Tag Archives: Otto Penzler

Review: Thieves’ Dozen


The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  When he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them). No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a lean laconic quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, a gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.


(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world that day.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

(Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the ancient Romans would put it, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.


Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)


(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

Review: A Likely Story, Part 2

Publishing is the only industry I can think of where most of the employees spend most of their time stating with great self-assurance that they don’t know how to do their jobs.  “I don’t know how to sell this,” they complain, frowning as though it’s your fault.  “I  don’t know how to package this.  I don’t know where the market is for this book.  I don’t know how we’re going to draw attention to this.”  In most other occupations, people try to hide their incompetence; only in publishing is it flaunted as though it were the chief qualification for the job.

A Fictional Character in a Fictional Work that is in no way meant to represent the Real World.

Anyway, I decided to try to describe my experience in publishing without describing my experiences, if you follow my drift.  Not a roman a clef, that boring substitute for invention.  No thinly disguised actual people, no undigested anecdotes of true happenings.  What I wanted to write was a novel, which is a parallel universe as real as our own but with different incidents and a different cast list.  So I didn’t include the fellow who said to me “I’m not your real editor, so I don’t have to get to know you.”  I didn’t include the friend’s publisher who forgot to send out review copies; nor the publisher who habitually describes books in next season’s catalog that haven’t been written yet (as a result of which, a novel that was never written and never published nevertheless got an admiring magazine review); nor the publisher who reneged on a contract because he wanted to save my career, which would be ruined if I permitted him or anyone else to publish a novel of mine called Adios, Scheherazade, which was later brought out by someone else and hasn’t ruined my career in the 15 years since, but I suppose still might.  Nor did I include the editor whose secretary hated him because she knew she was younger, faster, smarter, thinner, and prettier than he was, and he was in her way.

No, I invented my own parallel universe, so none of those people or incidents are in it, so A Likely Story isn’t true.  But it’s true. 

From an article in Writer’s Digest, by Donald E. Westlake

This book garnered Westlake a rare rave review in the New York Times for one of his non-criminal efforts–but somehow I don’t think it gave him much pleasure to have the well-meaning Marilyn Stasio (who would soon take over the mystery fiction beat there from Newgate Callendar, who had taken over from Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s great critical champion) tell the world in what was supposed to be an inducement to buy and read the book that it had been turned down by one confused-looking publisher after another, and that it fell to Westlake’s compatriot Otto Penzler to get it out there.  Westlake told the same story himself later on, mind you, but with a lot more pizzazz, and after the book was already safely in paperback.

(Also, I would think he winced a bit when he saw that Ms. Stasio, no doubt contending with multiple deadlines, had tossed off her review so quickly that she’d rendered the title of his book as “An Unlikely Story” at the conclusion of the piece, having given the correct title to start with.  And no editor caught that?  I bet this never happens to John Irving.)

Mr. Penzler went above and beyond the call of duty here–that copy in the distinguished looking protective sleeve you see at the top left of this review is part of a limited deluxe printing Penzler Books put out, signed by the author, and it was on sale for $14.95 at the site I filched this image from.  O tempora, o mores.

Penzler would be amply repaid for his loyalty and professionalism in the years to come with nineteen more Westlake books and seven Richard Starks for The Mysterious Press (twenty-six novels, two anthologies),  many of which were instant classics, and none of which were anywhere near as hard to pigeonhole (or market) as this one.  This book had its admirers then, as it does now, but the lack of even an electronic edition attests to the elite nature of that fanbase.

And to attest further to that elitism, I provide to the right of that limited edition copy, the title page of a rather delightful 1987 article Westlake did for Writer’s Digest, which seems to have come out around the time the paperback edition of A Likely Story showed up, and I finally figured out how to read it just now (The Official Westlake Blog could have made reading that scan a bit easier, but then again it could have provided no scan at all, so head over there and get the rest of it, post haste–it prints out fairly well, but you’ll have to download both pages individually first).

It’s always gratifying to me when my guesses regarding the origins of a book I’m reviewing prove out, and I can certainly feel for Mr. Penzler’s situation when, on the verge of landing one of the world’s great mystery writers for his  start-up mystery publishing house, that writer told him his next book would not be a mystery, but rather a comedy about the mind-boggling incompetence of the publishing industry and the woes of ‘serial polygamy’, that had been vehemently rejected by multiple publishers already.

His mettle was being tested here, you see–and he cleared that high hurdle with room to spare by saying “That’s okay, I’ll publish it anyway, because your next book will be a mystery.” It was actually a sort of multicultural comedy of errors set in Central America– the one after that ranks among the greatest of all Dortmunder novels, and the Dortmunders aren’t really mysteries either in any strict sense, but let’s emulate the broadminded Mr. Penzler, and eschew the foul practice of nitpicking–close enough.

He actually had to create the Penzler Books imprint out of thin air to accommodate this novel, and it worked out pretty well for him–turns out a lot of people slotted as mystery writers sometimes want to write a non-mystery, and he subsequently added the scalps of Gregory (Fletch) McDonald and Patricia (do I have to say it?) Highsmith to his publisher’s belt.   Don’t you love it when virtue is rewarded in fiction?   As it hardly ever is in real life.  Back to the synopsis.

Tom Diskant, journeyman nonfiction author, and aspiring anthologist, is still slaving away at his magnum opus, a ‘Christmas Book’ that happens to be about Christmas, full of artful stories and essays and visual representations of that holiday to end all holidays, from a virtual Who’s Who of Literature, Politics, Showbiz, and the Arts, circa the Mid-80’s.   With an established publishing house behind him, he sends out a letter requesting submissions, to a wide variety of famous names.  To wit (and in order of mention):

Edward Albee, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov, Russell Baker, Ann Beattie, Helen Gurley Brown, William F. Buckley Jr., Leo Buscaglia, Truman Capote, Jimmy Carter, Francis Ford Coppola, Annie Dillard, E. L. Doctorow, Gerald Ford, William Goldman, John Irving, Stephen King, Jerzy Kosinski, Judith Krantz, Robert Ludlum, Norman Mailer, James A. Michener, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Nixon, Joyce Carol Oates, Mario Puzo, Joan Rivers, Andy Rooney, Philip Roth, Carl Sagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer (what the hell), Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Diana Trilling, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Wambaugh, Tom Wolfe, Herman Wouk, Charles Addams, Richard Avedon, Jim Davis, Jules Feiffer, Edward Gorey, Robert Kliban, Jill Krementz, LeRoy Nieman, Charles Schulz, Andy Warhol, Arthur C. Clarke, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, John Kenneth Galbraith, Garrison Keillor, Henry Kissinger, Jonathan Schell, Mickey Spillane, William Styron, Paul Theroux, Roddy McDowall, Helmut Newton, Francesco Scavullo, Gahan Wilson, Jamie Wyeth, Pauline Kael, John Leonard, Sam Shephard, John Simon, Calvin Trillin, Jasper Johns, David Levine, Roy Lichtenstein, Saul Steinberg, and Tomi Ungerer (backdated, see the opening quote from Part 1).

It really says something about our popular culture, such as it is, not to mention Mr. Westlake’s deadly accuracy as a satirist of same, that most of these are still names to conjure with today.   There’s maybe half a dozen people on that list I hadn’t heard of before.  Of course, I was in my 20’s during the 80’s–that helps.

He gets an unsolicited offer from Pia Zadora’s agent (not all 80’s icons held up over time), and Scott Meredith, being the agent for several of the writers who don’t want to contribute, keeps sending him cartons full of unsold material from his undiscovered clients.   It’s hard to say whether he expects Tom to buy any of it, but the point is, he tried, and he can keep exacting fees from aspiring wordsmiths with a clear conscience, though the stories one hears about Mr. Meredith would tend to argue against his being burdened with such an outdated encumbrance.

Andy Warhol sends him a photo of an old Coca Cola tray with their classic version of Santa Claus (courtesy of McCann-Erickson, and would you believe I worked there too?  I get around, I’m telling you).  Mr. Warhol has, with his typical protean creativity, embellished this venerable pop cultural artifact with a few tasteful squiggles.  Tom regretfully declines, then contacts Coca Cola’s PR department, and gets the rights to use the unembellished photo, gratis.  Which, when you think about it, is the best possible homage he could pay to the genius of Warhol.  Whose museum I visited once.  What else can you do in Pittsburgh?

Gathering the material from which the book shall be shaped has gone better than he had dared hope (and stranger than he could have dreamed), and he knows he’s got the makings of the most brilliant and original coffee table book ever printed here, but to make the book happen, he needs two things–a publisher–and an editor.   And he has been rather less fortunate with regards to those two grim necessities.

His original editor, the guy who originally bought the book, and was supposed to see it through to publication, has departed his former employer of Craig, Harry & Burke, to take a job with a pay-TV Company.   Tom generously hopes that he will rot in hell, and if it’s Cinemax, that probably did happen.  In the meantime, Tom has been stuck with replacement editor Vickie Douglas,  who showed no interest in his book at all, until in a burst of sympathy over her terrible relationship with her mother, he kissed her, and one thing led to another (and another and another and another).

So now Vickie is full of enthusiasm for The Christmas Book, but that enthusiasm is contingent upon her enthusiasm for frequent illicit coitus with Tom.  The fact that he is still legally married to one woman and openly living with another while shtupping his editor on the side merely adds further zest to the proceedings, as she sees it.  He’s got to stick it out with her (so to speak) until the book is safely off to market.

His wife Mary continues to try to win him back, while his mistress Ginger gives him suspicious looks and insists that he maintain his usual high standard of performance in the bedroom.   Tom starts to lose weight rapidly–hey, maybe Vickie was onto something with that Fuck Yourself Thin book she got from a retired hooker and repackaged under the title How a Better Sex Life Can Lead to a Thinner You.  Except she was already thin, and after they’ve been at it a while, Tom begins to notice she’s putting on weight.  Huh.  More on that shortly.

Could Tom’s domestic and personal affairs get any more complicated (is a question no sane man would ever ask)?   Ginger’s husband Lance, to whom she is still legally married as well, gets thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, and apparently finding affordable new digs in Manhattan wasn’t any easier in the 1980’s than it is today.  He’s the father of her children–he’s contributing to the rent for the apartment she shares with Tom and her own children–can she just turn him away when he’s in need of a roof over his head?  Tom devoutly believes she could, but is forced to concede that she won’t, and neither would he in her place (there really are no bad guys in this book at all–just bad publishers and bad relationships).

So Lance is now sleeping in the room Tom normally uses for his office, and he’s reduced to working on the book–and on his secret diary he is so generously sharing with us–in the small bedroom he shares with Ginger.  Eventually he just says the hell with it, and accepts Mary’s far from selfless offer to use his old office at their old apartment, where she is in constant and extremely tempting proximity to him.   Ginger is not happy with this situation.  Tom is not happy with this situation.  Mary’s fine with it.

Domestic complications abound, most of which keep drawing him back into the coils of a marriage he is trying to abandon–his 11 year old daughter Jennifer, a tough streetwise city girl, gets mugged, and needs to be reassured of her toughness and street wisdom (and indirectly that she’s not racist for having been scared of the two older black kids who robbed her).  His son needs to do father-son stuff with his dad, go to ballgames and such, often with Ginger’s son coming along as well.

But he also has to deal with the fact that Ginger’s daughter Gretchen, who sees him much more regularly than her own father Lance, wants his approval and encouragement and love, even though he’s not particularly fond of her–he doesn’t dislike her, he’s trying to be nice, but does he have to act like he adores her?   Both Ginger and Mary inform him that yes, he does in fact have to do just that.  And he’s forced to acknowledge to himself, and to us, that he’s done a crappy job as surrogate father to her.   (And maybe there’s just a wee touch of roman a clef there, but I wouldn’t know.)

We all have work lives and personal lives (these days, the latter may be almost entirely conducted via electronic impulses, but hopefully not).  Balancing the two was never easy, but it’s become bizarrely comically difficult as our work selves become more and more divorced from our true selves, and may even begin to replace our true selves.  And those of us who engaged in ‘serial polygamy’–that is to say, marrying, producing offspring, then separating from our spouses, but still trying to maintain a relationship with our abandoned offspring (which the law generally insists upon to some extent anyway), or failing that, our abandoned pets.

Westlake had two subjects in this book, as he details in that article for Writer’s Digest.  But underneath, they’re the same subject–he wanted to create a protagonist who is in the grips of a great idea–the significance of Christmas in our yearly cycle of existence–but the people he needs to work with in order to bring this idea to fruition are hopelessly inadequate to the task, endlessly sabotaging him–even the creative people, the writers and artists he’s calling upon, are a preening passel of enfants terribles, squabbling over cash and copyright.  But at least they’re giving him good work–they’re not the real problem.  I think you’ve figured out by now where the real problems are coming from.

But then he goes home, to the results of serial polygamy, of abandoning one relationship and starting another with somebody who had done the same exact thing, each seeking some romantic ideal, but still obliged to cope with the variously appealing but equally needy results of human reproduction, and (this being New York City in the 1980’s), each having his or her own career to worry about, as well as children, as well as trying to find that ideal partnership, that perfect pairing of opposites that we see in movies and read about in books and never quite find in tangible reality, though certainly some get closer to it than others, which just adds to the overall sense of injustice, and leads to still more broken homes.

So Tom Diskant, split into many disharmonious parts by this life he’s chosen, tries as best he can to do justice to them all–to be a good nonfiction author and compiler of other authors, a good lover (to two different women), a good ex-husband to the wife he still has feelings for (and is still married to), and a good father–to his own children, and to children he had nothing to do with putting in this world.

And sometimes he pulls it off, and more often he doesn’t.   But he wants to get it right, that’s the thing–he wants a career, he wants a family.  His obsession with Christmas–and really, with every single holiday on the Gregorian calendar (he’s becoming something of an expert on the subject)–it all comes back to his desire to find that perfect family unit, that sense of belonging to something eternal and pure.  That’s what Christmas is really about, he realizes–not the birth of Jesus (which didn’t even happen anywhere near that date), but the birth of The Holy Family.  The ideal we all strive for and never reach (and presumably neither did the actual Holy Family).

His only published novel was about his ideal childhood in Vermont (ideal as he remembered it, anyway), the friends and family who formed his sense of himself, the happy Christmases every child treasures–and airbrushes into some Currier&Ives postcard of the mind as he or she grows older and life gets more complicated.   Maybe he failed as a writer of fiction because he didn’t realize that the best fiction has to be about precisely those complexities.  Unless you’re writing children’s books.  And the best of those are deceptively complex themselves.

But the mission statement here is laughter–at ourselves.   So Westlake piles complication upon complication–summer in New York City is a hellish thing at times, and those who can afford an escape route try their level best to get away from it–for hardworking professionals who can’t get too far from the office for too long, one such escape route is Fire Island (which factored heavily in Two Much, and will be seen in a much later novel as well).  Tom has gotten enough of his advance for The Christmas Book that he can just barely afford to take himself, Ginger, and the kids (all the kids) to stay there for a few blissful weeks in a tranquil carless beachfront environment ten degrees cooler than the sweltering city.   Get away from it all.  Or so he thinks.

Mary insists she has to come as well–there’s no money for her to go off on a separate holiday–and then Vickie protests she needs to spend time there, to go over the galley proofs of the book (among other things).  So in no time at all, the increasingly horrified Tom finds himself sharing the same domicile with his mistress, his girlfriend, and his wife–three smart sexy women in bikinis, lounging in the sun, each with very specific designs upon him,  and it may sound like a salacious male fantasy, and that it most certainly is, but rest assured, it’s a fantasy with teeth.

I was seated on the back deck a little while ago, reading the Sunday Times Magazine, and then I looked around at the three other people also on the deck, also reading sections of the Times, and I found myself thinking: I have been to bed with all three of these women.

The thought did not make me feel like a harem master or anything particularly macho.  In fact, all I felt at that moment was vaguely scared.  Three women in bikinis in the sunshine, reading Travel and Arts and Leisure and The Week in Review.  If they were suddenly to rise and turn on me, they could tear me to shreds.  Sitting there, looking at them, thinking about it, I could find no very good reason why they wouldn’t rise and turn on me.

Art Dodge, the blithely bed-hopping twin-fucking anti-hero of Two Much (a much easier book to sell to a publisher than this one–or a film studio, for that matter),  would relish this erotic tableau–at least until the bill came due–but somehow Tom Diskant can’t just relax and enjoy the view.  He retreats to his makeshift office in the rented beach house, and works on his book, while the girls work on their tans.

Before long, Vickie will demand sexual favors from him while Ginger is out of the house, then Ginger will demand still more sexual favors once she’s back in the house, and all the while Mary will go on telling him, as provocatively as she knows how (and that’s pretty damned provocative), about all these men she meets who keep coming on to her in various disgusting yet strangely fascinating ways because they can tell she doesn’t have a husband to protect her.   Tom is very much of the opinion that she’s not the one who needs protecting here.

And they still all somehow end up having a great summer there on the island (the kids most of all, who just ignore the adult-themed goings on because they have their own personal dramas, far more interesting and important and irrelevant to Tom’s narrative)–even Lance gets into the act–but all vacation idylls must end, and then one has to deal with the grim realities of the workplace.

And those realities are grim indeed–Vickie is pregnant.  That’s why she was putting on weight.  An innate design flaw to the whole Fuck Yourself Thin weight loss plan.  She flatly insists it’s not Tom’s, so that’s something–my personal opinion, not quite corroborated in the book, is that she’s pregnant by Tom, and simply isn’t crazy enough to exert a claim on a man of limited means and dubious prospects she knows to be multiply claimed already–it was just a fun fling for her, no deeper feelings.

Now I would have thought the 80’s were modern enough, at least in Manhattan, for a successful career gal who got knocked up out of wedlock to go on working for at least a while, but whether it’s the innate conservatism of the publishing industry, or Vickie’s now urgent need to do what her mother has been telling her to do for years and find a husband (which she does with admirable alacrity, as Tom finds out later), she quits her job as editor.   The Christmas Book is now doubly orphaned.  And it turns out Vickie was very far from being the editorial worst-case scenario.

Tom’s third and final cross to bear is Dewey Heffernan, 20’s, tall, gangly, earnest, and intensely stupid.  He got this job through a cousin at Random House, who made damn sure Dewey would not be employed anywhere near Random House.  Turns out the cousin had contacts at the Solenex Corporation (which has figured in earlier Westlake comedies, as has the Tre Mafiosi restaurant Tom lunches at with Dewey), which owns, among many other things, Craig, Harry & Burke.

Dewey has never worked as an editor before, or indeed any position of the slightest significance.  This is his very first job in publishing–editing Tom’s book.  This is starting at the bottom?  Whatever happened to the mail room?  Worked out fine for Robert Morse.  Well, he should at least be malleable, right?   Open to suggestion?  Tabula Rasa?  Unfortunately, his mind is already packed to the rafters with bad ideas, leaving no room at all for any good ones.  Dewey sees himself as a voice of his generation.   He probably is.  That would explain a lot.

“Pictures,” he said.  “Color.  Youth appeal.  You see what I mean?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“We’ve got to attract that youth audience, Tom,” he told me.  “Those are the readers of the future!”

“Undoubtedly true.”

“They see things differently, Tom!  They’re used to, they’re used to, video screens.  Display!  Computer programs!  Rock and roll!”

“Ah hah.”

“If we want youth to be interested in us, Tom,” he said, leaning close over his forearms, eyes and nostrils staring impassionedly at me, “we have to be interested in what interests youth.”

“Interesting,” I said, as our waiter brought our drinks.

Tom figures the book is already done, the checks have been mailed, the publishing house is committed, the release date is set in stone for just before Christmas–what the hell.  He just has to humor this twit a while, he can’t do any real harm.

Unfortunately the twit has no sense of humor–or of the absurd.  In the midst of their increasingly drunken lunchtime meeting, Tom just sitting there nodding vacantly with a glassy eyed expression, making vaguely compliant noises, he got the impression Tom was agreeing to let him commission an entirely new work of art, appealing to those hot happening young hipsters who so love to buy large expensive books about Christmas to place on their coffee tables.

And does he at least get Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, or some equivalent Underground Comix god or goddess?  Of course not.  He gets this guy named Korban, who does a lot of stuff for Heavy Metal.  And he didn’t talk to anybody–he just made the offer.  On company stationary.  And received the goods.  For which payment must now be made.  Even though it was never approved by anyone.  Other than Dewey.  Who has no authority to approve jack spit.  Oh shit.

Now Westlake went out of his way to say at the start of this book that all the very real public figures he refers to in it should not think that he is genuinely depicting them–he is merely having fun with their public image, the idea people have of them.  Well and good, but thing is, much as he may approve more of some of these people than others (most he simply admired from afar, a few he was on warm personal and professional terms with), he’s not going to seriously critique them or their work.  This would be impolite, for one thing.  For another, it might be grounds for a lawsuit, if he wasn’t careful.

So instead of referring to a real Heavy Metal artist, he makes one up.  Because he has some highly critical things to say about this style of artistic expression.   Fair or not.  He’s got a bone to pick.  And this is most definitely his opinion, conveyed through Tom.   Because, you see, the illustration that Dewey intends to put in place of The Adoration of the Magi, a Dürer woodcut that Mr. Dürer will not be demanding payment for, is a sort of acid trip comic strip version of The Night Before Christmas,  with a freaked out Santa, a low-rider sleigh, and a libidinous half-naked Afro’d Nun.  And that’s perfectly fine in its place (namely Heavy Metal), but its place is not Tom’s book.  And he wants us to know why that is.

What’s wrong with Korban’s work–apart from the thuggish crudity of the mind behind it–is what tends to be wrong with a lot of things directed at young people; it’s nihilistic for fun.  In a nervous effort to be knowing before they know anything, not to be taken in, a lot of kids throw out the sentiment with the sentimentality and are left with nothing but surface.  Then they try to replace what they’ve lost by being sentimental about themselves.  (None of this is new, of course; remember “Teen Angel?”)

But the caustic harshness still such a strong element in this tripe is a leftover from the anti-war, pro-drug sixties, and is nastily inappropriate in the me-first eighties.  It is true that some of the contributors to The Christmas Book are cynical about Christmas, but it’s an earned cynicism.  Korban may have earned his fifteen hundred dollars, but he hasn’t earned his attitudes, and I won’t have his work in the book.

So at first Dewey is in trouble, but once it becomes clear that Korban is going to have his money or else, and payment is made, and Tom absolutely refuses to allow the purchased material to be used in his book, they start looking at him as if this is all his fault.  And all of this fol de rol has delayed sending the book off to the printer, but some preliminary copies are made up, and Tom is happy–it’s what he wanted.  It’s the book he meant to create.   He’s finally done something he can be proud of.  And because of all the famous names attached to it, people will see it.  Or will they?

Tom is served with a summons.  He’s being sued.  The publisher is being sued as well.  Because it turns out a woman out in the midwest somewhere (I know I could look it up, but I don’t want to) had an idea for a book about Christmas (her favorite holiday) that was going to feature many of the same famous writers as Tom’s book, not that any of them ever wrote anything for her, because she didn’t have a publisher to back her up.   She sent a letter detailing her idea to Craig, Harry & Burke, before Tom approached them with his idea, not that Tom ever heard of it.  And did I mention she’s in an iron lung?   It’s her dying wish to see this book of hers in print.

So Tom’s original vision was not so original after all, and so what?   You can’t copyright Christmas.  You can’t copyright the idea of an anthology of famous writer and artists giving their personal impressions of a holiday.  And you can’t persuade a bunch of hick lawyers who don’t know anything about this area of law that they don’t have a goldmine here with all these famous names involved; at least not without spending years in court first.  So Tom is forced to compromise and let this woman’s name be on the book.  Okay, fine, whatever, done.  Can he have his book in stores now?

Nope.  The workers at the printer chosen for his book choose this precise moment in time (for sound strategic reasons) to go on strike.  It’s too late to change printers.  It’s too late to get the book in stores for Christmas.  The whole point of the book was to have it in stores for Christmas.  That’s what a Christmas Book is.  And by next Christmas, the rights to all the material that isn’t in the public domain will have reverted to its various creators, who would need to be paid all over again in order to use it.  It’s in the contract Tom’s agent drew up and if she hadn’t drawn it up that way, they’d never have resolved the lawsuit, and they’d be screwed anyhow.  There is no Christmas Book.  C’est fini.  

So Tom suffers a major professional defeat–having already suffered a personal one.  His long war with Mary is over–he moves back in with her.  She changed her strategy–stopped coming up with excuses for him to come over to do something for the children, stopped telling him about all the passes she had to deflect from horny guys, and she just listened.

Once she had him at the apartment working on his book all the time, those ruses were no longer needed–she knew all along all she needed was to get him back home, and the pull of home itself–of the family he’d half-abandoned–would seduce him more effectively than anything else possibly could.   She finally lets go–at which point he realizes he doesn’t want her to let go.  So he tells Mary he’s moving back in, and at the very same time tells Ginger he’s moving out.

(And the infuriated and incredulous Ginger, who we know will be perfectly fine once she gets over the indignity of having been dumped, never tells Tom she had sex with her ex at least once while he was living there in Tom’s office, even though it’s made really obvious in that chapter, and Tom can be incredibly dense for such a smart guy, and I have no trouble at all buying that–the smarter the guy, the denser he is about such matters, I’ve always found, and I would know.  What I don’t know is if that’s a self-deprecating comment or an egotistical one.)

So the Holy Family is reunited, Tom and Ginger’s two sports-obsessed sons remain chums, Lance continues his search for an apartment and a woman (in no particular order of importance), Ginger will get over it someday, Vickie somehow finds a husband before she gives birth (two weeks early–hmm), Dewey Heffernan is royally chewed out by his overbearing father for being such a gawdawful pest (minor subplot, no time),  the printers strike labors on, and that lady in the iron lung is still suing Tom over a book that will never exist, except in the form of a few advance copies.  Everybody needs a hobby.

Tom puts his advance copy away–proof that he’s more than just a cheap hack–he’s a damned expensive one, seeing how the publisher made out on this deal.   He got to keep his advance, and he did convince some people he’s good for more than how-to books, and he and Mary are averaging three times a day until they catch up, so all things considered, he came out ahead of the game.

He’s got other projects going (he’s even going to work with Dewey again, on a book about video games–told you Dewey was a voice of his generation) but he can’t help but believe that somewhere out there in this alternate reality his creator has made for him, there has to be “an ally who won’t quit, get pregnant, or enter second childhood before leaving the first.”

And in the equally befuddling reality Donald Westlake’s creator made for him, such an ally had in fact materialized, in the form of Otto Penzler, and Westlake did in fact write a novel for him that falls within the extremely broad parameters of the mystery genre (if you don’t want to nitpick), and that’s our next book.

And it is somewhat prefigured in an offhanded comment the now somewhat more harmoniously composed Mr. Diskant makes, while contemplating the fruits of civilization–“I wonder what the Mayans did when things got too confusing.”

You could always ask them.


Filed under A Likely Story, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized