Monday, April 13, 2009

Catching up with The Cutie

I've written a lot about the challenges of picking books to carry on a trip, but I've never before written about the related problem of timing your reading in the days leading up to a vacation. Like a baserunner bearing down on first, you have to make adjustments as that final day approaches so you hit it just right, having finished a book that you can then leave behind. Oh, there are remedies if you miscalculate--wrap up a novel a day too early, and you can always read some Samuel Johnson on the afternoon commute--but there is a satisfying neatness to turning the last page of a novel, giving your packed suitcases a proprietary eyeball, and switching off your bedside light, free of cares and ready to fly.

I'm an old hand at this tactic; one of the advantages of living in a house full of books is that there's always a slim novel to hand when one is needed. But when I found myself in that situation the day before we left for Japan in February, I didn't even have to go to the shelves, because that day the mail brought Hard Case Crime's reprint of Donald E. Westlake's first novel, The Cutie (1960), which turned out to be just about a perfect one-day read.

Published when Westlake was twenty-seven, The Cutie sees him already starting to work through a surprising number of the themes and ideas that would become hallmarks of his later work. The writing is crisp and clear, the tone is wry and funny without sacrificing drama or seriousness, and, most important, right off the bat Westlake's already focusing on the wrong side of the law. His protagonist, Clay, is the right-hand man of a New York mobster, responsible for everything from keeping the troops in line to performing the occasional hit, and he takes the attitude adopted by many of Westlake's later crooks: legal or illegal, this is a job, one that requires a specific set of skills that he happens to have. People want what his organization supplies, and if he didn't supply it, someone else would. No guilt, no compunction, no worries. End of story.

Only--and here's where The Cutie begins to reveal itself as the work of a real talent, beyond what you might expect from a first novel--Clay's too smart and perceptive to wholly swallow his own line. Oh, he's not really troubled by his occupation; though far more human than Westlake's later creation Parker, Clay does share some of his sociopathic tendencies. But he's nevertheless unable to deny the corruption that inevitably grows up in the shadow of a violent occupation--corruption, that is, not of public life, but of private. An encounter with a mob lawyer whose marriage is predicated on his wife's willfully not knowing anything about his work leads Clay to wonder about the fate of his own burgeoning relationship with a woman from the straight side. Can he keep deceiving her about what he does every day? And if so, would the man she was married to really be him at all? It's a question that, addresed or not, lurks behind any crime novel focused on the bad guys, and Westlake's resolution of it is pleasantly unexpected--and shows an admirable fidelity to the characters he's built.

Even better, however, is the ending, in which Westlake pulls off the extremely difficult feat of having a crucial realization dawn on Clay and the reader at exactly the same pace. It's flawlessly handled, and reading it, I could imagine the editor on whose desk this manuscript landed back in 1960 really perking up and starting to wonder what more this young writer might have up his sleeve.

This was the twenty-eighth Westlake novel I've read, which means I'm not even a third of the way through his oeuvre. The flood of tributes that poured in after his death this winter offered a lot of suggestions for where to go next; who knows--maybe by the time I reach a ripe old age, I will have matched Ethan Iverson and read all 100.

{Meanwhile, Parker fans should take note: the second batch of Parker reissues from my employer, the University of Chicago Press, just hit stores. They include The Mourner (1963), The Score (1964), and The Jugger (1965); The Score is one of my favorite of the early novels, for its audacity alone: Parker and a dozen heisters knock off a whole town in North Dakota. Up next, in the fall, are The Seventh (1965), The Handle (1966), and The Rare Coin Score (1967), all featuring an introduction by I've Been Reading Lately favorite Luc Sante!}

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