They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove. What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.
I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov. I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.
I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.) I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests. I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened). But alas. Not to be.
Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery. And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves. Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.
And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth? Nations as populous as China, as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea. This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today. The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland. I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)
And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them. There are organization men, seeking to be controlled. There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap. And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.
And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone. That they can prevail. If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills. You can make a sound in this world. You can be someone to reckon with. Oleg was one of those. That I know.
But this is an enconium. Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy. Nothing at all like an obituary. So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.
That’s the good news. Here’s the other kind. Title page and end papers.
(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)
Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.
Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.
Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.
As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.
It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.
Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.
The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.
(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing. Also product placement. I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)
The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.
As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.
(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel. Little Feather? Ehhhhh…. women are under-represented in these illustrations. One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)
“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.
And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”
They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.
(Ho ho ho. Merry Heistmas. The Perfect Crime, at last.)
(Villainy receives its just retribution. From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)
Just one more. And so fittingly, it happens to be—
The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”
Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”
“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”
“Wow,” Anne Marie said.
“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”
(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books. Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May. None of Gladys Murch. Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have. I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books. Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well. Or do I mean that the other way around?)
(This image I could have done without.)
(Not this one, though.)
“The shoes, Rumsey.”
He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”
“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”
“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”
“Take them to the shoe repair?”
“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”
“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”
She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”
In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?
“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”
“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”
“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”
“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.
Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”
“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.
“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.
Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”
“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.
Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.
The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”
What, was he crazy?
(The final image. Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)
In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot. (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)
And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations. I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).
Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt. Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.
(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say. Hmm, which one you think has an accident first? Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea? I guess we’ll find out.)
Why do I do all this? To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him. Why did Oleg do all he did? To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough. He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.
This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!) He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections. (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)
But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations. And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after. But he was a Westlake reader. And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader. So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?
It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.
Good shooting, Tovarishch.