  God, seeking apotheosis, is bored by our repeated failures–Satan and his minions, seeking only gnosis (hence the apple),  can’t get enough of them.

And Westlake identifies with that perspective, perhaps more than he wants to, which is why the sections dealing with ‘X’, the demon assigned to prevent Armageddon, are in many ways the most entertaining parts of the book (and perhaps more what Westlake originally had in mind when he conceived of it).  “God, make me virtuous–but not yet.”  There’s a little Satan even in the saints.   There was no end of it in the man who created Parker and Dortmunder.

So he wavers between two sides of his own nature in writing this, and that’s a tough balancing act for a writer to pull off.   For a variety of reasons (perhaps including a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman that covered some of the same ground), he can’t balance the two sides out perfectly.  It’s much more about the angel than the devil.  Here and there, almost miraculously, he gets the tension just right–but more often it feels like he’s teetering precariously on the tightrope, striving for something that’s a bit too far out of his reach.  And producing some of the best writing of his career in the process–mingled in with much that’s just workmanlike.

A book has to know what it is, as much as a person does.  This book never seems quite sure of its identity.  But the questions it asks were worth asking then–and are worth revisiting now.   Even synopsizing, though I’m going to be less thorough than usual.  This book is much more about character than plot, and I have two characters left to describe.   One of whom can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s more Parker or Dortmunder, and ends up being neither.

Ananayel has already recruited three out of the five people whose decisions, made of their own free will, will bring about the destruction of all life on earth.

Grigor, a Russian fireman turned comedy writer–technically perhaps a Ukrainian, since we’re told he’s from Kiev (most of the world still thought of the two as being the same thing then, and of course there are many ethnic Russians still living there, hence the current troubles, but maybe Westlake just screwed up).  Now being treated for incurable cancer he got courtesy of Chernobyl, at an upstate New York hospital, courtesy of his new friend Susan Carrigan, the unwitting tool of Ananayel, who is keeping an increasingly covetous eye on her as well.

Kwan, a Chinese pro-democracy activist, sought by the authorities for his role in the Tianamen Square demonstrations, who escaped from China to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to a cruise ship, from the cruise ship to a detention center in Manhattan where he awaits extradition, but he escapes from there as well (with the help of Ananayel).  His throat seriously injured by a failed suicide attempt, his voice silenced, he now has basically no remaining hope of ever achieving his goals, or of being the hopeful, idealistic, amorous man he once was.

Maria Elena, a Brazilian woman of great courage and composure, once a promising singer, then a wife who lost both her husband and her chance at motherhood to the pollution from a foreign factory in her hometown, then a frustrated ineffectual environmental activist who Ananayel fills with the notion that she can only combat this evil by going to the source of it, namely America.  But her attempts there have failed as well, along with her second marriage to an American doctor, and she’s trapped in a foreign sterile world, without passion or love or friendship, or even the will to sing again.

Three exceptionally good humans with exceptionally tragic life stories–who all lack the needed skill set to break into a nuclear plant Ananayel has arranged to contain the seed of earth’s destruction.  For that he needs a professional thief.  Well, he’s working for the right God then, isn’t he?

Frank Hillfen:

“Property of Alcatraz.” Frank saw a teenager in Tokyo, walking down a crowded street, wearing a sweatshirt that says Property of Alcatraz.  Doesn’t speak ten words of English.  Was the kid somebody’s property in Alcatraz, wouldn’t last a day.  People wearing the words, don’t know what they say.  Don’t know what they mean.

“The global village,” Mary Ann Kelleny said.

“Yeah,” Frank said.  “But do they get it?  I don’t think so.”

“Does it matter?  As long as they’re happy?”

“Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll bite.  Are they happy?”

She glanced at him as she drove, curious and amused.  “Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Because they don’t know who they are,” he said.  “They don’t know who anybody is.  They mostly sound bewildered.”

A rocky hill arising from a hopeless mire–yeah, I think that’s the point of the name.  Frank is a proficient but strictly smalltime burglar, not remotely ‘in the heavy,’ (he never carried guns on the job)  who was caught carrying a wall safe out of a rich man’s house.  He went to prison.  It wasn’t fun.  Now he’s out again, walking down a highway, and Ananayel picks him up in the form of a woman named Mary Ann Kelleny, who fills his  head with the notion that he needs to stop doing a lot of small burglaries, and concentrate on One Big Score so he can retire, at least for a while.

On reflection, I’d say he’s a Westlake heister living uneasily in the world of Richard Stark.  There’s nothing cute or quirky about his life or his associates, that’s for sure.  He gets dragooned by an acquaintance in East St. Louis into robbing a mob courier, and the guy ends up dead, and Frank’s partner too after he tries to murder Frank, who fortuitously finds a .38 revolver in the dead courier’s pocket just in time to blow the doublecrosser’s head off (Ananayel informs us he didn’t intervene there, Frank did it all himself).

So Frank gets the whole score, $57,830–which is good.  But he’s a killer now.  Not so good.  And it’s the 1990’s, so that’s not a score a guy can retire permanently on.  So he keeps the gun.  Just in case.  He’s not the man he used to be either.

Fearing the retribution of both the law and the mob, he heads for New York, where a man like him can disappear.  And before long he meets up with–

Pami Njorage:

I wonder why I killed the Danish man, she thought.  I wonder what I wanted.  All I really want is to go to sleep, not go through this shit any more.  Not any of this shit.  Not all these johns that look like the Danish man, not this shitty building where you got to nail yourself in, not this sickness I got in my blood. What happens when the sores start to show?  Nobody gonna give me twenty shillings then.  Nobody fuck me for free then.  What did I want that time?  What do I want?

The last piece in the puzzle Ananayel is arranging is a Kenyan prostitute, a member of the Luo tribe, which has become better known around the world since this book was published. Westlake died a few weeks after the son of a more fortunate (if still tragic) Luo was elected President–I’d give a great deal to know his reactions to that.  (I’d also like to know if he consciously patterned Pami after the prostitute in Adios Scheherazade, and where he got the idea for that character).

If Grigor is the heroic comedian and philosopher, Kwan the quixotic fighter for love and liberty, Maria Elena the long-suffering Earth Mother, and Frank the ill-starred rebel without a cause, Pami represents not those who tried their chances and lost, but rather those who were never given a chance to begin with.  That very large segment of the world’s population we try very hard not to think about most of the time.  The hopeless of the earth–but somehow, she has not given up hope.

Ananayel poses as a customer, a Danish tourist, provokes her into murdering his confabulated human body, and taking the large amount of money in his suitcase.  After she has sex with him, and he finds that experience–intriguing–sex, then death.  These humans have intense existences, brief though they are.

She’s got AIDS, or ‘slim’ as they call it on the streets of Nairobi.   It isn’t full-blown yet, but the day’s not far off, and she knows it, and yet she still somehow wants to find a better life than the one she has, and in the guise of a fellow prostitute he gives her the plan–to go to New York, with the money she believes fate has provided her (and in a way it has).

She’s on the plane, feeling happy and excited and scared and against all odds hopeful, and Ananayel is sitting there next to her in yet another guise, which is fortuitous (or maybe not), because this is where X introduces himself into the plot.

He doesn’t understand how this woman, whose soul has belonged to his master for a long time now, could be of any use to God and his plan of world annihilation, but he figures he’ll just kill her and everybody else on the plane–he’s possessed the bodies of some hapless terrorists, who will do nicely for the purpose at hand.   But Ananayel, who can call upon his own master for all the power he needs, proves too strong for him, and he’s forced to flee his hosts, and live to fight another day.

(Sidebar: The various supernatural contests between Ananayel and X, that no mortal eyes can fully perceive, are ingenious and gripping, and although Ananayel clearly has the edge, the outcome is sometimes in doubt.   And the main point of them is to establish the fact that if X is to win their game, it can’t be by strength alone, but by cunning.  And to make the reader feel this is more than a really weird sociological tract, of course.)

So Pami, her money quickly used up in New York, ends up hooking there as well, and her pimp, a terrifying man named Rush (not that one, no), either was possessed by X from the start, or after he took up with Pami.   The scenes with them in a derelict building in lower Manhattan are just as sordid and disheartening as the equivalent scenes in Nairobi–maybe more so.

Pami now knows there is no escaping the life she was born to, no matter where she goes, and she’s starting to develop the sores that mean her time has nearly run out, and is confronted again by Ananayel, this time in the form of a hard-bitten police detective right out of an 87th Precinct novel (not that she’s ever read any), who is then set on fire by X. She flees the burning building, and runs into Frank Hillfen.  Who for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, lets her come with him.  And then they pick up Kwan, still unable to speak, or even eat solid food, and failing fast.  And then they run into Maria Elena with a conveniently flat tire Frank changes for her.

And in her car is Grigor, who Ananayel arranged for her to meet, and because she identifies so much with his pain, she’s taken him out of the hospital he’s dying in, because that’s no place for a man to die.  Earth Mother to the last, she invites them all to her house.   Just a short distance from the nuclear plant where they are all going to destroy the world.

It’s not always clear how much of this dramatic coincidence is really Ananayel’s work, though a lot of it is.  He tells us he’s amazed at how little he has to do, once he sets the wheels in motion–they’re doing most of the heavy lifting for him.   He picked his pawns well, and they are not his only playing pieces, of course.

He’s also been manipulating a variety of powerful people to arrange for a brilliant but somewhat tunnel-visioned scientist trying to harness strange matter as an unlimited energy source to have a new lab for him set up at the nuclear plant–because, you see, he kept blowing up his lab at the university he was at.   Ananayel’s wonderment at how easily he can trick these educated people, politicians and administrators and PR flacks, into doing something utterly insane on the face of it is reflected in the middle quote up top.  But as we’ve seen in recent months, you don’t have to be an angel to pull that off.

And of course one nuclear plant can’t destroy the world.  Could strange matter?   Well, nobody knows, really.  And God is master of everything we don’t know, which when you get right down to it, is almost everything.  And what follows is Westlake at his quirkiest, or should I say quarkiest?

Because, as he argues with fiendish Jesuitical glee, since we don’t know what strange matter might do, since we don’t even know if it really exists, if it turned out that it would destroy everything, that wouldn’t be a miracle.  God isn’t breaking the rules of the game if the rules have not yet been written.  And neither is Westlake breaking the rules of the genre he’s informally working with here, though he does so earlier in the book when he has a scientist tell us there are black holes just a few light years away from earth–there better not be.

There is one thing not even God can account for though–the way of a man with a maid.  Ananayel needed Grigor to sink into utter despondency, and the presence of a beautiful young woman who was possibly just a touch in love with him was detrimental to this goal. So he created another human guise–Andy Harbinger (X sourly remarks this is just what an angel would consider funny).

And he made Susan fall in love with him, which, knowing there’s nothing she could really do for Grigor, and Maria Elena being there, and still having her whole life ahead of her (or so she thinks), she was more than ready to do, because Andy is a hunk–Ananayel having the luxury of taking as pleasing a form as he so pleases, and he doesn’t even have to go to the gym.  Disgusting, isn’t it?

But here’s the sticking point.  He didn’t realize it was a two-way conduit, this love thing.  He wasn’t prepared for the feelings he’d inspired in her to reflect themselves back at him.  He has parried every demonic attack from X, but he has no defense against this.  His other human forms were held only briefly, but because of Susan he has to be Andy over an extended period of time, and it’s infecting him.  As they lie in each other’s arms after the first bout of intercourse, he tells her (and, in more detail, us)–“I didn’t know about this.”

I like being Andy Harbinger. I have made him healthy and attractive and reasonably strong.  (I’ve tried a number of human types by now, and prefer comfort.)  And he is human.  I constructed him from molecules of myself, so he is both me and human, and I am learning from him all the time, but I didn’t know about this.

The experience of being with Susan was unlike anything I could have imagined.  Not like that business with Pami at all, that brutal calisthenics. This was…this was like the best of the empyrean, distilled.  How can humans spend their time doing anything else?

Of course, it was even more powerful for me, since I was in some general contact with Susan’s feelings and reactions as well.  Andy’s and Susan’s emotions, sensations, all mixing together in my semi-human brain; what an explosive cocktail!

I’m so happy I’ve had this chance to get to know and learn about humans, before the end.

Sex, even great sex, is not enough to sway his resolve.  But he is starting to have doubts.  Humans are more than the sum of their flaws.  But God wants them gone.  But wouldn’t God, who made them, and has watched them since their earliest inception, have known something like this might happen if one of his unearthly servants took earthly form long enough?

Still, the momentum now established is getting hard to derail.  Ananayel is somewhat perturbed that now his five pawns are together, their shared understanding of life’s cruelty, the camaraderie of a war each has fought in his/her own way, has actually cheered them up.  They’ve lost everything, at least two are fatally ill (Kwan could probably be saved, but not without medical care that would expose him to extradition back to China), and they’re almost happy. Somehow, humans do better together.  The ones that are not evil, at least–and even Pami, who has knowingly infected men with AIDS, doesn’t really fall into that category.

Frank and Maria Elena are now lovers as well, and Frank is anything but hopeless–he’s still looking for the One Big Score, and when they’re all watching TV, he sees it–the nuclear plant, surrounded by protesters who are angry about the lab-destroying scientist having a lab there (he was on Nightline, talking to Ted Koppel about it).  They have to bus the workers in past the picket lines, and because of the confusion, the security is a joke.  He can get in there and hold the place up for ransom–he just needs a string.  Guess who volunteers?   That’s right.

Grigor, from hard experience, knows a lot about nuclear plants, and doesn’t have much in the way of tender feelings about them.  Kwan has the math skills, and finally sees a way of giving the Ancient Murderers one in the eye.  Maria Elena has grown to love these people, the only friends she has in the world now, so she’s in–anyway, the people who own the plant are one with the people who poisoned her town with chemicals.   And they have to take Pami, because where else can she go?

X is increasingly desperate–the only thing that held him back from killing all five, once he’d found them together (Pami had been the only one he knew about up to then) was that he couldn’t figure out Susan’s place in the scheme–because she doesn’t have one, Ananayel is just finding excuses to be with her, something X can’t understand (sex yes, love no).

In the ensuing battle Ananayel fought with X and his lesser spirits of the air, he came very close to being turned into a tree (while his physical form sat in a Manhattan theater with Susan, watching Night Fall [sic]), but he fought his way out and hurt X so badly that the latter now knows direct confrontation is pointless.

Still, once he sees that the five have taken over the plant, he knows this must be it–but he still doesn’t know how this desperate gambit achieves the destruction of earth.   (“I have come to save the world, only to find that truckling toady is content to destroy New York State?”) So he calls again upon his spies, and learns the terrible truth we’ve already learned from Ananayel.

As God has now written the formerly unwritten law governing such things, if just one drop of strange matter falls to the ground, it will sink down to the earth’s core, and transmute all matter it touches into strange matter–and since strange matter is impossibly dense and stable, far more so than the vibrant shifting stuff we’re made of, the planet will end up as nothing more than a smooth featureless lifeless marble, a shiny ball bearing several miles in diameter, spinning pointlessly about the sun forevermore, looking in vain for an arcade game to inhabit.

And nothing makes you like this infernal creature more than his reaction to this sanctimonious final solution to the Problem of Life–

Stable matter?  Stable matter!  Stabat Mater, what a vicious idea!  So is that what the experiment in that plant is all about, the search for what the instable humans call strange matter (as though they weren’t sufficiently strange themselves).

By Unholy Lucifer, he means to stabilize the earth!

No, no, no.  I have to get in there.  I have to stop this, and at once.

And that’s a pearl, that was my planet?  No.

In his own diabolic way, he too has been infected by earthly life–or perhaps it was those such as he who infected it to start with?–but hard as he tries, he can’t get in there.  The plant, now under the control of the fatal five, is in total lockdown.  There’s no danger of a meltdown, nobody wants that.   But as Ananayel knew would be the case, the authorities would rather risk a meltdown than take responsiblity for paying the requested ransom.  So they’ll just wait them out.

And now the five are trapped–three of them dying, Frank going back to prison for the rest of his life when captured, Maria Elena losing the last emotional connection to anyone she has left.  They need more leverage–and then Ananayel arranges for them to know where to find it.  In the laboratory.   With Dr. Philpott (heh).   Who has just this very moment succeeded in creating strange matter.

Philpott isn’t evil, either–he’s been warned by other scientists that this stuff could be dangerous, but it’s just his nature to need to know things.  He has himself been one of God’s tools, much as it might offend him to know it.  At first, he’s rather contemptuous of these people who have forced themselves in–not without sympathy for their plight, but still unmoved by their anger at the Way Things Are.  He’s above such things.  His goal is to improve civilization by supplying it with free unlimited energy.

“Civilization,” the exotic woman spat, and her scorn was no affectation.

Philpott looked at her.  “I can see that civilization has harmed you,” he said.  “It does that.  I can’t feel your pain, of course, but I still believe human civilization is worth the price we pay.”

“The price you pay, or the price I pay?”

He’s just the right man to remind these people of the sheer intractibility of human civilization–which by its very nature, seems to always need to have somebody down at the bottom, getting shat on by everybody further up the ladder.  Now they really believe there is no hope left.  Not even when they’re threatening the entire world will the world find the will to change.  So maybe it needs to stop being just a threat.

Grigor calls it–why not just break the containment bottle the strange matter is in, and see what happens next?

The Russian man said, “We could test the theory for you, Doctor.”  To the armed man he said, “We just go knock that table over.”

Philpott could hardly breathe.  He hadn’t known it was possible to be this afraid.  In a choked hoarse voice he said, “Man, why would you do that?”

The Russian’s eyes were sunk into his head, as though  his brain looked directly out from the center of his skull.  “I’m leaving very soon, Doctor. I don’t mind the idea of taking everybody with me.  I like that idea.  The best joke I ever thought of.”  He turned that fleshless head.  “Pami?  Should we bring them all with us when we go?”

“Yes!” You wouldn’t have guessed the woman could speak so forcefully, or that she could rise up so powerfully, onto one knee, one foot on the floor, before she had to reach out and clutch at the other woman’s leg for support.

The Russian shrugged.  “And we know how Kwan votes.”

They couldn’t all feel that way.  But the exotic woman, holding the black woman’s wrist with one hand, took the armed man’s free hand with her other and said, “There’s nothing for us here, nothing anywhere.  We can’t win.  Why should it be their world?”

“I’m not going back, that’s all I know.”  The armed man showed that chilling smile to Philpott again.  “It’s a crapshoot, right?  Fifty-fifty.  Either nothing happens, and we’ll figure out what to do next, or our troubles are over.  Even money, right?”

“Please,” Philpott whispered.  “Please don’t.”

“Fuck you,” the armed man said, “and the horse you rode in on.”

And then the phone rings.   It’s Mary Ann Kelleny.  Well, of course it isn’t.   It’s Ananayel, reaching out to Frank.   Because, as he tells us, he’s realized he just can’t do it–can’t let humanity extinguish itself–

It is not only Susan.  It is the whole existence of which she is a part, the existence that makes it possible for two humans to be so selflessly bound together, to elevate their mutual caring so far beyond their petty selves, for each of them to attain such an intensity of altruism toward one other person that all of eternity does exist in the space of one shared thought.

He should have sent someone with more experience of the humans, someone who had already grown as bored with them as He.  I tried to remain aloof, but I could not.  What at first seemed to me human squalor has become human vibrancy.  The cumbersomeness I first thought of as pathetically comic, I now see as endearing; and with what ingenuity they struggle to overcome their physical helplessness.  And the violence of their emotions, once repugnant to me, is now elixir to my pallid soul.

S(he) talks Frank down from the ledge, and the others, already remembering that there are people out there who showed them kindness, who have not earned such a grim fate, are persuaded to come down with him.  All except one.

Pami has known no kindness from anyone except these people, all of whom she believes to be as doomed as her.  She has also never known a single taste of real power in her life–and Power Incarnate waits for her on that table.  She makes her move, too quickly and savagely for anyone to stop her, but before she can reach her objective, she has this spasm like something out of The Exorcist, her body just gives out entirely, and she falls to the floor lifeless.

She was very ill, but this seems a bit too much of a coincidence.  And of course, like nearly everything else in this book, it wasn’t.  She was the only one of the five X had established a connection with, dominion over.   She was his way in.   Look who the hero of the story turned out to be.



Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  Come into my arms!  I have saved you my darlings, come into my arms, let us dance!

How we’ll dance.

It’s a bit like one of Sauron’s Nazgûl, acting under his orders, forced Gollum to grab the Ring and fall into the fires of Mount Doom (spoiler alert), and this is how Evil wins, by saving the world it lives to torment from destruction.

And just like with Gollum, you kind of feel like Pami was badly used by everyone, including the author.  Westlake knew enough about people who have experienced that degree of privation and degradation to know that for many of them, there is no way back.   She wants to destroy the world, and looking at the life the world gave her–why shouldn’t she?  Why shouldn’t she?  

But here is my biggest problem with the book–that it recreates in its conclusion that very inequity it denounces.  Ananayel arranges for Frank and Maria Elena to get away, and live a nice life together (life insurance, resulting from her estranged husband being shot by his deranged mistress)–she’s singing again as they escape.

But there is no escape for the others, who will all die, not even knowing that their choosing life, even when their own lives were nearly over, gave earth another chance (nor will anyone else ever know).  They were protagonists–now they’re just redshirts.   If Ananayel can still perform such miracles, couldn’t he have healed Grigor and Kwan, and helped them escape too?  That’s what Jesus would have done (still not 100% sure if we’re supposed to believe he was an angel or a mortal in the context of this universe).

Why does only Frank get this favor–and a passionate Brazilian songstress to go with it?  Old habits die hard, for Gods and Authors (same thing).  And of course, Westlake was writing this for people who would expect the hardbitten heister in in the book to get away clean.  And it would feel like a cheat for them all to live. And maybe there wasn’t a fully satisfactory ending he could come up with for these characters.  But it could have been a lot better.

Ananayel, trapped in the mortal body of Andy Harbinger until his now-inevitable death as his punishment for disobeying, his angelic powers and vision stripped from him, will of course marry The Girl–he was the Nephew in this story all along.  Originally ‘Andy’  hadn’t even been a complete human body, but he’d earlier decided to fix that, and give his surrogate a complete dossier, with a social security number, and a job as an assistant sociology professor (hah!) at Columbia University.  Figuring that even Columbia couldn’t survive the end of the world (if you lived in New York, you might have some doubts about that), he didn’t bother to give himself tenure.  Too late now.

And since he’s no longer hooked into the heavenly hen party, he’ll get no scuttlebutt about God’s next attempt to make humanity off itself.  He hopes that what happened will have revived God’s interest in this world, make Him reconsider His decision.  But if not, he knows that some other angel is recruiting yet another string of malcontents, and God only knows what doomsday scenario they’ll be dragooned into, or how they’ll choose when the moment comes. I guess even God doesn’t know that last part.  Well, nobody’s perfect.

But mortal lives go quickly, while Divine Plans take time to formulate, and he’s happy.   He’s no longer some seraphim servitor, floating aimlessly about the aether until given some scut job or other.   He’s got his own identity now, mundane though it be, and true love, and New York, and he’s better off than most humans.

And it’s not fair, the way the people you’d expect to live happily ever after end up doing more or less exactly that, but what ever is?   The only thing that would have been completely fair would have been Pami knocking over that table.  And we don’t want that.  Not really.  Not most of the time.  Not if the polls are right. The polls damn well better be right.  Hmm.  It’s been about a quarter century since God’s last attempt, far as we know.  They seem to be marked by extraordinary events and extreme poor judgment.  You don’t suppose……?

Here’s to all the poor examples of our species–the ones who don’t leap eagerly onto the wrong horse.  As long as there’s enough of them, there’s still hope.  And where there’s hope, there’s life.  But while there are so many without hope, we must be prepared to abide the end.  We don’t really need God to make that happen, you know.

And I’m done!   I finished this review in just two parts, after some persons here doubted me!  HA!  HA HA HA HAAAAAAA!!!   I told you I’d save you from a four parter!  Come into my arms!   Come into my arms!   How we’ll dance.  And a New York Dance it shall be, as we come to the eighth Dortmunder novel.   Anyone got a bone to pick with that?  I thought not.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Humans

Once when he was dining with Rabbi Goldman in Chicago he stopped in the midst of Mrs. Goldman’s pot roast to discourse on the improbability of a God or a life after death.  Rabbi Goldman’s eleven-year-old daughter listened gravely,  then replied, “Mr. Darrow, Mother gave me a beautiful box of beads for my birthday, and when I dropped the box the beads rolled all over the floor because they had not been strung.  We need God to string together all the different parts of life.”

Darrow smiled as he replied, “I won’t argue with this younger generation.  I’ll stick to the older generation, they’re easier.”

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

We are all of us parts of God, parts of His dream, His desire, but none of us know any more than our own role in His plan, if indeed He has a plan, and is not merely moved this way and that by cosmic Whim, as sometimes seems to be the case.  And so I, a tendril in God’s imaginings, had to be informed by another entity, as insubstantial as myself, just what my task was to be.

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

“To announce, and to affect, the end of their World.”

I don’t have to explain myself.

The instant I saw it there, sitting with the woman, I knew what it was.  The stench of God was all over it, like dried roots, like stored apples.  Laughing!  And a servant.

I am not a servant.   We are not servants.  He Who We Serve is not our master but our lover.  We act from our will, no others.  Could this…thing say as much?   Or any of its swooping, tending, message-bearing ilk?

And did its master really think he could sweep away this compost heap without the knowledge of He Who We Serve?  We love this world!   How it seethes, how it struggles, how it howls in pain,  what colors there are in its agony!  It is our greatest joy, the human race.  We cannot see it removed, like game pieces from a table at the end of the day, simply because he’s bored.

Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.

I’m going to try and make this a one-part review.  I have several reasons for this, but chief among them is that hard as I look, the only edition of this book I can find is the first one, from The Mysterious Press.  So I don’t even know what images I’d use for a Part 2.  I don’t believe that’s ever happened before.   Westlake novels nearly always got a bunch of editions, foreign and domestic.  If there are any foreign editions at all, I can’t find them.  And that’s more ironic than I can possibly express.

This is not on its surface the kind of book The Mysterious Press was established to publish.  If this is a crime novel, a mystery, and I think you could make a fair case that it is, then the criminal mastermind is God Himself, his primary henchman an angel, and their intended victim is Life on Earth.   The novelist Michael Upchurch (no, I never heard of him either), reviewing this novel for the New York Times, referred to it as ‘universal fiction,’ which I kind of like, and Westlake might have too, but the review, while decent enough, says that Westlake’s prose is ‘hokey’, that he has an excessive reliance on italics (oh really?), and this keeps the book from being as good as it might have been.

Much as I agree with Mr. Upchurch that this book could and should have been more than it is, hokey writing and over-accentuated typography are not the problems with it (oh no, I used italics!).  But in saying it failed to live up to its potential, I am, of course, assuming I know what it was supposed to achieve.    The Great God Westlake moves in mysterious ways.  That’s why he’s a mystery writer.

This much we do know–it was supposed to be a best-seller.  It was written for that express purpose.  Westlake mentions in the dedication that Evan Hunter told him he should write something large in scope, unexpected in subject matter, and in that it most certainly succeeds.  Lawrence Block, in a piece you can find in The Crime of Our Lives, went into a bit more detail about that conversation, and I think a rather vital clue to why this book failed (in more ways than one) is to be found there.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of times,  it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better.  Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why.  Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom.  They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.  The perfect can’t miss idea had come to him.

The idea?  The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission.  Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

Probably a few more than that (I’ve found a surprisingly large number of positive online reviews), but then again, I can’t find even one other edition, and I looked hard.

I cannot help but detect a certain unseemly note of satisfaction in Mr. Block’s recounting of that telling little anecdote (it’s a writer thing), but had he been so inclined, Mr. Westlake could have reminded him of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, a 1970 novel about a man in his thirties engaged in various orgiastic activities with a group of bisexual teen-aged Catholic school girls, that Block wrote in four days, and which he had at the time firmly believed would be a huge critically acclaimed racy best-selling novel along the lines of Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  They had good drugs back then, didn’t they?

Bad writers can write bestselling novels on purpose, by design.  With a few rare exceptions (maybe Stephen King), good writers can’t. Because good writers are good precisely because they are not prisoners of formula (even those known for a specific genre), because they listen more to their inner voices than to book sales.  The rest is up to us, our secret desires, which are hard to predict, once you’ve strayed away from the mediocrity of market surveys.

Westlake got close to the bestseller lists a few times in his life, but never, not even once, with a book he wrote to that end–the harder he strove to reach that goal post, the further away it got.  It always came as a surprise to him when a book of his sold especially well, and not always a pleasant one either (we’ll be talking about an instance of that a few books from now).

So right away, we see the identity crisis in this novel–not in its characters, but in itself–that it is at the same time striving to break away from the kind of story Mr. Westlake was known and admired for, to convey a powerful (and not entirely palatable) message to all of humanity–and at the same time is basically trying to out-Hailey Arthur Hailey, who Westlake had lampooned mercilessly with Comfort Station, years before.   “Earth–crossroads of five billion private lives.”  Or in this case,  just five, standing in for the five billion.

When you know you’re so much better than most of the people selling untold millions of books, it must be frustrating to keep failing to reach those Olympian heights.  You have to settle for having actual depths, and plumb them as best you can.

Westlake more than once referred to Humans as a special favorite of his among his many novels, but I’ll point out once more that calling something your favorite is not the same thing as calling it the best.  Our preferences and our judgment are often at odds with each other, a human oddity the angelic narrator of this novel (parts of it) would be at some pains to point out.   And if I want to make this a one-parter, I had better be at some pains to get the synopsis in gear.  This one’s going long, so bear with me.  And my italics, pace Upchurch.  (Upchurch–I can hear Westlake chortling all the way from 1992).

Humans is divided into three Hegelian sections–Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The chapter count does not reset at the start of each new section.  As we’ve seen him do in several previous books, he alternates between numbered third person chapters, and first-person narrated interludes, in this case from two different characters–an angel and a demon–each commenting on the story thus far, and speaking directly to the reader about the apocalyptic situation that is unfolding–and with the usual Westlake perversity, it’s the demon who is trying to reassure us, and the angel telling us we’re all doomed.   For such beings, there is no fourth wall, it seems.

The premise is actually very simple–God has gotten tired of us.  We’re not entertaining Him any more.  We just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again.  It’s boring.  He’s got a lot of other shows to watch (we’re informed there are many other inhabited worlds in His Universe), so He’s deleting us from the cosmic TiVo.  Permanently.  But there are rules to how this is done.   He won’t just smite us.  God gave us free will, and it is by our own volition that we must shuffle off this mortal coil.

God dispatches Ananayel, a relatively callow and inexperienced angel, who hasn’t been to earth in centuries (his last memories of Manhattan involve birch bark canoes).  He thinks this is because some of the more experienced angels like Michael and Gabriel could have hidden sympathies for humanity.   Knowing so little about us, he won’t have any interest in our survival.  Angels have free will as well, he explains.  They can choose to disobey, and one of them did, quite famously (there’s a very long poem about that, and you see an early edition of it up top).

All knowledge of our civilizations is available to him, along with the services of legions of cherubim (he insists they are not chubby infants in diapers like in the oil paintings), but his means of enacting the doom of Terra are limited.   And it’s the entire planet that is to be destroyed, you should understand–not just humans, but all biological life.   Clean sweep.  The Big Guy’s not kidding around like he was with that flood.  No rainbows this time.  No doves.  No bacteria, even. Nada.

Ananayel must find five representative humans, from each major racial group (black, white, Latino, Asian), and each major inhabited land mass (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa–sorry to tell ya, Australia, but you didn’t make the cut–and you’re doing so well at the Olympics too).  They must all speak a shared language (English, in this case, but we’re told if this attempt at Gaiacide doesn’t work, French might be next).   And they must all have some reason to give up all hope in the future–without having actually done so yet.  It is that choice–the choice to give in to utter and absolute despair–that Ananayel is to invoke within the five of them, at a crucial moment in time.  At that moment, they will be given the physical means to commit suicide on behalf of us all.

Ananayel is capable of possessing a human body, but this is a power that angels only rarely use, and on this mission he will use another ability to create physical forms for himself, which he can do with ease, becoming anyone he needs to be, creating a variety of human identities for himself, to influence his five catspaws, move his playing pieces across the board.  This latter power is something that the fallen angels have been deprived of–they can take on many different shapes, but not a human form–so they have to rely heavily on possessing existing bodies in order to interface with humans.

And as God dispatched just one angel to bring about our destruction, Lucifer, having learned of God’s plan, and thoroughly disapproving of it (we’re like the best most dysfunctional reality show ever–so fun!  God doesn’t know good TV when he sees it!), may only send one demon of consequence to oppose–we never learn his name–he is referred to only as ‘X.’  That’s him talking up top, and we never do get quite enough of him for my liking–far and away the most engaging character in the book, but that’s always going to be the case, isn’t it, when you bring demons into a story.

Everybody who reads Paradise Lost (I first read it in high school) sooner or later starts skipping over the tedious moral sections to the parts with Satan and his brimstone brigade.  C.S. Lewis, that most conscientiously committed of Christians, was invariably more entertaining when he wrote about such devilishly compelling creatures.   There is much of his senior devil Screwtape in ‘X’, but Westlake’s incubus is not addressing his dear nephew Wormwood–he’s talking to us.  The way you or I might talk to a hissing cockroach somebody gave us as a pet.   Kind of cool to watch, but still disgusting.

As for the widespread belief that they inevitably win, well, that’s just crap, isn’t it?  Of course it is.  If they inevitably won, we’d no longer be here, would we?  But here we are.

And here you are, you scrofulous fleas.  And now he’s after you as well, isn’t he?  Now you’ll know what it’s like to suffer his snotty displeasure.  But be encouraged.  He can be resisted, as we are here to prove.  He was just an early master of propaganda, is all.

But how shall we save you bilious earth-lice from your creator’s boredom? First we have to know what he’s up to.  He’s always, of course, up to something: testing Job and Isaac, tempting Thomas and Judas, on and on. Idle hands are whose workshop?

The notion that the biblical stories all happened in some form, but that the versions of them we have, the interpretations they place upon events, are mere heavenly hype, is not a new one.  The science fiction writer James Blish had covered this angle very well in 1968, with his short novel Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null).  I can’t be sure Westlake read it, but note with interest that a minor character in that supremely dark story (that I’m oddly disappointed to learn Blish wrote a more optimistic sequel to) was named after Anthony Boucher, that great linking element between mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and someone Westlake knew very well also.

Westlake had mainly cut his ties to science fiction by the late 60’s, but that by no means proves he stopped reading it.  And if we consider that book science fiction, wouldn’t this also qualify?  Westlake’s book actually has real science in it–well–kind of.  We’ll get to that.

Jesus was part of God’s plan, we seem to be told here, but he was a mere mortal–God was using him to try and get His experiment back on track.  God tempted Judas to betray Jesus, because he needed a martyr.  Somehow I don’t think Westlake’s Catholic School teachers would approve, but no question at all–they left a mark.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–you can never really shake it off, and the more you fight it, the stronger the influence becomes.  I know what I’m talking about.  But enough of the ethereal.  Let’s talk about the humans.   They are, after all, what the book is really about.

Although Ananayel is only supposed to recruit five people, factors in a planet-killing equation, he needs sufficiently appealing bait to dangle in front of one of them, and she ends up becoming a factor in her own right, so we’ll start with her.

Susan Carrigan:

Well, yes.  I have made a study of this one problem, while my players have been ricocheting toward one another, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that Susan Carrigan is nothing special.  There are millions of such young women scattered over the globe, unmarried as yet, doing small things with clean neat fingers, whether in banks like Susan, or in clothing mills, or in lawyer’s offices, or in computer assembly plants, and they are all the same.

Susan Carrigan lives in Manhattan, works in a job she doesn’t particularly love or hate, just got out of a bad relationship, and is tricked by Ananayel (in the form of a bag lady in a coffee shop) into entering a contest where the prize is a free trip to Russia (where another factor awaits, we’ll get to him).   She’s another of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, which we’ve been seeing so many of lately, and I wouldn’t say they’re all exactly the same, but none of them are going down as his most unique creations, and I kind of wish he hadn’t gotten stuck in that groove, and maybe he did too, at times.

Her significance in the story is both pivotal and peripheral (and in fact she never comes close to finding out what’s going on), but basically it’s the old story–angel falls in love with mortal.  Many variations.  There was one with Jack Benny once. Well actually he was in love with another angel in that one, but again we see Mr. Westlake taking with both hands from old movies.  The point is, the angel can remain detached from the impending death of humanity only so long as he remains detached from humanity itself, and Susan is the great sticking point.

She’s not a very interesting character (a fact much commented upon in the book itself), but you do like her.   She’s a certain kind of American that people all over the world look at with a mixture of bewilderment, affection, and perhaps a soupcon of contempt.  The ones who always think that something can be done. They don’t know what the world really is, and you’re not sure if you ever want them to know.  Somebody has to have hope, right?

Susan reminds me of something I read in a book of photos of feral dogs in the Greek Islands (who are, to my way of thinking, leading an utterly enviable lifestyle)–the way different sets of tourists react to them.  The photographer, in his introduction, said that the French find the dogs funny, the Japanese snap endless photos, the Germans think it’s a bit of a scandal they’re running around unsupervised, and the Americans scream “They’re starving!” and run off to buy them food.  My people.  I’ve lost count of all the foreign ferals from far-flung corners of the globe I’ve met at our local dog run.  Sometimes we take strays home with us at the end of a vacation (or a tour of duty).  Well, I digress.  Well no, I really don’t.  That’s what happens to–

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

Was he not, after all, the power behind a television throne?  Was he not the author of half the words to come out of Boris Boris’s mouth?  Wasn’t he the next best thing to a celebrity; which is to say, a celebrity’s ventriloquist?  Be off with you, my man, Grigor thought, I have Romanov blood in my veins. (Hardly).

From the least interesting human to perhaps the most interesting.  Grigor was a fireman at Chernobyl during the meltdown.  He did his duty bravely, as so many others did, and is dying of cancer, as so many already have.  By some quirk of fate (that Ananayel does not take credit for) he met a rising comedian, Boris Boris (not his real name, it’s a joke, and if you’re Russian it’s apparently hilarious), taking advantage of glasnost to do a satirical television series (a Russian Jon Stewart, though maybe closer to Benny Hill in some respects–or Bob Hope?), and he liked Grigor’s understandably morbid sense of humor, hired him on as a writer, and he’s been a great success.  Which is fine, except cancer is one thing success doesn’t cure.

He’s a complex brooding sardonic personality, loving his country yet alienated from it, which is why he’s ideal for Ananayel’s purposes, and vulnerable to his method of attack–he arranges for Grigor to meet Susan at a party held at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, and when she hears her story–do I need to say it?  She says he must come back with her to America, she knows doctors, who know other doctors–something can be done.  And she’s very pretty and appealing and alive, and interested in him, and he agrees.   He has nothing to lose–or does he? Does it ever go well for Russian characters in novels when they leave their motherland?   Not in Russian novels, and Westlake is writing in the spirit of that great branch of world literature here.

Sound billowed from the International Room like pungent steam from a country inn’s kitchen.  Cocktail party chitchat is the same the world over, bright and encompassing, creating its own environment, separating the world into participants and non-invitees.  Cheered suddenly at the idea of being among the blessed this time around, Grigor moved forward into that cloud of noise, which for him was not rejecting but welcoming, and was barely aware of the person at the door who took his invitation and ushered him through the wide archway into a large,  high-ceilinged room that had been deliberately restored to remind people as much as possible of the pomp and privilege of the tsars.  Gold and white were everywhere, with pouter pigeons of color in the Empire chairs discreetly placed against the walls.  Two chandeliers signaled to one another across the room, across the heads of the participants in their drab mufti; not a red uniform in the place.  It was as though, Grigor thought, the nobles had permitted the villagers one annual event of their own in the chateau’s grand ballroom.

Was there a joke in that?  Well, there was, of course, but was it usable?  Now that the proletariat had been shown to have made a mess of things, there was a great embarrassed ambivalence about the aristocratic baby that had been thrown out with 1917’s bathwater.  Both Grigor and Boris Boris had been trying for months to fit references to the tsars and their families and their world into the stand-up routines, but everything they’d come up with was too flat, too wishy-washy.

The trouble was, they had no clear attitude to express.  Surely no one wanted to go back to rule by a class of people who sincerely believed that peasants and cattle were at parity, and yet…And yet, there was something about the style.  Not the substance, the style.

 The tsars are still in our throats.  We can’t swallow them and we can’t spit them out.

That isn’t funny.  That’s merely true.

I think Tolstoy would have been proud to have written that passage.  The book as a whole maybe not, but who can say?  Leo was writing weirder things than this by the end of his life.  And even before that, there was an entire story written from the POV of a horse (quite good, too–livestock have things to say for themselves as well).

And over next to Russia, there’s China–even less free, but in spite of that, the birthplace of a truly free spirit, who goes by the name of–

Li Kwan:

“The trial would last one day,” Kwan told him.  “I would get to say very little.  The second day, I would be taken outside and told to kneel.  A pistol would be put to the back of my head, and I would be killed.  The third day, the government would send my family a bill for the bullet.”

Mortimer’s eyes widened at that.  “A bill?  You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

“That’s the family’s punishment,” Kwan explained, “for having brought up a child without the proper discipline.”

Kwan (Li of course is his family name) was one of the people holding bullhorns in Tianamen Square when the tanks rolled in.  Remember that?   All we here in the west really got out of it was that thing about the two characters signifying ‘crisis’ meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ when looked at separately.  That was very popular at the time.  He got a lot less than that.  But he’s still in there pitching.  I think in many ways he’s the one Westlake admires and identifies with the most–and treats the worst.

Kwan is a libertine for liberty, a trickster with integrity–much like Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment (who ironically had to contend with a Chinese American secondary villain), and perhaps a few others among his protagonists.  Instead of pacifism, his goal is simple Democracy–something we take for granted here.   Kwan dreams of somehow overthrowing the ‘Ancient Murderers,’ as he thinks of the ruling class in China, all ruling classes in China, going back for thousands of years.  If not overthrowing them, at least giving them one in the eye.  Something.

He’s a shameless seducer of women (who find him nigh-irresistible), a sly and humorous person with a great zest for life, but he believes absolutely in what he’s doing–while knowing too well he’s actually done nothing but put his own life in immediate danger.   Tricksters don’t tend to do well in totalitarian societies.  Even fictional ones.  Ask Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin.   A trickster needs more room to maneuver than a closed society will ever offer.

He’s managed to make his way to Hong Kong, but with 1997 approaching, even there he has nowhere to run, no safe harbor–the authorities there will hand him back to Beijing if he’s caught.  He’s about to be apprehended, betrayed by a naively cynical American journalist in exchange for a story, when Ananayel directly intervenes, gets him onto a luxury liner, working in the kitchen, heading for America, but it all goes wrong when he reaches New York.  Ananayel intends for it to go wrong, makes sure of it.

He’s betrayed again and again, and languishing in a detention cell in New York, where the authorities fully intend to send him back to avoid an international incident, he tries to commit suicide (with toothpaste, yet–didn’t even know that was a thing), and by the time he meets the others, he’s a shadow of his former cocksure self, with a damaged esophagus, incapable of even speaking, or eating properly.  The point, again, is to crush all sense of hope.   To guide him to despair.  So he’ll make the intended choice.  At least he could take the Ancient Murderers down with him.  All of them, not just the ones in Beijing.

Oh, and that thing about the bullet fee?   Westlake didn’t invent that.  I forced myself to look it up.  It happened to this girl’s family.  If you feel like it, you can force yourself to read online discussions where people in our great Democratic West cast doubt on it, say it’s not really proven to have happened, just an urban myth, and if it did happen once, it doesn’t anymore (now they have roaming vans that give lethal injections, yay progress!).

Except it’s apparently happening in Iran too.  It’s a bit funny, people who accept the reality of the authorities shooting someone in the head for disagreeing with them doubting that they’d humiliate the family just to hammer their point home. Maybe they just charge the bullet fee if the family wants to claim the body.  Well, that makes it all better, now doesn’t it?  Kind of rooting for Ananayel now. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I get to writing about–

Maria Elena:

Frowning, Maria Elena said, “The company is Brazilian.  Isn’t it?”

“The subsidiary is Brazilian.   That’s the company you know about.  But the main company is far from here.  The stockholders don’t live in Brazil.”

“Where do they live?”  I’ll go there, Maria Elena thought.  With photos, with statistics.  How dare they not be part of what they’ve done?  How dare they not even have to lie?

“Where do they live?”  The pilot looked down at the copper colored river they would follow for the next quarter hour.  “Some in Britain,” he said.  “Some in Germany, Italy, Guatemala, Switzerland, Kuwait, Japan.  But most in the United States.”

“The United States.”

“The multinational corporation is responsible to no country,” the pilot told her, “but it was an American idea.”

“They couldn’t do this in America.  That’s why they come here.”

“Well, of course,” the pilot said, and laughed.

Maria Elena is, I believe, Westlake’s first and perhaps only Brazilian protagonist. She is described as exotically attractive, not thin, and we don’t find out her precise ethnic ancestry, but we can assume she’s a mixture of Portuguese, Indian, and perhaps African ancestry, like most people in that remarkable nation, regardless of color.   What we know about her for sure is that she is a person of conscience and determination–and almost unfathomable sadness.

She had been a singer in her youth, a minor star, growing in fame, but she put that aside to marry and have a family–only her rural town was next to a factory that poisoned the earth and the water, and even the children in her womb.  Her husband left her, saying she was cursed, and part of her believed that was true. The church offered no comfort.  Her environmental activism achieved no results.

And now a pilot, transporting her with the American doctor she works for, tells her that she hasn’t even been directing her efforts in the right direction.  The true malefactors are elsewhere, mainly in America.   That isn’t a lie.  But the pilot himself is–it’s Ananayel.  Bringing his players together.  Suggesting she only has to marry the doctor, named Jack, who is in lust with her, and he’ll take her back to America with him.

The marriage goes sour when the doctor’s passion fades, and her activism is no more effective there than it was at home.  She leads a drab passionless middle class suburban life, with nothing to anchor her.  One day a woman who has been having an affair with the doctor comes to the house, and accuses Maria Elena of refusing to give Jack a divorce (it’s the first Maria Elena has heard of it).  The woman says she and Jack deserve a chance at happiness.

Maria Elena looks at this deluded creature wearily, as at a spoiled child, and asks what she has ever done to deserve happiness.  A question I’m not sure anyone has ever had a good answer to, but if anyone ever did, it’s Maria Elena herself, and look at her. She can’t even sing now–the music isn’t there in her anymore. Everything has been taken away from her, partly by Ananayel and God, but mostly by her fellow humans, by what we have made of this earthly paradise God gave us so long ago.  But she somehow soldiers on, waiting for a change to come. All good things, right?   Sure.

Westlake was drawing here upon research he’d done for the 1984 short story, Hydra, which I covered in my review of Westlake’s science fiction anthology, Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t know when he started research on Russian politics, but of course it was all over the news at this time.

I’m now wondering if his interest in China and Hong Kong predated his agreeing to work on the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, which he is supposed to have written in 1995.  Seems unlikely he’d be doing research for that this far in advance.  But really, all over this book, we see his enduring and all-encompassing interest in the world around him, his conviction that Americans ignored what went on beyond their shores at the peril of both their own material welfare and their immortal souls.  Hmm, I suppose that is a bit hokey.  Mr. Upchurch would be cross with me, no doubt.

You have perhaps noticed that these three humans Ananayel has recruited for God’s plan thus far are not the people you’d think would be chosen to bring about world destruction–each has shown exceptional courage and devotion to the common good.  Each is a true member of E. M. Forster’s fabled Aristocracy of the Considerate, the Sensitive, and the Plucky (and indeed there will be a secret understanding between them when they meet).

But that is, in fact, the point of choosing them–that they know, so much better than the average human, what a cruel place this world is, how resistant to change, how entrenched the Ancient Murderers (in all their innumerable forms) truly are.  To be hopeless, you need to have had some hope to start with.

And all have been afflicted physically in some way–not for nothing did Job, having lost his family and his fortune, only curse God when Satan (visiting God in heaven, as we are informed the Satan in this story sometimes still does) was given permission to inflict great physical suffering upon him.  As long as the body is strong, the spirit can withstand almost any reversal.  But the body is fragile, an untrustworthy bastion to fall back upon.  It always fails us in the end. Gosh, how did this book ever not make the best-seller lists?

And how did I think I was going to make a one-part review out of this?   I’m closing on on six thousand words, and I still have two more characters to talk about before I even move into the wrap-up.  Two very different characters than Grigor, Kwan, and Maria Elena, but not entirely different.  All human, too human.

So I’ll come up with some images for Part 2 somewhere–it’s hard to search for foreign editions when you don’t know what the title would have been.  But I would say the intended audience for this book was not the rest of the world.  It was America.  And it missed the target, badly.  And perhaps that was Mr. Westlake’s failure.  And perhaps it was someone else’s.  Perhaps there’s blame enough to go around.

And perhaps we could do with a song now.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction