Tag Archives: La Divine Poursuite

Review: Dancing Aztecs, Part 2


“Why would anybody want to live anywhere except New York?” he asked her.  “You’re quits with your husband, so you punish yourself by living in some tank town somewhere.”

“Los Angeles isn’t a tank town.”

“The hell it isn’t.  Los Angeles is three Long Islands next to each other.  But no Midtown Tunnel.”

Laughing, she said, “If you’re so crazy about New York, what are you doing way out in the provinces?”

“Business,” he said.  “I’m coming out to get something, and then I’m going right back.”

“All right,” she said.  “But what if everybody felt the way you do?  What if everybody wanted to live in New York?”

“They do.  That’s why they all hate New York so much–it’s envy.  But you know who the big guy is in the social set in Indianapolis?  The one that just got back from a trip to New York.  He could go to Chicago or St. Louis or any damn place, and all people say is, ‘How was the trip?’  New York is the only place in this country he could go, when he gets back people say, ‘Tell me all about it.'”

Re-reading this passage, I was reminded of Go Set  A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book (that Westlake never got to read), where the grown-up Scout goes home to Maycomb, having been living and working in New York for several years.   Everybody asks her about it, and she has a hard time explaining how different it is.  And then she meets a rather tedious hometown couple, just back from their honeymoon in New York, and they can’t stop talking about it.  And they say they wouldn’t live there for anything, it’s just awful.  And they still can’t stop talking about it.  They probably never did.

Westlake was well aware that New York was not America, nor America New York–his narrator in this book informs us that America doesn’t begin until you’re over the Pennsylvania border, and ends somewhere around Nevada.   New York is the quintessential American city in its diversity, its energy, its hustle.  It’s where people from all over the world converge upon to begin the process of becoming Americans.  But as Spaulding Gray once remarked, it’s really just an island off the coast of America.  And the most popular tourist destination, for Americans and pretty much everybody else.

And I think that quote up top does a good job explaining why that is.  When you take a trip, you want people to ask you about it once you’re home.  Everybody wants to know what New York is really like.  And probably no two people who have been there would give you the same exact answer to that question.  New York is all things to all men.  It’s the Saint Paul of cities, much more so than the one in Minnesota.

Donald Westlake’s emotions towards the city of his birth were always conflicted.  He recognized very well that it is not a particularly beautiful town, for all its grandeur; that it lacks the more focused individual character of many other world capitals, that it’s really an assortment of small provincial villages lumped together into a metropolis.  In 361, he has his very alienated protagonist say it’s basically just a blown-up Binghamton, and you would really have to see Binghamton to know what a put-down that was.

Once he was an established writer, Westlake generally preferred to live out in the country, in upstate New York or Northern New Jersey, far from the madding crowds.  But throughout his career, he kept returning to Gotham, in his stories and in his life.  He never got it out of his system.  It was The City to him.  As it has been to so many others.

Dancing Aztecs is a book about New York, more than anything else, which is why it’s really weird that somebody made it into a movie set in France–and not even in Paris (which we’re all thinking about this week).  Lyon, for Christ’s sake.  A city also featured in Mise à sac.   With a present-day population of about half a million people.  At least in Mise à sac it was only subbing for Newark.


Not an easy film to lay your hands on a copy of.  I have not seen it.  There’s a clip on YouTube that seems to indicate that a gag in the book (where there’s a mix-up relating to the fact that different languages which utilize the Latin alphabet pronounce the names of the letters differently) translates fairly well into French, with a few minor adjustments.  But looking at the little bit of it I can see, I can’t say that I feel I’ve missed some life-altering cinematic experience by not having seen it.   And yet still probably better than the version Hollywood never got around to mangling, I mean making.

Anyway, picking up from Part 1, I have several more items of interest to discuss, and I’d best get cracking.  Gotta hustle.

Item Three: The Not-So-Melancholy Danes

Donald Westlake rarely ever depicted Man’s Best Friend in anything other than an intimidating light, and until somebody who knew him well tells me otherwise, I’m going to assume that’s because he was mortally afraid of large dogs.  But he was also quite clearly an animal lover.   This creates a conflict, because dogs are animals, and he knows perfectly well that the aggressive ones are usually only that way because they were bred and conditioned to be that way–it’s their job, and everybody has to do his job, right?

In his work as Richard Stark, he dealt with the conflict by showing dogs as ruthless incorruptible sentinels, the ultimate professionals, admirable and terrifying.  In his comedic work under his own name, he dealt with it differently.

See, at the home of Bud Beemis, one of the people who might have the real golden statue, Mel Bernstein’s path converges with that of August Corella, the pseudo-mobster who arranged for the real statue to be smuggled into the states.  At this same gracious domicile dwell two Great Danes.  And by great, I mean fabulous.

“Hamlet!” yelled Beemis.  “Ophelia!”  You stop that!  Stop it!  Leave that man alone!”

The dogs reluctantly released Earl, just in time to see Corella come around the corner of the house.  Ah hah!  This must be the guy they should defend the house against.  The two dogs, smiling happily, loped toward Corella, who made an abrupt U-turn and ran like hell the opposite way.

“Hamlet!  Come back!   Ophelia!  Damn it, come back here!”

The dogs were having too much fun to listen to some old spoil-sport.  Pretending they couldn’t hear their master’s voice, they continued after Corella, who scurried around to the front of the house and lunged into the Cadillac, startling Ralph out of a year’s growth.  The two Great Danes thudding against the side of the car startled him him out of a second year’s growth.  “Jesus!” he yelled, flinging his well-read New York Post up in the air.  “Jesus Christ!”

(Westlake may not have been a dog person, but country living forces you to come into contact with such harrowing household guardians on a regular basis, and ever the sharp-eyed observer of the passing scene, he came to understand canine psychology quite well–that selective deafness thing he describes is spot-on.  “But I would have done what you said if I heard you.”  Says the critter who can hear the tiniest scrap of food hit the floor from the other side of the house.)

Mel, who was smart enough to make friends with the toothsome twosome on his way in, gets away with the statue (another fake), while they worry the exposed flanks of the opposing forces (literally), and then pursue them all a country mile down the road, before trotting back home in an excellent mood, Hamlet flourishing the rear bumper of Corella’s Cadillac in his gaping maw like a trophy of war.   But Mel, no longer having the furry fiends to protect him, has to somehow shake Corella’s steadfast pursuit, which brings us to–

Item Four: Did Anyone Ever Put Out a Car Called Kill?

Perhaps the most frequently-quoted passage from this book appears in a section of the book dealing with a fantasy-prone Connecticut State Trooper named Luke Snell, who Mel latches onto as a means of thwarting Corella & Co.  Like so many other of the best lines in the book, it’s reserved for the narrator.

The state trooper was driving a Fury II.  State troopers love Fury IIs.  State troopers will go on driving Fury IIs until some car company puts out a car called Kill.  Then state troopers will drive Kills.  State troopers get their self-image from Marvel comics.

Westlake probably had the odd few run-ins with state troopers as a motorist living in rural New Jersey, but of course his irreverent attitude towards officers of the law had been formed many years before.  However, our question must be whether he had accurately (if sardonically) assessed the reason for the enduring popularity of the Plymouth Fury among state troopers (the one in the novel even drives an older model Fury as his personal automobile).

And it took only a few moment’s research for me to determine that Mr. Westlake had missed an important datum–in 1971, AMC put out the Matador, and as we all know, the word matador means ‘killer’, which is surely close enough.  So by the mid-70’s, state police were still often driving Fury IIs, even though their dream car was now available.  So Westlake was wrong?  Let us merely say he overstated his point, because, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, “Matadors were a popular vehicle for police, as it outperformed most other police cars. It was also featured in many television shows and movies during the 1970s.”   And possibly some Marvel comics, but I really couldn’t say.

Nor can I say with authority what state troopers are driving now, since the Fury was discontinued, along with Plymouth, and for that matter, AMC.   Clearly fantasy-prone state troopers are not a large enough consumer base to sustain a brand in today’s competitive automobile market.   I do believe the Ford Taurus and Dodge Charger are enjoying brisk business in that niche, however; something to bear in mind when you feel like making up a bit of time on the interstate.  Even if your only purpose for breaking the speed limit is to return more quickly to the side of your beloved, which brings us to–

Item Five: The Love Rectangle

There are numerous sexual liaisons of various types depicted in this book, but only four that could really be called romantic, making up the sides of a rectangle (two of them much shorter than the other two).  To wit–

A)The idealized interracial couple of Jenny Kendall (white) and Eddie Ross (black), who represent love at its most pure and perfect.  Having helped the Open Sports Committee achieve its goal of a public squash court in Harlem, they take their ‘Other Oscars’ (Oscar Russell Greene’s name for the replicas of the Dancing Aztec Priest that he hands out to each member of the group, not knowing that one of them isn’t a replica), and set off on matching motorcycles to see America, and it’s been a few years since Easy Rider, so maybe that worked out okay for them (maybe stay out of the deep south a while longer, kids).

Our narrator has a soft spot for these two, making it clear that their connection is real and powerful, but that adult complications may loom in the future (Jenny has not yet told her parents about Eddie).  They’re basically too perfect to be funny, so we don’t see much of them, and they disappear from the narrative shortly after their statues both prove to be fakes–and that’s fine, because they still have each other, and youth, and youth’s illusions, so preferable to reality in every possible way.  They have the real thing, so they don’t need the real statue.

B)The not so idealized and yet rather more believable interracial couple of David Fayley (white) and Kenny Spang (black).  Who we meet when Jerry breaks into their apartment to check their statues, and gets discovered–first by David, then by Kenny.  Who are gay, naturally–and referred to as such.  As I’ve already mentioned, Westlake the word man had finally given up the hopeless rearguard action (oh shut up) of pretending that the meaning of ‘gay’ had not been definitively reassigned (double entendres abound) to refer to same-sex oriented males.

So what happens?  Jerry plays it cool, acts like he’s supposed to be there.  So David assumes Kenny picked him up, and Kenny assumes the same of David, and neither of them wants to be square enough to act as if this is any big deal, we’re all adults here, and they’re both very very hurt, but neither will admit it.  It’s funny, but also touching.  Gay men were still figuring out how to do monogamy (well, aren’t we all, really?), and the rules were not so clear.  Much later in the book, the reason for Jerry’s presence is revealed, and they’re both very relieved to know they’re just a pair of squares.  And again, the revelation that they don’t have the real statue doesn’t phase them a bit, because they have each other.

Jerry’s encounter with these two has quite an impact on him as well–seeing their apartment, realizing how different life can be from what he’s used to in his own little corner of New York, doesn’t disgust him as he expects–it intrigues him.  How many other new worlds remain to be explored?

C)The unsettled marital relationship of Mel and Angela (nee Manelli) Bernstein (you can see how we’re moving through different stages of romance here).  When we first meet Angela, she’s having sex with the rather callow Wally Hintzlebel in her and her husband’s bedroom, and then Mel comes  home unexpectedly, and ends up seducing his wife while Wally waits unhappily in the closet (and thus learns about the statues).

This marriage would not seem long for the world, and clearly both partners have taken each other much for granted, and yet after Mel learns of her infidelity (in the context of Angela rescuing him from Wylie Cheshire the surly football player), and the expected domestic fracas results, the end result is a somewhat more perfect union.  The Bernsteins, who had simply been a couple, transition into a partnership, with the estimable Mandy Addleford as their live-in maid and part-time marriage counselor.  I have to say, her roving eye notwithstanding, the bed-hopping bridge-playing Angela is my favorite female character in the book, and Mel Bernstein is a lucky man, horns and all.

D)The main event, romantically speaking, is the meet-cute and then mate-cute of Jerry Manelli and Bobbi Harwood.  The only serious couple we see in the process of becoming a couple (the others are entirely about sex).   Jerry is a bit too street-wise to be a ‘Nephew’ in the strict sense, but hustler that he is, he’s no match for the ultimate hustler, Cupid.   Unlike his fellow hustler, Art Dodge, he knows The Girl when he sees her.

Believing Bobby has the legit statue, Jerry tracks her down on the road, while she’s driving across country to California, having walked out on her college prof. husband, who seems determined to believe she’s having affairs with a variety of black men (sadly not the case), and keeps telling her it’s fine, he doesn’t mind at all, and if you don’t believe this kind of husband exists there’s some websites you need to check out, but I’m not posting those links here.

While romancing the statue out of her, Jerry finds to his dismay (and no reader’s surprise) that he’s falling for her,  but she’s so obviously out of his league, being a classy blonde who plays harp for the Philharmonic, he just figures it’s not to be, and keeps going for the gold.  And he gets it; just not the way he expected.  And we don’t get their first sexual encounter described for us, and the narrator explains why–

(Novelists, when their characters drive cars, never feel compelled to describe precisely what the physical actions are of hands, feet, eyes, knees, elbows.  Yet many of these same novelists, when their characters copulate, get into such detailed physical description you’d think they were writing an exercise book.  We all know the inter-relation between the right ankle and the accelerator when driving a car, and we needn’t be told.  In sex, we all know about knees, thighs, fingers, the softness at the side of the throat, here-let-me-help, how’s that, mf, mf, mf, mf.  And if you don’t know it, you shouldn’t read dirty books anyway; they’ll only give you the wrong ideas.)

Speak for yourself, Mr. Stingy.  Not our fault you got sick of this kind of writing doing all those smutty books to pay your electric bills and what-all.   As I recall, this restraint of yours in describing the sex act did not last long.   Okay, granted, some writers do get a bit hung up on the fine details, but do you see their readers complaining?   Self-evidently not, because you had Mel Bernstein, formerly a faux literary agent wading through an endless pile of slush, strike it rich as the author of a smutty bestseller, partly plagiarized from his former clients.

So that’s the Love Rectangle, and in all four cases, the point is the same.  Golden statues with emerald eyes are fine in their place, but love remains the universal currency.  A lesson that may never be learned by–

Item Six: The Amateur

Wally Hintzlebel is a type of character we meet in a lot of Westlake novels (and at least one Richard Stark).   Tall, gangly, innocent-looking, far from wise in the ways of the world, and yet with aspirations to know more of that world.  If only he could catch a break.  As already mentioned, he lives with his mother, a ghastly woman who dotes on him, and has basically smothered him with her cloying affection and her good cooking.  He believes he’s happy living the way he is, selling swimming pools to suburban housewives, and then selling his way into their beds, but when he hears about a million dollar statue going up for grabs, all he can think about is getting his hands on it, and getting the hell away from mom and the horny housewives, and seeing what the world has to offer him.

Now which previous character in the books we’ve already looked at does this most remind us of?  Lanky acned 18 year old Alfred Ricks, of The Jugger, that’s who.    Who overheard the town sheriff trying to beat the location of this supposed huge stash of stolen cash out of his next door neighbor, Joe Sheer, and all Alfred could think about was getting the money for himself, so he could run away from his parents and his stilted small-town life, leading to an unfortunate sequence of events that culminated with him getting buried in Joe Sheer’s cellar.  Because you really do not want to be a young naive amateur in a Richard Stark novel.

Westlake is kinder to amateurs, and he gives Wally a lot of breaks–and yet, at the end, is Wally really better off than Alfred?  I don’t want to give it all away, but when you read that chapter, think about it.   What are we actually being shown here?  What’s the moral of the story?  Maybe Alfred had the better deal after all.  Cleaner, anyway.  Quicker.

But amateurs in a Richard Stark novel get off easy compared to a different sort of character in nearly any Westlake novel, namely–

Item Seven: Rich Pricks

This is a long book, so we get a variety of rich people, but just two of any significance (Westlake has no problems with prosperous hard-working members of the bourgeoisie, being one himself at least some of the time), these being shifty financier Victor Krassmier, and heir to old money, Hugh Van Dinast.

Krassmeier is introduced to us by way of an annual report he drafts out relating to himself, that he has no intention of making public (you can’t do an IPO for a person anyway, no matter what Mitt Romney thinks).  Basically, he’s overextended himself, and he arranged with August Corella to pull the statue heist, having good connections with a museum willing to put up the cash.  He concludes the report thusly–

The Future

Victor Krassmeier’s physical plant remains active and capable, with only slight depreciation, except for a continuing problem with the prostrate gland, which should not prove to be a serious factor in future business activity.  On the national and international economic scene, Victor Krassmeier remains optimistic.  The system continues to suffer one of its periodic dislocations and adjustments, but he anticipates–along with most of the rest of the financial community (see Graph 1 and  Chart 2)–that the long-awaited upturn will begin to make itself at last evident in the second or third quarter of the next calendar year.  His portfolio and other holdings remain basically sound.  The “South America matter” should solve the negative cash flow problems, at least until the expected turnaround.  Should that turnaround take longer than anticipated to emerge, future partnerships with August Corella or others could certainly be considered.  On balance, Victor Krassmeier considers his current posture to be nerve-racking but positive.

Well okay,  corporations aren’t people, but maybe some people can be corporations.

Hugh Van Dinast comes from very old money indeed–his ancestors helped build this city, and indeed this country, and perhaps they can be forgiven the odd peccadillo, such as a marked proclivity for very young Polynesian girls (or boys, what does it matter, really?).

Hugh himself is an oddball, in that he lusts after tall patrician blondes, and when Bobbi Harwood, seeking transport out of town, gets hired to drive his Jaguar across country, Hugh falls madly in lust with her, and makes extremely improper (and unwelcome) advances.  Soundly rebuffed, he figures he’ll meet her in California to apologize for his beastliness, and maybe slip some sleeping pills into her drink.

Charming fellow.  And persistent.  And basically useless to the narrative, except for the purpose of getting Bobbi out of town, and reminding us that the people who built a city may not be the ones who best understand it, and their heirs may end up not understanding much of anything.   Old money tends to be dumb money.   And as Victor proves, new money may not be much better.

I could add one item to the next, until this review was half as long as the book itself, and be very hard-pressed to run out of material.  That’s Dancing Aztecs, and it’s been a pleasure and a challenge to review it.  I’m pretty damn certain this is the longest and most detailed review it’s ever gotten (that’s probably true of most if not all of the preceding reviews),  and maybe it doesn’t need all this analysis, but then again, does Joyce’s Ulysses?

Sure, there’s a lot of things in that book that need explaining, interpretation, scholarly musings, but isn’t it basically the same thing?  A story of many characters milling around one city and its environs, and we look into their minds one by one, and recognize bits of ourselves in them,  and we realize what a complex organism a city can be, and how many stories unfold daily within it, and within each person within it.   This is simpler, more readable, less ambitious perhaps, but am I reaching here?  In fact, Westlake made a very direct reference to the opening line of Ulysses in the next Dortmunder novel.  Which is not our next book.  I’ll get to that.

Joyce’s point was about how different people react to life, how they say yes or no to it, how they balance their hungers with their morals (if any).  This more modern urban trek is, like all Westlake’s books, about how people find out who they are, what they’re capable of–or fail in that quest.  Jerry the hustler succeeds by putting the hustle aside for a while, going with the flow, and realizing that as lovely as Ms. Harwood is, as much potential as they may have together, his true love is Gotham, and he will always return to Her, expanding his horizons, while still remaining rooted in the town of his birth.  A different character might have a different answer.  Because everyone is different.  But we all gotta hustle.  Because tempus fugit and all that.

Each of the three parts of this book begins with a masterful little essay, each with its own point to make–Everybody in New York is looking for something–Everybody in New York is trying to get somewhere–Everybody in New York wants to be somebody.   And ending in each case by reminding us that only once in a while does somebody find what he or she is seeking, get where he or she is going, be what he or she wants to be.  But the potential is always there.  So keep hustling.  But don’t forget to stop and look around you sometimes.  Because when you do that maybe you’ll see what you’re really looking for, where you really want to go, who you really want to be.

The Hustle is a New York Dance, we’re told at the start–referring to the Disco scene, and I doubt Westlake the jazz buff was a fan (I sure wasn’t), but he would have noted with approval, all the same, how that scene encompassed such a wide variety of races and classes.   We’re all in this dance together, and it’s messy and rude and maybe we don’t know the moves as well as we should, and we step on each others’ toes a lot (or try to hog the spotlight)–but it can be beautiful sometimes.  When it works.  If you’re on the streets of New York, or any city where all the colors blend together–stop and look.  Look at us learning how to dance.  Maybe we’ll get it right someday, in spite of all the haters.  Do it.  Do it.  Do The Hustle.

And now I have to review a book that is actually one short novel and one long story, and I’ve long debated with myself whether to make this one a two-parter.  I’m still debating it.  But it’ll work itself out.  Enough, already.


Filed under Dancing Aztecs, Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance