Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Like the thing that gives fairy tales their tension," or, Westlake cuts loose with the "likes"!

Continuing this week's unexpected run of Donald Westlake posts . . .

Part of the reason the Parker novels are so effective is their spare hardness, the sense that Westlake's writing (as Stark) gives that not a single word is being wasted. Westlake's Dortmunder novels, on the other hand, are the polar opposite of the Parker novels, so it seems appropriate that a big part of their appeal is the sense they give of an author who is flat-out having a blast stringing words together and seeing where they lead him. Not that Westlake is being careless or wasting words, by any means; rather, in the Dortmunder books he never foregoes a chance to enjoy the pleasures, incidental though they may often be, that well-chosen words can offer.

As evidence, I offer the following list of every simile in Westlake's wonderfully winning collection of Dortmunder stories Thieves' Dozen (1994). It starts with one from the preface, then moves through all eleven stories:
my handwriting looks like a ball of string a kitten has played with.

they could look down and see Yerba Buena Ranch spread out below, like a pool table with fences.

this horse heist was looking less and less like what the newspapers call a "well-planned professional robbery" and more and more like hobos sneaking into backyards to steal lawnmowers.

[The horse] reared back and looked at these humans with distaste, like John Barrymore being awakened the morning after.

Snort, whuffle, paw, headshake, prance; the damn beast acted like he was auditioning for A Chorus Line.

The pickup seemed to think it was a horse; over the fields it bucked like a frying pan trying to throw Dortmunder and Kelp back into the fire.

Lines of ragged punctures had been drawn across the wall and the Lucite upper panel of the tellers' counter, like connect-the-dot puzzles.

Dortmunder's arms shot up like pistons blowing through an engine block.

When he turned around, all five of the robbers were looking at him, their expressions intent, focused, almost hungry, like a row of cats looking in a fish-store window.

Dortmunder's toes, turning into high-tension steel springs, kept him bounding through the air like the Wright brothers' first airplane, swooping and plunging down the middle of the street, that wall of buses getting closer and closer.

Dortmunder took off like the last of the dodoes, flapping his arms, wishing he knew how to fly.

So everybody else shuffled back into the barn and Dortmunder stayed outside, like the last smoker in the world

Forgetting dignity, Dortmunder gazed on his former friend like a betrayed beagle.

His eyes were eggy, with blue yolks, and his thin hair was unnaturally black, like work boots.

The third regular's arms dropped to his sides, like fish off a delivery truck.

Arnie, who smelled mostly like a giant package of artificial sweetener gone bad.

For one horrible moment, the loupe stared straight at Dortmunder, like someone looking out a door's peep-hole without the door.

Conversation ceased after that, like a plant that's never been watered.

Dortmunder dropped into the chair by the window like something that had fallen out of an airplane.

Faint party sounds wafted out like laughing gas.

Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.

These eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left out in the rain.

Then he smiled up at the actor turned waiter who materialized before him like a genie out of a bottle.

Regardless, Big walked forward, slicing a V through the gawkers like a bowling ball through lemmings.

the cop tensed all over, like a sphincter.

the dog thudded like a locomotive against the door.

with a small pivot like the hippopotami in Fantasia, he curled around the opening he'd made.

he turned to the three men on the floor, flopping around down there like caught fish in a bucket

In a voice like a funeral director
I would never argue that these descriptions are all brilliant, but at their best--the ball of string, the tensing cop, the baseball in the rain, the betrayed beagle--they offer exactly the mix of instant comprehensibility and utter unexpectedness for which a comic metaphor should alway strive. And it's impossible not to picture Westlake laughing to himself as he typed them out, caught up in the joy of a craftsman working well with the tools he knows best.

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