First of all, let me say here and now that I am behind the Network on this, and I do mean totally. I have been a Network man for twelve years, and I would never purposefully do anything to harm the Network or stain its name. Its initials; stain its initials.
I’m not even going to use its initials. We know who we’re talking about. You, whoever you are from the legal department, listening to this report, you know what Network you’re in the legal department of; you know in what building you are riding up and down in the elevator listening to this report. Why should I tell you things we both already know when there’s so much to tell you that you don’t know and should know if we’re going to get the Network off the hook on this thing.
From I Gave At The Office, by Donald E. Westlake.
There came the point when Random House (which had published my first eleven books and was already doing the Tucker Coes) had to decide whether or not to extend a little more for me or not. My agent put them into a competitive position with Simon & Schuster, who promised me the world and the stars and the moon, and Random House dropped out of the bidding, though Coe stayed there and later the Parker series went there. (Parker is still there. Lee Wright, the woman editor at Random House, is the top of the pyramid in the mystery field and has been ever since she started Inner Sanctum at Simon & Schuster, back in the thirties.) S&S turned out not to have the moon and the stars, nor much of the world, and after five books we skedaddled (that’s not the editorial we, that’s my agent and I) to M. Evans, where I’m just so happy I skip and dance and go tra-la-la all day.
Donald E. Westlake, responding to Albert Nussbaum.
Donald Westlake did not have a long or happy tenure at Simon & Schuster, as he made clear in the commentary above (which can be found in The Getaway Car). After a promising start with The Hot Rock, he published Adios, Scheherazade, then this book we’re going to be looking at now, then Dortmunder’s second outing, and Under an English Heaven, his only substantial foray into non-fiction. I doubt any of these but the Dortmunders sold very well. And his new publisher might well have looked a bit askance at his repeated efforts to get outside what was perceived as his proper domain.
He does not specify in that response to Nussbaum what the precise problem was, but we can hazard a guess by his specifically mentioning that at Random House he’d worked with Lee Wright. Ms. Wright, as regulars here should know by now, was Westlake’s all-time favorite book editor, whose praises he took every possible opportunity to sing.
Since he doesn’t mention any editors he knew at S&S, having just invoked Ms. Wright, I would deduce that his editorial relationships there were less productive. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
True, he wrote some great books for them–three of my personal favorites. You’d think having started his most successful franchise there, he’d have warmer memories, if only for that, but he was writing Dortmunder novels as Westlake–and maybe he didn’t want Westlake (as opposed to Stark, or Coe) to get saddled with a series character, at least not right off the bat. So even there, his emotions might have been mixed.
As evidenced by the creative frustration of the protagonist of Adios, Scheherazade, he was feeling hemmed in as a writer–he could write Parker novels as Stark, or he could write ‘comic capers’ as Westlake, and he wanted to stretch out more. Presumably, he’d hoped a new publisher would let him achieve that end. He didn’t need their help to write the kind of book he was already known for–he needed their help to craft and promote the more difficult to pigeonhole work he was itching to put out under his own name. The kind of work a Lee Wright might be able to help him with, but now only Stark and Coe could make use of her services (and it shows).
So the end result was that having written a very un-Westlakeian type of book for M. Evans as Timothy J. Culver, he ended up going over to them for the rest of the 70’s, and it turned out to be a great partnership. But we’re not quite there yet.
Now there’s something else needs be said before the review commences–we here at The Westlake Review (that is very much the editorial ‘we’) take our responsibilities seriously. Even though every Westlake novel being reviewed here has been previously read at least once (and if a Parker novel, probably multiple times) before this blog ever got started, it is always and invariably (and redundantly) read once more just before the review is written.
But not this time. I skimmed this book (that’s the personal ‘I’). Just could not summon the attention span to read it word for word. I reread Who Stole Sassi Manoon cover to cover, and found it worse than I remembered, and called it the worst novel Westlake ever wrote under his own name, and I hold to that statement. But it’s not the least readable novel he ever wrote under his own name. That dubious honor may very well belong to I Gave At The Office.
And I still would say it’s far better than Sassi–more original, more developed, with an intriguing premise, an innovative presentation, and many individual moments that are searingly funny, topical yet timeless. It’s a more mature work, but it possibly needed a few more drafts, and perhaps the tender ministrations of Lee Wright–or Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s other favorite editor at Pocket Books in the early 60’s–ironically, the paperback reprint of this book was published by Pocket (with cover art recycled from the hardcover), which was acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1966–around the same time Parker moved over to Gold Medal, and I tend to doubt that’s a coincidence.
I think, in short, that this could have been remembered as one of his better comic novels if he’d had more time to work on it, and maybe a bit of help figuring out what was wrong with it. But that may just be me rationalizing why I don’t like it more. It is very rare for me to be rushing through any book of his. He is one of the most enjoyably re-readable authors I know, but not this time.
Westlake was still in his hyper-prolific stage when he turned this one out–he published four books, including this, in 1971–five, including Under an English Heaven, in 1972. After that, the work tapered off to what might be called a human level. Still far more productive than most novelists still worth reading, but human. It is worth pointing out that 1973 was the year Mr. Westlake turned 40.
And now I have to force myself to talk about the book. Honestly, it isn’t that bad. You just get used to them being better, is all. The thing is, as has often been the case with his lesser books, it contained the seeds of greater ones. So we can’t bypass it. Even if we want to.
This is, to my way of thinking, the seventh of the ten ‘Nephew’ books, featuring a naive yet sympathetic male protagonist delaying maturity, who gets drawn into strange and dangerous intrigues, discovering his true self along the way, and typically finding love with a great girl.
And other than the strange and dangerous intrigues, none of that happens in this book, so why do I think that? Because I think Westlake was getting bored with the Nephew story (I don’t know what he called it, or if he called it anything), and wanted to turn it on its head, find some way to make it new again. So in a sense, this is an anti-Nephew novel. Whose hero is, naturally enough, an anti-Nephew.
Jay Fisher is a news announcer, working for an unnamed network. He is, as he will tell us many times in the book, a company man, undyingly loyal to the network, defending it even when it refuses to defend him. He has never been one of its top talents, and in fact is best known for going to a fancy Italian restaurant called The Three Mafiosi (Westlake loved good Italian food almost as much as he loved a good joke), located in a corporate office tower, and taping lunchtime interviews with various minor celebrities–their answers to his questions will then be edited together with the same questions Jay asked them being asked by a more famous TV news personality, who doesn’t have the time to come to the restaurant himself.
So self-evidently Jay is not your typical Westlake protagonist–not only is he not his own man, he doesn’t remotely aspire to be–reminiscent of Clay in The Mercenaries, but this is no cool sexy mob enforcer–he’s played for laughs this time. Jay, like Clay (hmm!) has achieved success as a company man–he’s also a full adult, nearing middle age, with two children and a failed marriage to his credit. He’s not some young slacker who hasn’t found himself–he’s a grown-up who intends to go on hiding from himself for as long as possible.
He’s no dummy–we see again and again that he’s actually pretty sharp. But as he insists at one point in the book, he doesn’t have any opinions of his own–he’s not supposed to. He claims that he, like the network he serves, is ‘a neutral observer of the passing scene.’ He just goes along to get along, and does what he’s told, figuring that’s the only way to live. And even though his complacent worldview is badly shaken by the events of the book, he never abandons it. See, you hate him already. When does the real hero show up?
The book’s story was inspired by a real story about an NBC News Team funding and then filming a group of East Germans digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. It was perhaps not the total fiasco the (presumably) fictional venture in this novel is, but seems like it came close at times. What Westlake would have found fascinating was the way that these journalists were not merely reporting the news but making it, shaping it to fit a narrative, then confounded when the narrative took on a life of its own (which involved at least one very real death). Trend-setters, you might say.
Jay gets conned by some shady acquaintances into pitching an idea to the network–that they film gun-runners supplying Cuban Anti-Castro rebels with arms that will be used to overthrow the government of Ilha Pombo Island, a fictional Caribbean country, inhabited by former slaves, and run by a fat brutal dictator named Mungu, who bears a startling resemblance to Idi Amin (startling because Amin took over Uganda after this book was written, and because Westlake would write a much longer and better-received book about Amin and Uganda a decade later).
The idea is, they use the guns to overthrow Mungu, replace him with Colonel Enhuelco, an exiled former associate of his (who is clearly just like Mungu, only less adept at the use of power), and then the island can be used as a base of operations to take down Castro. Nobody reading about this is expected to believe it could possibly work, of course. And how many people still think something like this could work? Yes, I’m looking at you, Senator Rubio.
In the months that follow, Jay meets and falls for the beautiful blonde Linda McMahon, who entices him by losing her top in the swimming pool, and asking him to retrieve it. He dates her incessantly, and she gives every indication of being receptive to his ardent advances, but never lets him get very far–with one exception–when he meets her at a rowdy feminist rally, which was probably inspired by the Women’s Strike for Equality, and here we get a rare statement from Mr. Westlake (via Mr. Fisher) on what was then being called Women’s Lib. And don’t ask me how much of this represents Westlake’s real opinions–Jay is not supposed to be a completely reliable narrator. Or a politically correct one.
Frankly, I like the Women’s Lib women. They always make me horny. They move their bodies around a lot, and jump up and down, and the more excited and strident they get the softer their bodies look. There’s something very interesting in there about opposites, or action and reaction, or something like that. Also, most of them in the midtown area are secretaries or researchers or whatnot in the office buildings, and when they’re going to have a demonstration they all take their bras off and leave them in the desk drawer, and when they hit the street their breasts are loose under their blouses or sweaters or dresses, and I kind of like that too. And then when they jounce around, a lot of them get themselves excited, and pretty soon there’s all these nipples pressing against cloth everywhere you turn, which is also pleasant.
I would say, generally speaking, that I’m in favor of the things the Women’s Lib women want. I think they ought to get equality of the sexes, I think it would make things a lot easier for men as well as women if we all moved through life with an equal handicap–but not yet. I’d like to see some more demonstrations first.
So he sees Linda at the rally, seemingly caught up in the excitement, and somehow they end up nearly having sex in a nearby phone booth (still some of them left in 1971, though not for long–remember that gag from the first Superman movie in 1978?), but Jay can’t quite seal the deal, so to speak. He is, nonetheless, encouraged to go on pressing his suit, now that he knows what a wildcat she can be with the right kind of stimulation. Viva feminism!
It’s increasingly evident to Jay that the Cubans being recruited for ‘Operation Torch of Liberty’ are not, shall we say, the keenest machetes in the shed, though they often seem smarter than the people documenting their operation. There are several very funny interviews with them and certain other persons presented throughout the book, and perhaps now is the time to talk about the book’s rather odd format.
The entire book is basically a collection of transcripts. Most of it is Jay himself, recording his experiences on cassette tapes, which are supposed to be listened to by influential people at the network, who must be made to see that this gun-running debacle was not in any way his fault, and that he remains loyal to the network (even while insinuating that some of the people running the network are perhaps not all they should be).
So each chapter is one side of a cassette, and since Jay can’t tell exactly when the tape will run out (reel to reel had its advantages), the chapters usually end abruptly, in mid-sentence, then he apologizes for that on the next side. The exception to this is the interviews, which he encourages his colleagues to listen to at certain points in his narrative, to illustrate the problems he was up against. None of the interviews ever goes the way it’s supposed to go, and I’d say overall they represent the most successful part of the book.
My personal favorite interview is not with the Cubans, or with Mungu (far and away the smoothest interviewee Jay runs into, since he actually understands he’s not talking to Jay but to the American public, and he chooses his words accordingly). It’s with Mr. Jaekel “Jack” Grahame, the rich arms manufacturer who is providing the guns (at a profit)–who by a strange coincidence, has sold his company to General Texachron (heh, good one), the same humonguous all-encompassing multi-national corporation that owns the network Jay works for, and is headquartered in the same office tower The Three Mafiosi is in. Small world, huh?
Jay finds this most disconcerting–he can’t summon any feeling of loyalty to a faceless many-headed entity like this, though he is technically their employee. He just decides not to think about that. He does that a lot, when faced with troubling revelations.
The dedication to this novel (yes, I know, I digress, it’s that kind of a book) seems to somehow refer to this extreme oddity in a Westlake novel–a very wealthy man whose intellect (as opposed to morals, of which he has none) we are not necessarily supposed to despise–think of him as Westlake’s equivalent of Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara.
The dedication runs thusly–“To Lee Johnson, who rekindled my faith in the American businessman, I fondly dedicate the following doorstop.” I know a joke of some kind is being made, but I lack the proper context to decipher it. And I can’t figure out who Lee Johnson was. I tried googling him, and came up with didley. Anybody out there know more about it? Anyway, here’s a key passage from Jay’s interview with Mr. Grahame, who makes Andrew Undershaft sound a bit lily-livered by comparison.
Q: What would you say, Mr. Grahame, is the morality of the gun?
A: The morality of the gun? What an odd phrase. I would say–I would say that the morality of the gun is the morality of its user, wouldn’t you?
Q: Then guns themselves have no moral value? It depends how they’re used.
A: Guns…The fact of the matter is, you know, the gun is the cornerstone invention of our civilization. I’ve heard the argument that the automobile is the center, and even heard that television, your medium, is the center, but in point of fact the center is the gun.
A: The gun is power, that’s obvious. It is the raw material of power, and power is ultimately the only civilizing influence in the world. It was the handgun that brought civilization to the American West, for instance. The gun is the primary tool in situations of mob control, which is to say, in the formation of societies. The gun determines territorial claims, which is to say national boundaries. The gun determined that you and I would speak English now, rather than French or Spanish or Portuguese. The gun determined that we would be here at all, and that the Indian would not be.
Q: The Indian is still here, though isn’t he?
A: Herded into reservations, by men with guns. If there were no guns, men would not be able to build cities, because all the bricks would be stolen the first night. If there were no guns, estates like this would be overrun by the scruffy mob. And as population gets more and more out of hand, the gun will be increasingly the only determinant of which of us will live which sort of life.
Q: You credit guns with the sort of power that most people give to money.
A: Without the gun, most people wouldn’t have their money. Not for long. And with the gun, it is possible to get money, women, or whatever else you fancy in life.
Q: Excuse me, Mr. Grahame, your words could be misinterpreted there. I know you don’t mean to imply approval of armed robbery or rape or—
A: Why not? I am hardly in a position to favor arms restrictions. Once we accept the idea that society is valuable, that our civilization was worth the building and continues to be worth the saving, we must take the next step and agree that the tool which built our civilization is also valuable and, to use a moral term, good. That tool is the gun, and no usage of the gun could be considered evil. Now, if some dolt takes a pistol and holds up a bank, I would disapprove, but only of his tactics, not his choice of equipment. His tactics will put him directly in opposition with a superior force of men armed with more guns; that is to say, he will be caught and perhaps shot. The gun is power, true; it is the central tool of civilization, true; but as with any tool and any form of power, some intelligence must be employed by the operator.
Q: Well then, what should he do instead of robbing a bank? He wants money, he wants a better life, and your prescription is that he go out and get a gun. What should he do with it?
A: He should first learn military science, which is, after all, the science of the use of the gun. And one of the first lessons in military science is, Never attack a superior force.
Q: Except in guerilla warfare.
A: Hit and run, exactly. Rather than robbing banks, our dolt, if he is a determined loner, would be much better off mugging stray citizens in dark alleys. You notice how many of our fellow beings in the major cities have independently come to this same conclusion; bank robberies are down, muggings are up.
Q: And you don’t disapprove of mugging.
A: Certainly not, unless I am the one mugged. But if I strongly needed money, and I had a gun, and you had not, I would certainly mug you.
Q: Heh heh. Well, then, I guess it’s lucky for me you’re doing well in your business.
A: Yes, it is.
Q: Yes. Well— Uh—
It goes on like that. Grahame is not saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–he’s saying “People kill other people with guns, and what else would you expect them to do?” I think it’s very unlikely the NRA would ever ask him to be a spokesperson.
He has one other key observation to make–
We are all parts of giant American corporations these days. The world alters, and we all adapt to the new conditions. As a matter of fact, I foresee the day–probably not in my own lifetime, but perhaps in yours–when the question of money vs. guns as the seat of all power will be given its decisive test. The conglomerate corporations, which are already interindustrial and international, will eventually begin to think of themselves as having formed a new kind of social structure making national boundaries obsolete. Those whose survival depends upon national boundaries such as generals and senators, will naturally reject this idea, and the inevitable result, it seems to me, will be a new kind of war.
Westlake can be downright eerie at times. Though honestly, most of the generals seem fine with the evolving state of affairs (you remember how all the corrupt corporate heads in Anarchaos were ex-military men?), and quite a few of the senators. Personally, I’d say money still has the edge over guns, but only as long as the old civilization holds up. Once things fall apart, as they have in parts of the Middle East–well, back to the review.
As Jay’s account of events continues, we see him head out to Ilha Pombo Island, to get the other side of the story. He’s got a whole news crew with him, of course, including an overzealous producer named Joe Singleton, who seems to think there’s a Pulitzer out there with his name on it, if he could just find the right story.
(At one point, back in Florida, Joe insists Jay interview a man who claims to be Field Marshal Erwin J. Rommel, still alive, contrary to all prior reports, and hoping that Israel might want to make use of his services, even though he speaks no language other than English. Jay brings this slight discrepancy up, and Joe irritatedly responds “you’ll try anything, won’t you?” It’s not a good working relationship.)
After visiting the island preparatory to interviewing Mungu, Jay manages to fall off the boat on the way back to their hotel on a nearby island. He swims to shore, and after getting mugged by some of the island’s starving residents, he’s knocked out by Mungu’s security people, and he wakes up strapped to what he realizes is an autopsy table, with grooves in it specially designed to channel the flow of blood and other bodily juices. They think he’s a spy for Colonel Enhuelco, you see. But when Mungu arrives, he screams that he’s Jay Fisher from the network. Mungu, who was about to have him ripped limb from limb, looks confused, and says he thought the interview was tomorrow.
So they send him back to the other island on Mungu’s luxurious yacht (paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as is his palatial mansion, though everybody else on the island seems to live in shacks). The yacht comes complete with full bar, and red-headed Irish barkeep, who asks Jay what poison he prefers. “Nepenthe”, Jay responds. “Would that be Irish nepenthe, Scotch nepenthe, or Kentucky nepenthe?” It’s starting to get a bit disorienting. All the more so the next day, when Jay interviews him, and Mungu claims to have no recollection of their previous night’s encounter at the autopsy table. “I meet so many people”, he murmurs apologetically.
Skipping ahead, the revolution is, of course, a total bust. They never even get to the island, and we’re left in no doubt that if they ever had, they’d have ended up on that autopsy table. It’s unclear whether they were ever supposed to get there. It seems like there were all these different groups, CIA, General Texachron, the network, and self-serving crooks (Jay’s ‘friends’ who pitched the whole idea in the first place) just out to make a buck for themselves, and nobody really knew what was going on, or had any coherent plan, other than getting paid. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and vice versa.
Jay interviews Ramon, one of the surviving guerrillas (none of them actually died, but he’s one of the few who didn’t desert) in Miami. He tells Jay about how just as they were going to set out for Ilha Pombo, all of a sudden the authorities showed up and arrested them, took them to a compound, laid them out on the blacktop, and rapped them on the feet with billyclubs. Then interrogated them, then back to the blacktop, then made them sign statements, then back to the blacktop again, and etc.
Q: Just a second. They charged you with some stuff? What stuff?
A: I ain’t a lawyer, man, how the hell do I know?
Q: But you were the one being charged. What did the judge say?
A: A lotta bullshit, man. I know it wasn’t Spanish, and it sure as hell didn’t sound like no English. One fellow said it was Latin. Anyway, they charged us and took us off to jail.
Q: And you were there until this morning?
A: Fuckin A well told
Q: Did they question you some more?
A: Shit, yeah, all the time. They asked a lotta questions about you people, you know.
Q: They did? You mean the Network?
A: I mean you people. You people in a shitpot of trouble, man.
Q: We are?
A: Oh, yeah. A shitpot of trouble. I don’t envy you, man.
Q: You want another beer?
A: Thanks, man. You’re okay. You know what you oughta do?
A: Skip the country. Thanks for the beer.
Q: You’re welcome. I don’t think it’s that bad, you know.
A: Yeah, okay.
Q: There’ll be some questions asked of the Network, but after all, we’re simply a news-gathering media, we simply observe.
A: You’re gonna like that blacktop, man. You’re gonna love it.
Q: Shut up and drink your beer.
Jay might have preferred the blacktop to what actually occurs–he gets back to his motel room, and finds Linda–who is there to arrest him. Her name isn’t Linda McMahon. It’s Mary Marie Conroy. She works for the FBI. She was at the feminist rally because she was infiltrating their ranks, trying to get them to commit crimes they could be arrested for. She’s been dating Jay for similar motives. And she’s a virgin. She feels that purity is important–Director Hoover certainly keeps himself pure.
Jay asks her if nothing that passed between them–even in the phone booth–meant anything to her. She refuses to give him a straight answer, then she starts rattling off lines from the end of The Maltese Falcon, only Jay is cast in the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy. I’ve mentioned that in all Nephew stories, there must always be The Girl–this is The Girl–but as Jay is an anti-Nephew–well, you get the point. The Nephew gets the girl he deserves. Nothing more, nothing less.
So he and the other network men get put through the wringer, but nobody knows what to charge them with. There’s also another matter–seems like Jay’s friends who got him to pitch the idea of covering the gun-running operation were just using it as a cover to smuggle things. Namely stoles. Stolen stoles. When the regular police drag him in to question him about that, Jay misses the big meeting where all the network guys point fingers at somebody else (all corporations have these meetings), and since he’s not there to give his side, guess where all the fingers are pointing? Fuckin A well told, man.
So this long rambling monologue has been Jay Fisher trying to save his career–prove his loyalty to the network, prove that he was a good organization man all along. He’s being accused of having engineered the whole thing just to make a few bucks on the side, and that isn’t true, but nobody will believe him. He hopes the tapes he’s made will set the story straight, and put him back in the good graces of his employers, though he’s increasingly troubled by the realization that the network was making news, not reporting it. Well, I’m sure that was just a passing trend.
He’s been suspended from active duty, and is stuck in his apartment, fending off the weird advances of Mary Marie Conroy, who seems to be in love with him, but can’t express it by any other means than spying on him, opening his mail, telling him girls he’s just met are bad security risks. So really, just like a regular girlfriend (rimshot).
Then at the very end of the book, we see a brief memo from her to a superior at the Bureau–she’s intercepted the tapes. They never reached the network. She recommends they put the lid on. The End.
So that’s the book, and as I said, I think it could have been a lot better than it is, with a few more drafts and the help of a good editor, but there is one problem in it that could never be be solved–Westlake doesn’t believe in his protagonist. He was trying to see if he could bring himself to identify with an unapologetic organization man, see things from the side of a guy who has devoted his life to a corporation, and he can’t.
Jay isn’t a bad guy–you do like him, you do root for him–but his story tends to flag because Westlake has a hard time getting the voice right. His attention is flagging, and therefore so is the reader’s. The individual moments of rather penetrating satire get lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t hold together as a story that well (something you can’t say of most of Westlake’s novels). The thing is, Nephew stories are farces, not satires–so this is a satire of a farce. Is that necessarily a good idea? I guess there was only one way to find out.
Jay Fisher made a brief cameo in a much later book–one of the Sara Joslyn novels, I think? Not really sure. I’ll have to wait until that one comes up in the queue. He’s that kind of character. Not memorable enough to stick in your mind.
Much more memorable is Jack Grahame, who in his single-minded pragmatism, reminds one more than a little of Parker–except Parker would never bother to worry about the future of civilization. It’s a useful amenity and all. To Grahame’s assertion that armed robbers are just dolts without a workable plan, Parker would have no response at all. He doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. That’s his edge. And it’s deadly.