Tag Archives: Robert McCloskey

Review: Philip

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Mr. Neep squatted down beside Philip.  When he bent his knees, they made large cracking sounds, like a cap pistol when you pull the trigger and the cap doesn’t fire.  Mr. Neep said “Philip, you keep getting into trouble today.”

“I know it,” said Philip.

“That isn’t like you,” said Mr. Neep.   “What’s wrong, Philip?”

Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.

Buckminster Fuller

Philip is a very unique work in the Westlake canon.  His one and only children’s book.  His only book attributed to ‘D.E. Westlake’, which I don’t think was meant to obscure his identity, so maybe he just wanted to see how that would look on a book cover.  His only book that was written specifically to be illustrated (nothing against Darwyn Cooke, but it’s a fact).  The only book he wrote that was, far as I can tell, sold directly to libraries, and not in bookstores, making it by far the rarest and most expensive to collect of all his first editions (and to date, there have been no further editions).

You may have seen one copy for sale online with an asking price of $1,500–it’s been on offer for quite a good long while now, and I don’t see any takers, but the reasoning behind the price tag, I suppose, is that sooner or later some rabid Westlake completist will pick the winning lotto number and say “What the hell.”

What is the reason for this anomalous item in his bibliography?   What motivated him to write it?   Though there’s potentially a good living in children’s books, he must have known going in he was going to make very little from this one.

Donald Westlake and Nedra Henderson divorced in 1966, having married in 1957.  He married Sandra Foley in 1967, the year this book was published.   He had two young sons from the previous marriage, Sean and Steven–one would assume Sean couldn’t have been much older than nine, if that.   Philip is dedicated to them–with a somewhat indirect choice of personal pronoun.   “To Sean and Steven–before they outgrow it.”

Ah, guilt.   The ultimate motivator.   But was this book really written for them?   Is it, in fact, a children’s book?   Yes, The Westlake Review’s well-established tradition of asking odd questions with seemingly obvious answers continues apace.

I love children’s books–the good ones.   There are innumerable bad ones, but of course Sturgeon’s Law holds true for all genres of literature.   Probably no better reason to raise a family or have younger siblings than to get to read Dr. Seuss or The Wind in the Willows to them.   My younger siblings used to run when they saw me coming with a book in hand, but I always caught them in the end.  R.H.I.P.

That other cover up above is, of course, Robert McCloskey’s Lentil, first published in 1940, when McCloskey was only twenty-six.  My earliest memories of this book are of Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan reading it to me through the TV set.  It’s a spellbinding tale of a young boy with a harmonica and his faithful dog foiling a grouchy old villain who is ruining the big town parade by sucking on a lemon.  It makes perfect sense when you read it in the right mindset.

Given his 1933 birth date, there’s a very good chance Westlake read Lentil when he was a kid.   You’ll note some visual similarities, though of course the book’s artwork and visual design are properly credited to Arnold Dobrin, a very fine artist in his own right, if not in McCloskey’s league–not that Westlake was in McCloskey’s league as a writer of children’s books, either.  Westlake was lucky to get somebody this good, and the simple color scheme, heavily centered around two or three primary hues, was typical of children’s books in this general time period, when the influence of McCloskey (and Seuss) was overwhelming.   Though really, they still loom pretty large–there are no statues of Parker or Dortmunder anywhere, that I know of.   Maybe they were stolen?

Philip (no last name given or needed) lives in a huge apartment house, “taller than a spaceship and wider than a movie theater,” in a prosperous neighborhood in a large city that is not named but we all know it’s New York.   The apartment is a spacious two-bedroom affair with a terrace.  He lives there with his mother and father, but we never see the father, an absent figure in the story (hmm).  We never see any other children, either.   Philip has no siblings–like Westlake himself, I believe–no pets, seemingly no friends his own age in the building, but he is a happy calm self-possessed boy, who is enjoying his life, and mainly appreciates the interesting environment he’s growing up in, and the distinct pleasures of being an only child in a well-off family–most unlike the family Westlake himself grew up in.

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One of those pleasures is that your well-off parents will have well-off friends who give you stuff for no reason.   One day, the doorman Mr. Neep, ‘the biggest and shiniest doorman on the whole block,” rings up to say there’s a package for Philip.   It’s from Philip’s ‘Uncle Fred’, who is not actually an uncle, but went to college with Philip’s dad, and no I don’t know if his last name is Fitch, but I bet Westlake did.

The package contains the sort of gift any boy Philip’s age would be overjoyed to get–a big beautiful yellow toy dump truck, that actually works, and runs on batteries.   The kind of toy us middle class kids in the New York City area used to gaze at all googly-eyed when our parents took us to FAO Schwarz around the holidays, and then incessantly nag our parents to get us.   God, we were brats.   But seriously, parentals, why dangle the bait if you don’t want your kids to lunge at it?

Philip graciously accepts this majestic largesse like the little prince he is (reminds me of a good friend’s younger son, also named Philip, only he’s being raised in Germany), and then is faced with a problem–he has a dump truck.  Its only purpose is to scoop up dirt, carry it somewhere, and dump it.   But there’s no dirt to be found in his immaculate home, and his parents can’t take him to the park (Central, of course) until the weekend.   In the meantime, all he has to work with are toy building blocks.  It’s not at all satisfactory.

I had plenty of toys as a kid, and I (unlike Philip) grew up in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, surrounded by lawns and gardens and trees, and no end of glorious dirt to track everywhere, and yes you may shed a tear for my poor mother now.   I got very obsessed with beavers at one point, and I decided I wanted to build beaver dams in the sloping concrete rain gutter in front of our house.  With my hands, of course–beavers don’t have trucks.

They were simple affairs at first, just mud and grass clippings, but I got more sophisticated in my building methods over time, and crafted very authentic-looking miniature beaver dams, with sticks and rocks and anything else that seemed appropriate.   I started to build twin dams like beavers often do, and I learned how to build them just before an overnight frost so the mud would be rock solid in the morning, but also just before a big rain, so there’d be a nice little river to dam, because otherwise what’s the point?   The neighbors started to complain I was flooding the street, creating miniature lakes they had to avoid Well, what did they think beaver dams are for?  The lakes proved the efficacy of my designs!    My parents told me to stop with the damn dams already.   Nobody appreciates a true visionary.

I’m sure many of you have similar youthful tales of thwarted creativity to tell, so we can all identify with Philip’s frustration–but somehow we know, from our own past experiences, that there’s always a solution to these types of problems, if you look hard enough, while simultaneously failing to think hard enough about the potential pitfalls.   This is part of the genius of childhood Buckminster Fuller was talking about, and exemplified so well in his adult life.  I bet I could have invented the geodesic dome if my parents hadn’t suppressed me.   Oh but the neighbors would complain!   Beaver-hating philistines.

Philip sees his window of opportunity–which happens to be in an actual window–with a window box full of dirt (DIRT!), that is currently not hosting any flowers.  It’s a bit confining for such a large truck, but he’ll work around that.  Next thing he knows, his pretty blonde mother is scowling at him, saying Mr. Neep called up to complain somebody was dumping dirt on his nice clean uniform.   Philip goes down to apologize, and Mr. Neep accepts in good grace.

Mr. Neep is the adversary in this not terribly adversarial story (certainly much less so than Lentil).  His uniform and size–and the absence of Philip’s father–make him the authority figure, and we know how Westlake feels about authority figures, particularly when they’re in uniform–but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, creaky knees and all.

Westlake is deliberately toning down his own anti-authoritarian streak, presenting a fairly benign and understanding (but still very impressive) authority figure who can be reasoned with.   Westlake knows his kids will be reading this, along with a lot of other people’s kids, and he doesn’t want to give them any subversive ideas that life will be giving them soon enough already, so what’s the rush?

(Also, there were probably real doormen in Westlake’s daily life back then, and you don’t want to piss those guys off, when you have to keep passing by them all the time.   Cops, Feds, gangsters, armed robbers, professional killers, terrorists, no problem–but not doormen.  Those guys are tough.)

As the story continues, Philip can’t abandon his single-minded quest.   He can’t wait until Sunday.  There must be dirt somewhere!   The sand in the lobby ashtray–no?   The tree pit on the sidewalk outside–no?   Shall he never find a place where he and his truck can make beautiful messes together?    Always the looming uniformed figure of Mr. Neep intercedes between him and his goal.

Mr. Neep finally talks to him (see above) and finds out what the problem is.   He tells the doorman at the next building something, and he tells the next doorman, and etc.  At first Philip thinks he’s just telling all the other doormen on the block how bad he’s been, and is rather downcast.  But it turns out this is the doorman message service, and Mr. Neep (a most exceptional figure of authority in a Westlake story)  has hit upon a solution to their mutual problem.

Philip sees workmen coming down the block, from a nearby construction site, carrying tools, boards–and dirt!   On his apartment terrace, they construct Philip a sort of sandbox, only with dirt from the excavation instead of sand.   His crisis resolved, Philip sets about happily to work with his truck.   His mother has no problem with all this dirt being brought into her home.   Nor do the construction workers wolf whistle at her and make comments about her bodily parts.   Well, you don’t expect realism from a children’s book.  You don’t even want realism in a children’s book.   Not that kind of realism, anyway.   Maybe construction workers were more courteous and self-restrained back then.   In the late 1960’s.   Never mind.

What you do want in a children’s book is a really fun exciting story, and that’s where Philip falls a bit short.   Westlake, I think is not writing a book about his own boys, but rather an idealized look at what his own childhood might have been like if his parents had been a bit more prosperous–his own mother worked very hard to supplement the family income, his father did a lot of business travel. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere the ghastly story Westlake told about how his dad felt a heart attack coming on during one of those trips, checked into a cheap hotel, drank cheap liquor, and waited it out.

So this, you might say, is to Westlake what Ah Wilderness! was to Eugene O’Neill–a wistful look at what might have been, a touched up photo of the author’s youth–only written at a small child’s level.   The menacing policemen who arrested and interrogated college-age Westlake for stealing a microscope become a friendly helpful doorman.  The mother who had to work her fingers to the bone, and probably had much less time for her son as a result, becomes a happy homemaker who approves of her son’s industry, even while expecting him to behave properly.  The absence of the father is interesting, but he’s only absent during the days.   He’s coming home to Philip every night, taking him to the park on Sundays, and certainly not in a fleabag hotel room, waiting to find out if he lives or not.   Nothing is really wrong in Philip’s world.   It’s perfect.   It’s a bit too perfect.

This is a children’s book written by a parent, from a parent’s perspective, and if there’s a message in it, it’s much more for the parents reading it to their kids than to the kids themselves.  The kids just want a good story.   The parents, Westlake thinks to himself (and at himself), need to be reminded that as annoying as the energy of their kids can be, as irritating as their endless curiosity and need to explore their world can become, they the parents need to remember what it was like–go back in their minds, and see it from the child’s perspective.   Show a bit more patience, and look for ways to help the child be creative–and to let the children explore at least some of the world around them by themselves.   Because once that time in your life is gone, you never get it back again.

The passage I quoted in my review of Murder Among Children, about how older people tend to resent the energy and noise of the young, might well have derived from Westlake’s awareness of how impatient he was with his own children.  As any parent will be, at times, certainly if he’s got a whole lot of books to write–and his marriage to their mother is falling apart at the seams.   But I think the main message is to just let children alone sometimes, and only step in when needed.   They need some unstructured time to seek their bliss, and make their mistakes.

There’s a real problem with that nowadays, with so many one or two child families–many of today’s parents tend to ‘bubble-wrap’ their kids, schedule every waking moment, never allow any free time for the child to just be a child, to explore, to learn on his own–they do this out of understandable fear, but they often do a lot of damage in the process.   Westlake isn’t reacting against that nascent trend back in 1967–but I doubt he’d have thought much of it later on.   Then again, he’s certainly gone out of his way to remove every last trace of potential danger from Philip’s life (though Mr. Neep does threaten to spank Philip at one point–something no doorman would get away with now).  He would have understood where those protective impulses come from.

So to answer my own question, yeah, it’s a children’s book, and a pretty good one, but far from a great one–there’s a reason it was never reprinted, though it continues to be in a number of public libraries around the country, which I hope will not all end up selling it on ebay, because then kids (and their parents) will never be reading it anymore. It’s kind of nice to know the book is still out there, reaching the audience it was meant to reach.   Even though most kids would much prefer Where the Wild Things Are.

It sympathizes with the problems of the child, but is written too much from the perspective of a parent.  It’s just a wee tad patronizing, I’d say–deadly to this kind of book, or indeed any interaction between child and adult.  This particular field of literature was never going to be Westlake’s metier, and yet we can still see elements of the writer we know peeping out–Philip’s little misadventures have within them the seeds of a personality that, if not properly channeled, might well end up planning crimes, if only out of boredom.   He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, but it’s just so much fun to figure out how to do things.   To look at the world around you, and figure out what’s possible and what isn’t.   You can go a lot of different ways with a personality like that–you can write crime novels–or you can steal microscopes.

Now, if a kid was writing this book, it would turn out a lot different.   Mr. Neep, much scarier in this version, might confiscate Philip’s truck, and hide it away in some dark room full of lonely toys.   Philip would have to figure out where his truck was, and then confront Mr. Neep, perhaps with a water pistol filled with water imbued with an indelible dye, deadly to Mr. Neep’s beloved uniform.   Philip would sight his weapon at Mr. Neep, standing in front of the room his truck is in, who would hold out his hands in fear, screaming “I’m only the doorman!”

“Now you’re the door,” Philip would tell him, and shoot him.

Well, that’s why children aren’t mainly allowed to write their own books.

But Westlake was still writing his, and safely away from the nursery, under yet another nom de plume, he’s about to publish one of his most hard-boiled adventures ever–set in the far reaches of outer space, on a distant and brutal planet, that might daunt the likes of Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker–maybe even Parker.   It’s got sex and violence and weird-looking hairy horses, and everybody is really really mean.   “Dad, the book about the toy truck is boring–can we read this one with the cool cover, by this Curt Clark guy?”   “NO!   You can never read that book!”

I bet they did anyway, when he wasn’t looking.   Kids are natural anarchists.    Which is fine.   Until they grow up.

PS: One last time, I will repeat my offer–anybody who posts in response to this review may, if he or she so desires, receive an email with a scanned version of Philip–cover to cover.  Just include your email in the post, transcribed in such a way as to foil those nasty spambots.  I’ll do the rest.   My inner Neep would allow no less.

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