Tag Archives: Thomas Carlyle

Review: Smoke

Except for Stella and the myth of Perseus (and the spoofery of W.S. Gilbert in his treatment of Old Peter), the usual moral is that an invisible man is bound to act without ethical constraint.  Plato in The Republic raises the question of why any man should behave ethically if he has the means to escape punishment for evil deeds, and he cites the myth of Gyges, who used a ring of invisibility to get away with regicide and so take over the kingship himself.

All such powers are the object of the same moralizing in Hollywood science fiction and horror films, in which a mad scientist always gets his just deserts by dying a horrible death.

Leon Stover, in his introduction to The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, A Critical Text of the 1897 New York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices.

“But still,” said Kemp, “in England–today.  And the man was in his own house, and you were–well, robbing.”

“Robbing!  Confound it!  You’ll call me a thief next!  Surely, Kemp, you’re not fool enough to dance on the old strings.  Can’t you see my position?”

“And his too,” said Kemp.

The Invisible Man stood up sharply.  “What do you mean to say?”

H.G. Wells

Freddie was a liar.  Freddie was a thief.

D.E. Westlake

Donald Westlake didn’t write a lot of very long novels.  They weren’t really what he did best–his sweet spot generally lay somewhere between 150 and 300 pages, maybe under or over that sometimes, but not by much.  Enough room to get his points across, not so much that he’d have to belabor them to the point of tiresomeness.

It was a matter of the market he was writing for as well–mysteries tended to be on the short side when he started out.  You want to keep books in that genre fast-paced, don’t want to give the reader too much time to think about who’s dying or whodunnit, you want them to finish it quickly, then run off and buy another one.

As time went by, the market changed–the paperback original died off, hardcovers got a lot more expensive, and people wanted more kiss-kiss bang-bang for the buck, I suppose.  Ponderous tomes once more became de rigeur, and not just in the historical romance field–you might say the short pithy genre novel was gone with the wind.

It wasn’t all about the market by any means–sometimes Westlake just had so much to say with a given book, so much ground to cover, that he needed more room to run.  While these may never have been his most impeccably polished perfectly structured books, they all had their own virtues.  Dickens never wrote a perfectly balanced long novel either.  Of course, that was partly because he was mainly writing them as magazine serials.  Marathons are, of necessity, not so pretty as sprints.

Westlake’s first and fattest attempt at a really long novel (even the posthumously published Memory doesn’t quite qualify, at ‘only’ 365 pages) was Ex Officio, a bonafide airport novel, almost 500 pages of political thriller mixed in with social commentary and family conflicts, written under a single-use pseudonym (weirdly, this one is evailable, as some of Westlake’s shorter better books published under his own name are not).

Second-longest is probably Kahawa, a tale of foreign intrigue, adventure, and romance–with a bit of a heist angle thrown in, since that was not written under a pseudonym, and comic crime was expected of Westlake by that point, but the comedy was pretty thin on the ground in a story about African genocide, so that one was a hard sell.  Some people actually like it the best of all his novels, go figure.

He wrote one very long Dortmunder, Drowned Hopes, that is structured rather more like several short linked novels, but his longest novel ever in the crime/mystery genre has got to be this one, and it plays no structural games–you start with Chapter 1 and go on until you reach Chapter 57.  454 pages in my first edition–which is autographed.  Westlake was clearly doing a lot more signing events at bookstores than he used to.

So the signature doesn’t boost the book’s value much, but still a nice thing to see when you open it up, and it’s comforting for me to feel his presence here, as I try to figure out the twists and turns of this, the last of his epic-length novels, and in my opinion, the first of his signature works of the 90’s, though better were on the way by the time it was published.

A crime novel this certainly is, as the very first thing it tells us is that the hero of the piece is a liar and thief.  Seems like an oddly superfluous thing for this particular author, writing for this particular publisher, to feel the need to spell out right from the start.  Much quicker to list all the Westlake protagonists who were not liars and/or thieves.  What makes this book, this protagonist, any different from what we’ve already seen?

Mainly that he’s based on an H.G. Wells character–or is, to state it more aptly, a response to that character, to that novel (novella, really–it’s a much shorter book than Smoke).  I don’t need to tell you which novel I’m talking about, do I?  It had been a very long time since I’d read it, and I felt like I better renew the acquaintance.  And as it happens, the only copy we have here at the library is the edition quoted up top, heavily (I’m tempted to say excessively) annotated by Leon Stover (Ph.D),  perhaps the most painstakingly dedicated scholar of Wells’ literary output the world has ever seen.

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And perhaps the most fanatically single-minded.  His one goal in dissecting this novel (as he’d already done for several other Wellsian tomes) is to convince us that Wells, without any irony at all, intends the reader to see Hawley Griffin, The Invisible Man, a clownish thief and liar (ultimately freelance terrorist and murderer), as the hero of the piece, a proto-revolutionary, a worthy experiment in overturning the old world order that Wells spent his very busy life fulminating against.

Re-reading the book, along with Stover’s many footnoted interpretive interpolations to it, I found many of his points very convincing–illuminating, even.  I began to see what he was getting at.  I read a lot of Wells growing up, but I didn’t know much of anything about him then.  I knew he was a socialist, but so many people were at the time, and most of them didn’t go around cheering a wraithlike thief and killer who didn’t have anything close to a realistic plan of achieving his ethereal objectives, and who mainly seemed to have gone off his nut.

Stover admits there is much ambiguity about the narrator’s true feelings towards the title character, but keeps hammering home a series of fine details embedded in the narrative, little bits of symbolism that do in fact seem to hint Wells saw Griffin as a sort of comi-tragic hero, a failed experiment, but one that might lead in time to a successful one–that is to say, in the total overthrow of bourgeois society, by any means necessary (Wells was partly inspired by the increasingly chaotic career of Sergei Nechayev, who also inspired Dostoevsky–imagine what he could have done if he were invisible), and the setting up of a one world state where all power would be in the hands of a scientific elite, and you know how Plato felt about Democracy, right?

That’s pretty much exactly how Wells felt about it.   Philosopher Kings don’t tend to like the common folk much.  They need a strong hand.  Don’t know what’s good for ’em.  (And who ever does, pray tell?   A counter-revolutionary question, I know.)

Does the late Dr. Stover (he died a bit less than two years before Westlake) overstress his points at times?   I thought so.  I think Wells wrote the book, to a certain extent, in a state of confusion, trapped between two modes of being, between who he was and who he thought he should be, identifying with and loathing both Griffin and his confidante/nemesis Kemp, who speaks for the existing order of things, for law and order and morals and good old English fair play and not hitting random passersby over the head with something heavy just because they annoy you (cathartic as that would unquestionably be, which is why the story in all its myriad forms has always been very popular).

(I must say, Stover does go overboard at times, working his way through an entertaining little genre novel, finding all these buried meanings in it, sifting through every paragraph for clues, acting as if he and he alone can plumb the inner mysteries of the author’s mind, and–hum.  Why does that remind me of someone?  Can’t quite seem to place who.  Well, it’ll come to me.)

Westlake couldn’t have read Stover’s edition, since it came out in 1998, but something must have impelled him to reread Wells’ book in some form.  Maybe he stayed up late one night and watched the brilliant funny little movie James Whale made of it, where as he did with Mary Shelley’s monster, he is once again making it all about his own closeted homosexuality and not telling anyone that’s what he’s doing (Wells probably didn’t even notice that, but he was reportedly deeply upset that Hawley was portrayed as a madman, to which Whale roguishly replied that only a madman would want to make himself invisible in the first place–now that’s a meeting of minds I’d have liked to see).

It’s not at all hard to imagine Westlake thinking to himself, “An invisible thief would be interesting to write about.”  And easy to pitch to a publisher, what’s more.  Ad copy writes itself.

So he went back to the source, viewing it with more insight perhaps than when he first read it, and he wouldn’t have had the same level of context as Stover–but he would have seen beneath the surface of the narrative, as he always did, would have known something of Wells’ beliefs, and what lay behind them (I find, as a general rule, the educated reader is well-advised to assume Westlake is at least as knowledgeable as him/her, and probably much more).  He would probably have known, for example, that Wells was heavily influenced in his thinking by Thomas Carlyle (Stover talks a lot about that).

Westlake’s attitude towards that scribbling Scot was made pretty clear in the opening quote for Up Your Banners.  Carlyle was an elitist, someone who felt the common people, and particularly those of certain types–blacks, Irish–needed to be kept down, put in their place and kept there, maintained in perpetual slavery or serfdom–for their own good, as well as society’s.  Well really, for the good of people like Carlyle, but it sounds so petty when you put it that way.

Wells had a very different set of prejudices and politics than Carlyle, and many other influences, people like Comte and Saint Simon–people who wanted to remake the world in their own image, impose their reality, their identity really, on everyone else, for the sake of universal order and well-being.  Westlake most definitely had a revolutionary thinker lurking around in him–nobody who disliked the rich as much as he could be otherwise–but you only have to read Anarchaos to know that he didn’t think you could ever succeed in making a good world by imposing ideas on people, by leaving everything behind and starting fresh.

He was more of in the Edmund Burke school in that regard.  He disliked change for the sake of change.  You need to shake things up, but you also need some things to stay the same.  More evolutionary than revolutionary.  And close enough to his working class roots to feel a strong irritation towards those who see the proles as mere pawns (as Marx certainly did).

Reading Wells’ book, seeing the confused thought processes of his title character, I was reminded of Dan Tynebourne, the tragically misguided young academic in Don’t Lie to Me, who gets sucked into a subversive scheme by a self-centered mentor who is only using his naive proteges to line his own pockets.  Mitch Tobin, casing Dan’s apartment for clues, sees many signs that Dan is someone with a split in his identity, torn between then and now, wanting to be something he’s not.  He’s wavering between two worlds, like a Walter Scott hero.  He’s not really the revolutionary type, but he thinks he ought to be.  And so many young people go through this phase.  I did.  Westlake probably did too.  Some never really come out of it.  (And some, to be sure, really are revolutionaries by nature, and they can be useful in some situations, enormously destructive in others.)

And might this be what Wells himself was expressing in The Invisible Man? Stover certainly knew him better than me, and his biography of Wells is still unpublished, but it’s possible he missed something that Westlake picked up on–Wells believed in being a revolutionary–yet he visited the Soviet Union, which certainly filled many of the conditions he’d laid out years before for a revolution–and he washed his hands of it, said it would never work out (and of course it didn’t).

He didn’t mind so much Lenin and Stalin killing all those people; that thing Lenin said about how you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs surely resonated with him.  But it just wasn’t quite right.  Would it ever have been?  Do people who imagine revolutions in their heads ever find precisely what they’re looking for in real life?  They either have to settle for a flawed revolution, or wait for perfection to come, and it never does.  Both approaches have shortcomings.  By the end of his life, Lenin saw his revolution had become Stalin’s, it was all going wrong, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  And of all things, as he faded from existence, his life’s work in ruins, he upbraided Stalin for insulting his wife, Krupskaya. How very bourgeois of him.  Trotsky no doubt had a good laugh about that, before the icepick.

Wells has his unseen protagonist declare against romantic love of any kind, say that he met a girl who had once meant a great deal to him just before turning himself invisible, and she was really nothing special at all–the idea expressed by Nechayev that the true revolutionary has no love, no friends, no attachments of any kind, no compassion for individuals, because this gets in the way of what needs be done.  But Wells himself had a great superfluity of women in his life, two marriages, many affairs, many friends.  And no doubt he sometimes felt this is why all he ever really accomplished in life was writing some very entertaining books.  Tolstoy was much the same way.  Geniuses can be awfully perverse sometimes.

He wanted to destroy the middle class, yet he remained very firmly a part of it all his life, sharing many of its attitudes, and pretty nearly all its prejudices.  His novella savagely satirizes English small town petit-bourgeois life–but that’s the precise life he was born into, the very people he’d come from.  I’d put him in that very large category of British social thinkers who dreamed of changing everything, and yet drew away in horror when actual change seemed to be on the horizon.  “Oh God, make me virtuous–but not yet!”  And one way to deal with that, of course, is to write about revolutionary change happening in the far distant future, which Wells increasingly did over time. (I’d personally say Olaf Stapledon did it better, more insightfully and compassionately and believably, but nobody ever makes movies out of his books, somehow).

(Oh, and not to be picky or anything, but Wells was a pretty nasty anti-semite, which comes out rather obviously in The Invisible Man.  That’s not hard to spot at all.   Oh certainly there are some decent ones, but really the Jews should just assimilate, don’t you think, give up their collective identity–if they don’t–well–you know that thing about the omelette.  In his defense, Wells felt rather badly about some things he’d said and written, after certain events in Europe became clear shortly before his death in 1946.  He meant well.  We all do, right?)

So it’s Wells’ own identity crisis being laid out in the pages of that short novel, and Westlake would have seen that like a shot.  Why does Hawley Griffin fail? Because he doesn’t know who he is.   He can’t see himself, any more than anyone else can.  He becomes visible after his death (which even on the basis of the dubious fictive science that created him, makes no sense) because death has resolved his identity crisis, as it ultimately resolves everyone’s.

Seeing all of this and more, Donald Westlake resolved to write a book that would pattern itself after The Invisible Man, borrowing many of Wells’ ideas (as Wells had borrowed from still-earlier stories), elaborating on them, revisiting them in very different (and oddly similar) settings, fleshing them out quite a bit (there’s no market for a novella in the Mid-90’s), and utterly subverting this highly subversive book.  Because his invisible man won’t be a failure.  He won’t be alone.  And if you called him a thief, he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin, not that you’d see him do it.   He knows who he is.  His main identity crisis was over before the story began.

Frederick Urban Noon was the fourth of nine children born to a working class family in Ozone Park, Queens.  Most of his siblings were honest folks like his parents, but in that large a family, there’s always going to be a black sheep or two.  His sanitation worker father’s salary couldn’t buy him everything he wanted, so he took to stealing, took a few falls, took to drugs, stole even more to support his habit, and finally got sent away for two whole years.  And since an improbable coalition of Muslim and Born Again inmates made damn sure no drugs got into that prison, he had to get himself straight, and when he did, he made an odd discovery–

And here Freddie met a new self.  He hadn’t made his own acquaintance since he was fourteen years old, and he was surprised to find he liked the guy he’d become.  He was quick-witted, once he had his wits about him.  He was short and skinny, but also wiry and strong.  He looked pretty good, in a feral-foxy sort of way.  He liked what he saw himself doing, liked what he heard himself thinking, liked how he handled himself in the ebb and flow of life.

He never reformed, exactly, never became born again or changed his name to Freddie X, but once he was clear of drugs he saw no reason to go back.  It would be like infecting yourself with the flu all over again; back to the stuffy nose, the dull headache, the dulled thought processes, the dry and itchy skin. Who needed it?

So that was why, when Freddie Noon hit the street once more, two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he did not go back on drugs.  He stayed clean, alert, quick-witted, wiry, good-looking in a feral-foxy way.  He met a girl named Peg Briscoe, who worked sporadically as a dental technician, quitting every time she decided she couldn’t stand to look into one more dirty mouth, and she also liked this new Freddie Noon, and so they set up housekeeping together.  And Freddie went back to being a thief.  Only now, he did it for a different reason, a third reason. Now he was a thief because he liked it.

(So that’s twice in three paragraphs we’re told Freddie is foxy, and between Parker the wolf and Dortmunder the coyote, we’ve got a matched set of cunning canids in human form now.  In the last Dortmunder, Westlake had referred to Kelp as fox-like, so no doubt something of Kelp went into Freddie, and something of their creator into both of them.  As the saying goes, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows One Big Thing.”  Westlake was a fox.  Wells perhaps falls into the same category Isaiah Berlin put Tolstoy into–a fox who believes in being a hedgehog.  But I digress.  Foxes always do.  No need to get all prickly about it.)

Some time has clearly passed since Freddie got out of prison, so he’s nearing thirty years of age–which I really shouldn’t need to mention by now is the age Donald Westlake thought people become true adults, and their mature identities emerge–for better or worse.  Hawley Griffin’s disastrous rebellion begins and ends at that very age, same age as his fellow student and mortal enemy, Dr. Kemp, so maybe Wells agreed with that.

A character every bit as significant to the story as Freddie himself is introduced in that quote, also somewhere in her mid/late 20’s, but we don’t actually meet her right away.  First, Freddie has to do his fade, and not being a scientist himself, let alone an albino (as people tend to forget Hawley Griffin was, prior to his disappearing act), he’s got to meet up with some scientists before that happens.  Not mad scientists, by any means.  Though they are a tad–unconventional.

Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker were lovers.  They were also medical researchers, both forty-three years of age, currently funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute to do blue-sky cancer research.  Their work, reports of which looked good in tobacco-company annual reports, and references to which invariably formed a part of tobacco-industry spokespeople’s testimony before congressional committees, was sincere, intelligent, and well funded.  (Even the alarm system had been paid for with tobacco money.)  David and Peter were encouraged by their funders to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.

David and Peter had met twenty years earlier, in medical school, and had soon realized how much they had in common, including a love of non-result-oriented research and an infinite capacity for guile and subterfuge in the suspicious sight of the outside world.  Their coming together strengthened both.  They’d been inseparable ever since.

I believe these two are the last of Westlake’s really significant gay characters, and he may spend more time on them in this very long book than he did any previous pairings of that persuasion (his most interesting same sex coupling will be making a rather grim return in the near future).

They’re not the villains of the piece, nor are they heroes-they have both sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects to their characters, and you like them without necessarily admiring them. I find they have much in common with the gay couple dabbling in art smuggling, from High Adventure, that Westlake never had time to develop much.  Like that duo, they have a lawyer friend, also gay, who proves to be smarter and and more professional than either of them, and tries to keep them out of trouble (a motif that goes all the way back to A Jade In Aries).

Their main problem is that they are corporate servitors, much as they delude themselves about it, though it becomes increasingly clear to them as the story winds on, just what kind of a devil they’ve made a Faustian deal with.  It’s not the central identity conflict of the story, but it’s important, all the same.  And that kind of conflict, as we all know, is very far from being a gay thing.

They are, in essence, a plot device to explain how Freddie turns invisible, it being important for Westlake’s purposes that this not happen by Freddie’s own choice, as it did with Griffin.  I rather think he agreed with James Whale that only a crazy person would want to make himself invisible, and he figured the romantic days of heroic proto-scientists experimenting on themselves were long gone, necessitating a guinea pig.

And I suspect Westlake made Messrs. Loomis and Heimhocker gay as a backhanded reference to Mr. Whale’s (and Claude Rains’) own sub-textual cinematic take on Wells’ story.  Wells’ dour and sexless Mr. Griffin, we can be sure, was never going to skip happily down the lane in borrowed trousers, singing to himself–he had more important things to do.  More’s the pity.  At least Whale’s Griffin has some fun along the way.

So Freddie breaks into their townhouse/laboratory, hoping to find some valuable stuff he can sell, and as mentioned above, there’s an expensive silent alarm system that alerts them to the break-in at dinner.  Peter, the stronger of the two, insists on going down there with a gun and apprehending the burglar.  He’s got an idea.

Westlake is going with Wells’ idea (adapted in turn from Charles H. Hinton’s Stella, a largely forgotten novel about a girl made invisible by her father to make a rather obscure left-wing political point), that if you could remove all pigmentation from a living creature, and reduce its refractive properties to zero, it would then be imperceptible (Wells knew this would also render the invisible creature’s own sense of sight unusable, and for the purposes of his story, he didn’t care).  But in this case, invisibility is an unforeseen complication resulting from a badly done experiment.

David and Peter are trying to find a way to prevent skin cancer.  They figure reducing the skin’s capacity to absorb sunlight might do the trick.  They’ve already got several translucent felines roaming about the house (a reference to Hawley Griffin first experimenting on a neighbor’s most unwilling cat in Wells’ story).   They have two experimental drugs, one in the form of an injection, and the other is taken orally, in the form of what looks like an after-dinner mint.

Held at gunpoint, Freddie reluctantly agrees to sign a release and allow himself to be injected with the first drug, in exchange for them not calling the cops on him.  They lock him up in a room, after getting his promise to stick around a while for them to monitor the results–but maybe they should have considered the fact that he’s a professional thief.  Not to mention a liar.

(There is a brief passage where we’re told Freddie knows all about ‘faggots’, as he thinks of them, from prison, and knows that in the outside world they’re called ‘gay’, even though a lot of them aren’t really all that convivial, and I don’t think Westlake ever really forgave the re-purposing of that word.  I mean, I think we’re all over it now, but it does complicate matters sometimes; like you’re a straight guy with a nice voice and you want to sing This Heart of Mine, a great little number, and you get to the part where you dream of gay amours, and good thing Fred Astaire got to that one before the transition was complete, or Lucille Bremer would have gotten the wrong idea.)

So they come back from a reheated dinner (David is most upset, dammit he worked hard on that meal), only to find Freddie Noon is gone, having taken the door off its hinges.  And believing, due to a misunderstanding of his they did nothing to discourage, that the after-dinner mint is the antidote to the drug he was given (being an ex-con, he’s well familiar with the potential drawbacks to being a test subject), he’s eaten it.   And left the premises.  With a whole lot of valuable office equipment.  Like that’s their main worry now.  Because those two drugs were never meant to be taken in tandem, and as they compare notes, they realize, to their horror–well, let’s cut to the fade.

Freddie returns to the apartment he shares with Peg, she wakes up after a bad dream about oral hygiene, to find his hand on her breast, and I mean they’re in love and in their 20’s, obviously–

“Mmm, nice,” she whispered, feeling that gentle pressure, feeling him find his way home.  Her left hand reached out in the darkness, toward the bedside table.  “Oh, let me see you,” she whispered, and her fingers found the pull chain.  She pulled, and the light came on, and she SCREAMED.

“Wha?”

Her eyes snapped shut.  She thought, Take me back to the dream!  Back into the mouths, anywhere, anywhere but here!

Thrashing on top of her. “Whasa matter?”

She opened her eyes, wide, and stared at the ceiling.  “There’s nobody there!” she screamed, “Oh, my God, I’m going crazy!”

“What?  Whadayou–Holy shit!”

Indeed.  After a few more supplemental expostulations, a story follows, Peg is brought up to speed, and since there’s nothing else they can do right now, they become the first couple in history to have half-visible coitus.  Peg, we are made to understand right away, is no ordinary woman herself.

This isn’t really one of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ stories, since Freddie has already found both himself and The Girl, and merely has to avoid losing them in the wake of this disturbing new development in his life, but Margaret ‘Peg’ Briscoe (the family name of a famed Dublin-Jewish political family, as Westlake surely knew), blonde, very attractive in a practical non-ostentatious sort of way, good-humored, level-headed, flexibly ethical when it comes to such matters as larceny,  and gutsy as all outdoors, may in fact be the only other among Westlake’s numberless young female love interests to be ranked with Chloe Shapiro, that heroic hard-driving hippie chick from his very first comic crime novel, The Fugitive Pigeon. She’s that great.

And this time through the book, I finally managed to head-cast her.  Shouldn’t have been that hard, really.  Peg is a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  For most of the story, she’s struggling with her feelings for this shameless reprobate, knowing he’s a thief and a liar, knowing she’s enabling his life of crime, and now he’s fuckin’ invisible?   The actress I have in mind was out of her 20’s by the time this book came out, but she’d already played a rather similar character in a little indie crime film. And a while later, she played an older, more prosperous, and rather more tragic version of the same character on The Sopranos.

But Peg is no tragedian, and Freddie proves himself worthy of her in the end.  Ms. Falco could have had a lot of fun with Ms. Briscoe, exercised comedy chops she’s rarely been given a chance to flex in her career.  It’s kind of a tragedy that never happened.

Peg is increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s appearance, or lack thereof.  He manages to hide from her a while the fact that for about two hours after he eats, the masticated food is visible in his gut, before absorbed and somehow rendered invisible as well (another idea that comes from Wells, and neither writer seems much inclined to dwell on the subject of whether it becomes visible again upon excretion, best not to ask).  But if he’s naked in the house, she feels like she can’t know if he’s looking at her, which is creepy.  If he’s dressed, there’s all these gaps where hands and head and such ought to be, which is creepier.

She goes out and gets a collection of Halloween masks for him to wear–Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (it was marked down).  And he’s got to wear rubber gloves.  And he’s got to go out for a walk sometimes, totally naked, and call her so she knows he’s gone out, just so she can feel she’s got some privacy.  (Hawley Griffin inexplicably chose to make himself invisible during an English winter–Westlake, more compassionate and practical-minded, has given Freddie this cross to bear at the start of a New York summer).

During one of these walks, Freddie steals some businessman’s cellphone to call Peg, and with no way to conceal it, ends up being chased by a mob until he throws it away.   Another scene out of Wells’ story, the difference being that Griffin uses it to fuel his growing ressentiment towards all humankind, and justify his bloody crusade.  Freddie just thinks to himself that people are weird, and goes back about his business.

Which is stealing.   It’s actually Peg who brings his attention to the fact that whatever personal drawbacks there may be to invisibility, it’s the precise opposite of a professional disadvantage to him.  He starts devoting some thought to how he can make use of it.  True, he can’t be seen, but anything he picks up still can be.  He can still be felt if someone brushes up against him.  And bare feet on a New York City sidewalk (in summer!) are never a good idea.  But fox that he is, he can usually figure out an angle, given a bit of time.

Before Hawley Griffin takes to murdering people, his primary activity as an invisible man is theft–in fact, before he was invisible, he stole from his own father to buy the materials he needed to fund his experiment, which led to Griffin Sr.’s disgrace and suicide, since the money his son took from him was not his.  He’s stealing all through the book, feeling no guilt over it, but not really owning his actions, or processing the rather obvious fact that those who steal are, by definition, thieves.  He’s a respectable English gentleman, educated, industrious, with a great destiny to achieve.  To each according to his needs and all that, don’t you know.

So as with a funhouse mirror, we’re going to go on viewing Wells’ strangely amoral morality play, Westlake style, played out in a whole new light, with a protagonist who probably couldn’t murder anybody (this being a comic caper), but who could never deceive himself about who he is, or cling to any class delusions, or cherish any revolutionary fever dreams.

And that adamantine sense of self, combined with the love of a good woman, is all he has to anchor himself against a sea of troubles.  And a slew of enemies.  And we’ll see how he does that in Part 2.  And possibly 3.  We’ll see about that too.  But nobody will ever see Freddie Noon again.  See you next week?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Up Your Banners

up_your_banners_1up_your_banners_2 Blackboard-JungleTo-Sir-With-LoveUp-Down-Stairs

I worked on my Fresca while I thought about things, and then said, “Leona, I’m just not the right kind of guy for all this.  You say all those things, and you may be right, and I do understand and sympathize, but I’m just not the fighting kind.  I’m the floating kind.  I drift very slowly and easily through life.  I prefer things to be funny.”

“Ghetto schools aren’t funny,” she said.

“I agree.”

Up Your Banners is an odd book.  The origin of this one is very strange.

Donald Westlake

Must have been sometime in 1968 that David Susskind (of all people) called his literary agent, Henry Morrison, who also happened to be Donald Westlake’s literary agent, and asked Morrison to set up a meet between the three of them. He had an idea to pitch. He wanted Westlake to write a novel about a racially troubled high school in New York.

Like most people, he knew Westlake primarily as someone who wrote comic treatments of dangerous situations, and that was the approach he wanted–somebody seeing the humorous side of the very dangerous situation involving inner city schools.  Westlake had a hard time seeing how that was going to work. What’s so funny about poverty, racism, and a failed educational system?

As he described his reaction much later, it went like this–“I really don’t know the area, I’m not interested, I don’t know whose side to take, I don’t see who you make fun of, I don’t see who you don’t make fun of”–I didn’t see any way to do it at all.  

But Susskind was persistent, and he promised to buy the film rights to the book if Westlake wrote it.  Westlake thought about it a while, and finally he hit upon an approach he thought was viable–he’d write it as a ‘Nephew’ book–not that he called them that.   He said it came to him when he found his hero–“the innocent, the Candide who could carry the story.”   His reference to Voltaire’s famed satiric picaresque was very much to the point, as we shall see.

It’s basically the same set-up as his five earlier comic novels (this doesn’t include Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which wasn’t originally conceived as a book).   A naive young man, who has been putting off maturity, gets enmeshed in something he doesn’t understand, becomes the center of a dangerous chaotic situation (only political, instead of criminal), and people make all kinds of false assumptions about him.   And in figuring his way out of this mess, he finally grows up, and meets a great girl–only this time she’s black.  Simple, right?

Susskind began sending him the serious books, fiction and non-fiction, that had already been written on this subject recently, including Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (the link is to an excerpt in The Atlantic Monthly).  But the fact is, works of fiction about dysfunctional schools and noble overburdened teachers already amounted to a sort of genre of their own.  You can see the covers for three of them up top, and odds are good you’ve heard of at least one or two. Westlake would certainly have been familiar with The Blackboard Jungle, since it was written by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain.

But none of these novels really confronted racism in any direct way–even To Sir, With Love, written by a black teacher working with white cockneys in London (played by Sidney Poitier in the movie), seemed to gloss over the race issue–just a matter of white people recognizing that some black people had exceptional abilities, and accepting them into white society–and what about all the black people who were just average, and stuck in the ghetto, with little chance of ever getting out?

Truth is, none of these then-popular novels have held up very well over time (Kozol’s nonfiction work remains a classic).  They were a response to a growing awareness that something was brewing in the schools–the generation gap, racial conflicts, urban blight, the breakdown of the family, loss of respect for authority. Probably Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, written in comic epistolary style, with a protagonist who is brave and sympathetic, but not really in control of the situation she’s in, has stood the test of time best.

The heroine of that book is a young Jewish woman teaching in an impoverished inner city school.  She  loves her students, and many of them love her, but it’s still a crazy and sometimes scary situation–not so much because she’s in danger from her pupils as that she has a terrible time dealing with the bureaucracy, and the expectations society has of her.

But even that book doesn’t really deal with racial issues to any great extent, as I recall (been a long time).   The proper liberal attitude back then was that you were supposed to ignore such things as best you could.   And after all, it’s New York City, not Selma.  No Jim Crow here. It’s a class problem, not a race problem. We’re above such things up north.

One would surmise that Susskind, who dealt with issues like integration and forced busing all the time on his talk show, noticed that all these earlier novels had been made into films–but all of them just kind of avoided the real questions, mainly because the real questions tended to rile people up.  Kaufman had dealt humorously with the problems facing teachers  in these schools, giving her a bit more leeway, but what about all the other players in the drama?   There were certain built-in limits to her approach–still, a bit of humor can sometimes help put things in perspective.  Everybody loves to laugh.  But nobody likes being laughed at.   Ay, there’s the rub.

Before I go any further, perhaps I had best confess that I myself worked briefly in the New York City Public School system, after I graduated from college, back in the 1980’s.   I aspired to be a public school teacher, sue me.   I got a TPD (a provisional teacher’s license), and was immediately hired to work at a school in Far Rockaway, at the arse-end of the city (two hour commute by train–each way).

I had no training of any kind.  I got almost no help from anyone–mainly just the odd pep talk from the principal, who mouthed platitudes about positive thinking and success, which didn’t seem to be doing anyone much good.  I was filling in for a teacher who was sick.  My first student stuck his head in the door, and a big grin slapped itself across his face.  “SUBSTITUTE!!!!” he yelled down the hall, like he was ringing a dinner bell.  I think you can guess how it went after that.   I never had a chance.

I can still remember their faces.  They’re more real to me than most of the people I’ve met in my life.  I wanted to reach them, and I didn’t know how.  And I could feel the frustration changing me, making me bitter, angry at them for not wanting to listen to me–resistance I could handle, but they just tuned me out entirely, acted as if I wasn’t there.   I quickly had to give up on that school–the commute was killing me, and if I moved to that remote beachfront nabe, I was going to be stuck there, cut off from the rest of the city.

I spent a few more months taking substitute jobs at a variety of middle schools around town–middle school is the hardest–that’s when the hormones kick in–much harder than high school, by which time most of the real troublemakers have dropped out or gotten slotted into special classes.   I worked mainly with black and Latino kids–one class was mainly white, and they were every bit as rowdy and unfocused.

And they were all so damn funny.  And they were all so damn smart.  And they all broke your heart.  And much as I was frustrated at them, the people who really gave me hives were the administrators–who I’m sure had nemeses higher up the food chain to blame, and so on.  There were really good teachers, here and there, doing their best, and the students listened to them.  But most were just trying make it to retirement.

The only time I ever once felt like I was teaching was when I taught a special ed class–for developmentally disabled children.  Just a few kids, so I could talk to them one on one.  But that, of course, is even more painful in some ways.  If there’s a tougher job than teaching this age group in a system like this, in a city like this, I don’t know about it.   You get it from both sides, and there’s nobody to help you.  Maybe it’s better now.

So that’s my story, but it isn’t Westlake’s–far as I know, he never worked as a teacher.   He must have at least considered it–not an uncommon day job for a writer (the late Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, who I knew very slightly, made a career of it–and a book).  Salvatore Lombino (Evan Hunter’s birth name) taught at a vocational school in The Bronx for a few weeks, and based The Blackboard Jungle on that. Not often a writer gets paid for doing research (if you can call a beginning teacher’s salary getting paid).

Based on what I’ve read, if Westlake ever seriously considered teaching, it was at the college level.  It was a potential fallback position if his writing career foundered, as Peter Rabe’s did.  But it was never really what he wanted to do.   But, you can hear him asking himself, “Suppose I had been been programmed to think teaching was what I wanted to do, and then I found out it wasn’t?”   Identity confusion–his wheelhouse.  But this isn’t a fantasy like his comic crime novels–he’s going to need more of a build-up than usual.

The book begins with a quote from Thomas Carlyle, that is guaranteed to offend just about anyone.   And makes it clear that Westlake is not going to shy away from the question of race–or racism.  “A merry-hearted, grinning, dancing, singing, affectionate kind of creature, with a great deal of melody and amenability in his composition.”   We’re told this is from a work entitled The Nigger Question.  Which is true, but that’s the title Carlyle republished it under, basically just to shock people (not as much as it would today, of course).  It was originally called Occasional Discourse on The Negro Question.

The choice of Carlyle is interesting because that quarrelsome Scot also had some fairly controversial opinions on The Irish Question–he considered the Catholic Irish peasantry (as opposed to the mainly Protestant gentry) to be basically white niggers, which is how many English people thought of them back then (yes, I know this is offensive, but we’re talking about real history here, so let’s not mince words, shall we?).   We should now pause to consider that Donald E. Westlake, like most Irish Americans, was descended from those peasants–and quite aware of that fact.

In Mr. Carlyle’s opinion, these merry-hearted grinning dancing peoples like the plantation-living blacks and the bogtrotting Irish were obviously not suited to living as full equals to decent folk, and what would be best for them would be to live in a kind of perpetual serfdom, as opposed to chattel slavery, which his country had recently abolished–which is what Carlyle was taking issue with.

See, the goal for Carlyle was not emancipation, but to reform existing systems of bondage, to make them a bit more humane.   Perhaps with the passage of time, some among these lesser races could be elevated to the point where they could enter polite society as free men and women, but there was no need to rush things.  It would be cruel to raise their expectations of life, and cast them willy nilly into a world they were not properly constituted to live in.  You can read more about Carlyle’s racial ideas here.  Interesting philosophy.  Also disgusting.  Also surprisingly durable in some circles, even if it has learned how to disguise itself better.

So having assured with his opening quote that the easily offended will venture no further, Westlake introduces us to his Candide, who is just heading out to his first day of work as a teacher in a public high school in the fictional Brooklyn slum neighborhood of South Romulus (Brooklyn has many nabes with far stranger-sounding names).   He lives only eight blocks away, but as is common in New York City, his own adjoining neighborhood is mainly white and reasonably prosperous.

He crosses the dividing line of Romulus Boulevard, starts seeing dead cars on blocks and many other signs of urban blight, and soon enters Schuyler Colfax High School, where his father is principal, and his father’s father before him.  And now he’s going to start teaching there himself, continuing the family tradition, as we later learn has been drilled into him since he was a little boy.  He walks into his home room, and writes his name in big letters on the blackboard–Oliver Abbott.  And his students (all black) collectively gasp.

And then this tall thin sly-faced grinning black man with a pointy Lucifer-style beard walks in and says class is dismissed until further notice–okay, I don’t care where you grew up, or how much money your dad made, when they tell you school’s out, you get the hell OUT before they change their minds.  And that’s what Oliver’s students do, leaving him standing them dumbfounded.   He has absolutely no idea what’s going on.  Nobody told him he’s the cause celebre of a brewing race riot.

Oliver Abbott (who is the first-person narrator of the story, meaning this is not an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives, but rather an attempt to show one character come to terms with a variety of perspectives) was not always good with being a teacher.  He rebelled.  First by  joining the Navy.  Then by going to college way way upstate at good old Monequois, a Teacher’s College in this incarnation.  Then he went bumming around the country in his white MG (the affordable hot car for young people at this time).

So he’s been incommunicado, and his father, Principal Jacob Abbott, has never been terribly communicado at any point in their relationship, and just decided not to tell him about the controversy, figuring it would go away by itself.  But the fact is, the local black community made a deal with the city that when new teachers were needed at Schuyler, and a qualified black teacher was available for the position, that teacher would fill the position.

Oliver’s father unilaterally decided to fill this position with his son, who is equally well-educated, but less experienced–the black teacher is already working at a white school nearby, and has a wife and two children.  By the way, we never once hear from this other teacher, and find out whether he even wants to change schools.   That’s not the point.  The point is that the community wants one thing, and Jacob Abbott wants something else.  And Jacob Abbott is used to getting what he wants.   And the community is sick and tired of never getting anything they want.   And this is generally known as an impasse.

Oliver’s naivete, as one character is about to tell him, does stretch credulity at points–the brewing controversy has been widely reported in the news, but he wasn’t reading the papers (or the hate mail coming to the house he currently shares with his mom and dad).  He wasn’t watching the news.  He also doesn’t know the name of the union defending his right to teach–the Fraternal Union of Teachers, or FUT, which Oliver thinks is a silly-sounding name, but nobody asked him.  Anyway, Candides are supposed to be naive.  Goes with the territory.

Here in the real world, the NYC teacher’s union was and is the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT (you see what he did there?), and if you’re interested, here’s the story Westlake would have been reading about in the papers in 1968, which clearly inspired this story, in which that union played a pretty significant and rather controversial role.

South Romulus is Brownsville, only on a smaller scale.   And what happened in Brownsville in 1968 was no tempest in a teapot–we’re still feeling the effects today, still seeing variations on the arguments people were having then.  Many think that racial politics in New York, as we now know them, came into being during this conflict.  When the dust had settled over Brownsville, Jews and blacks in particular were divided in a way they hadn’t been before, and some historians think white working class New Yorkers started seeing things more in terms of race than class than had previously been the case, because of that conflict.

That’s debatable–what isn’t debatable is that for the first time, Westlake was using a book to directly respond to recent events. Not the last time, though. This is Part One of the review, I think you’ve all figured out now. Like Anarchaos, this is too unusual and complex a novel to dissect without going into some detail over its background.

But having read it twice, and looked deeper than most readers probably ever have into the events that spawned it, I still find it a tough nut to crack. Westlake is telling a pretty simple story here–boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s the story, and actually, this is the first time he’s really done what you could call a classic love story, interracial or otherwise.

Yes, there’s nearly always a romance brewing in his comic novels, and it’s sometimes a crucial part of the story, but it’s not usually the main focus. The point of the previous Nephew books was always the hero figuring out who he is and how not to get killed/arrested/etc–and those two objectives are closely linked.

Here there’s relatively little chance of the hero getting killed (getting his ass kicked, definitely) and basically no chance of his being incarcerated (because, you know, white). So the link-up is between the identity crisis and the love story. Who you love is who you are. But can you know who you truly love before you know who you really are?

Eugene Raxford, the very reluctant hero of The Spy in the Ointment, is only a partial exception to this rule–at the crucial moment, he realizes his girlfriend Angela (who he’s been involved with for some time before the story begins) is more important to him than his pacifist principles–but he and Angela both recommit to those principles afterwards. The point being that love and ideology don’t always agree, and you have to find some way to make them balance out.

I mentioned in my review of that book that I’m convinced Westlake partly based that character on Bucklin Moon, the writer/editor who told Westlake he’d buy The Hunter for Pocket Books if Westlake would agree to write three Parker novels a year for Pocket. Westlake always spoke warmly of Mr. Moon, and certainly would have known about his past troubles–that he’d been an up and coming novelist who wrote very serious novels, mainly about black people–even though Moon was as white as they come–and then his career as a writer was essentially destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts, even though the most revolutionary idea he seemed to have was equality. I guess that’s still pretty revolutionary.

Moon wrote two novels about The Black Experience–The Darker Brother and Without Magnolias–as well as something called A Primer for White Folks, and he edited an anthology of writings by and about black people. He also helped discover Chester Himes, who started out writing very serious books about The Black Experience, before he realized he could get a lot more readers by doing funny thrilling crime novels about The Black Experience.  (And I’d take any of them over most of the serious books ever written.)

I’ve looked at some of Moon’s books, and they’re well written (his use of African American dialect is a bit dodgy), they were very well-reviewed at the time, and extremely well-intentioned, and let’s just say it’s not surprising they’re long out of print (as is this book we’re looking at now, by the way, though it did get a paperback reprint, not long after the hardcover came out, because there was supposed to be a movie, only Susskind seems to have gotten sidetracked, or else he read the book and decided people weren’t ready for a comedic race riot involving school-age children yet).

So Westlake’s takeaway from Moon’s experience is that it’s probably not a good idea for a white man to pretend he knows what it’s like to be a black man. There’s plenty of black writers to do that job by 1968. He’s going to stick to what he knows–what it’s like to be a young white New Yorker without much money who isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with his life, is drifting along a bit, but knows that he likes girls a heck of a lot.

Only, as Oliver tells us, because he was in the Navy, and then away at Monequois a few years, he kind of missed out on the best girls of his generation in his general locale–he’s in his late 20’s now, not necessarily looking to get married anytime soon, but he’d like to have a steady relationship. He’s had a few short flings with some extremely short girls his mother fixed him up with (mothers used to do that?), but he can’t find anybody he wants to get serious about.

And then he does. But she’s black. And beautiful. And a fellow teacher at Schuyler Colfax. And politically radical. And a judo expert. And wants to get him fired from his job. Obviously he falls head over heels in love with her (this was going to be a movie, remember?). And I think that’s enough set-up for now. Next week–the actual review. What’s that you say? Will I stick to talking about the book, and avoid out-of-left-field asides that don’t seem germane to anything? This must be your first time reading The Westlake Review. Later, bros.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance