Thursday, June 14, 2012

Doing it the right way

One of the great pleasures of reading Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels comes from realizing how much fun Westlake had writing them. It's impossible to miss: in addition to the loopy regular characters and ridiculous plots, he loads the book up with little jokes, observations, and comic ideas that you can tell were nearly as much fun to write as to read. It's hard not to picture Westlake laughing to himself at the keyboard as he went along.

My favorite example in Why Me (1983), which until this week was the last of the unread Dortmunders for me, comes early on, when Westlake introduces an FBI man:
Malcolm Zachary loved being an FBI man. It gave a certain meaningful tension to everything he did. When he got out of a car and slammed the door, he didn't do it like just anybody, he did it like an FBI man: step, swing, slam, a fluid motion, flex of muscle, solid and determined, graceful in a manly sort of way. Malcolm Zachary got out of cars like an FBI man, drank coffee like an FBI man, sat quietly listening like an FBI man. It was terrific; it gave him a heightened self-awareness of the most delicious sort, like suddenly seeing yourself on closed-circuit television in a store window. It we nt with him through life, everywhere, in everything he did. He brushed his teeth like an FBI man--shoulders squared, elbow up high and sawing left and right, chick-chick, chick-chick.
The description works on two levels: it serves up an effective picture of Zachary--we immediately know his type from movies, which is appropriate since that's probably where he assembled his self-conception from in the first place--and, as Westlake lays on example after silly example, we get to laugh at Zachary's high seriousness.

And in case that wasn't enough to give you a full picture of this guy . . . well, Westlake, like any good comedian should, saves the best joke for last:
He made love like an FBI man--ankles together, elbows bearing the weight, hum-pah, hum-pah.
Is there any part of that sentence that doesn't show the mark of genius? The concept, though sharp, might have come to all of us with time, but the execution is wonderful, as if lifted from the detailed instructions found in some Quantico-only special edition of The Joy of Sex. And then the sound effects! Hum-pah, Hum-pah, indeed. I'm sure there's a sanctioned way to deliver the peck on the cheek and the first quiet snores, too.

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