Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Brothers Keepers

Donald E. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels. It's a daunting number, but fortunately there are plenty of places where a reader just coming to his work can begin. Like comedy? Try the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, or the standalone Somebody Owes Me Money, with its brilliant opening line:
I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn't so eloquent.
Want something more hard-boiled? Try 361, which Westlake himself described as an exercise in writing with absolutely no hint of emotion, or the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

One place not to start is with Brothers Keepers (1975). Yet as I was reading it recently, I kept thinking that it serves almost perfectly as a demonstration of the qualities that make a Westlake novel entertaining. It's about a monastery in Manhattan whose residents realize that they're about to be booted so that the property owner can build a soulless office tower. Westlake described the writing process to Ethan Iverson like this:
I have to tell you a teeny thing about the genesis of Brothers Keepers. It all began with a title; The Felonious Monks. They would commit some sort of robbery to save the monastery. So I started it and introduced them and realized I liked them too much to lead them into a life of crime. So, to begin with, there went the title. "Okay," I said, "let's see what a caper novel looks like without the caper." Turned out to be a love story; who knew.
Surprisingly, it works--and what makes it work is the simple fact that shines through even the hardest-boiled of Westlake's novels: this is a man who enjoyed writing. He enjoyed setting difficulties and seeing how he could get out of them. He enjoyed pointless asides, and dumb jokes, and goofy displays of knowledge. All those come into Brothers Keepers at some point, and they're delightful.

The light touch of the opening gives a good sense of Westlake's off-kilter sense of humor:
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four days since my last confession."

"Yes, yes. Go on."

Why does he always sound so impatient? Rush rush rush; that's not the proper attitude. "Well," I said, "let's see." I tried not to be rattled. "I had an impure thought," I said, "on Thursday evening, during a shaving commercial on television."

"A shaving commercial?" Now he sounded exasperated; it was bad enough, apparently, that I bored him, without bewildering him as well.

"It's a commercial," I said, "in which a blonde lady with a Swedish accent applies shaving cream to the face of a young man with a rather prognathous jaw."

"Prognathous?" More bewildered than exasperated this time; I'd caught his attention for fair.

"That means, uh, prominent. A large jaw, that sort of sticks out."

"Does that have anything to do with the sin?"

"No, no. I just thought, uh, I thought you wanted to know, uh . . . "

"This impure thought," he said, chopping off my unfinished sentence. "Did it concern the woman or the man?"

"The woman, of course! What do you think?" I was shocked; you don't expect to hear that sort of thing in confession.

"All right," he said. "Anything else?" His name is Father Banzolini, and he comes here twice a week to hear our confessions. We give him a nice dinner before and a nightcap after, but he's surly all the time, a very surly priest. I imagine he finds us dull, and would rather be hearing confessions over in the theater district or down in Greenwich VIllage. After all, how far can a lamb stray in a monastery?

"Um," I said, trying to think. I'd had all my sins organized in my mind before coming here, but as usual Father Banzolini's asperity had thrown me off course. I'd once thought I might jot down all my sins in advance and simply read them from the paper in the confessional, but somehow that lacked the proper tone for contrition and so on. Also, what if the paper were to fall into the wrong hands?
He goes on to confess stealing an orange Flair pen from one of the other brothers, for which he's given "two Our Fathers and oh, Seven Hail Marys."

Westlake's plots are airtight--even this crime novel without a crime features a complicated plot--and efficient in their workings. But while he never wastes any time, he also doesn't hesitate to use time, to take advantage of what's offered in a scene to have a little fun, even silly, mostly pointless fun. The best example of that in Brothers Keepers, a scene that had me giggling to myself on the L, is when Dwarfmann, the guy who's going to build the office tower, unexpectedly draws a Bible verse and begins combat:
"My days," he said, "are swifter than a weaver's shuttle. Let's get back down to business."

I'm sure Brother Oliver was as taken aback as I was. The imagery, in Dwarfmann's rattly style of speech, seemed wildly inappropriate. Then Brother Oliver said, in distinct astonishment, "Was that from Job?"

"Chapter seven, verse six," Dwarfmann snapped. "Come, come, if you have something to say to me, say it. Our time is a very shadow that passeth away."

"I don't know the Apocrypha," Brother Oliver said.

Dwarfmann gave him a thin smile. "You know it well enough to recognize it. Wisdom of Solomon, chapter two, verse five."

"Then I can only cite One Thessalonians," Brother Oliver said. "Chapter five, verse fourteen. Be patient toward all men."

"Let us run with patience," Dwarfmann or somebody said, "the race that is set before us."

"I don't believe," Brother Oliver told him, "that was quite the implication of that verse in its original context."
The duel continues for nearly two pages, and after Dwarfmann leaves, the monks are still a bit stunned:
Shaking my head, I said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."

Brother Oliver gave me a puzzled look. "Is that New Testament? I don't recognize that."

"Uhh, no," I said. "It's Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice." I cleared my throat. "Sorry," I said.
As much as any writer I can think of, Westlake demonstrated that he understood that we aren't coming to these books to improve ourselves, or learn life lessons (though, to be fair, you can learn a hell of a lot of life lessons from the Parker novels), but to have fun. And if he's getting the most possible fun out of the writing, we're likely going to feel the same way in the reading.

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