Monday, July 27, 2009

Dortmunder's last job, or, Donald Westlake Week concludes!

If you've never read one of Donald E. Westlake's comic caper novels starring tough-luck heister John Dortmunder, the opening lines of Get Real (2009), the fourteenth and final book in the series, will give you a good sense of their tone:
Dortmunder did not like to stand around on street corners. A slope-shouldered, glum-looking individual in clothing that hadn't been designed by anybody, he knew what he looked like when he stood for a while in one place on a street corner, and what he looked like was a person loitering with intent. The particular intent, as any copy casting an eye over Dotrumunder would immediately understand, was beside the point, and could be fine-tuned at the station; the first priority was to get this fellow in charge.

Which was why Dortmunder didn't like standing around on street corners: he hated to give cops the feeling there was duty to be done.
Though Westlake has never been quite as funny (nor as ridiculous) as P. G. Wodehouse, the precision of his prose has often brought Wodehouse to mind, as both men root a lot of their humor in getting phrasings just right, mixing high and low diction, slang and proper speech, surprising us by the juxtaposition. The above paragraph strikes me as being even more Wodehousian than usual--the "get this fellow in charge" could have come straight from any number of Wodehouse's self-righteous constables, who would gladly have sent Dotrmunder to prison for several years "without the option."

As the opening suggests, Westlake was still fully engaged with his craft as he wrote this, his final novel. And he's come up with an ingenious premise: a chance run-in leads to a TV producer hiring Dortmunder and the gang to star in a reality show about their work, a proposal so ridiculous that they go along with it. They've got nothing on tap at the moment anyway, and Dortmunder figures that while of course they're not going to actually commit any crimes while this self-important goofball's looking over their shoulders, they can at least take his money while they secretly figure out another job.

Complications and absurdities ensue--the most amusing of them being Murch's gleeful stealing of a car a day from the studio's disorganized, overcrowded garage of prop cars--the whole as light and gentle as we've come to expect from Dortmunder, the greatest pleasure coming not from the well-turned plot but from the fun of seeing the world through Donald Westlake's observant, perpetually amused eyes. Take the following description, for example, of a short, fat, extremely minor character known as My Nephew, named for the chain of shady discount stores he runs:
Now My nephew got to his feet, a complicated maneuver in three distinct sections. In section one, he leaned far forward with his broad palms flat on the desktop. In section two, he heaved himself with a loud grunt upward and back, becoming more or less vertical. In section three, he weaved forward and back, feet on floor and palms on desk, until he found his equilibrium. Then, lifting the palms from his desk and taking a loud breath, "Be right back," he said, turned, and waddled more briskly than you would have thought possible to a metal fire door in the wall behind the desk. He opened this door, stepped through a space barely wide enough for the purpose, and left, the door automatically shutting behind him.
We see this same sort of attention to--and care for--the details of the world and its people throughout Westlake's work, in serious, pyschologically acute form in the Parker novels, played for wry comedy in the Dortmunder novels.It's what makes him such great company.

Throughout Get Real, Dortmunder's biggest frustration is that the other guys unexpectedly come to like acting in the reality show, staging conversations in the fake bar that the producers have created, discussing fake plans with the pretty actress who's playing a girlfriend, actually getting to talk about their work a bit to people who are interested. At one point, when it looks as if the job they're secretly planning isn't going to come off, the other guys decide that they'd like to go ahead and do the show anyway. Dortmunder is appalled. "Money from wages," he reminds them,
is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There's no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn't yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it's yours because you took it.
If Parker ever felt that much need to explain himself, that speech could have come out of his mouth; it could serve as a heister's credo. "You people have completely forgot who and what you are," Dortmunder laments. But he hasn't: he's a heister, always has been and always will be. And if it's unsettling to think that Westlake's death left the cold steel of Parker out there on the loose, forever unapprehended and forever planning, it's a corresponding comfort to know that Dortmunder will remain free, too, walking around New York in his schlubby, put-upon way, the two of them maybe managing to keep the universe in some sort of rough balance.

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