Tag Archives: Watch Your Back!

Review: Watch Your Back!, Part 2

richard-estes-amsterdam-avenue-and-96th-street

“I’m a guy goes to the O.J. sometimes,” Dortmunder said, “and I thought you oughta know what’s happening there.”

“I’m here,” Otto Medrick told him, “so I don’t hafta know what’s happening there, I got family looking after it.”

“No, you don’t,” Dortmunder said. “Your nephew Raphael, I have to tell you the truth, I met him, and I don’t think he could look after a pet rock.”

“Yeah, you met him all right,” Medrick agreed. “But there’s the rest of the family, his mother, cousins by the dozens.”

“Nobody,” Dortmunder said. “Whatever they’re supposed to be doing, they’re busy doing something else.”

“By God, that sounds like those useless sonsabitches,” Medrick said, and peered all at once more closely into Dortmunder’s face. “I bet,” he said, “you’re one a them back-room crooks.”

Many years ago, I made a mighty vow that I would never write two novels about John Dortmunder in a row, but would always write at least two books about other people and other things in between. The reason was, I didn’t want to overwork John, me or the reader. So far, I think the system has worked pretty well.

So what happened? After The Road to Ruin, clearly, I was supposed to write two non-John novels, and yet, Watch Your Back! is absolutely about Dortmunder, Kelp and all the rest of them. And what happened was, this was the only story I could think about. I resisted, I tried to come up with something else, but the brain refused to move until I had cleared it of this idea. So I hope it’s gonna be all right. I leave it to the reader to judge.

A word about that exclamation point. Generally speaking, I don’t much hold with exclamation points, and certainly not in titles, but some time after I decided this book was called Watch Your Back!, it occurred to me that there are two meanings for that phrase, the American meaning and the New York meaning (America and New York are always at odds, so why not here?), and it was the New York meaning I meant. In America, “watch your back” means be careful, someone means to do you harm. In New York, it means, “Comin’ through!” Move over, in other words, or get hurt. I added the exclamation point in an attempt to juke the reader toward the New York meaning. But whatever you think the title means, I hope you like the story. ~DEW

(Filched from The Official Westlake Blog.)

What did happen?  Leaving aside that What Happened? wouldn’t be a half bad Dortmunder title, following in the tradition of Why Me?, What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, and the penultimate novel we’ve yet to cover.  Westlake liked taking familiar turns of phrase and standing them on their heads.  But why is it a man who had so many novel ideas for novels couldn’t just knock off another standalone, and give his two larcenous franchise boys a break?

As we’ve discussed, his powers were slowly ebbing, his recent attempts to break new ground hadn’t mainly worked out (often to the point of his not even finding a publisher for them), the 21st century was perhaps not entirely to his taste, and even though he was writing as Richard Stark again, this didn’t satisfy his personal and professional need to publish under his birth name.

His memory is a bit selective here–his final seven novels were all Parkers or Dortmunders after 2003’s Money For Nothing (and that title sounds like a Dortmunder too, doesn’t it?)  Ask The Parrot wasn’t ready for 2005 so this ended up being the only book he published that year.  In fact, 2004 was the last year he published more than one book–in the 60’s, he’d routinely come out with seven per annum.

I suppose I ought to take him at his word when he says the title means “Comin’ Through!”–a phrase I have yet to hear in that context from any New Yorker.  What you hear from all the wannabe Lance Armstrongs coming up fast behind you in the park, on their $5,000 racing machines, is “To your Left!” If you can’t process that direction-based directive quickly enough, too bad for you and your bones.

If somebody’s comin’ through, that means you better watch your back, or harm will befall you.  The exclamation point makes it more assertive (and therefore, more New York).  He knew the title had a double meaning, as so many of his titles did.  Believe what writers of fiction tell you in their fiction.  That’s where they tell the truth about themselves.  But it’s for we the readers to divine that truth, so let’s get back to it.

I think I’ll go back to the titled subheadings approach now, which tends to serve me well in the case of Mr. Westlake’s more rambling endeavors.  Beginning with (this will be a long one)–

Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:

The rich and poor alike, but let’s start with the middle class.  Dortmunder goes to see Otto Medrick, co-founder of the O.J. Bar and Grill, now retired to Coral Acres, a seemingly fictional retirement community, just outside Jacksonville, as far north in Florida as you could go and still be in Florida; but on the other hand, you were still in Florida. 

As you can see up top, Otto has heard of Dortmunder–Rollo told him about these guys who held meetings in the back room, presumably referring to Dortmunder as the taller and gloomier of the two bourbon & ices.  But when Otto retreated from winter, he did not leave a phone number or even a forwarding address with Rollo.  Nobody has told him about the O.J. being turned into a bust-out joint, with his nephew’s mob friends siphoning away at the bar’s line of credit, planning to leave nothing behind them but dry bones, and a mountain of debt that Otto would then be on the hook for.

Otto’s main interest was always his little camera store on Broadway he had for 42 years.  Jerome Hulve (the ‘j’ in O.J.) had the dry cleaners next door.  It was Jerry found out this nearby bar on Amsterdam was up for grabs, needed a partner to buy in, dragooned Otto.  Neither ever took much interest in running the place, that’s what bartenders are for, though they did briefly try to turn it into a dinner spot (the explanation for the waiter’s uniforms Dortmunder saw when he was snooping around the O.J.’s basement).  Restaurants take up a lot more time, you have to deal with chefs and inspectors and stuff.  They ultimately decided to focus more on the bar than the grill.

So after accusing Dortmunder of being like his cat Buttercup, who used to bring him little dead creatures and drop them at his feet, Otto concedes that yes, this is happening, and he should probably do something to stop it, assuming that’s possible.  All he’s doing in Coral Acres, aside from engaging in ‘kanookie’ with a fellow senior he won’t marry because taxes, is taking pictures of flowers and things with a 1904 8×10 Rochester Optical Peerless field camera–the kind that has a bellows and you go under a cloth to take a picture.  This precise camera, in fact.  The frame is mahogany.  Nice.

Rochester-Optical-Peerless

Only–and I don’t know precisely what this is meant to convey, which only makes me more interested–Rochester Optical, which was, as the name would suggest, headquartered in upstate New York (same as Donald E. Westlake was in his formative years, fancy that), was taken over by Kodak (still in Rochester today, kind of) in 1904, and the Peerless line had been discontinued back in the late 19th century.  Now this is where I’d say ‘Obviously Mr. Westlake didn’t have the internet to do research with,’ but he wrote this book in the Mid-00’s, so obviously he did.

Otto, as stated, got interested in photography well after he started selling the equipment, and his embrace of a camera that was obsolete before he was born stemmed from his dislike of digital imaging (which is all the Kodak in Rochester is doing now, not even making film anymore).   He wanted to find the most basic unadorned form of photography available to him that would get the job done efficiently (maybe a bit like a writer working mainly after the IBM Selectric came out in ’61 deciding to work exclusively with manual typewriters).

“Then came digital,” he said, and shook a disgusted head. “What you got with digital, you got no highs and no lows. Everything’s perfect, and everything’s plastic. You see those Matthew Brady pictures from the Civil War? The Civil War! I’m talking a long time ago. You try to take those pictures with digital, you know what they’re gonna look like?”

“No,” Dortmunder admitted.

“Special effects in a Civil War movie,” Medrick told him. “People look at it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s so lifelike!’ You know what is it, the difference between life and lifelike?”

“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.

The narrator quietly informs us that Dortmunder could not care less about the difference between old and new photographs, but needs Otto to keep the O.J. alive, which he does care about.  You have to let people talk about what they care about, so you can eventually get to what you care about.  Parker would understand.  And not care at all about the O.J.

(Sidebar: This is a very funny chapter in the book that makes me very wistful.  My friend, Leonard Abramson, worked in a film lab until he retired, and he also got seriously into amateur photography, mainly nature, some abstract, had exhibits, won a few minor prizes, even got a snap of a Wild Turkey in Van Cortlandt Park published in USA Today–but he, in contrast to Otto Medrick, became obsessed with digital cameras towards the end, loved their precision, their clarity–always an early adopter, was Lenny.  He died a few years ago–stuck it out in the Bronx to the [very] bitter end.  He was nothing if not argumentative.  Would he have differed with Otto over the difference between life and lifelike?  Never got to have that discussion with him.  Isn’t that just like Life?)

So the photography chapter ends with bad news–Otto talks to Rollo on the phone, and he tells Dortmunder, with dead hopeless eyes, that the mob guys are done with their bust-out scam, and are moving all their ill-gotten swag out of the bar that night.  So it’s over, right? John Dortmunder does not know the meaning of defeat!  Okay fine, he knows it like the backs of his large knobby hands, but that just makes him more determined to avoid any deepening of the acquaintance.

There was other stuff about Florida and the general Caribbean mileau, scattered hither and yon through the narrative–oh right, Preston Fareweather.  My least favorite part of the book, but he sure takes up a lot of it.  He sets his sights on yet another short-term hook-up (he’s given up on the serial monogamy thing, since it leads to serial divorce lawyers coming after his money).

Overly long story short, this very seductress in a flesh-colored bikini, parading herself around at the resort Preston is holed up at (that pun was unintended, but I see it now), is a femme fatale in the employ of an ex-wife’s wealthy brother, who inveigles the lustful Preston into going sailing with her, outside the inviolable sanctuary of Club Med, and next thing you know he’s been bundled aboard a very fast drug smuggling boat piloted by some rather caustic Australians (???) who are not interested in his promises of beating whatever the other side is paying them, since it’s all about the purity of their impure profession to them.

All that’s going to happen to him is that he’ll be served with legal papers when back on U.S. soil, and forced to pay off his former spouses for their years of service in the trenches.  The thing about some rich people is that the question “Your money or your life?” strikes them as a contradiction in terms.  Preston sees a chance to escape to a nearby Florida Key, and so leaps overboard, getting picked up by a scruffy-looking Cuban fisherman named Porfirio, who eventually gets him to a Holiday Inn, where he’s able to contact his secretary Alan, and tell him to come running and bring clothes.

Then he tries to stiff the fisherman, who he’d promised his Rolex back when he was treading water with angry drug smugglers coming after him. He’s going to give poor Porfirio a measly hundred bucks, but the hotel clerk, in a noble act of class solidarity, makes sure his paisano gets five hundred.  Which is still a lot less than a Rolex.

Also. The African Queen is there.  The actual boat.  On display, like a trophy of war.  Since this book came out, they’ve drafted the old girl back into service.  Not against the Kaiser, one assumes.  Alan, once he arrives, can’t get over this disorienting presence, and probably neither could Westlake when he found out about it, perhaps even stumbled across it on vacation–was the boat from Key Largo not available?  Did Westlake toy with having the temporarily penniless Preston reference a different Huston?  He wouldn’t be the first.

The answers to these and other questions must be out there, hopefully not on the Victoria Nile or Lake Albert, which look nearly as uncomfortable for Bogie and Kate as Florida in August is for mere mortals.

Preston, knowing the forces now arrayed against him will not have given up, is focused on getting back to his penthouse in Manhattan, where he figures nobody will expect him to go, and of course nothing bad could ever possibly happen to him there.

Preston, who visually lives up to the term fat cat,  has spent the last forty-eight hours or so in a very skimpy bathing suit (when you’re rich, you don’t have to care how you look, or hadn’t you noticed that lately?), being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and he even had to eat at Burger King.  He swears his former legal concubines shall pay for these outrages, but for our purposes, this section has achieved its goal of demonstrating how at both ends of the state, all through the economic spectrum, Florida supremely sucks in August.  Unless you’re a truck driver, in which case your ultimate bete noire is going to be New York City, as we shall now examine in–

No, You Take Manhattan:

In Chapter 22, we meet the guy driving the big semi from Pittsburgh, that’s going to take all the O.J. swag to somewhere it can be disposed of profitably, and we meet Mikey Carbine (yes, that’s a real name that Italian American people really have), the no-good fourth son of Howie Carbine, a no-good Jersey mob boss (The Sopranos without the sexy, would be a good summation of this particular crew, and of Westlake’s general attitude towards ‘organized’ crime).

The truck makes its arduous way through Manhattan, to the intersection of 96th St. and Amsterdam Ave., where the O.J. still tenuously clings to life, the driver cussing under his breath at the sheer unbridled cussedness of New Yorkers, and now I feel fully confirmed in my suspicion that Mr. Westlake was an admirer of Jean Merrill.

Also, no matter what the hour of day or night, there was always traffic everywhere in New York City, darting cabs and snarling delivery vans and even aggressive suburbanites in their Suburbanites. Unlike normal parts of the world, where other drivers showed a healthy respect tending toward fear when in the presence of the big trucks, New York City drivers practically dared him to start something. They’d cut him off; they’d crowd him; they’d even go so far as to blat their horns at him. The people operating small vehicles in New York, the driver thought, drove as though they all had a lawyer in the backseat.

This being New York, they very well might, but lawyers aren’t going to stop him from picking up all the stuff bought with the O.J.’s credit line–guess who is?  That’s right.

Dortmunder somehow whipped up a plan right off his sweat-stained cuff, conveyed it to his own crew in absentia, and here they are, not identified by name (since it’s from the other side’s POV), but we may easily discern that it’s Stan Murch, Andy Kelp, and Tiny Bulcher wielding an axe, like this was an entirely different kind of story, set in a much earlier era of pillage.  I’ll just let you imagine it, until you get a chance to read it again or for the first time, but the scene closes with the unnerved mob guys in disarray, the empty truck in flames, its tires in shreds, and its driver saying something about overtime.

And now we’re going to hear Otto say something to Dortmunder, that he considers germane to their present situation, as they experience the unparalleled joys of air travel in the Post-9/11 era.  Otto wants a seat with one of those air phones, which he uses to tell all the wholesalers who provided the bust-out swag that it’s all going back to them, in the original wrappers.

Prior to that, he tells his brother Frank, father to Raphael, that either Frank gets his idiot Moby wannabe son committed, by the same quack headshrinker who certified him fit to run a bar, or big brother’s coming home to live with them on Long Island, forever.  These calls have the desired effect, in both cases.  Ah, isn’t the telecommunications era grand?

Neither of them has any personal digital devices they can while away the flight with, of course, so they have to talk to each other.  Okay, Otto has to talk, and Dortmunder (as already mentioned) figures he needs to listen and nod politely and occasionally make some proforma response.  And this is what Otto has to say to him about–

Smoke Signals:

But Medrick had a point and intended to pursue it. “It’s communications technologies that did us in,” he said. “Now you got your Internet, before that your television, your radio, your newspapers, your telephone, your signal flags, your telegrams, your letters in the mailbox, but it all goes back to smoke signals, the whole problem starts right there.”

“Sure,” Dortmunder said.

Medrick shook his head. “But,” he said, “I just don’t think society’s ready to go back that far.”

“Probably not,” Dortmunder said, and yawned. Maybe he could drink the coffee.

“But that’s what it would take,” Medrick insisted, “to return some shred of honesty to this world.”

Dortmunder put down his coffee mug. “Is that what we’re trying for?” he asked.

“Right just this minute it is,” Medrick told him. “You see, with smoke signals, that was the very first time in the whole history of the human race that you could tell somebody something that he couldn’t see you when you told him. You get what I mean?”

“No,” Dortmunder said.

“Before smoke signals,” Medrick said, “I wanna tell you something, I gotta come over to where you are, and stand in front of you, and tell you. Like I’m doing now. And you get to look at my face, listen to how I talk, read my body language, decide for yourself, is this guy trying to pull a fast one. You get it?”

“Eye contact.”

“Exactly,” Medrick said. “Sure, people still lied to each other back then and got away with it, but it wasn’t so easy. Once smoke signals came in, you can’t see the guy telling you the story, he could be laughing behind his hand, you don’t know it.”

“I guess that’s true,” Dortmunder agreed.

“Every step up along the way,” Medrick said, “every other kind of way to communicate, it’s always behind the other guy’s back. For thousands of years, we’ve been building ourselves a liar’s paradise. That’s why the video phones weren’t the big hit they were supposed to be, nobody wants to go back to the eyeball.”

“I guess not.”

“So that means they’ll never get rid of the rest of it,” Medrick concluded. “All the way back to smoke signals.”

“I don’t think they use those so much any more,” Dortmunder said.

“If they did,” Medrick said darkly, “they’d lie.”

I could quibble here, mention Skype or FaceTime (mainly for conversations with distant loved ones, and only partly to try and determine if they’re loving somebody else).  Or videoconferencing (and why precisely do the suits want to gaze upon each other’s unappetizing countenances when hammering out deals?)

I might even mention the way some people in very high places lie straight to our faces and we believe them anyway, or pretend to (Otto mentioned that), but on the whole, I feel this needs no extraneous textual exegesis.  If there was any, it’d be lies, right? Hey, anybody know when the next White House Press conference is being televised?  They did what?

Intermezzo:

With Dortmunder, Murch, and Brother Frank at his side, and Raphael now practicing basket-weaving in place of downloading, Otto easily retakes his stronghold from the two gobsmacked gunsels guarding it, who go back to Mikey for new orders.

Otto calls Rollo up, tells him to come back to work, and maybe bring some of his old buddies from the Merchant Marine (well, hello sailor!) to hang out for a week, as a sort of honor guard against the dishonorable.  The magic words ‘Open Bar’ are uttered (got to get those regulars back, and that’ll do it).  One begins to suspect Otto is enjoying this urban scrum a lot more than flower photography in fetid Florida, but one could always do both, I suppose. Alternate.

Mikey never tries to win back control of the bar, thus depriving the reader of what could have been a delightful donnybrook–in a series that tends to avoid gunplay and fisticuffs like it was a PBS kiddie show.  If you’re wondering whatever happened to that old Jersey Mob spirit, here’s the thing.  Mikey was doing this way off the books, and also the reservation–by the laws of his own perfidious polis, he’s poaching here.  Gotham ain’t Jersey, similar though the accents may be.

There’s already a Mafia in New York, in case you hadn’t heard.  Once he got the money from the bust-out, his dad could go through the right channels, make it good, but not if they go in with guns blazing, heads knocking, cops arriving, creating all kinds of headaches for the New York chapter of the fraternity.  The bust-out is a bust.  Now he just wants payback.

Spies are dispatched to the bar, to get the straight dope on what brought Otto Medrick back from the grave (okay, maybe I’ve busted Florida’s chops enough for one review).  Of course, they have to get that dope from the regulars.  So it’s what you might call more of a long and winding road.

“Yeah,” said the first regular, and asked himself, “Now, what’s that guy’s name?”

“It’s the same as some beer,” the second regular told him.

“I know that much.”

“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.

“No,” said the second regular, as the new arrivals at the other end of the bar started in on some sea chanteys.

The first regular had to raise his voice but managed: “Budweiser?”

“No, it’s something foreign.”

“Molson,” tried the first regular.

“Molson?” The second regular couldn’t believe it. “That’s not foreign!” “It’s Canadian.”

“Canadian isn’t foreign!” The second regular pointed perhaps north. “It’s right there! They’re part of us, they’re with us, except for ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’ they talk the same language as us.”

“They’re their own country,” the first regular insisted. “Like Hawaii.”

“It’s not Molson,” the second regular told him, to put an end to that.

The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”

“No.” Everybody took shots at it now: “Beck?”

“No.”

“Tsingtau?” “What? He’s not Chinese, he’s like one of us, he’s not even Canadian, it’s just his name is—”

“Amstel?”

“No!”

“Dos Equis.”

Nobody’s named Dos Equis! Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

When the second regular put on his thinking cap, it made his entire forehead form grooves, as though somewhere there might be a socket to screw his head into.

“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.

They all looked at him.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”

“That’s pretty funny,” said the droopy-nosed guy, and took the name with him back to Jersey, where he gave it to Mikey, who didn’t think it was very funny at all.

We’ll call that a minority opinion, and move on to the heist section of the program.   While Dortmunder has been saving the O.J. Bar and Grill for posterity (someday there’ll be a statue of him in Central Park, and the pigeons are just gonna love it), work has been proceeding slowly but surely on setting up the penthouse robbery, which looks really suite (you wish you didn’t see what I did there).  Tiny is of the opinion it’s been more slow than sure, to which Kelp tells him Rome wasn’t built in a day.  To which Tiny remarks “It was robbed in a day.” Probably by one of his ancestors.  Civilization is overrated, anyway.

(Mr. Bulcher is on fire in this one.  Later, Kelp says something about how you have to roll with the punches.  “Not my punches,” Tiny retorts.  I mean, you’d laugh even if you weren’t afraid not to.)

Murch has to get a truck–not stolen this time–then remove Preston’s BMW from the private garage with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Not necessarily in that order.  He has a notion he could do a straight-up trade, the BMW for the truck, and thus he makes his way to Maximilian’s Used Cars in the farflung outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens.  I believe Voyager 2 is getting there any day now.  And will be for sale at Max’s lot shortly afterwards, with a sign reading “!!!Creampuff!!!” affixed to its solar panels.

They work out a deal, but Max needs some time to get the truck.  Giving us time for yet another sidebar–

Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:

Who wouldn’t?  As he did in Drowned Hopes, Mr. Westlake decided to have some fun with car names.  But he’s sneaky about it here, starting off with real cars that sound fake, like the Lincoln Navigator.  Then, please recall, he has the truck driver complaining about suburbanites in their Suburbanites (almost right).  From then on the standard Detroit workhorses still go by their real names, as do the really classy foreign makes (like Preston’s BMW), but you start noticing something screwy about the monikers when it comes to various ill-considered attempts at re-branding.  Here’s the list.  If I missed any, let me know in the comments section.

Lexus Dzilla (the gargantuan SUV Judson Blint rents for his new boss’ gargantuan guy).
Buick Broadsword (the car Stan drives to see Max–not his, naturally).
Olds Finali (Olds folded in 2004, though really it was 1908, just three years after that song about the guy who wanted to fuck Lucille in the backseat of one, go figure).
Lexus Enorma (When the Dzilla just isn’t enough.  Alan and Preston rent two of these, consecutively).
Chrysler Consigliere (guess whose ride this is?).
Jeep Buccaneer (ditto)

Not much of a list compared to the one in Drowned Hopes, and maybe this isn’t much of a Dortmunder epic next to Drowned Hopes, but at this very late date, I’ll take it.  With a Dortmunder, it’s always the fine details that count the most. Also true of some paintings, which brings us to the perhaps over-hasty wrap-up (it’s late, I have a lot of work tomorrow, let’s put this one to bed, so I can do the same).

Only The Young Die Rich:

Oh I will be so impressed with anyone who catches that ref right off the bat.  But let me explain, while you cogitate.

Judson Philips was one of Mr. Westlake’s fellow grandmasters in the Mystery Writers of America.  Very much an elder of the tribe, since he was born a full thirty years earlier, was publishing novels as far back as the 40’s, copped the coveted title in ’73.  I’d say it’s a good bet they knew each other–how well, I wouldn’t venture a guess.  (I did find a reference to Philips and Lawrence Block having corresponded briefly, in relation to a book about mystery writing Block was working on–mystery writers are a pretty tight club, and would be even if they didn’t have an actual club).

Now the name Judson, as has been recently observed in the comments section, shows up here and there in Westlake’s oeuvre (as does the name Philip, now I think on it).  Westlake even made Judson part of his final pseudonym, and the original Judson also published under multiple pseudonyms himself.  I bet I’d have a better idea what all this means (if anything) had I ever read any Judson Philips, but alas.

However, under the name Hugh Pentecost, Mr. Philips published a 1964 novel called Only the Rich Die Young, and that’s a good enough hook for a section centered around Judson Blint.  (Or possibly Billy Joel, but let’s put that to one side for now, or perhaps forever).

All through the book, young Judson has been soldiering away in the trenches of mail fraud for J.C., and he’s a quick study, as we’ve seen.  So much so that he’s branching out into burglary.  Kelp decided to accept his offer of assistance, and after some tutelage from the master, ’twas Master Blint who disabled the alarm in Preston’s garage.

He’s gotten his own walk-up studio apartment through J.C.’s contacts (for $1,742.53 a month, in Manhattan, on West 27th St., Chelsea, in the early 21st century, so J.C.’s got some serious pull, like that was ever in doubt–try getting that rent in East Harlem now).  He’s introduced his parents to Andy Kelp.  They didn’t know what to say to that, so they said as little as possible.  Well, at least he’s getting a career.

He’s a regular go-getter, is young Judson and now he wants to go get him some loot.  But of course he’s still too green, too much of a journeyman, and anyway, they don’t want to split the take five ways–he’ll get a taste, for helping out, no more.  J.C., sensing his hurt, quietly lets Judson know that where Dortmunder is involved, there might not be any take to split.

But he just wants to know what it’s like!  To experience it!  He’s balanced on that fine line between amateur and pro, with the boundless enthusiasm and dangerous curiosity of the former, but increasingly informed by the pragmatic prudence of the latter.  He doesn’t want the gang mad at him.  Most particularly he does not want Tiny mad at him.  But he wants to know.

The heist goes off like a Swiss watch (of which no doubt there are many in Preston’s digs), and then something goes wrong.  J.C. knows Dortmunder, and she knows his luck.  Good and bad, and you never know which until it’s too late.

As the book has been hinting at all along, with the chapters documenting Preston Fareweather’s abduction from Club Med, and his long retreat from the Florida Keys (much like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, only with mosquitos and heat rash),  Preston and Alan are both most unexpectedly at home when Dortmunder & Co. arrive, with Arnie Albright in tow (another subplot I don’t want to dwell on much, but basically Dortmunder appealed equally to Arnie’s greed and his rancor towards Preston, so they could have an expert on hand to tell them which valuables to steal).  But being exhausted from their trek, they are both dead to the world.

Nonetheless, with the householders enhoused, this burglary is now a home invasion, something Dortmunder would always rather avoid.  But the gang is blissfully unaware of their presence, and the somnolent duo are no more aware of the departure of Preston’s worldy goods than Cindy Lou Who was about the Roast Beast.

Everything is being packed into the elevator and taken down to be loaded in the Ford E-450 Stan got from Max, which has the added benefit of having once belonged to the Feds for use in apprehending illegal immigrants coming in from Canada (don’t ask), thus making it a perfect ‘mace’, ie a vehicle with registration papers that make it look legit to law enforcement, man I wish I had time to cover that chapter, but I absolutely can not make this a three-parter.

Arnie goes around slapping red dots on everything he wants to fence, like this was an auction, and they were sold.  Dortmunder really had to talk him into this, and the way he did it was to say that when this theft was reported in the news, they’d be saying how these guys were so brilliant, they even got the things no ordinary thief would know were valuable, only Dortmunder is kind of an ordinary thief when it comes to art and shit, so he keeps using the wrong names, which helps convince Arnie he better come along after all.

Filled with a warm larcenous glow of achievement, finally fully participating in the process he normally only sees the final stage of, Arnie wanders into Preston’s bedroom, stops and stares at the fat snoring lump under the blankets.  And then Preston wakes up–briefly–looks at Arnie Albright, who you will please recall he had many a disrespectful word with at the Club Med, which is why all this is happening now.  Preston recognizes Arnie, but assumes he’s dreaming, and then he really is again.  Arnie Albright’s nightmare has now begun.  Because Preston can give his name to the law once he realizes it wasn’t a dream.  And the law already knows his name.

Okay, it’s clearly time to skedaddle, and they got basically everything of real value anyway–or so they think.  Andy already scoped out a place to stow the truck at a construction site (another chapter I had to skirt over, and where’s your hard hat?)  Maybe Arnie has a problem, but Preston Fareweather doesn’t know any of their names.  The Perfect Crime.  Sheah.  Right.

Because this is where Mikey Carbine makes his move, with the Consigliere and the Buccaneer, and guns, and Kelp and Murch get hijacked, which is just the most horrible indignity Murch can imagine, never happened to him before!  Mikey’s not planning any whackings, not on the NY mob’s turf, just get his money back with interest.  Only thing is, what he gets is to hold that proverbial bag.

So many sideplots here.  Earlier, we met some members of the staff at Preston’s condo, among them Big Jose and Little Jose, who were watching his penthouse (ie, having the time of their lives partying there).  Well of course they can’t do that anymore, now that Preston is back home again, but they have a sort of proprietary feeling about the place, and when they see this truck come out of what they know is Preston’s private garage,  they call the cops.  Who quickly determine the plates belong to Preston’s BMW (query–if this truck is the ultimate mace, why would they use stolen plates?  Oh never mind.)

So what happens next?  That’s right.  Mikey’s people have control of the truck. Mikey’s people get busted, Mikey not long after, and Howie’s gonna have some ‘splainin to do to New York, and there might be a little war in the offing, and unlikely some sympathetic FBI Agent is going to offer tactical support, so the Carbine Crew is going to end up jailed and/or dead.  Stan and Andy walk away innocently from the scene, looking like ordinary working Joes in their yellow hardhats, and indeed they are, but the job didn’t work out.  Oh well, beats prison.

So by the time Preston finds out he’s been robbed, and starts ranting about Arnie Albright, the police are there to tell him the robbers have already been arrested, bunch of Jersey mobsters, so he goes back to thinking it was a dream, and says maybe he even owes Arnie an apology (yeah, like he owes Porforio a Rolex, and his ex-wives their alimony).

The place is left vacant, while Preston and Alan go downtown to fill out reports and stuff.  And who should wander in but Judson Blint, who came up via the private elevator, like he already had before, with Kelp.  He didn’t know exactly when the heist was taking place, but he sort of hoped just to witness a bit of it. He’s downcast when he realizes he missed the party, but he still wanders around, fascinated, figuring maybe he could find some little knick-knack for a souvenir, and then something catches his eye in a dimly lit hallway.

One of the pictures attracted his attention, though it was kind of dark and small, less than a foot wide and maybe eight inches high. But for its size, it had a lot of detail. It was kind of medieval, with two guys his own age, in peasant clothes, and they were carrying a pig hung on a long pole, each of the guys having an end of the pole on his shoulder. They were walking on a path on a hillside with woods around them, and down the hill you could see what looked like a lake, with a few very rustic houses and wagons beside it, and a few people chopping wood and stuff like that.

What drew Judson’s eye to this picture was the expressions on the two young guys’ faces. They had, like, goofy grins on, as though they were getting away with something and couldn’t help laughing about it.

Judson looked at the guys and their mischievous eyes and goofy grins, and he felt a kinship. He’d be one of those two, if he had lived then.

And all at once he got it: they’d stolen the pig.

Judson took the picture down off its hook on the wall, and studied it more closely. It was old, all right, done when those clothes were what you wore. It was painted on wood, and it was signed in the lower right with a signature he couldn’t figure out.

The painting was in an elaborate gilded frame that didn’t seem right for those two guys. There was also a sheet of nonreflective glass. Once Judson removed the picture from the frame, it wasn’t heavy. It wasn’t big. He liked it. He slid it under his shirt, tucked into the front of his pants, and headed for the elevator.

It’s a freakin’ Brueghel.  Now I think Westlake made this picture up–I can’t find it anywhere online.  But in fact, the elder Brueghel did like to paint pictures of mischievous persons, even thieves, because capturing humanity in all its flailing flawed fulsome fun-loving folly was his passion (one Westlake shared).  He also painted pigs, because c’mon, they’re cute, funny, and you can eat them.  So maybe Westlake extrapolated, or maybe the online catalogues are incomplete. Academic for our purposes, and Judson’s.

So eventually the whole gang (and Judson too) is listening to WINS in Arnie’s apartment (the narrator makes the quip all of us in that station’s broadcast range have already compared many variations upon.  “You give us twenty-two minutes,” they threaten, “we’ll give you the world,” and then they give you mostly sports. They may not know this, but sports is not the world.

They are slowly coming to terms with the fact that 1)The cops think they already got the perps and 2)One of the most valuable things in the apartment, valued at around a million bucks ten years ago, was stolen, but not by them.  Preston is telling the reporter “They even got the Brueghel.”  Who is this master criminal who spotted a tiny picture in a dark hallway, kept there to protect it from light exposure?

Dortmunder, master detective that he is, figures it out.  Good thing too, because Tiny needs something to distract him from the fact that Dortmunder’s O.J. obsession is the reason Mikey hijacked their heist.  Of course, it’s also the reason Mikey is arrested and not them, but you really don’t want to argue the fine points of causality with an irritated Tiny Bulcher.

“Judson,” Dortmunder said.

Everybody looked at Dortmunder, and then everybody looked at Judson, who was blushing and stammering and fidgeting on that kitchen chair with his arms jerking around—a definite butterfly, pinned in place. Everybody continued to look at him, and finally he produced words, of a sort: “Why would you— What would I— How could— Mr. Dortmunder, why would you—?”

“Judson,” Tiny said. He said it softly, gently, but Judson clammed up like a locked safe, and his face went from beet red to shroud white, just like that.

Dortmunder said, “Had to be. He went there, wanted to hang out with us, we were already gone, he went in and up, looked around, decided to take a little something.”

Kelp said, “Judson, what made you take that?”

Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.

Arnie, in an informational way, said, “Kid, you’re one of the most incompetent liars I’ve ever seen.”

Judson sighed. He could be seen to accept the idea at last that denial was going to be of no use. “I identified with it,” he said.

Everybody reacted to that one. Stan said, “You identified with it?”

Dortmunder said, “What’s it a picture of, Judson?”

“Two young guys stealing a pig.”

Tiny said, “That’s what goes for just under a mil? Two guys stealing a pig?”

“It’s nice,” Judson said. “You can see they’re having fun.”

“More than we are,” Tiny said. Dortmunder said, “Judson, where is this picture now?”

“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”

Tiny said, “I tell you what, kid. You were gonna get a piece of what we got, but we no longer got what we got, so now we are gonna get a piece of what you got.”

“That seems fair,” Kelp said.

Again Judson sighed. Then he said, “Maybe I can take a picture of it.”

“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.

(Ah, what a world it would be if art only belonged to those who most appreciated it, instead of merely the philistines who can afford it.  Actually, there’s a pretty good heist movie about that, called Artworks, and Virginia Madsen shows a hell of a lot of skin in it, so check her, I mean it, out.)

Like many another supporting character in the Dortmunders who isn’t one of the core crew, Judson is seen again in future books (of which there are only two remaining), but never has another moment quite so fine as this.  But we’re given to understand he’s won the respect of the gang, and a place at the table, even if it’s only the kiddie table for now.

Unlike Raphael, who chose to retreat into what I suppose one might call his mind, Judson chose to go out and engage the world on his own terms, and to Donald E. Westlake, that’s all there is to life, and most of all to youth.  Only the young die rich.  Because youth is the only real wealth there is.  Well, that and bitcoin, of course.   (Oh what a shame Mr. Westlake missed out on that–the word first cropped up about a month before his demise, and I doubt he even noticed).

Preston’s own wealth has been recovered, but not by him–he forgot that ex-wives and their lawyers watch the news as well.  As one of the tech guys for his interview files out (after Preston strikes out with the hot newscaster), he tosses Preston a summons.  He got served.  In both senses.  And all that recovered swag of his, no longer in his direct possession (since it is now evidence), is going to get divvied up by the exes.  And to top off his day, Alan, the closest thing to a friend he had, walks out on him.  And so will I, because it’s time to finish up.

Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, in Mid-September, for a meet with the now free and clear Ralph Winslow, so he can finally find out what kind of job that ice-tinkling fellow felon has in mind.  There’s a bad moment when Rollo says the back room is in use but it’s just a support group (support for what we never learn), and they’re leaving.  And Dortmunder is staying.  His place.  His little corner of the planet, his anchor, his respite, his home and hearth, his meat and drink, well mainly just drink.  He saved it, and it’s his, as it never was before.

So what if the heist failed.  He still won where it counted.  And there’s always another day (for something else to go wrong).  Also, he pocketed a few small trinkets on his way out, and what the rest of the gang doesn’t know won’t hurt him, particularly Tiny.

The regulars, of course, know not the name of the peerless champion responsible for their triumphant return to their beloved barstools, where they can once more jabber away endlessly about things they don’t understand, which is surely the right of all Americans, it’s in the Constitution, look it up, and we hold it even more sacred than the right to shoot people with guns (relatively few of us actually exercise that right, but everybody’s a know-it-all).

They know not that the champion is in their very midst as they speak (and if they did, they’re probably associate the wrong beer with him).  But the one thing all barflies know for sure is that the greatest man in the world is your bartender. And you know, a case could be made.  So they sing him a song.  And get it wrong.

“The back room is open, gents,” Rollo said.

They all thanked him, not whispering, picked up their drinks, and headed for the back room, Ralph gently tinkling along the way. As they rounded the end of the bar toward the hall, the regulars decided spontaneously to laud Rollo in song.

“For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-OH!
For he’s a golly good fell.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” the second regular said. “I think the last line goes, ‘For he’s a jolly good elf.’” So they tried it that way.

So I said last week that all the covers I’ve found for this book are lousy, and I stick to that.  Maybe the one on the left up-top isn’t too awful in its conception, but impaling Dortmunder on the Empire State Building (which isn’t even in the book) doesn’t quite work for me.  What would have?  Well, check out the image down below the two covers.

That’s a painting, by Richard Estes, master of photo-realism.  From 1995, it’s entitled Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street.  Yeah.  Where we’re told in this very book the O.J. Bar and Grill is located–not sure it was ever made that specific before.  Westlake went to a fair few art shows, one gathers.  I could see him looking a long time at that one.  I could imagine him saying quietly to himself, That bar could be the O.J.  It really could, you know.  Can you prove it’s not?  In the real world, no, it isn’t there–or it’s some sad yuppie singles joint–but in a painting–as in a novel–many things are possible. Including immortality.  The difference between life and lifelike.

But see that open cellar door on the sidewalk?  Just waiting for somebody to fall in.  Pitfalls are everywhere.  So are bilious billionaires, and gangrenous gangsters.  Better watch your back.  Or hey, we could watch each others.’  How’s about that?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Watch Your Back!

What was going on?  Was it a wake around here?  Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough.  They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option.  In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.  Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

He would not fail her.  She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.

Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”

Kelp gave him a look.  “John?  On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”

“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.

Okay, it’s like this.

I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter.  I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now.  I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here.  I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed.  But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that?  You’d need some kind of idiotic memory.  That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle.  Misunderstanding.

Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch?  Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.

So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red/orange letters on a field of taxi-cab yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter.  Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.

I did find some images I like, though.  Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’  But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art.  And what point is that?

On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest.  How many times has that happened now?  I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook.  Like you needed me to tell you that.  (Reel it in careful-like, Bob.  Don’t want to lose this one.  Or capsize the boat.)

But that is not what this book is about.  The moneybags here isn’t the enemy.  Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst.  A subplot that got out of control.

There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase.  I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention.  As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.

There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them).  One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future.  I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang.  But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.

No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable.  A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most.  Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments.  Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on.  Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.

Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams?  Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.

Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.

Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.  “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”

A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds?  Which clouds are these?”

“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage.  “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”

Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.  The colloquy at the bar continues apace.

Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture?  Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”

A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah?  What about all those fields of plenty?”

“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.

The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”

The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife,   The one with the 72 virgins.  To which one obvious cavil would be–

“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.

“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this?  It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”

The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”

Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes).  The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about.  We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.

Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses.  Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–

2016-06-17

(Ya gotta believe.)

Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’  He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences.  Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.

In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’  He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway.  And yet he’s still on his first beer.

(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head?  Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal.  Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer.  Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.

Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else.  Is kosher salt more efficacious?  Sea salt?  Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section.  Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)

So the meet doesn’t pan out.  Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado.  He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell.  Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial.  Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial.  Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.

So that’s Chapter One.  The review is just over 2,000 words now.  What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time.  Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.

Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods.  Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.

We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to  mention several short stories.  One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake.  And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.

Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person.  It kind of worked.  Well, he got a tan.  He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time.  And he still deals in stolen goods.  The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.

So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden.  Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, and then bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.

The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge.  Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather.  Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law.  Civil.  If you want to call it that.

He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them.  They all hate him.  More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods.  Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med.  (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)

Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth.  Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to.  (Is there any Trump in the mix here?  No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)

Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior.  Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.

And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th.  Full of so many valuable accoutrements.  And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in.  Literally.

Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

“I watched him,” Arnie said.  “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me.  I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place.  ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it.  I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

“I’m sure you are.  I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”

He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets.   Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition.  And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Arnie Albright has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.

So what’s to lose?  They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous.  Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess.  Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?

The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.

A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location).  I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style.  If you want to call it that.  (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)

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They agree to do another meet at the O.J., this time with Tiny, since there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting if they pull this one.  There follows a brief interlude with Stan Murch, just then in the process of stealing a Lincoln Navigator (one of the few legit car names in this book, but we’ll get to that next time), which he suddenly realizes comes equipped with the current bane of Stan’s existence, namely GPS.  Not a bane so much because he wants to handle navigation himself, but because of what the letters GPS stand for.  And they won’t stand for much.

That was the snag lately.  If you grabbed some old clunker, it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth the risk involved in taking it away from its former owner, but a sh iny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.

That’s the problem, Stan thought.  The law’s got all the labs.

He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar.  They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train.  Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx.  Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.

I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe.  Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods.  This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake?  Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you?  Maybe he just forgot.

Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him).  He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor.  He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.

Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché.  Maylohda.  What was that, a country?  Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway?  He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.

Oh.  My.  God.  She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones.  No, more like the ones inspired by video games.  In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no.  Only louder than that.

She yanks him around a bit.  You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books).   She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself.  He’s not a complete rube.  He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove.  Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her.  Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.

Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look.  Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did.  A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go.  It’s the sentimentalist in her.  More on Master Blint later.

It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit.  Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available.  Dortmunder is given to  understand it will never be available again.  There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear.  Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over.  “What flying saucer did this come out of?”

Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).

Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk,  bereft.  They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder.  The situation is explained.  Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint.  They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.

When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse.  The place is basically a walking corpse.  The mob guys are there there.  But Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer.  Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism.  But unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.

Dortmunder looked at him.  “What are you up to?”

“What up to?  I feel like I wanna buy you a beer.  It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me.  That’s how it works, John.”

Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”

“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”

Dortmunder could only agree with that.  “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.

“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass.  “To crime.”

“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.

Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals.  Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals.  Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized.  In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.

They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it.  More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room,  is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars.  Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo.  It’s a bust-out.  The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit.  It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada.  I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector.  One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics.  It’s a rich tapestry.

They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist.  Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much.  The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn.   As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.

Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence.  He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar.  He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that.  It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations.  And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?

Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago.  He retired to Florida a while back.  And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews).  Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’  Bingo.  There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey.  Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out.  But he’s going to give something back for it.

Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street.  J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J.  It’s pretty clearly not going to work out.  I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it.  But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs.  Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.

However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less.  He’s making music.  Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment.  That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first.  Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable  here.

So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them.  Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention.  His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine.  He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).

Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’.  Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam.  By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville.  The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.

Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge.  The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score.  As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill.  Who cared?  That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.   Brave New World.

And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J.  How come?  Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why?  Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment?  When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?

Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end?  No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing.  Parker is big into non-attachment.  The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy.  Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire.  She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.

Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it.  So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go.  There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.

For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it.  Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill.  His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite.  Who can?  And who doesn’t?

The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown.  I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in.  I was not going to call off the lunch.  I needed it more than ever.  All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe.  Repeat.  Was.

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Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried.  A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to.  Cash only, no plastic.  No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush.  Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere.  Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan.  No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink.  They’d put it on ice for you.

I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it.  I had it just a few years, after discovering it.  If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there.  Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?)  That was nice.

But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it.  The landlord.  The rent.  Do I have to draw a picture?  A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan.  Not anymore.  They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia.  At least those people appreciate good food.

My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub.  She was sorry to hear about my dad.  I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to.  You think everything’s okay in life.  And then something different happens.  Change happens.  The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.

Change isn’t evil.  That’s not the point here.  Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved.  Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement.  Change created Chinese American cuisine.  Change created these books we’re talking about.  Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing.  Change is why you’re here to look around.  God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.

And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments.  You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time.  Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it.  And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.

Okay, call it conservatism.  I don’t care.  I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.

So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go.  And who he’s got to see when he gets there.  He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice.  He asks the gang if any of them want to come with.  He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case.  You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime?  Pass.

Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe.  As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now.  Okay, fine, comedy, I know.  We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay?  That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves.  Well, they should have watched their backs.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels