Tag Archives: Under An English Heaven

Review: High Adventure


It was now a little past midnight, and he had nearly 800 miles to travel, most of it over water.  Depending on winds and weather, the trip would take between five and seven hours; in any event, it would be before dawn when he landed.  Stowing the last parcel, he yawned and said, “You get the temple put away?”

“Oh yeah,” Tommy said.  “The hill’s a little scuffed up, that’s all.  You can see there’s been digging.”

Luz said “I’m looking forward to those assholes.   They’ll shit when they get here and don’t see any temple.”

“Just so that ends it,” Kirby said, and yawned again.  “I’ll see you guys next week some time,” he said.  “When I get back from this trip, I’m just gonna hibernate.”

Innocently, Tommy said “What’s hibernate?”

Kirby said “What bears do in winter.”

Tommy said, “What’s winter?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Kirby said, and flew away with the music of their laughter in his ears.

Actually, for Valerie, these days marijuana would be superfluous.  She was high already, high on just being alive and high on this wonderful village in which she found herself.  Her initial fears that she might be sexually mistreated faded rapidly when she saw how thoroughly this was a family village; life here was too open and monogamy too ingrained for any hanky-panky.  (Had a few of the boys first met Valerie away from town it might have been a different story, of which she remained happily ignorant)

But the point was, these were Mayas, true Mayas.  Unlike the other archaeologists Valerie had known, her teachers and her contemporaries, she had gone through the time barrier, had actually entered into the ancient civilization the other scholars only studied.  It is true these people were no longer temple builders, were merely the decayed remnant of a once-flourishing culture, but their clothing (apart from the inevitable blue jeans) bore echoes of ancient themes, ancient designs, ancient decoration. The faces of the people were the same as the faces on bowls and stelae a thousand years old.

You know that thing I do where I complain about how some New York Times reviewer didn’t properly appreciate this or that Westlake novel that didn’t fit what was considered his proper niche?   I can’t do that this time, because the New York Times does not seem to have reviewed this book.  At all.  Ever.  The online Times Archive shows neither hide nor hair of a review–the only mention of it I can find is in a much later review of a much later book (and I’ll be complaining about that critic’s shortcomings in due course, won’t that be fun).

I did find this lovely travel piece, contributed by Donald and Abby Westlake (credited as Abby Adams) back in 1984, within which the proximate source of this book’s genesis can be easily divined.  Sounds like exceptionally enjoyable research.  Busman’s holiday, Mr. Westlake?  Say no more, nudge nudge.

The admiring blurbs on this book’s beautifully rendered dust jacket (Westlake never had better art for a hardcover–Otto Penzler was clearly determined to prove to Westlake that he’d found a real home at last) are primarily from fellow writers, lending a comrade a hand.  Pretty sure no film studio ever called his agent about optioning it.  There don’t seem to have been a lot of foreign editions (you can see the Italian one up top).

It did get an American paperback reprint from Tor, a publisher Westlake was then developing a relationship with–that would soon end very badly–even by the standards of Westlake and publishers, and you’ll remember what he said about publishers in our last book. Tor’s rather banal attempt to fool readers into thinking they’re getting an Indiana Jones rip-off should perhaps have come as a warning, but I guess it was too late by then.

This one really fell between the cracks–even though it was published by The Mysterious Press, and was certainly sold as a crime novel (there are crimes committed in it, people do die, there’s plenty of adventure, high and otherwise).  It’s another of Westlake’s Problem Books–hard to pigeonhole, harder to sell, but we can be sure Mr. Penzler bravely refused to say he did not know how to sell it.  It certainly does have elements of some of Westlake’s more popular comic crime novels, but arranged in such a way as to create a very different effect.

It’s also one of those books I liked a lot better the second time through.  In fact, as the plot began to pick up pace, I found myself rather loving it, while seeing its failings even more clearly –love doesn’t necessarily have to be blind.  Much like the lighter and more cynical Castle In The Air, it may not be Westlake’s best work, but it’s still good work, well worthy of a second look.  It’s also something of a lozenge play.  Yes, I’ll explain.

W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, had this idea about a magical lozenge that would change people’s personalities, leading to various comedic complications, and he wanted to make it the basis of an operetta–and it never worked.  He could never once make it work, at least not to the satisfaction of his normally adoring public (or Mr. Sullivan).  He kept trying to reintroduce it, in one form or another, and nobody liked it.   But he did, and he refused to give up on it, probably to his dying day.  And it is my personal theory that every professional storyteller has at least one lozenge play tucked away somewhere in his or her trunk, if writers have such things as trunks anymore.

This is not really such a lozenge play in the literal sense–a narrative hinging entirely on the premise of an identity-altering plot device ingested orally (that would be Smoke, and amazingly enough, Westlake actually did make it work)–but it is a collection of ideas Westlake had used earlier, in books that never did catch fire with the public, or the critics, and he may have felt they were worth another try–and this probably didn’t catch fire either, but it is a much better book.  Maybe good enough that Westlake felt like he could let some of the old lozenges go, and move on to greener pastures.

What previous Westlake books contributed to this one?–well, self-evidently, Under An English Heaven, that work of nonfiction about the proud independent multi-racial people of Anguilla, their quest to remain an independent nation, and to avoid oppression by perfidious St. Kitts  by remaining under the flag of the British Empire, while still getting to do whatever the hell they wanted most of the time.  Anguilla is briefly referenced here by the narrator, but the influence would be obvious regardless.  Belize had just recently become independent of the United Kingdom in the time period this book is set in, but was still under its direct military protection, a rather key element in the story.

Then there’s Westlake’s recurrent obsession with Latin America, and his boundless affection for its people, which has been touched on in many books by now.  Usually he made it an imaginary Latin American country to give himself more freedom as a storyteller, but having spent an idyllic time in Belize, and realizing to his delight that there was a real country that was equal to his wildest imaginings–where people of many cultures and skin hues all got along fine most of the time, the democratically elected government helped its citizenry without getting in their way too much, people had all kinds of fun beneath the tropical sun, and there were even Mayan temples to boot–and they spoke English!–he was not going to pass it up.

You might suspect he cleaned it up a little–there are occasional hints in the novel that not everything there is so perfect all the time–but essentially he and Belize were of one mind with regards to how life should be lived, and perfection is dull, anyway.

However, these things I mention are not lozenges, per se–just enduring interests of the author that crop up throughout his work.  Where’s the failed idea he tried to turn into a successful one?  On second reading, I was rather appalled to realize that the underlying foundation of this enjoyable book was Westlake’s worst book ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?–cunningly disguised, to be sure.  No kidnapped movie stars here.  No crime-plotting computer.  No wacky sidekick who does impressions.  But the outlines of the prior narrative and its thin but likable characters are unmistakable.  He knew that book he’d made out of a rejected screenplay was an awful dud, but he still wanted to make the damn lozenge work the way it was supposed to.  And be damned if he didn’t pull it off here–up to a point.

There are also many elements from Kahawa present–the closest thing to a central protagonist this book has is a pilot, and something of a soldier of fortune. There’s quite a bit of sex, though much less than Kahawa.  It’s one of his foreign adventure books, and those are never his absolute best books, but they’re something he enjoyed doing, because he was interested in the world around him, in different cultures, different races, different modes of identity.  It’s part of who he was as a writer.  Like excessively long intros is part of who I am as a reviewer. Synopsis, please.

Kirby Galway is a pilot who owns his own small plane, which he has named Cynthia.  Cynthia and he have been engaged in various semi-legal and outright criminal enterprises for some time now, and having saved up a bit of cash, Kirby wanted to try cattle ranching in Belize.  He bought some land from a local functionary, Innocent St. Michael, who is described as a happy mingling of African, Mayan, Spanish and Irish influences, and has somehow managed to combine the most roguish elements of his ancestry into one charming (if chunky) 57 year old package.  He is, in short, an affable con man, as well as a ladies man with few peers, and Kirby was one of the many pigeons he’s plucked in his colorful career.

He sold Kirby a parcel of real estate out in the jungle, that looked ideal for grazing cattle, but because of an oddity of the local landscape, there’s no water there for half the year, and therefore no grass to graze upon–then when the rains come, it springs back to life for a few months.  The land is worthless, but Innocent made sure to only show it to buyers when it was lush and green, as opposed to arid and dusty.  Kirby was looking with disgust at this white elephant of an estate he’d sunk all his capital into, when he met some of the local Mayans–descendants of the people who created one of the world’s great civilizations, then for reasons that are still not  well understood, abandoned it, and went back to a simpler mode of living.

Two of them, Tommy and Luz, did a lot of their growing up in the U.S., speak perfect if idiomatic English, and they and Kirby quickly form a fast friendship, aided in part by Kirby being engaged in smuggling marijuana (the locals call it ‘gage’) on the side (this is where the ‘high’ part of the adventure comes from, and I suppose you could say it does constitute a sort of personality-altering lozenge for some people, but more on that later).  Kirby and the entire village get wasted together on high-grade pot and homebrewed beer.  It’s a bonding experience. Well yeah, I guess it would be.  Not that I’ve ever inhaled.  The beer thing I’m more familiar with.

Kirby realizes that he genuinely likes these people, lives happily with a Mayan couple, using the proceeds from his smuggling operation to make their lives more comfortable–they become family to him, maybe the first real family he’s ever known.  He’d been a loner up until then, since his father was a movie stuntman, and his mother a little-known actress, and they were killed in Spain while shooting a scene on a roller coaster, when he was just a kid.  Kirby was raised by his aunt in upstate New York.   But he inherited the wander lust from both his parents.   He’s been a rolling stone for most of his life, and now he wants to gather a little moss.

So having been swindled out of his moss by Innocent, Kirby suddenly hits upon a brilliant idea for a con of his own–to turn this worthless land he bought into a goldmine.  Or rather, an archaeological dig.  See, some of his newfound friends are experts at creating the very artifacts their ancestors made.  It’s not fake Mayan art, because they’re real Mayans.  But it’s not ‘authentic’, because it’s not old.  It’s only valuable if some Mayan who lived many centuries ago made it, in between human sacrifices.  Only suppose it was found strewn around a heretofore undiscovered Mayan temple in this country that has still not been thoroughly explored?

All you have to do is build the temple and bait the trap.  So that’s what they do. Making stone whistles, and stone figures of Zotzilaha, the malevolent bat god of the Maya, who conveys unwary souls to Maya hell.  That’s him up top, left of those grinning kids.  Nasty cuss.  Very popular with collectors.  Kirby’s accomplices are reluctant to make the little statues of him.  Well, of course they don’t really believe in him.  Just like modern Irish people in rural areas don’t really believe in the sidhe.  Sure they don’t.

Kirby’s idea is that he strikes up conversations with suckers, I mean enthusiasts, back in the States, let it slip that he owns this land with an undiscovered temple on it, and he’s tried to get the authorities interested, but they keep telling him there’s no temple there, and these amazing objets d’art are just lying around, with no one to appreciate them (modern-day Mayans don’t count), and if only someone with the necessary expertise could come and find them a proper home, and you get the picture.  He’s currently working on a museum curator from Duluth and a gay couple from Manhattan.

Unbeknownst to him, the gay couple, Alan and Gerry, are actually collecting information for a journalist friend of theirs named (also gay, but much less self-consciously so) who wants to do a piece about the illegal trade in Mayan art–which of course Kirby is not engaged in, since nobody worries about the illegal trade in faked artifacts–that’s an entirely different area of criminal endeavor, namely fraud, and to report it, you’d have to admit you were trying to engage in the illegal purchase of real artifacts.

It’s very confusing, yes.  Intentionally so.  This is a comedy of errors, after all.   Which is to say, a comedy that revolves around people constantly misunderstanding each other, coming to false conclusions about the identities and motives of other people they’re dealing with, because we’re always making up stories in our heads about people we interact with, but don’t really know. Most of the time, we don’t even know ourselves.   And this is always the kind of story Westlake wants to tell.

Example: Kirby has to entertain both the curator and the gay couple in Belize City at the same time, then show them both his fake temple, and he can’t let them know that they aren’t the first and only persons he’s made privy to this great discovery.  He can’t pretend not to know any of them.  So he tells the curator that the two other men he’s talking to are drug kingpins he deals with. And he tells Alan and Gerry the same thing about the curator.

And these are three of the most meek and mild-mannered men you could imagine–but they look at each other, with Kirby’s none-too-subtle innuendos in their heads, and they project the qualities such a person is supposed to have onto each other, and in no time at all, as was Kirby’s intent, they’re in mortal terror of each other.  The great thing about being a con artist is that people are so damn good at conning themselves.   You just plant the seed, and they do most of the tilling.   You don’t have to go to Belize or some other exotic locale to see this happening.  Just watch cable news.  (I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ‘T’.)

In the meantime, Innocent St. Michael, himself a con man of high renown, is wondering why his hapless victim Kirby is looking so chipper these days, and why he’s showing these people that worthless land, and did the con man somehow get conned?   He must know.  But he’s also a ladies man, and the ladies man must score.  Which is where Valerie Greene comes in.   Well, technically he comes in her, but we’ll get to that.

Valerie is an impressive sight–all of six feet tall, pleasingly proportioned, with ‘hair colored hair’ (a phrase Westlake took to using when he didn’t feel like going into detail about someone’s hair color–some perfectly nice and unremarkable shade of brown is what he means), and a piercing forthright gaze of unflinching virtue and honesty and almost unfathomable naivete in her eyes.  The ingenue, in other words.  But what an ingenue.  The Xena Warrior Princess of ingenues. Though since that isn’t a thing yet, she gets called Sheena Queen of the Jungle, which works about as well, even though she isn’t blonde.

Valerie is a trained archaeologist, whose passion is Mayan art, which she believes should be properly maintained and studied in its original setting–with regards to the illegal trade in Mayan artifacts, she is prone to saying things like “Despoliation!”  Kirby met her while he was romancing the curator at a party in New York, and in spite of her considerable feminine appeal, his main reaction was that she was a pest getting in the way of his spiel.  She didn’t think much of him either.  So obviously they’re going to end up together.  So obvious, in fact, Westlake doesn’t get around to hooking them up until the the story is nearly over.  Well, Shakespeare did that sometimes as well.  And we are, in case you hadn’t noticed, deep within the Tropical Forest of Arden here.

Valerie’s first hook-up (in Belize I mean, not ever, she’s no prude, sex simply wasn’t at the top of her to-do list for a while) is with Innocent St. Michael, who seduces her almost too easily, and a good time is had by all–her best to date, and maybe his too.  He’s married, but that’s rather beside the point–his marriage is a mere domestic arrangement, on both sides–his daughters want him to act his age and stop being such an old lech, but that’s daughters for you.   He likes Valerie very much–in fact, he likes people in general.

And women are people to him, strangely enough.  In post-coital mode, she expresses concern that he’ll be bragging of his conquest (he was telling her, as part of his seduction routine, that he’d had an affair with their waitress at the restaurant, engaging in sexual banter with the woman, right in front of Valerie–consciously advertising his abilities as a lover, and it worked)–well, you realize suddenly there’s more to him than you realized.  He’s many many things one might deplore, but he’s no misogynist.  Quite the contrary.

Alarmed, concerned, almost shocked, Innocent bounded to his feet with a surprising agility.  “Valerie, Valerie!”  he cried, holding her elbows, his manner totally serious for the first time since she had met him.  “We aren’t enemies!  I would never embarrass you, humiliate you!”

“But you tell everybody everything, don’t you?”

Releasing her, he said, “You mean Susie, at the restaurant?”  He grinned, relaxing, a happy bear, shaking his head.  “When I have lunch there with a businessman,” he said, “or someone from the government, do you think I tell him, a man, “I had that waitress”?  What would Susie do to me?”

“Pour your lunch on your head,” Valerie suggested.

Innocent laughed.  “You misunderstand Susie,” he said.  “She would stick a knife in my neck.”

Take notes, guys.  This is good stuff.   And well worth reviving, in the era of Facebook and ‘slut shaming.’   Men and women don’t always have the same precise interests.   Does that mean we must always be at war?  Can we not enjoy each other as nature intended without guile or subterfuge or vicious retribution? Is the question our feminine-admiring author is posing.  In point of fact, Valerie is co-protagonist with Kirby (and Innocent), but the demands of the plot force her to spend rather little time with either, as she’s off on her own journey of self-discovery.  Down the rabbit hole goes our Alice.

See, she’s there because her study of aerial photography of Belize has convinced her there’s an undiscovered temple there–on Kirby’s land.   She wants Innocent to get her out there to investigate, and he wants her to investigate so he can know if Kirby somehow got one over on him, so he arranges through his assistant Vernon to have this rather unsavory operative of theirs drive her to the site.

Vernon has his own agendas, and he’s the closest thing this book has to a villain–but a comic villain.  He’s not cut out for the role, it’s not who he really is, but he’s tired of living in Innocent’s generous shadow (I detect an echo of something Westlake said about a secretary of an editor he once knew, and you can refer to my review of A Likely Story for that if you like).  So he’s taken to spying for the Guatemalan military, Guatemala having long been of the opinion that Belize is its lost province, wrongfully stolen by the British, always looking for some way to reclaim it (still true, though it seems to be nothing more than a vague aspiration at present).

Belize, with its tiny population and basically no military at all (its policemen don’t even carry guns), would be quickly reabsorbed by that less happier land on its border, were the British to withdraw the small force of doughty Gurkha soldiers from Nepal they left behind them to keep the peace, after Belize became independent in 1981.  Yes, Guatemala is to Belize as Saint Kitts was to Anguilla in Under An English Heaven, very good, you picked up on that.  So did Westlake. Patterns can recur in reality, as well as in fiction, you know.  He’s not making this shit up, just shaping it to his purposes.

Guatemala is not pleased that many of its aboriginal inhabitants (Maya and other tribal groupings), somehow not appreciating the way they are treated by the military (which herds them around like cattle and occasionally slaughters them like same), are making their way over to Belize, where they are, almost unbelievably, greeted like long lost relations, left alone to farm the under-utilized land, and offered whatever assistance they ask for, including schools for their children.

The befuddled Indians don’t quite believe it either, but they aren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, not that they have horses, since they’re not that kind of Indian.  The Gurkha patrols who show up now and again don’t speak their tribal languages (everybody’s getting by with English, I guess), but they look just like the Indians, and they are so much more professional, so much less angry and erratic, than the soldiers these people knew in their old home.

So Vernon has been getting various things to this rather menacing Guatemalan officer who he suspects would shoot him as soon as look at him–photos of the Gurkha soldiers, maps, data on local Indian villages, nothing they could possibly use to overthrow Belize, so he’s not really doing anything wrong, he’s just earning some extra pocket money, making connections–he’s not really a traitor. Of course not.  A man’s got to get ahead in this world, right?

So when Valerie gets to Kirby’s land, sees the ‘temple’, recognizes the curator from Duluth (who cowers before this towering virago), starts shrieking “DESPOLIATION!!!” to the high heavens, while Kirby curses and waves a machete around in frustrated rage–well.  It’s too much.  She’s going to ruin everything.  She thinks everybody, including Innocent and Vernon, is in on it, whatever it may be.  She’ll run to the authorities.  Who will then find out what Vernon actually is in on.  Namely spying for a foreign power.  So Vernon’s accomplice, a skinny black man named Fred, takes her to a small cabin, where Vernon reluctantly gives the order to kill her and dispose of the body.  Then leaves, before the deed is done, cursing his fate.

Everything was coming together at once, in the most terrible way.  He had murdered Valerie Greene, yes he had, he had murdered her just as surely as if he had done it himself with his own hand.  But he was not cut out to be a murderer; too late he understood that.  He wanted to be a man with no conscience at all, and he was riddled with conscience as another man might be riddled with leprosy.  The sting of his petty treason was as nothing to the savage burn of his guilt as a murderer.

Innocent as well comes to feel the unfamiliar and entirely unwelcome sting of that pestering bee, conscience.  He doesn’t know what happened, but he knows Valerie didn’t come back, the driver she was assigned has fled the country, and Vernon is behaving strangely.  He increasingly comes to believe she is dead, and he finds himself grieving for her–he had deeper feelings for her than he would have thought possible, particularly given that they only had sex once (well, probably several times, but just one tryst).

He only pretended to care about her imaginary temples and her concerns over cultural despoliation as a means of getting to despoil her, but her damned sincerity got to him more than her lush womanly attributes did (though those certainly didn’t hurt).  She begins to become a sort of private saint to him (Westlake the Catholic boy knew too well how easily those raised in that outwardly patriarchal religion can succumb to goddess-worship).  Not suspecting Vernon at all, he assumes somehow Kirby Galway is behind her death, and he vows revenge on that murdering bastard.  And the Comedy of Errors continues.

And Valerie, of course, is not dead.  Not in a Westlake comic novel.   That should go without saying.   And you saw that quote up top, so you know damn well where she is.    Down the rabbit hole, in Wonderland.

I hadn’t meant to make this a two-parter, and I’ve got a Dortmunder coming up next, but I can see no way to finish this review in less than nine or ten thousand words, which is awfully long for a single blog article, wouldn’t you say?   It’s a 326 page book, and it’s not all travelogue.   I did my best to be brief, and as is usually the case, I fell short of the mark.  I will try to get Part 2 done very swiftly, because I hope to get Part 1 of my Dortmunder review done by next Friday.  No, I won’t say why.  I’ve got my reasons.  That’s all you need to know for now.  Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bat god bite.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized