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Review: Two Much

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How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away!
But while you thus teaze me together;
To neither a word will I say;
But tol de rol, &c.

John Gay.

“Humor is like a fountain,” I said.

“That’s life.  Are you a native New Yorker?”

I frowned at her.  “What’s that got to do with comedy?”

“There are theories about the humorist as the outsider,” she said. “We can make it work both ways.  If you were born and raised in New York City, you must feel isolated from the rest of the country: ergo, comedy.  If you came from Kansas or somewhere, you feel isolated and rootless here in New York: ergo, comedy.  I just want to know whether you go under Column A or Column B.”

“I go with the West Lake Duck.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

Westlake ‘only’ published two novels in 1975: both for M. Evans & Co., both of them stand-alone works, both featuring a thirty-ish unmarried male protagonist who gets into trouble, both ranking among his most interesting works.  And I’d say only the latter of the two protagonists would qualify as a Westlake ‘Nephew’ (not that Westlake ever used this term, that I know of).   But the protagonist of the book we’re looking at now is, I would suggest, an anti-Nephew.

And he’s something else you wouldn’t call most of Westlake’s leading men–an unmitigated cad.  Had this book (which inspired two film adaptations) been written three or four decades earlier, and then made into a Hollywood film (notwithstanding the fact that the cad in this book is a Yank), there really would have been only one actor in all the world to play him.

For back in that era, who but He Who Was Addison DeWitt could have portrayed such a irredeemable rogue and made you like him?  (Errol Flynn may have been the superior cad in real life, but movie-goers only liked him as a hero).  The same way he could pull off a line in the film Death of a Scoundrel–when a married lady he propositions says she is already taken, he replies with the most impeccable aplomb, “I don’t want to take you.  Just to borrow you.”

Mr. Sanders’ scoundrel comes to a bad end in that film, as he did in many others, and he’s forced to recant his wicked ways, as he was in the very disappointing and heavily rewritten ending of the otherwise surprisingly faithful film version of The Moon And Sixpence.   Because, you see, the movie-going public is heavily composed of folks like Strickland’s thick-witted son in Maugham’s book, making fatuous comments like “The mills of the gods grind slow–” and thinking they’re quoting scripture when they do.  Rarely do we let Don Giovanni descend into hell without making him apologize first.   Makes us feel better about ourselves for admiring him.

Maybe it doesn’t take a Mozart (or a Da Ponte) to portray an unapologetic cad, but it’s a rare storyteller who can make one work as the hero of a popular work of fiction.  Charles Willeford was writing this kind of protagonist as far back as 1953 (High Priest of California), not that anything he wrote before the Hoke Moseley books was popular (and ‘cad’ might be too gentle a word for some of his protagonists).   Westlake may have been responding more to Willeford than to any other living storyteller when writing this one, though he’d toyed with this type of character before.

Many of Westlake’s best short stories depicted cads (also a novella we’ll be looking at soon), but making one the center of a full-length novel is more challenging.  Alan Grofield has his caddish moments, true, but he only dabbles at it.  When we first met him, he got involved with a girl while pulling a heist, let her talk him into taking her with him, was ready to stand up to Parker himself to defend her life, and ended up marrying her–a happy  and devoted marriage it seems to be, in spite of his wandering eye–and for all his incessant wisecracking, he’s deadly serious about his two professions.

Eugene Raxford, narrator and protagonist of The Spy In The Ointment is clearly another prototype for this book’s ‘hero’ in terms of his glib freewheeling anti-authoritarian style, but he’s sincerely devoted to the cause of ethical pacifism, and is madly in love with his beautiful klutzy heiress girlfriend, even if he won’t ever admit that to us.

Westlake protagonists, written under any name–with this one exception we’re looking at now–either have a conscience, or (in Parker’s case) a sort of instinctive code of conduct that serves in place of one.  This guy has neither. Rotten to the core, and he likes it that way.  If he ever feels a pang of remorse, he suppresses it rigorously.  As I shall have to do now myself, because cad that I am, I am going to give away some major plot twists of this book (while sparing many others, because I can’t possibly cover them all in one review), but I don’t see how I can talk about what this story means without talking about what happens in it. Seriously, I’m not going to give the whole book away, but if you haven’t read it, stop reading now.  This one’s available on Kindle.   It won’t take you long.

Another thing Westlake protagonists all have in common is that we never see them die.  Westlake came close to showing us one of them kick it in Killing Time, but it’s possible–barely–that Tim Smith was telling his story to the cops from a hospital bed.  All we know for sure is that a very pissed-off Italian guy pointed a gun at Tim while his girlfriend screamed in the distance.  How would you show a first person narrator’s death, anyway?  I mean, if you weren’t going the Jim Thompson ‘exit interview in hell’s waiting room’ route, or a spectral voice-over monologue, ala Wilder’s  Sunset Boulevard?   Westlake has decided to kill this narrator off before our very eyes.  Is this a spoiler?  Not exactly.

I know it must seem I’m avoiding the central point of this book–that it’s about a man pretending to be twins in order to fuck twins.  That’s certainly the main point of the two films made from it, and going by the online synopses, they both totally miss the point.   The twins are mere matching MacGuffins.  This is a book about identity, of course–Westlake wrote it.   And the twin motif serves that end most admirably.  But it’s not really the axis the plot spins upon.  What is?  Money.  I’ll try to keep the synopsis brief this time, if only because I haven’t done a one-part book review in what seems like ages.

What can we say about Art Dodge, aside from the fact that he owes his pun-laden name to Charles Dickens?   He’s thirty years old–the age Westlake believed that we become true adults, and must make choices about how to live the rest of our lives, or else have them made for us.  He’s a philanderer par excellence, exceptionally successful with women, through some combination of good looks, wit, and roguish self-confidence, but he also has bad eyesight and a receding hairline–as did Westlake himself.

He’s a former military brat, who lived all over the place, and has a sister he’s not very close to–Westlake was in the Air Force, and had a sister he rarely if ever referred to in public.  Art’s mother ran out on Art’s dad–and on Art–when Art was still a kid.  This doesn’t seem to refer to Westlake’s own mother, but the hero whose mom checked out on him in some way is a theme you can find in other of Westlake’s books, such as 361.

I don’t know what that’s about–I do know Westlake’s mother had to work long hours to help support the family.   That can feel like abandonment, even though it isn’t.  His children’s book Philip has no father, and an ever-present mother.  That is not an autobiographical work–that is an expression of a lifelong yearning for female attention that permeates most if not all Westlake’s work for adults, and it can also help explain how a fellow gets married three times in twenty-two years.

Art apparently used to work in advertising, but at some point he struck out on his own, and founded a tiny and perpetually indigent greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, aka Folksy Cards.  The cards are all ribaldly humorous, full of not terribly subtle sexual innuendo and the occasional ethnic slur.  Art writes them all himself, then cons artists into doing the visuals, then finds ways to avoid paying them, and then his distributor finds ways to avoid paying him, and this is the rugged capitalist spirit that made America great, folks.

He has a long-suffering secretary named Gloria, who is equal parts gal friday, best friend, mother confessor, and more of a sister to him than his actual sister. He does pay her–occasionally.  She puts up with the irregular paychecks because working for him is so much more interesting than her last gig at Met Life (my mother sold insurance for Met Life–small world).

His best male friend is an earnest and staggeringly innocent young attorney named Ralph, who vicariously enjoys hearing about Art’s many conquests, and never once suspects that the mother of his children is one of them.  Her name is Candy, and she’s not really that sweet, but neither is Art.  Anyway, as the story begins, Art is staying with Ralph and Candy and their kids in their tiny summer cottage on Fire Island.  Since Ralph has to go into Manhattan on work days, Art has ample opportunity to take Candy from–eh–too easy.    Anyway, he’s only borrowing her.   In Candy’s mind, she’d like to be on permanent loan.

Then at a party he meets Liz Kerner, a busty brunette in a blue bikini, who turns out to have a house in Point o’ Woods, a tiny exclusive enclave on the island.  It’s not her only place of residence–not by a long shot.  Liz is loaded, being the daughter of a self-made lumber magnate and a mother who came from old money (that had started to run out, hence the lumber magnate).

She’s also a twin.  Their parents perversely named them both Elizabeth, only the other twin spells it with an ‘s’.  Her sister’s everyday name is Betty.  If you want to know what this name game means, I refer you to a quote I put in my review of Adios Scheherazade (Part 2).  But in brief, Liz is a party girl, and Betty is more straight-laced and respectable–in her own fashion.

The sisters, now in their mid-twenties, were orphaned a few years before, when a piano fell on their parents’ limo.  Yes, I suppose we all would love to drop a piano on some rich people from time to time, but the nice thing about being a writer of fiction is you can actually do it and not get arrested.   We get a few more conservative justices on the Supreme Court, probably even that imaginary loophole will be closed.

So Art and Liz, much to Candy’s disgust, head off for bed, and that outcome was never in doubt, so Art doesn’t really know why he suddenly piped up and said he was a twin as well–with an identical brother named Bart.   But clearly somewhere in the back of his mind is the dream all men have dreamed ever since seeing an attractive pair of siblings (please note I left room for gay guys in there), and particularly twins–“Could I have both, please?”  And having tried to pull the sister-switch before, he knows it just does not work.  There’s only so much even the most intrepid of men can accomplish–but suppose he were not one man, but two?

As he meets the equally well-endowed Betty, and finds himself expanding upon the myth of Bart, Art realizes he’s just got to try it.  He normally wears contacts, but he’s got an old pair of glasses, and he does something with his hair, and without really trying he comes up with an alternate personality for himself–he basically just leaves out all the things that make him interesting, becomes a real straight-arrow gee-whiz kind of guy (a male Betty, in other words), and somehow this seems to give him depth in the very gullible Betty’s eyes (the more cynical Liz is not impressed, but she’s got Art).  Art, as Bart, gets very drunk the night he beds Betty, and when he wakes up, they’re engaged.

Art can’t believe it either.  He’s so overwhelmed by his success, he keeps ignoring the little warning bells going off in his head, telling him that you can take a con too far (Kenny Rogers hadn’t yet recorded that song about how you gotta know when to fold ’em, and anyway, when it comes to busty brunettes, it’s so much more fun to hold ’em).

Art started out looking for random sex with a sultry stranger who smells of salt and sand and sweat–but now he smells money, something he’s never had enough of, and it’s skewing his judgment.  How much can he wangle out of these two matching marks before it’s time to call the charade off?

As he puts it, “I’ve never been familiar enough with money to feel contempt for it,” but like his creator, he feels no end of contempt for those who are excessively familiar with it.  He meets Betty at a party the sisters are throwing to find a suitable buyer for their Point o’ Woods house, and he just can’t believe what a bunch of hopeless squares they are.   You know, the way most of us reacted to the Romneys once we’d had a good look at them?

What kind of party was this to be hosted by two girls in their mid-twenties?  There were perhaps forty people present, but only about a quarter of them were under thirty, and they were as stiff as their elders.  There was no dancing.  In fact, there was scarcely any commingling of the sexes at all; women stood with women to discuss department stores, Arthur Hailey novels, absent friends and other parties, while men grouped with men to talk transportation, taxes, politics, and horses–breeding, not racing.  I actually did hear one man say, as I was strolling past, “After all, racing does improve the breed.”

“Quite the contrary,” I said.  “In point of fact, all our effort is the other way, to make breeding improve the race.”

This being the most incisive remark any of them had ever heard in their lives, I was immediately absorbed into the group, where the man I’d contradicted thrust his hand out and said “Frazier.”

I gave him my honest grip, and said “Dodge.”

Another man said “Of the New Bedford Dodges?”

“Distantly,” I said.

So if the unscrupulous Mr. Dodge is the hero of this story, who could the villain possibly be?   Well, you can’t go wrong with a lawyer, can you?

Mr. Volpinex had apparently been my age when he’d died, several thousand years ago, and in the depths of the pyramids had been given this simulacrum of life.  The ancient chemists had died his flesh a dark unhealthy tan, and painted his teeth with that cheap gloss white enamel used in rent-controlled apartments.   His black suit was surely some sort of oil by-product, and so was his smile.

“I take it,” this thing said, extending its hand, “I am addressing Mr Arthur Dodge?”

“That’s right.”  His hand was as dry as driftwood.

“I am Ernest Volpinex,” he said, and gave himself away.  No real thirty-year-old would have reached into his vest pocket at that juncture and given me his card.  So my first guess was right; he was the undead.

Volpinex introduces himself as the attorney for the Kerner estate, though it comes out later he only works for Liz, not Betty–and he would like very much to marry either of them, Betty in particular, but he’d settle for Liz.  He’s as mercenary as Art, but so much less amiable, and he sees the more charming Art and his more virtuous twin as threats to his supposed hegemony over the Kerner sisters, which is indeed the case–though not in quite the way he thinks of course, because a man of his humorless temperament couldn’t imagine the twin con in a million years.

Volpinex–is this a little wink of the eye at Ben Jonson’s Volpone?  I rather think so, but I also think he’s another of Westlake’s beast-men, like Parker, only corrupted (like Quittner, or Leon Ten Eyck)–a fox in human form, but no Reynard the Trickster he (that would be more Art’s line).  He readily admits to having no functioning sense of humor, seeing it as a sign of unreliability.  Rather critically to our story, he is exactly the same age, height, and build as Art, though no one could ever mistake them for twins.  He’s a Starkian doppelganger,  invading the world of a Westlake protagonist, but in his mind, Art is the intruder.

In a later, very telling conversation he and Art have at his club, Art tells him humor is what separates us from the animals, to which Volpinex responds rather perceptively that parrots tell jokes and hyenas laugh.  Art asks him what does separate man from the other animals, then.  “Nothing,” he responds, and they proceed to have a very civilized lunch, full of raw oysters, fine wine, and veiled threats.

As Volpinex runs background checks on him and Bart, Art asks the thick-headedly loyal Ralph (still in the dark about Candy) to run a check in the other direction, and it comes out that Mr. Volpinex’s wife died under mysterious circumstances a few years previous.  We are left in little doubt that he has already murdered someone very close to him to clear a path between him and the Kerner fortune.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

To make things worse, Mr. Volpinex is a martial arts expert, as well as a squash player who takes the name of his game a mite too literally, as Art finds out after lunch at the club.  And perversely, his ever-escalating threats, mingled with the occasional bribe, just make Art more determined to follow through with his scheme, even though he’s just making it up as he goes along, and he hasn’t really figured out any kind of endgame yet.  This is very much out of Peter Rabe, by the way–the criminal protagonist keeps getting himself deeper and deeper into an impossible situation, partly because he’s determined to defeat a rival even worse than him who is after the same unreachable prize–he wins–and it doesn’t matter.  The game was not worth the candle.  But hey, a Pyrrhic victory is better than none.

Before he actually ties the knot with Betty, Art meets a rather different kind of girl than either of the Kerner sisters.  Linda Ann Margolies, a grad student at Columbia, finishing her master’s thesis on comedy.  She’s extremely familiar with Art’s work, both as an ad copywriter and a purveyor of snarky greeting cards, and she arranges to meet with him at his office, looking to do some research.  You know how I like to say that while Westlake’s protagonists don’t invariably make the right choices, he always gives them a chance to do so?  Linda’s the chance.

Ah, yes, there are moments when I understand cannibalism.  Food imagery kept filling my head as I looked at this lush morsel: home-baked pastry, crepes suzette, ripe peaches.  If she were any shorter, it would be too much, overblown, fit for a gourmand rather than a gourmet, but she was just tall enough to cool the effect slightly and thereby become perfect.  Sex without loss of status, how lovely.  “Come in, Miss Margolies,” I said, and ignored the jaundiced lip-curl of Gloria in the background.

You know how I know when Westlake is describing his feminine ideal?  When his description of her is simultaneously rapturously evocative and frustratingly vague.  Just as with Claire Carroll, we never learn the color of her eyes or hair or anything, we just know she’s very full-figured (in contradistinction to the model-slim Claire–like any true admirer of female beauty, Westlake knew that perfection comes in many sizes and shapes).  Margolies is typically a Jewish name, of course.  Which doesn’t tell us what she looks like, but we can make some educated guesses.  If they made yet another movie adaptation right now–

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(Hey, Linda’s got to work her way through Columbia somehow).

So we have a lively exchange of questions, answers, ideas, and one-liners, part of which you can see up top, climaxing with Art, feeling correctly that Linda has dared him to come around his desk and take her on the floor, does precisely that, to their very mutual pleasure.  You know, maybe Don Juan will always wind up in hell in the end, and Captain MacHeath is going to the gallows in all but the most contrived of finales, but somehow one can’t help feeling there are compensations…

Westlake had by this time fully mastered the art of having a narrator tell us more than he intends, or even realizes, and it’s obvious to us–but not to Art–that Linda is more than just another easy lay to him.  Mr. Westlake has dangled a potential soulmate in front of his anti-Nephew, someone who can not only accept him as he is, but prefer him that way.  Only she’s got no money.   She’s just another penniless adventurer, albeit of a more intellectual bent.  And he finds it oddly disconcerting that she knows him so well when they’ve only just met.   She was reading those cards very closely.  She knows what the clown is hiding behind his puns and pratfalls.  She was seeing what he wrote between the lines.  Somebody please love meThe real meWhoever that is.

And this is, sadly, the last we see of the luscious Linda in this novel, though she periodically reaches out to Art, by phone and by mail, sensing their connection, wanting to make something of it, and he thinks about it, even yearns for it, but there’s so much else going on right now, you see.  And this is Westlake testing Art, hitting him over the head really, yelling in his ear, “Hey–dummy!  That’s The Girl.”  But Art is just too much in love with his own cleverness to listen.  Until it’s much too late.   And much as I wish we men were not that stupid–well, as my female readers (I must have some) will know all too well, we’re just precisely that stupid at times–even when we don’t have rich sexy twins to distract us.

So it’s back to the fortune hunt, and what follows is not so much a tango as a lively gavotte, with Art changing partners (and identities) at a rate that both we and he have a hard time keeping pace with.  The only variation we don’t get is Liz sleeping with Bart, but she does propose marriage to Art, much to his horror–and temptation, because she’s offering (via a contract drawn up by Volpinex) an arrangement any penniless Lothario would cheerfully sell his soul for, if he had one.  No romantic strings attached, on either side–and two thousand a month for Art.   And hey–what is it about these Kerner sisters that makes them so eager to get hitched to twin brothers they barely know, who they’ve never even seen in the same place at the same time?

The answer keeps coming out the same way–money.  See, Liz had told Art half a truth–that if she didn’t get married soon, she’d take a huge tax hit (Pre-Reagan era, remember, the rich had to work harder to hold onto their money back then).

But in fact, she and Betty are suing each other for control of the Kerner fortune, along with a host of minor relations, and because of the terms of their father’s will, they both need a husband to win out, and their social circle simply doesn’t include anyone who is both presentable and available, the way Art and Bart so prodigiously are.   Okay, it probably doesn’t hurt that they’re both so good in the sack (though in a rather identity-rattling moment for Art, when Betty cheats on her non-existent husband with his increasingly confused ‘brother’ one night, she whispers in Art’s ear that he’s better).

Betty, more accomplished at fooling herself than Liz (because she’s so much more invested in the culture that goes with their class), believes she is genuinely in love with Bart, who was concocted mainly as a male version of herself.   Liz, by contrast, is genuinely like Art in many ways, and has been rebelling against her class with her hard-partying lifestyle and sarcastic asides, but it’s all an act, and she knows it.  She doesn’t own the  money, it owns her–at one point, she asks Art how he thinks she’d have reacted if he’d turned down her very unromantic proposal. “You would have loved me more, but you wouldn’t be marrying me,” Art suggests.  And she’s very unhappy to realize that’s exactly right.   He sees her looking at herself in the mirror later, frowning strangely.  Art’s is by no means the only identity crisis in this story.  But it’s the only one that gets definitively resolved.

So many twists and turns in this one, so many ruses, reversals, and revelations.  I could easily turn this review into a two or even three-parter recounting only half of them, but you all know what bedroom farce is, right?   That’s the fun part of the book, and there’s quite a lot of it (286 pages in the first edition hardcover) but it’s not all sex, lies, and gigolo japes.  It’s got a lot to say, and as Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan remark, there is much to be learned from a cynical devil–you definitely won’t find a sentimental one here.

The identity of an adventurer–or a comedian, same difference–isn’t terribly well-rooted to begin with.  Constantly putting on masks, rarely if ever letting them slip, Art is barely on speaking terms with himself, but he is capable of moments of real insight when prodded.  Like what he tells Linda, about a minute before he fucks her on the floor.   She’s just asked him why some people choose comedy as their defense against the many dangers of this world.

Taking a deep breath, I said “Because the comic is a killer himself, that’s why.   The comic is the last civilized man to feel the killer inside himself.  We’re omnivores, little girl, and that means we’ll eat anything that stands still, we’ll eat anything that doesn’t have flashing lights.  ‘Comedy instead of some other defense,’ you said, and that’s right.  Comedy is surprise.  I make you laugh, that means I surprise you, that means you’ll keep your distance, you won’t attack.  Laugh meters should record in megadeaths, because that’s what comedy is all about; I kill you for practice to keep you from killing me for real.”

And, self-evidently, to keep from having to kill anyone else for real, and here’s the thing about Art–he’s a complete and total bastard, not a redeeming trait in him, but he’s got not one ounce of malice in him–towards anyone.  He just wants to enjoy his brief time on earth as best he can, to have both a variety of pleasurable experiences and absolute liberty, and that’s hard, folks.  Very few ever manage that balancing act for long (some rich and famous people can fake it to beat the band, but it’s all done with mirrors) and he’s been teetering on the high wire for some time now.   He wants the money the Kerners proffer, because he thinks that will stabilize him.   Oh that it will, Art.

Volpinex had him pegged, at the club, when he offered Art 30 grand in venture capital in exchange for backing away from the Kerner sisters.  It seems an improbably on-target assessment from such a soulless drip, but we all have hidden depths, I suppose.

“You are not quite the standard fortune-hunter,” he said, “some money-mad chauffeur out to make a quick killing.  You are better than that, more educated, more intelligent, more talented.”

I put my fork down and stared at him.  “Now you’re trying to sell me an encyclopedia.”

He ignored that, saying, “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you enjoy the life you already have: the freedom, some sense of adventure and experiment, the opportunity to employ your talent.”

“And the bill collectors,” I said.  “They’re my favorites.”

He nodded, thoughtfully.  “The money Elizabeth offered you has gone to your head, and why not?  It’s a lot of money.  But it isn’t what you really want.”

Ah, but you see, Mr. Volpinex, for a man to know what he really wants, he has to know what he really is.  Maybe you know it reflexively, being more of a Starkian figure, however corrupted.   But Art Dodge is just a man, and he’s never taken the time to figure himself out, because the answers would have come with a few too many inconvenient questions, that might get in the way of his fun.  That might force him to grow up.

He just figures he can kill Bart off when the time is right, so Art can thrive–or the other way around–what’s the difference?   What’s in a name?  It’s just another Dodge.

When the whole twin act falls to bits, as Art always knew must happen eventually, he’s unprepared for it–he’s got no escape hatch ready.  He has to start killing people to keep his secret.  Or else honestly face up to the consequences of his myriad deceptions, something no cad ever willingly does–that’s what makes him a cad.   And if the comedian kills you symbolically, to keep from having to kill you for real, that means Art Dodge is comedian no more.   He’s the other kind of murderer, and his identity has been irreparably compromised.  Not least by the fact that he has become fabulously wealthy and powerful–and it turns out he’s very good at it.  Money has no loyalties, you know.  The Kerner money is Dodge money now.  And it couldn’t care less.

A strange way to punish a rogue.  A strange hell for Don Giovanni to descend into.   But that is precisely what we’re witnessing here.  Art Dodge is dead.  And damned.  And there’s not enough left of him to care.

It doesn’t happen all at once.  He resists.  He tells himself “I am becoming Volpinex” and the thought truly horrifies him (choose your enemy carefully…).  But the inexorable twin pulls of survival and money keep dragging him down, forcing him to become an alien creature, as spiritually mummified as his now-deceased rival.

As the story concludes, he’s in his old office, giving up Folksy Cards, giving Gloria two thousand bucks severance–clearly saddened at the end of their relationship, she asks won’t he need a secretary where he’s going?  He suggests she talk to the consortium of disgruntled artists he’s held at bay for years, who will take his place.   She can see something is terribly wrong, but she can’t understand it.  He tells us she squints at him, as though he’s surrounded by smoke.  We realize that there really was somebody who loved this clown for himself–and will mourn his passing.

And maybe one other.  Gloria hands Art a card from Linda Ann Margolies–whose master’s thesis he tried to read, found it rather frivolous, how could he have been attracted to someone so common, so immature?  Sitting at his desk for the very last time, he concludes what we now realize was an extended epitaph for his soul.

I very nearly tossed it out at once–something about my brief encounter with that girl bothered me, I couldn’t say what–but curiosity got the upper hand.  Opening it, I found a greeting card inside of the kind I used to publish, though not one from my company.  The front showed a man in the front half of a horse suit, with a theater’s stage in the background.  Inside, it said, “I just can’t go on without you.”

Was that supposed to be funny?  I threw it away.

Brrrrr!

In the massed ranks of the books Westlake published in his lifetime,  there is only one that can stand beside this in terms of a truly chilling anti-climax (still a ways off, and much more in the Starkian mode, with more than a touch of Coe).

For all his understandable cynicism about the human race, his black Irish melancholia, Westlake was a hopeful optimistic person by nature, and something in him hated to let his heroes die–even if they lost everything, they still had themselves (indeed, losing everything might prove the very best way to find yourself, as many a visionary has opined).  Perhaps this aversion to killing his protagonists stemmed from him wanting to be a just God to the people he breathed life into–perhaps because it was too much like suicide by typewriter.

But in this breezy bedroom farce of his, having so much in common in its style and plot material with the desultory sleaze novels he’d cranked out under false names earlier in his career,  he truly does rise above the material at last, even as he shows his hero sinking ever-deeper into moral quicksand.  There were a million ways he could have ended this one, and he chose the truest and most painful.   And it seems damned few people at the time appreciated that.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ whose New York Times review of Butcher’s Moon I referenced a few weeks back, just could not seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Mr. Westlake was never going to be content to be a mere composer of light entertainments for our momentary diversion.   The first edition of the next book we’ll be looking at bore a blurb from his review of this one, acclaiming Westlake “The Neil Simon of the Crime Novel,” but read in context, that’s not so much a compliment as a politely worded put-down.

Callendar always paid warm tribute to Westlake’s skill as a writer, while obtusely failing to understand his choices as a storyteller (it’s tragic but hardly surprising that he succeeded the far more qualified Anthony Boucher as the prime writer on the mystery genre for the Times).  As he saw it, this book “belabors a situation that is impossible to begin with, ends up with too pat a solution and turns farce into tragedy.  The author of the book is the deus ex machina and that is always a cop-out.”

Leaving aside the tiresomely obvious fact that the author of every book ever written is the deus ex machina, it is precisely the turning of farce into tragedy that elevates this book above most of the other stories Westlake wrote about confused harried bachelors with overly complex personal lives.  Newgate Callendar, in his everyday guise of Harold C. Schonberg, may have been a brilliant music critic–when it came to discussing mere technique–but why do I suspect that if he’d been critiquing Mozart while the latter was still alive, he’d have missed the point of every opera?  Just like most of Mozart’s contemporaries did.

Diabolus ex machina would be more to the point, since Westlake has tempted his hero with Mephistophelian ingenuity–while still clearly pointing him towards the path to redemption, which he fails to follow, or even recognize.  And this is entirely logical for the character we’ve been shown.  It’s no cop-out–it’s a fair cop, as the Brits say.  And yes, contrived as all hell, but that’s no less true of the Dortmunders, which Callendar heartily approved of–because he didn’t take them seriously.  More fool he.

All this modern-day Faust had to do was say to Linda “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (the precise meaning of her name in Spanish) and he would have been saved, even if he remained as lecherous, light-fingered, and leering as ever.  His damnation lay in his failure to know himself well enough to withstand temptation–not of the flesh, but of filthy lucre (Westlake whole-heartedly approved of temptations of the flesh; much as they may need to be resisted at times, to resist them at all times is to fail at life).

And yet, I fear it was Newgate Callendar’s take on this book that won out, at least in the short term.  People wanted the farce, bedrooms and all, sans the tragedy–the people making movies certainly did.  Film producers hear “Neil Simon” and think “Money”, so it got two film adaptations, as already noted–one French and one American.  The French one starred one of those comic actors nobody but the French care about, and had a happy ending. I suspect this is the better of the two, but it still sounds pretty bad.

The American one came ten years later, and starred Antonio Banderas (well, at least that makes Art’s romantic prowess more believable), and the sisters were played by Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah, which of course destroys the whole twin angle, and Art is an artist (the kind who paints), and I’ve never seen it, and I don’t care if I ever do.  I mean, if you have to stick a happy ending on it, why not Art and Linda going off into the sunset?  Because Linda is too small a part to tempt a big star, and of course one big star has to end up with another big star.  And virtue has to be rewarded–not self-understanding, which was the point of the book.  For some reason, self-understanding isn’t usually a big thing in Tinseltown.

“Thus do we artists adapt the facts of our own lives to the purposes of our art.”  So Art Dodge tells us, as he scrawls the text for yet another witty greeting card on the Fire Island Ferry.  Westlake knew the temptations of money very well–and I think he often lusted for big material success, the blockbuster best-seller he never got–and feared it at the same time.  Somebody as talented and prolific as him really should have been rich at some point, right?  Why didn’t he ever get there?  Maybe, on some level, because he didn’t want to.  Because without the need to get up every day and dodge bill collectors, dodge exes, dodge rivals, the supreme dodge that is art would fall away from  him, never to be regained.

It wouldn’t necessarily for everyone.  I’m sure Stephen King is a nice enough person in real life, and he’s written some very good books since he got rich.  If he’s written anything as good as Two Much, I’m not aware of it.  Well, that’s just my opinion.  And it’s a different thing to earn your money through creativity than through connivance.  Not all rich guys with political aspirations are stick-in-the-mud bores, as we’ve had occasion to learn recently–but self-understanding will never be theirs.  And their only real love affairs are with themselves.  But they provide ample material for the true clowns of the world.  So ridi, Pagliacci.  Ridi.

Our next book could not be more different from this one, and yet I’d argue it was intended as a companion piece to it–Westlake must have written one right after the other, maybe working on both at the same time.  It features a slightly older and ultimately much wiser protagonist, and a Nephew he is, to his very core–but he’s a Nephew with lots of brothers, and that makes all the difference.  And if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to try and get that review finished by October 25th.  I must say, I’ll be very impressed with any of my readers who understand why that particular date.  Oh, for a muse of fire….

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Two Much

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 3

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This hatred is one side of the rather equivocal attitude the Greek mythical tradition has toward the figure of the wolf.  On the one hand, the wolf, as Richard Buxton suggests, “stands for one who by his behavior has set himself beyond humanity.”  This is particularly true of the “lone wolf,” a figure isolated from human and lupine community alike.  Connected to this, of course, is the idea, embodied by Odysseus’s grandfather, of cunning criminality.  In Pythian 2, Pindar emphasizes this cunning in a passage that resonates deeply with the conception of justice for which Polemarchus advocates: “May I love my friend: but against my enemy I shall make a secret attack, like a wolf, treading now here now there on my crooked paths.”  This dimension of the lupine character is what drives Polemarchus to recognize the limits of his own position.  On the the other hand, however, because of its cooperative nature, its social life together with others in a pack, and its practices of collaborative hunting and of the equitable sharing of quarry, the wolf also stood in the Greek mythological tradition as a symbol of community and even as an analogue for human social life.

From Plato’s Animals, by Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas

Richard Stark has created a large reputation (including screen credits) with his novels about Parker, the professional thief and killer-if-necessary.  And he does these books very well, even if a few in the series strain credulity.  One such was “Slayground” (1971), in which Parker takes on a whole police force in an amusement park shootout and makes his getaway.

But things improve in the latest Parker, BUTCHER’S MOON (Random House, $4.95).  It has a tie-in with “Slayground”: in the earlier book, Parker had left some money hidden in the amusement park.  In “Butcher’s Moon” he goes back to retrieve it after a job has gone sour.  To get the money back the hero must take on a Mafia gang, a crooked cop, and, in addition, exact his own revenge.  So he gets a few recruits, robs the mob blind, and finally wipes out all the bad guys.

Parker the super-tough, Parker the super-suspicious, Parker the super-lethal, Parker the super-ingenious.  So it’s all nonsense.  But what is not nonsense is Stark’s admirably controlled writing–as tough and spare as Parker himself is.  Stark deals only with the criminal subculture.  His is an unsentimental world and a fatalistic one.  Life means absolutely nothing.  Men are governed only by greed, power, or lust.  There is no such thing as honesty, and everybody, everything, is to be distrusted.  Parker himself is a curiously vague figure.  Stark is not much on characterization.  But the world in which Parker prowls is made very real thanks to Stark’s considerable gifts as a writer and storyteller.

Curiously, Parker is not an anti-hero.  He is bigger than life; nobody was ever like him, or ever will be.

Newgate Callendar (aka Harold C. Schonberg), Criminals at Large, New York Times Book Review, 9/15/74

Calesian moved over to the window, looked out at the dark city under the moonless sky.  The spotted streetlights, aping the stars, emphasized the darkness rather than cutting it.  Calesian sensed Parker out there somewhere, scurrying in the dark with his army.

He looked up at the sky.  Why the hell wasn’t there a moon, for Christ’s sake?  The air would be hot just the other side of the window glass, but the air conditioning was on in here, and he shivered slightly from the coolness of it.  And the unrelieved darkness.  A hell of a night to die, he thought.

That Times review up above is a true rarity, brief though it be (that’s the full text; the rest is devoted to other books).  Other than Westlake’s longtime supporter Anthony Boucher, few Times critics ever paid much attention to him until much later, when he was seen as more of a senior statesman of the comic caper, or whatever.   When he got out of his appointed niche, as in Up Your Banners, the Times could get downright savage.

This piece is actually from the very book review section that Westlake had the protagonist of Adios Scheherazade lament he could never get into with his pathetic pornos (even though they were still showing pictures of bare-breasted African women), and measured as its praise might be, I’d assume Westlake savored the small symbolic victory. Made it ma, top of the world!

‘Newgate Callendar’ was not primarily known as a literary critic–he was just kibbitzing here–doing a minor column for the book review section called Criminals at Large, a brief semi-regular overview of recent crime/suspense novels.  He’d previously reviewed two of the earlier Random House Parkers there (none of the paperbacks).  His regular gig was music critic, for which he won a Pulitzer in 1971.

He makes a few regrettable errors here (Parker is not shooting it out with ‘a whole police force’ in Slayground), but he gave Stark and Westlake both a number of good reviews over the years.  I would assume he knew they were one and the same when he wrote this, being no stranger to pseudonyms himself, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

“So it’s all nonsense.”  Because it couldn’t happen that way in reality?  Because the characters are bigger than life?  Because it’s full of grand flourishes, overblown bloody denouements?  So by that standard, Mr. Callendar, wouldn’t pretty much every opera you ever reviewed be far worse nonsense?   Ah well, let it lie.   He had it right about how good a writer Richard Stark was.  About nobody ever being like Parker in reality–I’d agree–if we’re talking human beings.  Are we, necessarily?

I was hoping to unearth some serious in-depth critiques of Butcher’s Moon from around the time it was published, and to that end, I obtained an old copy of The Armchair Detective (Volume 7, #4), ‘A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Appreciation of Mystery, Detective, and Suspense Fiction.’  An online search indicated I might find an article on the book there.  That’s some scary search engine, because what it was referring to was two nigh-microscopic missives; one from the letters page–fan mail from none other than Joe Gores, just starting to make a name for himself in the genre, and who had, of course, just recently published a novel that was a planned cross-over with Plunder Squad.

A hell of a fine issue of TAD this time, by the way, with the Westlake (Coe), de la Torre, and Hammett pieces well worth the price of admission just by themselves.  Have you seen the latest Westlake/Stark, by the way, just out from Random House?  Butcher’s Moon, at 300 plus pages?  Just a fantastic boomer of a book, one I think must claim very serious consideration for this year’s Edgar.  Thick, meaty, and not an ounce of fat on it.  To my mind, as close to a modern Red Harvest as we are likely to get.

Heartfelt and perceptive, but hardly an objective scholarly third party source, nor was a capsule review by TAD‘s dedicated and super-knowledgeable editor, Allen J. Hubin, about as long as Gores’ letter, and even more fanboy-esque.  The gist of it is ‘great fun, nothing to be taken seriously.’   And in case you were wondering, Butcher’s Moon wasn’t even nominated for an Edgar, a distinction it shares with everything else that ever appeared under the name Richard Stark.

In point of fact, nothing that happens in Butcher’s Moon is a whit less likely than a short stout balding man working for a large soulless private detective agency taking it upon himself to clean up a corrupt violent city by turning two criminal factions against each other with near-diabolic Machiavellian prowess, then walking away with nary a scratch on him to his next thrilling adventure.  Nothing against Hammett, I’m just saying.  ‘Bigger than life’ is pretty much the wheelhouse for the entire mystery/crime/suspense genre.   Always has been.

Whatever it is makes a piece of fiction worthy of significant long-term scrutiny–or simply throwaway entertainment, which has its place in the scheme of things, but is destined to be forgotten over time–it isn’t whether or not it could happen in real life, anymore than we judge a painting by how perfectly it mirrors its model.  Realism is just one tool in the kit.  It’s how effectively you wield the tools you choose for the job that counts.   Not whether people believe the story in retrospect, but whether they’re caught up in it when they’re experiencing it, and whether it has some unique and compelling perception to impart, above and beyond the spinning of a good yarn–but never instead of that. The yarn comes first, or what’s the point?  You could just write a pedantic long-winded essay to get your insights across.  I do, all the time.  Back to the synopsis.

So Parker is no longer merely concerned with getting his 73 thousand dollars from the Tyler mob, which at this time they have no intention of giving him anyway.  They have enraged him on some primal level by sending him Grofield’s severed finger in a box, and telling him they’ll keep cutting things off Grofield until Parker agrees to come talk to them, at which time of course he’ll be killed, as will Grofield, because they’ve got to make him the fall guy for Lozini’s murder by Calesian, who is now taking control of the organization.

They’re saying they’ll give him the money, Grofield, and an ambulance to take Grofield away in, and it’s hard to say whether they believe Parker is stupid enough to buy this, but even pretending they think he’s that stupid is pretty damned insulting.

If they had not sent him the finger, Grofield’s fate would be none of his business, and he’d have kept focusing on the money.  But the mix of sadism and duplicity in this ultimatum has brought out the inner wolf, to an extent we’ve never seen before.  He does not merely wish to kill the people directly responsible–his intent now is to decapitate the syndicate in Tyler, kill everyone who had any connection to this ‘peace offering.’   Not simply one or two individuals, but the organization itself needs to die for the disquiet in his mind to be quelled.

And, lest we forget, he still needs the money, which he knows now he’s going to have to take by force, from a large number of armed men.  And for that he needs a crew.  So drawing upon his long years of heisting, a file of exceptionally capable fellow pros he’s compiled in his head since before we first met him, he persuades eleven first-rate heisters to come to Tyler on short notice, with the promise that rich pickings await.  His reputation as a planner is all the inducement they need.  If Parker says there’s loot to be had, they believe it.

These men don’t work for anybody but themselves–they’re all hardcore independents like him.  But they have all proven to Parker that they can work with others of their kind as a disciplined unit, and there’s a toughness to them, a self-sufficiency, that no midwest mafiosi can match.   They are the closest human analog he’ll ever find to an actual wolf pack.  Though getting them to agree to what he has in mind will be more like herding cats.

The group assembled in some vacationing couple’s vacant apartment, Parker brings out his captive, Frankie Faran, who has given Parker all the intel he needs to rob the Tyler outfit down to their skivvies in one night.  Faran’s will has broken down entirely–he mechanically answers all the questions they ask him.   They’re left in little doubt that they can grab a lot of money–and because nobody steals from mobsters, and mobsters can’t call the cops in to defend illegal earnings, they’ll meet token resistance, if any at all.

Normally they’d need to finance a job, work out a plan, assign tasks–there’d be financial as well as physical risk, an investment of time and resources–but that’s all been attended to prior to their arrival–Parker has the jobs all mapped out.  He’s even stolen a small arsenal of guns they can use and throw away, none of which could ever be traced to them.  They’ll be leaving town the next day, so they can just steal any cars or other equipment they need.  It’s a very tempting proposition, but here’s the kicker–everything they take they can split eleven ways.  Parker wants none of it.   What the….?

He shows them the finger.  Explains where it came from.  Most of them don’t know Grofield at all, some (like Wycza) do.  They don’t like it, turns their stomachs a bit, but they still don’t get what he’s driving at.

And here may be my favorite passage in the entire series–where Westlake finally makes Parker explain himself–admit what he’d only privately admitted in The Seventh–that sometimes he does things that don’t make sense on purely pragmatic terms, because he can’t do anything else.   Because sometimes a wolf’s gotta do what a wolf’s gotta do.  But what he learned from that experience, perhaps, is that it’s best to have everybody in the crew on the same page.  And to be honest, with your partners and yourself, about what you’re really after.

“I want Grofield back,” Parker said, “and I want my money.  And I want those people dead.”

Hurley gestured, wanting more.  He said, “So?”

“So I set you people up with scores, you go do them, you’ve got good money you wouldn’t have had.  You’ll all be finished, back here, by when?  Three, four in the morning?

Most of them shrugged in agreement.  Hurley bobbed his head, saying, “Probably.  Then what?”

“Then you come with me,” Parker said.  “The twelve of us hit Buenadella’s house and get Grofield out of there.  And if they moved him somewhere, we find out where and go hit that place.”  He checked off names on his fingers, saying  “And we make them dead.  Buenadella.  Calesian.  Dulare.”

His intensity had startled them a little.  Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said “That’s not like you.”

What kind of shit was this?  Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions.  He said, “What’s not like me?”

“A couple things,” Handy said.  “For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else.  Grofield, me, anybody.  We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we’re not the Travelers Aid Society.  You, too.  And the same with Grofield.  What happens to him is up to him.”

“Not when they send him to me piece by piece,” Parker said.  “If they kill him, that’s one thing.  If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that’s his lookout.  But these bastards rang me in on it.”

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go.  “The other thing,” he said, “is revenge.   I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt.  Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead.”

Parker got to his feet.  He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy.  Enough was enough.  “I don’t care,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s like me or not.  These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going around in circles, I’m not getting anywhere.  When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away?  I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.  And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it.  You’re in, Handy, or you’re out.  I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you’ll get for it.  Give me a yes or a no.”

Tom Hurley said, “What’s the goddam rush?  We got over an hour before we can hit any of these things.”

Stan Devers, getting to his feet, said, “Just time enough for a nap.  I’m in, Parker.”   He turned to Wycza, beside him.  “Dan?”

Wycza wasn’t quite ready to be pushed.  He frowned up at Devers, frowned across the room at Parker, seemed on the verge of telling everybody to go drop dead, and then abruptly shrugged and said, “Sure, what the hell.  I like a little boom-boom sometimes.”

Handy said, “Parker, I was never anything but in, you know that.”

Ed Mackey said, “Shit, we’re all in.  I know Grofield, he’s a pleasant guy, we don’t want anybody out there dismantling him.”

Mike Carlow, the driver, who hadn’t had anything at all to say up till now, said, “I don’t know this guy Grofield from a dune buggy.  In fact, I don’t even know any of you people.  But I know Parker, and I’m in.”

They were all in.  Parker, looking from face to face, saw that none of them was even thinking of bowing out.  Some of the tension eased out of Parker’s shoulders and back.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

As inspirational locker-room speeches go, it’s a bit bloody-minded, but the objective is the same–each man has individual goals–Parker needs them to work as a group.  Most of them have, in the past, been beneficiaries of his thorough-going professionalism–Devers got his start in ‘the profession’ through Parker, who sent him to Handy for training.  Handy owes Parker his life, several times over–he never thought that was because Parker had any special feeling for him, but he himself has always clearly seen Parker as a friend.  Carlow got out of jail and found out Parker had not only managed to turn that soured coin heist into a paying proposition, he’d saved Carlow’s share for him.  Because that’s what one professional does for another.   The Travelers Aid Society they ain’t, but membership does have its privileges.

So under the influence of Parker’s most atypical burst of eloquence, this motley group of misfits becomes an army, unified by the need to score–but also their respect for this man who embodies the spirit of their illegal enterprise better than anyone else.  There’s more than a little wolf in each of them–but he’s all wolf.  And they’re his pack now.  Until the job is done.

Westlake wrote this scene, I surmise, because he knew longtime readers would have problems with this seeming face-turn–as he himself might have had–after all, he repeatedly dismissed The Jugger, one of his best books, because he felt he hadn’t provided enough of an explanation for why Parker would respond to Joe Sheer’s pathetic plea for help.  But here I think he felt he had pulled it off–yes, it seems like Parker wants to help Grofield, is playing the noble hero, but is that really what’s going on?

Each of us can make up our own minds, reading these books, what feelings, if any, Parker has for the men he works with.  Perhaps none at all.  But they are, for all that, the men he works with.  And Parker’s work is who he is, what he is, all he is.  It’s his identity.  Without it, he’s nothing.  Which means without them, he’s nothing.  He’s not a pickpocket or a mugger.  He’s a heister.  Heisters work in strings, just like wolves hunt in packs.   That’s what made him turn to this life in the first place–it’s the closest thing he could find in this insane human world into which he was mistakenly born to the instinctive template in his head.

He needs Grofield, the money, and the Tyler ganglords dead.  Why?  Because in sending him that finger, and lying to him about the money and the ambulance, they reminded him, yet again, of that irrational cruelty in humankind that has always made his brain itch.  They reminded him he is an alien in this world, that he will never belong here, among these naked apes.

It’s not to save Grofield that he does this, but to make their lie the truth.  They said he would get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance, so he will get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance.  And they will die for promising what they had no intention of delivering, and for having the presumption to include him in their madness with that finger.  He isn’t like them.   He’s something else.  Something they should have left alone.

One more thing, and I know I’m getting offtrack here, but bear with me–I had the privilege, about a year back, to attend a gathering of Donald Westlake’s closest friends and colleagues, as well as his wife Abby, and I saw the way they spoke about him.  I heard the note of loss in their voices.  They were not mourning the loss of a great writer.  They were still feeling the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime friend, a gap in their lives that would never be filled.  I’ve seen this in what people who knew him wrote about him after his death.   They loved him.  Can anyone doubt he returned the feeling?  When we see Rosie refer ironically to ‘The loyalty of friendship’, in The Hunter, we should understand that loyalty–to one’s friends as well as oneself–meant more to him than anything.  He just knows that it has its limits.  A flawed yet vital shelter from the harsh winds of an indifferent cosmos.

Much as Richard Stark may represent a side of Westlake that wants to feel less, to be left alone to do his work, to not give a damn about anyone or anything, because giving a damn hurts so damn much, he did nonetheless give a damn.  About lots of things, lots of people.  And that can’t help but bleed its way into the Stark books, and therefore into their central protagonist.  The moral of those books was never “This is how things should be,” but “This is how things are, so how do we live with it and still remain ourselves?”

Regardless of what Mr. Newgate Callendar may have thought ‘the real world’ to be like, let’s be frank–it’s not a nice place.  Men are mainly governed by greed, power, and lust (women too, sorry girls).  True honesty is the rarest of commodities, people you can fully trust even rarer.  We cling to family and friendships so fiercely, because we all know it’s true.  It’s not just a convention of what we sometimes call noir fiction–noir is merely a stylized expressionistic take on everyday human life, which is why it’s endured as a literary form, and has had such a broad and pervasive influence across all mediums.   We all walk down mean streets sometimes.  Some of them a lot meaner than others.   Noir is a romanticized form of realism, and nobody ever understood this better than that wounded romantic, Richard Stark.

But when I come down from this flight of fancy, I can think of one other, much more mundane reason for Parker behaving this way–unless Westlake wrote this book quite a good long while before it was published, he would have written it after he’d seen John Flynn’s The Outfit, based rather loosely on the third Parker novel that serves, you might say, as the foundation of this much more ambitious narrative.

That movie’s version of Parker, played by Robert Duvall, refuses to leave that movie’s version of Handy McKay, played by Joe Don Baker, when the latter is badly wounded, and tells ‘Macklin’ to leave him.   Macklin puts on an EMT’s white jacket, and commandeers an ambulance to get him and his comrade away from the scene of the final gun battle.   Like at least half that movie, Flynn did not get that idea from the book he was adapting.  There’s an ambulance used for criminal purposes in The Seventh, which had already been turned into a movie, which Flynn presumably saw, so maybe that was the inspiration.

Westlake liked Flynn’s movie (more than I do), and would have enjoyed the irony of two killers escaping a scene of mayhem in an ambulance under the guise of medic and patient.  So assuming Flynn didn’t somehow get the idea from Westlake (who didn’t work on that film at all, not even as a consultant), I’d say that Westlake got the idea of the ambulance from Flynn’s movie, and improved and elaborated upon it to an exponential degree, transforming a mere throwaway gag into a wry thematic statement.

You’d think somebody would have asked him about that sometime, but unless there’s an interview somewhere I’ve missed, I guess we’ll never know for sure.   And this is what comes of not taking books like this seriously while their authors are still alive.  I better finish the synopsis before this gets completely out of hand.

Parker’s friends go out and do their heists, all of which go off without a hitch, and this is by far the most enjoyable part of the book.   Characters we’ve loved from earlier books, who have never met before in many cases, sizing each other up, working together beautifully, exchanging professional tips and iconoclastic points of view while doing their jobs, and honestly–Newgate Callendar may have been a fantastic music critic, but for him to say “Stark is not much for characterization” is just staggeringly unforgivably wrong.  Stark can tell you more about a character with one paragraph than most writers could with a trilogy.  But see, it’s the kind of characterization you normally find in the best short stories, not in novels.  Thumbnail portraits.  Callendar is applying the wrong standards here, because to him this is just light entertainment he reads to get away from himself.  Which is fine, but it blinds him to all the other things it can be.

Dan Wycza in particular gets to shine.  True, Parker said he was dead, back in The Rare Coin Score, but that doesn’t really need any explaining, since there’s no reason to think Parker witnessed his reputed demise.  In his world, false rumors must abound, and how could he check on them?  Westlake must have felt that Stark had disposed of Dan too hastily, too peremptorily, and issued a reprieve–we’ll have reason to be glad of that in future books.

At one point, Wycza, Stan Devers, and Mike Carlow are going to grab drug money from a courier and his two menacing bodyguards–named Trask and Slade, a wink to Westlake’s biggest hit of the 60’s, The Fugitive Pigeon.  Devers figures they just have to wound one of them, and the others will give up–no need to kill them.  Stan’s a good-natured kid.  Wycza and Devers, the seasoned veterans, have the bodyguards down as hard cases, and the courier as a rabbit–they’ll figure if they lose the money they’re dead no matter what, so they’ll fight, or run.  But they give Devers a chance to test his theory.  The theory fails to pan out, and they go with Plan B–three dead men.  Another life lesson for Stan.

Meanwhile, Wiss and Elkins grab a stockbroker and his wife from their bed–the cleanest job of the night, and the most profitable.  The stockbroker’s son got into trouble with the law a while back, and Lozini fixed it for him.  In exchange, the stockbroker had to keep money he knew was dirty in his office safe.   The stockbroker’s humiliation outweighs his fear–he knew all along he was compromising his integrity, but what else could he do?

He weeps brokenly on the street, after Wiss and Elkins leave with the loot, swearing he’ll never do anything for Lozini and his friends again.   He doesn’t know that’s not ever going to be an issue again, after tonight.  Free at last.  Unburdened of his guilt–and one hundred and forty six thousand smackers, so good thing there’s not going to be anybody left to complain.

I detect more than a whiff of O. Henry in this vignette–and more than a hint of Westlake’s own abiding guilt over the pain he put his father through, when he got in trouble with the law, many years before, and dad had to pull strings to get him off the hook.  One of those stories from Westlake’s past that keeps popping up in his fiction, different each time, but always the same underneath. A father now himself, he knows that no matter how high a value you place on your honor, your most deeply-held values, your obligations to your children will make you sell yourself on the cheap, time and again.   A much darker take on this story will appear in a much later novel, that I think may have helped trigger the resurrection of Richard Stark, but we can worry about that later.

Most of these jobs, in one way or another, refer back to earlier jobs Parker has done–for example, Handy and Ducasse take over the office of a private security firm, that handles alarm systems for the Tyler mob.  That’s clearly a reference to Parker & Co. taking over Copper Canyon in The Score.  Not mere nostalgic references, what we’re seeing here is that Parker has been learning all the time we’ve known him, improving his craft, making professional connections, and becoming better, in his own way, at working with other people, understanding them.   He’s not such a lone wolf anymore.  He couldn’t afford to be, if he wanted to stay solvent, free, and breathing.

I think this is one reason the book does not refer to The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score–both about jobs that went completely wrong, where Parker’s crew ended up dead, where he either didn’t work well with his colleagues, or he was off on his own most of the time, and if he got his cut, as in The Seventh, it was mainly by dint of his strange luck.   That’s not what this book is about.  This book is about teamwork.   In some ways, we may prefer to see Parker left to his own dark devices, the rugged individualist on a lonely quest, but in all but those two books (and The Hunter, which Westlake couldn’t very well avoid mentioning here), he actually works very well with others.  As long as they work well with him.

They get back to the apartment, pockets loaded with cash–“Son of a blue bitch, boys, that’s a quarter million dollars”, Mackey says quietly.  More than that, actually–and in today’s terms, it’s almost a million and a half, for one night’s work.  Split eleven ways, each man gets a bit over 25k.  The army has its wages.  Time to start the war.

Elsewhere, Calesian has already lost the power he so briefly grasped at–as word has trickled in about all the syndicate businesses Parker’s friends have hit, it’s all too obvious that his plan to either lure Parker in for the killing or scare him away has backfired in spectacular fashion.  He’s being ignored now, and Dulare, who was content to let somebody else steer the ship, has taken the wheel, to try and keep it off the rocks.

They’ve holed up at Buenadella’s house, waiting out the moonless night, with a lot of men and guns, Grofield lying unconscious upstairs.   Even though Calesian assumes they’ll kill Parker eventually, he knows it’ll be too late for him.  His moment is gone.  He still doesn’t understand just how badly he screwed up, but somebody there will try to explain it to him.  Somebody we have to briefly look at, and now I’m thinking I should have made this a four-parter after all.  There’s just too damn much material in this book.

The only high-ranking member of the Tyler outfit who isn’t present is Frank Schroder, but he’s sent a deputy in his place–guy named Quittner, “a cold bastard, tall and skinny and pallid as death.”  That’s a real name that people have, but I don’t think it was just picked at random out of the phone book.

It’s never stated out loud, but it comes out in small subtle ways.  Quittner is the only one who understands Parker, who knows what they’re up against.  He knows Parker wouldn’t be coming after them if not for the finger–“He wasn’t the right man for that.”   He knows Parker will not be content to steal from them while they cower in the house–“He’ll come for his friend,” he predicts quietly.  How can he know all this?  Because he’s what Parker would have been if Parker had compromised with the world he was born into, gone to work for someone else, given up his freedom.  He’s a failed Parker.   He quit on himself.

And underlying this is Westlake’s fear of what he might have become, if he had given in to the temptation to seek a safe regular job, instead of choosing the much more difficult and insecure path he did.  Stark is the fullest expression of the romantic in him, the part that refuses to compromise, at least on the big stuff. We all have to compromise sometimes; even real wolves do, but Stark is a defiant rejection of that fact–and at the same time, paradoxically, a tacit concession to it.

Quittner is a capable man, feared and respected by others in the organization, but Calesian thinks to himself that it’s unlikely he’ll ever try to take control.  Because somehow it’s not in his nature to be a boss, but it wasn’t in his nature to be an underling either, and this means that dangerous as he is, Quittner is to Parker as a mangy wolf in a cage is to a free-roaming alpha with a pack behind him.  In fact, his physical description is rather akin to that of Raven, the bitter beaten-down hired assassin of Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale, which I believe partly inspired The Hunter–only no harelip.  Westlake wouldn’t be that obvious.

Quittner might as well be named Cassandra–there’s at least forty armed men in the house, they’re watching all the windows and doors, there’s no way Parker’s crew can come after them without getting cut down.  Not to mention there’s a state police surveillance van parked out front.  There’s no moon, but there’s artificial light–the modern equivalent of fire, man’s first real weapon against the beasts of the night.  And then the lights go out.

Parker has left nothing to chance.  He’s had Wiss and Elkins take out a power substation, causing the part of the city Buenadella’s house is in to be plunged into blackness.  Devers has cut the phone wires.  Hurley and Mackey have disarmed and tied up the cops in the surveillance van.   And what follows makes John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 look like–um–let me think–the crappy remake of that movie?

The three drivers, Webb, Carlow, and Dalesia park their cars on the front lawn, their headlights on bright, so that Parker and his men coming in the back will be able to see the mobsters outlined in the glare, the drivers’ guns preventing anyone from escaping out the front, or shooting out the headlights.   It’s a perfect trap, and it negates the advantage of numbers.  Confused and disheartened, the Tyler mob disintegrates, cut down one after the other, until the last few, including Dulare and Quittner, are holed up in a room, figuring that the cops have to show up soon, and Parker’s men will have to run for it.  Then Handy McKay rolls a bomb into the room.

There’s even a little nod to the good old Stark Rewind–we see a scene from Buenadella’s POV–he’s about to kill Grofield in his bed, out of pure pique–then he sees Parker pointing a gun at him–“Goodbye, Buenadella.”    Then the same scene from Parker’s POV, ending with the same two words.  Goodbye, Tyler mob.

Sure, Schroder is still alive, and presumably in charge now, but of what?  Most of their men are dead.  Their finances were already stretched thin from backing both mayoral candidates.  The state and federal law will come hard at them in the wake of all the chaos, and they’ve lost Calesian, their number one mole in the Tyler police force.  We never find out who gets elected mayor (because Stark doesn’t give a damn), but there’s no money to grease the wheels with, and it’s unlikely they could control either man now.  Their businesses have been ruined.  The national organization will offer no help.   There’ll still be crime, and corruption, and the men smart enough to cut and run were allowed to live, but the Tyler mob, as Parker knew it, is dead.

And surprisingly, Grofield is still alive.  Score one for Westlake/Vishnu–but Stark/Shiva needed a sacrifice–Ducasse caught a bullet.  Their only casualty.   Well, more loot for everyone else.  Speaking of loot, they break into Buenadella’s safe–Handy hands the money to Parker in a bag–says there’s just over fifty-eight thousand.  “Not enough,” Parker says.  He was owed seventy-three.  In the ruins of the house, with dead men lying all around him, he shrugs and says “I’ll settle.” See?  Everybody compromises.  You can let the small stuff go and still be yourself.

So did I mention they stole an ambulance beforehand?  Devers has put on a white jacket, and for no reason at all but good fellowship, offers to help Parker take Grofield home.  We can imagine the look on Mary’s face when they get back to that community theater in Indiana.  Maybe the 29k they hand her–Grofield’s share–will soften her expression slightly.   Maybe she lays down the law once Grofield is up and walking again–no more heists, no more blondes.  Maybe the IRS clapped him in prison for not paying taxes.  Maybe his theater finally became successful.  Maybe he decided there are worse things than working in television.  They only shoot at you with blanks there.

In the final chapter, Grofield wakes up to the vibration of the road they’re traveling, sees a strange face leaning over him–it’s a blonde all right, but not near as pretty as the one he saw when he woke up in a Mexican hotel room once.  He says as much.

“Aw,” the guy said.  “You’re disappointed.”

“Just so I wake up.  The girl’s name was Elly.”

“Right.  I’m Stan Devers.  Your friend Parker is driving this thing.”

Grofield tried to turn his head; it wouldn’t go.  Parker was driving the ambulance?  He whispered, “What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Stan Devers said, “that’s a long story.”

Long review too, and it’s not over yet.  I still have some questions to answer:

  • Why did Westlake stop writing Parker novels, or any other novels, under the name Richard Stark, for nearly a quarter century?
  • Why did he abandon the usual segmented chapter structure he’d employed in all but two of the Stark books?
  • Why did he bring Ed Mackey back from the dead without explaining how that happened or even mentioning Mackey’s apparent demise in the previous book?

I think the answer to all three questions is the same–this is not a true Richard Stark novel.  It’s a collaboration between Stark and Westlake.   Yes, I know that doesn’t make any sense.  Hear me out.

Westlake was starting to slip out of the Stark voice, as he was developing his own, which mingled elements of Stark, Coe, himself, maybe others.  It was getting harder for him to manage.   He’d written those books during a turbulent, often emotionally bruising period of his life–failed marriages, professional setbacks, and a rate of production that would have put most writers in a rubber room.

But he had Abby now.  He was older, more settled.   He no longer feared that Stark was the only voice of his that people really wanted (Dortmunder helped tremendously with that, and Dortmunder’s Starkian origins further blurred the line between Westlake and Stark).  He’d found a home for Westlake at M. Evans, that would allow him to hone his own voice, which was getting stronger all the time.  And he was increasingly aware that he hadn’t done this all by himself–he’d been surrounded all the time by friends, colleagues, spouses, lovers, kids, who had kept him afloat, offered help, advice, feedback, support, companionship.  No man is an island–not even a wolf-man.

So he wrote this one to more fully and explicitly express that side of Parker that had been there from the start–his long-frustrated quest for people he can trust. To show that Parker’s long losing streak in the Random House novels could only be ended with a little help from his friends.  And not everybody likes this.   But as that quote about the Greeks I put up top suggests, we’ve always had a dual vision of wolves–they can be the marauders who raid our camps, steal our livestock, chill our blood when we hear them howl on a dark night, while we wonder if they’re closing in on us–but they can also be the epitome of cooperation, camaraderie, and above all, loyalty, which is why we ended up making some of them into our best friends and helpmates.

And the thing is, they can be both of these things at the same time.  As Parker and his pack are in this story.   We feel a closeness to them in the chapters from their POV’s, and then we’re in the heads of the Tyler mob guys, and we shiver, thinking about what’s coming.  Our respect for the finer qualities of wolves should not blind us to the fact that they are still carnivores. And we are still made of meat.

So it wasn’t like the books he’d written before–he mingled his approach to storytelling with Stark’s, creating a fascinating hybrid–this is why he refers to so many books that appeared under his name over the past decade and change, as well as Stark’s.   This is why he used a chapter structure more appropriate to a Westlake novel (or a Culver?  Lots of politics here).

This is why he reached into the last novel and plucked Ed Mackey from his ignominious end, seemingly unscathed.   Because Westlake is a gentler god than Stark, and because he thought Mackey (and Brenda) were worth keeping around.  Westlake is much more reluctant to let go of good characters than Stark.   He didn’t explain Ed’s return because he knew it was an arbitrary authorial act–deus ex machina.   He explained it much later, along with Wycza’s return, probably just to make people stop bugging him about it.

The end result was a book that serves as a fitting capstone to everything that came before, and he may have felt on some level that no more was needed.   But he said that he tried later to write more Parker novels, and they just wouldn’t come. So I think the part of him that was Stark simply withdrew for a time, knowing that he wasn’t needed–that the purest expression of that aspect simply wouldn’t be possible for a time.

The Westlake who returned to writing as Stark around 1996 (interestingly enough, around the same time Butcher’s Moon was sold to Hollywood) was in his sixties, and feeling the tug of his mortality more and more.   That could have been enough, but there were other factors.   We’ll get to that too.

What we’ll get to next is as different from this book as a chuckle from a scream.  One of his finest comic novels, and certainly his most focused.   It all takes place in and around a prison.  And its hero is a real Kunt.  With an umlaut.

PS: I finished with the Japanese edition from Hayakawa, because it’s just so neat to see Westlake’s picture on the back cover.   Can anybody read the text?

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels