Tag Archives: Walter Kerr

Mr. Westlake and The Masterpiece

I’m not going to attempt to define the word masterpiece.  But I do suppose that any work to which the label sticks and sticks and sticks contains at least two things: an accounting, in perfect balance, of the materials it chooses to embrace; and an accounting so complete that it amounts to a summary, of the artist’s own creative method.  The content of the work must fall into place without forcing, with simple rectitude.  And its creator must expose himself in the content as wholly as it is possible for mortal man to do.

From The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

Sometime around 1998-’99, Donald Westlake wrote a very short article, that was never published in any form, until Levi Stahl saw the manuscript, years later, and put it in The Getaway Car, under the title Light.  And in essence, this article is Westlake complaining that people, both critics and readers, liked a recent book of his far too much, bought far too many copies of it, and he doesn’t know how to react to that, or what he’s supposed to do for a follow-up.  It’s just ruined his whole career.

Westlake bemoaned the fact that before this novel came out, he was operating more or less under the radar–popular enough that he could keep getting published, but not so well-known that he was burdened with excessive expectations for his next book–he had his readers, and they were willing to indulge his whims, follow him wherever he chose to go, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they followed.  He says he kept hearing complaints from his fellow writers who had some major epochal best-selling award-winning tome come out, and then struggled to live up to it in subsequent books.

Now he says he’s experiencing some of that himself, even though his book only made the L.A. Times list for two weeks, wasn’t really a bestseller in any strict sense of the term, and there were no Pulitzers in the offing.   There should have been, but it was still slotted as a crime novel, and 1998 was the year of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, now rather belatedly at a theater near you (Westlake’s book was adapted a decade sooner, by a much better director, with a slight change of venue).

He says he wrote a lighter thing, about insurance fraud (self-evidently The Scared Stiff, later published under a pseudonym), and was told by both agent and editor that it was totally unsuitable as a follow-up.

It wasn’t just the novel under his own name that created the problem–he’d also started writing Parker novels again as Richard Stark, but see, everybody knew who Richard Stark was now–a Stark novel would be treated as a Westlake novel, no longer its own separate thing.  And the new Parker novel had been greeted with great enthusiasm, and all of a sudden he’s not the ‘Neil Simon of Mystery’ anymore, the King of the Comic Caper–a relatively light mantle to bear.  Now he’s being taken seriously, and it’s freaking him out.  He says something about it being rather late in the day to have second novel problems.

Towards the end of the piece, he’s saying that for the first time since 1970, it has become ‘inappropriate’ for him to write about John Dortmunder, “the easiest and most enjoyable part of my working life.”  I have a very hard time swallowing this claim that he was being discouraged from writing about his most popular and beloved character (whose latest adventure had been made into yet another terrible movie with inappropriately cast actors), but he makes it anyway.

Perversity, thy name is Author.

And I say perversity because I have no doubt he was complaining about the exact opposite problem a short time earlier–we’ve seen ample evidence that he wanted to find a way out of the comic caper ghetto he’d spent more and more of his time in since The Fugitive Pigeon came out in 1965 (his other most successful book, and as different from the one we’re discussing here as Philip Barry is from Eugene O’Neill).

We can now read several novels of a more serious bent that he’d lavished considerable effort on prior to this break-out book, only to learn that nobody would accept stories like this coming from him–he was also very bothered by the commercial failure of hybrid works like Kahawa, that tried to work within his established niche while still venturing far outside the lines.

Perverse, but still consistent.  Donald Westlake never wanted to wear just one hat.  He wanted as many strings to his bow as he could possibly carry.  He knew full well what a burden the expectations of the reading public can be upon a writer.  When we really like something, we always want more of the same.  We object when the storyteller wants to try something else–that’s not what you do!   Do that thing you did that we liked, and keep doing it–until we don’t like it anymore, at which point we shall call you a One Trick Pony, and pack you off to the knackers, like poor Boxer in Animal Farm.  The writer is simply supposed to sigh heavily and say “Comrade Reader is always right.  I must work harder.” And eventually drop dead in the traces.

Temperamentally, Westlake was far more a donkey than a workhorse (the Irish in him, no doubt).  He got very contrary.  He was going to work on his own terms, or not at all.  And he was going to get those Benjamins in the process (you see what I did there?).  Donkeys live a long time.  Professionally speaking, at least.

So in re-reading this little diatribe on his then-current woes as a suddenly much more successful and acclaimed Serious Writer (and don’t think for a minute he’s not bragging about this even as he’s bemoaning it, we’re wise to your tricks, Westlake!), I did experience some moments of doubt regarding numerous statements I’ve made in the course of working my way through the 80’s and early 90’s–that Westlake was chafing at the bit, feeling underrated, underappreciated, and confined to a cute comic cubbyhole. My certitude was shaken, I do confess it.

But not for very long.  Because, you see, I’ve read all the articles in The Getaway Car, and one of them was written not by Donald Westlake, but rather by Abby Westlake–the World’s Leading Authority on the many moods of her man.  And the most striking observation she made in that piece was that Westlake’s outward personality tics would change, depending on which literary mode he was in, which alter-ego, he was writing as (and given that this piece was originally published in 1977, it seems evident that sometimes he’d be writing (and living) as one of these alter-egos even when he wasn’t publishing anything under that particular nom de plume).

Tucker Coe, she observes–

–is the gloomy one, almost worse to have around the house than Richard Stark.  We see Tucker Coe when things go wrong.  The bills can’t be paid because the inefficient worlds of publishing and show business have failed to come up with the money to pay them.  Children are rude, noisy, dishonest, lazy, loutish, and above, all, ungrateful; suddenly you wonder what you ever saw in them.  Ex-wives are mean and grasping.  Cars break down, houses betray you, plants refuse to live, and it rains on the picnic.

But remember, she said almost worse–when Stark is in control–

Children tremble, women weep and the cat hides under the bed.  Whereas Tucker Coe is morose and self-pitying, Stark has no pity for anyone.  Stark is capable of not talking to anyone for days, or, worse yet, of not talking to one particular person for days while still seeming cheerful and friendly with everyone else.  Stark could turn Old Faithful to ice cubes.  Do you know how Parker, when things aren’t going well, can sit alone in a dark room for hours or days without moving?  Stark doesn’t do this–that would be too unnerving–but he can play solitaire for hours on end.  He plays very fast, turns over the cards one at a time, and goes through the deck just once.  He never cheats and doesn’t seem to care if the game never comes out.  It is not possible to be in the same room with him while he’s doing this without being driven completely up the wall.

And to some extent, even ‘Donald E. Westlake’–just another alter-ego.  No more or less real than the others.  Perhaps a bit more grounded, more complex–and more genial.  Certainly far easier to live with.  Is it a mere coincidence that of his three marriages, the one that lasted was the one embarked upon as Coe and Stark faded into the background for a very long time?  I’m sure it was more than that.  But going by his third wife’s own words, how long could you live with somebody who alternated between Stark and Coe all the damn time?

So in the light of these revelations, we can say with authority that it was ‘Donald E. Westlake’ who wrote that little article complaining about his newfound success–and then wisely shelved it for posterity to discover at a later date.  The part of him that was Coe, that was Stark (and we could throw in Curt Clark, who I don’t think ever went away completely either; Humans is proof of that, and maybe this book we’re talking about now as well)–those more somber personas could not live on a diet of non-stop whimsy, farcical felonies, mingled with satiric social observations.

Farce and satire and observational comedy were vital components of Westlake’s talent, his character–they weren’t everything he had to offer.  Like any man who knows what’s funny, he also knows what isn’t.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Westlake was spared the final age–second infancy–by a sudden and untimely death, but we can see the middle ages reflected throughout his mature work.   The Lover, the Soldier, the Justice, and maybe even a bit of the lean slippered pantaloon towards the end.  Certainly much of the whining schoolboy in his very early stuff.

In effect, he was complaining in that article he never published about having finally achieved the Bubble Reputation–something he both desired and feared, because he knew how fame and success can undermine identity, trap you inside a false self, cut you off from your muse (and it’s not only artists who need muses–we all have them, little as we heed them most of the time).

I have that Walter Kerr quote up top (he’s talking about Chaplin and City Lights) because I think this is the one book of Westlake’s that embodies what Kerr was getting at there, with his typical incisiveness.  But I don’t think this is Westlake’s only masterpiece, by any means.  I’m sure we’d all come up with different lists.

You can see part of mine in the cover images I chose, but I couldn’t very well put all of them up there.  Man wrote a lot of good books.   And if you look closely, many of them can be perceived in the framework of this book.  Many of his scattered identities.  He was bringing the whole chorus to bear here, as he had never done before, nor ever would again.

361, about a young man whose already tenuous sense of self is undone by the loss of his family, and in taking arms against a sea of troubles, he finds out who he really is.  For better or worse.  Probably both.  The first unequivocally great Westlake novel, that was composed around the same time as The Hunter, which took the Vendetta as Identity Crisis angle to a whole new level.  To some extent, that cover is standing in for all the Parker novels–collectively, they may well be Westlake’s best work, but because Parker isn’t really one of us, there are certain limitations to what can be expressed with them.  They were written in third person, but please note–all the other books I’m referencing up top featured first person narrators–like the current book.

It was also around this time that Westlake started writing Anarchaos, which I’ll say once more is highly reminiscent of our current book (I’m really stalling about naming it, aren’t I?  What am I so scared of?).  A man is at war with an entire planet, with a brutish nasty and short way of life that chewed up his brother and spat him out, and he’s going to make them all pay.  It’s science fiction, so the protagonist can find a way to destroy that society, punish it collectively for its crimes–but once you’re outside that realm, your options get narrower, if not necessarily less extreme.

Then came Adios, Scheherazade, (still bafflingly and unforgivably out of print), which as I explained in my review, is about a man who loses the whole world and gains his immortal soul.  Much of Westlake’s 1997 book was prefigured in this early underappreciated masterwork, with a crucial exception–this book’s protagonist is headed in the opposite direction.  To hell with his soul, he wants his world back, by any means necessary.  Another first person narrative.

As were the five Mitch Tobin novels, of which I’d consider the third and fourth to be unquestionable masterpieces–the first and second come close, the fifth was just a good read.  But in Wax Apple most of all, he captured an element of pure despair–of human beings separated from each other by yawning gulfs of perception, that corruption of identity that is mental illness. A detective comes and solves the mystery, sure–and who does that help?   The detective, perhaps, but the underlying problems remain unsolved, waiting for an answer that may never come.  Tucker Coe is most of all about empathy, understanding, judging not lest ye be judged, striving to live up to Terence’s brave declaration, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  But the book we’re about to explore is more along the lines of “Homo homini lupus.”  Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It must have hurt to write it.  Westlake in this vein reminds me of no American writer so much as Eugene O’Neill, another black Irishman.  When it came time for O’Neill to write his defining work, the one about his family, we are told he would be sitting at the typewriter with tears of anguish in his eyes, opening old wounds in his soul, exposing himself as fully as it is possible for mortal man to do (Walter Kerr had some things to say about that play as well).  This work is far less autobiographical, but Westlake also had some family ghosts to exorcise within it.

I wonder how easy Westlake was to live with when he was writing this novel.  I’m sure Abby Westlake was exaggerating somewhat for humorous effect, but I’m equally sure she wasn’t just making it up out of whole cloth.  If it was hard to live with just one of these guys, imagine a house full of them.

And that’s what would have been going on, because in the writing this book, there was not one man hammering away at the Smith Corona, but a host of them.  Stark, Coe, Clark, and in the keen social observations, maybe even that shameless hack Culver.  All the voices within him, joined together at that moment to make a chilling and poignant statement about what they saw happening around them at that moment in time.  And yes, this is how things are.

But is this how things must be, always?   If we can’t be honest with ourselves, then yes.  To change a thing, you must know a thing first.  It’s always better to know.  Better, and harder.

And having ascended to that barren windswept plateau, he came back down, and never wrote anything nearly so revelatory again.  There were many good books to come, but he’d expended something that could not be regenerated.  And perhaps that whimsical little piece he wrote about how awful it is to be taken seriously as a writer after four decades of being dismissed as a genre scribbler–perhaps that was him admitting that he didn’t have another book like this in him.  He’d shot his bolt, hit the bullseye, and what followed was more along the lines of shoring up his existing legacy.

To know you have already done your best work is to begin preparing for death. Which was only eleven short years away.   Eleven years, seventeen novels, and a few story collections.  Including plenty of Dortmunder stories, because the clown in him could never be killed.  Referring back to Walter Kerr again, I’d say it was the clown that had kicked the tragic hero awake.  And now they’d all make one last run together.  Donald Westlake was going into his kick.

Let swing the Bloody Ax.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, though pretty sure this one’s never going to be forgotten.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

Review: Good Behavior, Part 3 (God help us)

“Lie down with wolves, you get up with toothmarks.”

Frank Ritter sat at his desk in the corner office suite of Margrave Corporation and studied this addition he’d just made to his commonplace book.  Was that truly an aphorism?  Possibly it was merely a low-level epigram, or even, God help us, just a joke. Ritter didn’t like crossing things out in his commonplace book, it made for a sloppy appearance, but this particular statement, well….

In his dream, Dortmunder walked a tightrope between two tall towers.  Instead of a balancing pole, he carried a long heavy lance, tipping first to the left, then to the right. And the tightrope itself was made of long blonde hair.  In the arched window at the top of the stone tower out in front he could see the girl whose hair this was, still attached to her head, long and braided and looped between the two towers; from the strained and painful expression on her face, she didn’t much like what was going on.

The tale is well-known of the Spartan who said to her son as he was going out to battle ‘Come back with your shield–or on it’: for to throw away one’s shield was the ultimate disgrace.  But Archilochus could write cheerfully–setting a literary fashion that Horace followed more than five hundred years later:

Some lucky Thracian has my noble shield:
I had to run; I dropped it in a wood.
But I got clear away, thank God! So hang
The shield! I’ll get another, just as good.

There is something very attractive about Ionian life.

From The Greeks, by H.D.F. Kitto. 

This book has been one long exercise in creative anachronism, and the same could be said of many another Westlake novel, and arguably Westlake’s entire literary career (conducted as it was on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century).

But his anachronisms of choice were typically more out of Dashiell Hammett and Warner Brothers gangster movies than medieval ballads and romances.  Seeing as he does that we are sliding inexorably back towards feudalism, all over the world, something he hopes can still be forestalled, he’s chosen feudal figures (like robber barons), and feudal institutions (like convents) to tell this story.

And for his champion, to take the place of We The People in the lists, he’s chosen John Dortmunder, a smalltime thief and (let’s face it) a devotee of practical cowardice, who wants no part of this fight, has no discernible politics or beliefs of any kind (other than that everybody but him is nuts, and can you blame him?) Because he’s an individualist, sure. But also because sometimes you need to see through the eyes of someone normally standing outside the scrum of a social conflict, to see that fight clearly, distinguish its outlines.

I said last time that maybe this is the Dortmunderian equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (the only other book to date I’ve done a three part review of).  Unquestionably Parker’s greatest epic, and his greatest triumph–where he is, basically, going up against a feudal institution, namely a branch of the Mafia that controls an entire midwestern town, with well-placed vassals everywhere along the lines of power–but still needing to be wary of the looming if often ineffectual forces of law & order, as a medieval baron would need to be wary of incurring the wrath of a  distant king or emperor, who might assert what would otherwise be mere nominal authority at any time, given enough of an opening.

And Parker basically finds their weak spots and exploits them–if they really did have absolute power, he couldn’t win.  But in any society, no matter how seemingly monolithic, there are always struggles going on beneath the surface, fissures in the lines of power. If you are not strong, you had best be cunning.  He sees that he can strike at their sources of revenue, and they can’t effectively strike back without making themselves vulnerable to the law, right before an election they’re out to fix.  Then, as they huddle in one place, trying to wait him out, he can finish them off.

But for all that he needs allies, and that’s the crucial scene in the book–where Parker has called in some fellow wolves to serve as his army of the night, drawn by the smell of an easy kill (lots of badly guarded cash), but he has to convince them to help him with an additional goal–the rescue of Alan Grofield, being held prisoner at the home (this is America, so redundant to say castle) of the local mob lord.

The assembled uber-heisters don’t see why they should stick their necks out for Grofield, who most of them don’t even know, but somehow Parker shames them into it.  They’re not doing it out of nobility, or altruism, or even professional courtesy.  They’re doing it because to do otherwise would be–disappointing.  There are times when you have to stand up and fight the bastards, if you’re going to respect yourself in the morning.   It’s not Quixotic, because Don Quixote picks fights where no fight exists, sees enemies where there are no enemies.  There are real giants in this world, you know.  They’re not all windmills (though damn, there are a lot of actual windmills lately).

Dortmunder is akin to Parker in many ways, not least in his caustic view of humankind, but he’s not Parker.  Parker is of the old Doric strain, simple, unadorned–stark.   A Spartan, you might say, except a Spartan is a cog in a machine, a servitor of the state–Parker is not so constrained, being a polis of one, answerable to no one but himself.  A wolf in human form has no government (though he may still pay taxes to one, just to blend into the herd).

Dortmunder is likewise unique, a coyote in human form as I see him, but no Spartan he.  No, I’d say Dortmunder is clearly Ionic, not to mention ironic.  He’d drop that shield and run in a New York minute.  There is something very attractive about his view of life.  And his deep attachment to it.   But the real Ionians were not opposed to fighting on general principle; simply much less anal about it than the real Spartans, who left us great stories of their martial valor (told by other Greeks) and pretty much nothing else.

Archilochus, the Ionian poet, was a citizen soldier, a hoplite–he wrote that poem I posted up top from hard experience.   He fought when he had to, and he ran when he had to, and if he left a shield behind sometimes (those things were damned heavy), that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d leave a friend–or someone he owed a favor.  Honor may have no skill in surgery, but it does make life more tolerable at times.  We all draw the line in different places.  (Yes, I know this isn’t remotely medieval–Archilochus or Shakespeare–but I can be anachronistic too, can’t I?)

So out of what I suppose we’ll have to call a sense of honor, pricked on a bit by the profit motive (and the fear of May’s disapproval, because seriously without the need to impress women, men would never have gotten anything done), Dortmunder has led his merry band of heisters into the Avalon State Bank Tower, to grab some loot and rescue a nun, in that order.

Wilbur Howey has disabled the alarm systems, Tiny Bulcher has kicked down some doors, Andy Kelp has learned how to make a bouquet appear out of a trick cane he got from a magic shop, and honestly I don’t know why Stan Murch is even in this one, since there’s basically no driving, but he’s always good company.  And Dortmunder, the only one with a debt of honor to pay, has ventured up to the restricted topmost floors of the tower, where a heavily panting Wilbur (lots of stairs) has gotten him past the main door, and Dortmunder figures he can handle any lesser locks easily.

What he didn’t figure on was that there’d be a meeting of mercenaries Frank Ritter is hiring for the purpose of overthrowing a pesky Latin American dictator who wouldn’t play ball with him.  Dortmunder gets mistaken for  one of them (coyotes can easily be mistaken for wolves if you don’t look closely), and is forced to sit in a small auditorium with this horde of ravening beasts of prey, eagerly anticipating the sweet joys of rapine, and the whole scene is mightily reminiscent of one from The Spy In The Ointment, but never mind that now.

The gist is that he’s terrified but he does his best to pretend like he belongs there, making light conversation with the heavily tattooed psycho with the Soldier of Fortune subscription who is sitting next to him, and he prays not to be discovered, and of course he is.   And then the lights go out, and he runs like hell for the door, and the mercenary comandante, fellow named Pickens (and he ain’t slim), fires a Finnish-made automatic rifle in his direction, but only succeeds in slightly wounding him with some splinters created by the bullets, and in creating holy hell inside the darkened room full of trained killers.

(If this were a Parker novel, I’d most definitely post an image of the gun in question now, which is an M-60 Valmet, basically an AK-47 only not, but this is a Dortmunder, and I’d feel silly doing that, so I won’t.)

So this is where we left off–with Dortmunder learning that the nun he’s here to rescue, Sister Mary Grace (nee Eileen Ritter, Frank’s daughter, and she pretends to vomit every time someone reminds her of that filial relationship), has in fact rescued him, by turning the lights off, and leading him eventually to her room, which she’s not supposed to be able to get out of but she can anyway.  But now they’re both trapped, and as soon as the chaos they’ve unleashed subsides, there are going to be search parties of mercenaries and Ritter’s security men looking for them, and they have nowhere to run.

And cutting ahead, Dortmunder is eventually found hiding in a dishwasher.  Don’t ask.  Seriously, don’t.  You shouldn’t even be reading this if you haven’t read the book yet.  If you have, you know better than to ask. Suffice it to say Archilochus would be proud.  Though he might have a hard time finding a rhyme for dishwasher.

All is lost.  Dortmunder will be interrogated and disposed of.   Sister Mary Grace, having resisted the gentler methods of a cult deprogrammer, will be placed under the care of an Eastern Bloc expert on what might be politely termed behavior modification, along with what I believe is now called ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ in certain intelligence circles (Westlake must have loved that), until she renounces everything she believes and swears fealty to her father, and if she’s still breathing when it’s over, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll still be alive.   When Frank Ritter talks about how he’s bringing back feudalism for a return engagement, he’s not talking about some sissy Renaissance Fair.

And Dortmunder’s summer soldiers and sunshine patriots down below, having turned J.C. Taylor’s office into something that looks like the mail-order equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave, are disinclined to intervene on his behalf, as they watch squads of security men and soldiers with automatic rifles running back and forth looking for him and the nun.  If any of them were to entertain any brief tender feelings towards their absent chum, Tiny Bulcher stands ready to remind them how permanently tender he could make them feel if they risk his freedom and this beautiful score over a guy who should have stuck to what he knew, namely stealing.

Now.  You remember what Professor Kitto, that erudite Cornishman, said about the Spartan mother who famously told her war-bound offspring “With your shield or on it.”  Tiger-mom indeed, but there are even more formidable females to be found in the annals of legend, and one of them is entering the office right now, and it happens to be her office.   Even she’s a bit impressed by the piles of treasure being prepared for shipping, but she covers it well, and she wants to know where ‘the guy with the worry lines’ is.  She can’t remember his name.  Tiny wants to know what she’s even doing there over the weekend.

“I wanted to check on things,” she said, and shrugged.  Monsters didn’t intimidate her, she’d worked with them all her adult life.  “Where’s the other one?” she repeated.  “Dort-whatever.”

“Munder,” Kelp said.

“Gone,” Tiny Bulcher said.  “Like you.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Gentle down, big fella,” she told him, and turned to Howey, the most malleable of them.  “Where is he, Wilbur?”

“Well, say,” Howey told her, and threw a worried glance at Tiny, “he’s gone, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

Tiny said, “He went upstairs to get the nun and he didn’t come down, so that’s it.”

“Nun?”

Kelp said, “It’s very simple,” and then proceeded to tell her a story that wasn’t simple at all.  For some strange reason, there was a nun imprisoned at the top of the tower.  For some other strange reason, Dortmunder had to go rescue her.  The whole robbery business was to pay for partners to help in the rescue of the nun.  Last night, Dortmunder went away to rescue the nun, and so far he hadn’t come back.

J.C. said, “And?”

Everybody shifted around uneasily.  The others all glanced at Tiny Bulcher, who said belligerently, “And nothing.  He’s on his own.”

Slowly she looked him up and down.  “So that’s why they call you Tiny,” she said.  With a graceful sweeping gesture of the arm that she’d learned in ballet class at the age of four–J.C. Taylor was not always as we see her now–she indicated the king’s ransom strewn helter-skelter around the room. “Dort-whatever brought you all this, she said, voice dripping with scorn, “and now you’re going to just leave him.”

She could care less about some stupid shield.  But without your friend?  Without your partner?  Walk away from somebody who led you to a good score?  Maybe this is just that frustrated romanticism in her I referred to, some remnant of an earlier life, before the world got hard and mean for her–or maybe something older, and colder–maybe she’s the Parker in this story.   There are things you just don’t do.   When you’re working with somebody, certain things are expected of you, certain unwritten laws must be observed.  If you want to go on thinking of yourself as a man or woman to reckon with.  And when a woman like Josephine Carol Taylor implies that you’re not, what wouldn’t you do to prove her wrong?

So yeah, this is very much an alternate universe version of Parker’s speech in Butcher’s Moon (which is why I quoted it at length).  I’ve no doubt Westlake recognized it as such.  And it has much the same effect, only J.C. Taylor isn’t Parker, and she doesn’t have some perfect plan of attack worked out in her head–the planner is being hauled out of a dishwasher upstairs, and held for interrogation.

So they have to do it on the fly, improvise.  Wilbur’s lock-magic gets them into the hidden private elevator leading to the penthouse suite Dortmunder is being held in.  J.C. doesn’t really need to come along, but she wants to, and who’s going to tell her no?  Tiny has surrendered any attempt to pretend he’s not utterly in her thrall.  The beauty has tamed the beast (who will never seem quite so beastly again).  And now she’s leading him and his friends to the top of a Manhattan skyscraper where there are many machine guns waiting.  Hopefully this works out better than the last time.   Well, that was a different gorilla.  And J.C. is no Fay Wray.

While all this is going on, Pickens is getting ready to resort to various extreme persuasive measures to get Dortmunder (who is calling himself Smith, because hey, there are people named Smith) to talk–and if you’re not the romantic type, here’s an actual pragmatic reason for the crew to come get him.  He might just crack under torture, and spill the beans about their location, and they’re not ready to make their getaway yet–they’d have to leave the boodle behind.  So this really is the smart move, as well as the right one.  And since when does the Dortmunder gang ever think that far ahead?

But somebody up there likes them (and we know who)–as they come out of the elevator, they meet up with Sister Mary Grace.   She tells them where Dortmunder is, and that there are ten armed mercenaries in there with him.  More than even Tiny could handle all at once, but he’s going to try anyway for J.C.’s sake  (man’s in love).  Sister Mary Grace, still bound by her oath of silence, writes them a note.  She’s got a plan.   A very un-nunly plan, you ask me.

As Dortmunder’s hand is about to make the acquaintance of a hot stove, one of the mercenaries says he just saw a topless woman in the doorway.  It’s not the nun.  Others say they saw her too.  Then a little old man moons them.  Okay, Pickens humors them, sends out scouts.  The scouts do not return.  Then one, named Ringo, does return–as a hostage, only his captors remain outside.  He’s bringing terms of surrender.  Pickens’ surrender.  Dortmunder, now pretending to be the black sheep of the Ritter family to buy time, is feeling suddenly encouraged–bewildered but encouraged.

In warfare, morale is everything–even the best soldiers are worthless when confused, off-balance, scared.  And these mercenaries are not the best soldiers by a long shot, just the most unscrupulous and crazed, which is decidedly not the same thing.  They don’t know what’s happening, their nerve is cracking, and Pickens figures he’s got to set an example to restore order in the ranks.  He issues a most medieval challenge.  Seems there’s a little romantic in everybody.

“One-on-one,” Pickens shouted, and started pulling handguns out of his clothing and slapping them down on the butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen; three guns in all.  “A fair fight, goddamnit,” he yelled, “like the old days, like the knights!  Send out your best man, damn you to hell and back, no guns, no weapons at all!  I’ll met him one-on-one, and if I beat him, you surrender to me, whoever the hell you are!  But if he beats me, I’ll surrender my entire company!”

Ringo moved backward, and from around the corner came Tiny Bulcher, stepping into the doorway, filling it, arms at his sides, carnivorous eyes on the blanching Pickens.  “You called?” Tiny asked.

(Myself, I would have gone with “You rang?” but maybe Tiny never watched that show.)

Thus endeth Pickens’ charge.  Westlake doesn’t show us the fight, or even tell us if there was one.  But we can guess.  The whole free company threw down their weapons and wet their khakis, with perfect military precision.

And elsewhere in his besieged citadel, Frank Ritter’s certainty is beginning to crack as well–first the chaos of this search, the unleashed dogs of war he’d hired humiliating and beating up his security men, then the disappearance of his daughter from what was supposed to be her cell, and now suddenly the police are there responding to a call from some woman named Hannah McGillicuddy (I wonder if that’s J.C.’s real name?) saying there’s mercenaries running around with illegal guns in an office building, crazy story, right?

Ritter, still seeing himself as the Lord of the Manor, employs his usual intimidation tactics on them, the ones that work so well with browbeaten underlings.  You can say a lot of things about New York City cops, good and bad, but no one could ever say they respond well to intimidation tactics from civilians.   The cop in charge looks at Ritter, and you can guess what he’s thinking.  Amateur.

So that could have been the end of the story, right there, cut to the epilogue.  The mercs are led away in handcuffs, Ritter’s South American scheme is going to be exposed, and probably even he doesn’t have enough friends to get him out of this one.  What’s more, he’s on the hook for all the stuff Dortmunder & Co. stole from his tenants.  (Meaning that no honest people were hurt by the robbery, how come this wasn’t a movie?)   The lesson from medieval history that he forgot was that feudal barons themselves often ended up imprisoned in towers, when they overestimated their importance within the overall scheme of things.  Lucky for him the headsman hasn’t made a comeback yet.

Dortmunder and the rest are addressing packages full of booty (not that kind of booty, shiver me timbers, dueling slang definitions can be irritating), to be sent to various locations where it can be claimed later.  J.C. is going to take Sister Mary Grace dressed in Wilbur’s clothing (ew) and a false mustache out the front door.  J.C. and Tiny are suddenly quite chummy–he’s calling her Josie.  And she seems to like it.  Well, a tame monster is a useful accessory for any woman in her line of work, and he did prove himself to her.  All’s well that ends well, right?  Dortmunder is confused.  Isn’t something supposed to go wrong now, so they don’t get the money?

His suspicions are well-founded.  Westlake isn’t quite done with the gang yet.  See, the police are searching the tower, floor by floor, and they can’t get out, or explain their presence, or hide the loot well enough to foil a determined search.  They made too much noise–unavoidable, to be sure.  But now it looks like they’re caught.  Tiny is backsliding into I Told You So mode.  And here comes the scene that really makes me wonder how this wasn’t a movie.

Dortmunder still hasn’t actually saved anybody, you know–that’s the problem, and that’s why the story isn’t over yet.  He’s got to come up with a plan for the Exodus.  He does.  They call in the nuns.   Turns out that even though this isn’t Thursday, and the oath of silence is in force, there’s always one nun on phone duty at the convent, in case of emergencies.  The sisters pile into a rickety bus, and head for the tower.  Maria’s Messenger Riding.

J.C., in music mogul mode, passes them off as a religious choir making a recording for her.  They are rapturously reunited with their beloved Sister Mary Grace, who is once more wearing her habit, restored to her true self.   But they brought a lot of extra habits with them, in all sizes–even Tiny Bulcher’s size.  Do you believe this?  Seriously?  A convent has a nun’s outfit that can fit Tiny Freakin’ Bulcher?

Here’s where I think maybe Westlake loses his fine control–the ending is what, for me, keeps this from being in quite the same league as the very best Dortmunders.  It’s maybe a bit too cute, too busy.  But that’s what happens when you send in the nuns.  Comes with the territory.  And it worked fine up until this point.  But just a little too much mass appeal, pardon the pun.  I have this suspicion Westlake never stopped wondering why there wasn’t a movie.  But two movies of Two Much!  You can go nuts trying to figure Hollywood out.  Many have.

So nobody notices there’s a few more nuns leaving than entering.  Inspector Francis Mologna, still in disgrace after his last encounter with Dortmunder in Why Me?, is officially in charge of the search operation, as well as talking to the media (he hates talking to the media).  If he knew Dortmunder was passing right under his nose in a nun’s habit, no telling what he’d do, other than it would involve Dortmunder falling down a lot of stairs.  But of course the Inspector’s too busy ogling J.C.

Westlake can never end on a purely sentimental note.   Sister Mary Grace certainly believes her saviors deserve to profit from their efforts.  Her father will have to pay for it all anyway, and the laborer is worthy of his hire.  That’s in the bible.  Somewhere.  But you might say she tithes them a bit.  While helping them address boxes and envelopes, she redirected some of the treasure to the revolutionaries in Guerrara, via the U.N.  So the gang still gets a nice payday–but quite a bit less nice than it would have been.

And Dortmunder is still brooding about that small betrayal, as he and May soak up the sun in Aruba, months later.  (It’s not the Ionian Aegean, but it’ll do.) Dortmunder is lying on a towel with a picture of Elmer Fudd on it.  May is reading in Newsweek (remember Newsweek?) that General Pozos has been ousted, packed off to exile in Miami, without any help from Frank Ritter, so the people there will have a shot at building a real democracy of their own, instead of a corporate client state.  Ritter isn’t jailed yet, but he’s too tied up defending himself in court to do much of anything else.

You’re a hero of the people, John Dortmunder!  Conqueror of warlords,  liberator of nuns, restorer of justice!  What are you going to do now?  Later, we know you’re going to blow all that money on slow horses at the track–May asks you about that, and you make evasive noises. But having started all this by trying to rob an importer of fancy delectables that you fully intended to sample yourself before delivering them to a crooked wholesaler, what would be your pleasure at this rare moment of triumph, champion of the downtrodden, defender of the meek?

Dortmunder lay back on Elmer Fudd, with his hands under his head.  Through the dark glasses he looked at the blue sky.  The lines of his face shifted themselves around, making accomodation for a smile.  “I think I’ll have caviar,” he said.

Caviar!  Caviar for the champion!  And a Daily Racing Form!   Because a rich Dortmunder is no fun at all.

So granting the thesis that this is Dortmunder’s equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (and much as I like it, I like Butcher’s Moon better, even without the nuns and the more overtly medieval metaphors and J.C. Taylor), did this mean Westlake was hitting a wall with Dortmunder too, searching, perhaps not entirely consciously, for a fitting way to end the series?

This much we can say for sure, there were no more Dortmunder novels for five years, and the next one is certainly a lot more dark and serious, and a whole lot less fun for the gang.  It’s also really long and convoluted, and I will not make that review a four-parter, I swear by all that’s holy.

With the exception of the final Levine story, I doubt Westlake ever wrote any book about one of his series characters with the express intention of never writing another one about that character.  (The series I’m reviewing next may prove the exception, but that had nothing to do with the character.)

I think he did sometimes aim to sort of temporarily exorcise a character from his head, so he could concentrate on other things, and sometimes he just didn’t return to that character, because there was nothing left to say with him or her. But even if there was, he needed a break, a time-out, and so he felt like he had to put a bit extra into the book to tide everybody over until the comeback.  Call it an act of propitiation–to the character and to his readership.

Given half a chance, a big part of his audience would cheerfully badger him into writing nothing but Dortmunder novels for the rest of his life, and that’s not what he wants.  So he put Dortmunder aside, as he put Parker aside, the difference being that when he tried to return to Parker later on, he found that he couldn’t write effectively in the Stark voice anymore.  The comic voice remained active, so he could return to Dortmunder at will, once he’d found a story–but the next Dortmunder is by far the most Starkian of the bunch, mingled with other and maybe even darker influences.

Now I was mean to Newgate Callendar in Part 2 (fellow never did me any harm), and I’ve often been a bit dismissive of professional reviewers in general, and gee I wonder why?  But let it be said that America has produced some truly great critics, who look deep below the surface of our various entertainments.  I’m going to conclude with a passage from Tragedy and Comedy, a book by Walter Kerr, husband of Jean, one of the finest drama critics of his or any generation.   He also wrote The Silent Clowns, probably the best book ever written about the first cinematic comedians, who I’ve mentioned before have much in common with Dortmunder, and I’ve never thought that a coincidence, but it’s much more than an homage.

Kerr said that tragedy and comedy are linked–two sides, one coin.  Comedy was a reaction to tragedy.  We told dark stories of bloody retribution and catharsis before we invented the clown to take the edge off.  The clown sprung from the tragic hero, only to mock him, cast doubt upon his validity.  But without the hero, there is no clown, and true heroes–even anti-heroes–are getting dangerously thin on the ground, while clowns proliferate ceaselessly, which made Kerr worry that the balance between the two was being lost.  And now I’m going to type out an outrageously long quote:

Pain is common to both forms and is so far from being a distinguishing mark between them that it actually attests to their close relationship.  The contest that is going on in a play–its agon–is an agony whether in a comedy or a tragedy.  It so happens that the theatrical use of the term agon derives from comedy rather than tragedy.

But the pain of comedy is possibly more protracted and more frustrating than that of tragedy, because it does not know how to expel itself.  Tragedy’s pain is productive; it comes of the abrasiveness of moving forward toward transformation.  Comedy, making capital of the absurdity of seeking transformation, must forever contain its pain.  By denying freedom it denies release.  Tragedy uses suffering; comedy can only live with it, that is to say, against the possible day when tragedy, in an ultimately successful transformation, frees them both.  Comedy, hugging the fox to its breast, stays close to tragedy against that possible, eternally doubted, day.

But this interior anguish of comedy, this intense impatience and exasperation with self, in itself becomes an energy.  Dissatisfaction with self is a goad, perhaps the most powerful goad man knows.  The tragic hero courageously, sometimes presumptiously, even wrongly, takes up arms to advance the self; the clown, holding back as he must if he is to be a clown, retains the dissatisfaction as a canker which can neither be expelled nor quieted.  Impatience kicks and thrashes inside the clown, like a violent baby in the womb that cannot bring itself to term.

It is just this powerful agitation that is, in the end, comedy’s strongest assurance of survival.  Detesting its work while half despising itself for being so good at it, finding its limited situation intolerable even while it is being applauded for the hilarity it provokes in so accurately describing the situation, comedy burns with a fever that may prove unquenchable.  Transforming anger into laughter abates the anger temporarily, slightly; it does not remove its causes.  The causes fester, seek expression in any which way, generate activity.  If we have seen comedy cropping up on all sides in all hues in our time, willing to offer itself as a sacrifice to seriousness or to paint itself black where it was once too carelessly thought to be a painter of rainbows, it is because it can never be content to lie fallow in the face of the contempt it feels for itself.  Comedy may keep kicking, because it cannot help kicking out at itself.  And because it owes everything to tragedy, both the original gift of a thing to be parodied and also the only ultimate promise of a new state of being in which all private exasperations and secret despairs will be melted away in the annealing passage through time and space, it must keep kicking to see if it can kick tragedy awake.

The clown screams at his sleeping companion.  He wants him up and on with it.  Once he has got him up, if he ever succeeds, he will of course tell him his activity is absurd.  But he wants it to be absurd.  Only the tragic absurdity is capable of transcending itself.

What a good man the clown is, to endure so much, to survive so relentlessly, to keep us company in all weathers, to provide us with a way of looking at the worst that enables us to take a temporary joy in the worst!  For that is what he does: he stands horror on its head to keep us tolerably happy against the day when tragedy will look horror straight in the eye and stare it down.

What a good man John Dortmunder is, to keep us company, yes.  But the day will come, and not so far away, when he will succeed in kicking Parker awake, and then they shall briefly pull together in the traces, coyote and wolf, as a writer of many seemingly conflicting voices, his final moments approaching fast, prepares to stare down death itself.

But in the meantime, that writer is going to try creating yet another voice, an endeavor that will ultimately fail, but the question for us is whether that was entirely his failure, and whether there is something worth salvaging from the wreckage.  Let’s talk about it.

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