Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Fugitive Pigeon

The Fugitive Pigeon (1965) was Donald E. Westlake's first comic novel. In an interview for Armchair Detective in 1988, Westlake explained that the novel "wanted to be funny," and in the introduction to his story collection Levine,Westlake described the turn to comedy:
In the early spring of 1964 I started a mystery novel, intended to be published under my own name by Random House, about a young man who runs a bar in Brooklyn which is owned by the Mafia. They use it as a tax loss and to launder money, they occasionally use it as a package drop, and the young man has the job of running it because his uncle is connected with the Mob. At the beginning of the story, two mob hitmen enter the bar as the young man is about to close for the night, try to kill him, and miss.

This was intended to be an ordinary innocent-on-the-run story, in which the innocent can't go to the police because of his uncle's mob connection. The schnook-on-the-run story, as in The 39 Steps or Alfred Hitchcock's movie Saboteur (in which Robert Cummings played the schnook, and not to be confused with Hitchcock's Sabotage, in which Sylvia Sidney played the schnook), has certain comic elements built into it, but it needn't be a comic story, nor did I initially see my mob-nephew tale as a comic story.

But something went wrong. The conventions of the form prostrated themselves before me. Something manic glowed in the air, like St Elmo's Fire. Instead of the comic's best friend--Shazam!--I became the comic!
What's strange, reading The Fugitive Pigeon now, is that it's not so much comic as gentle--the conventions are noir are there, but without the edge. Oh, there are some jokes in it, but not a lot--and compared to the jokes, nonsense, and absurd intricacies of plot that Westlake would cook up in his later books, it's just not that funny.

What the book does do is introduce a type Westlake would go on to use to greater effect in novels like God Save the Mark: the naif. Westlake's narrator is like a mirror image of the classic noir hero who, lured by sex or money, winds up in over his head and find a previously unknown resourcefulness, even ruthlessness. Westlake's naifs, on the other hand, usually discover that what they want is to get to shore as quickly as possible, please.

There is one moment of great comic description in The Fugitive Pigeon, however, in which we can see the germs of Westlake's later comic style. It's the first appearance of a mobster named Gross:
Up till then I'd assumed that "Gross" was the man's name, but it was his description. He looked like something that had finally come up out of its cave because it had eaten the last of the phosphorescent little fish in the cold pool at the bottom of the cavern. He looked like something that better keep moving because if it stood still someone would drag it out back and bury it. He looked like a big white sponge with various diseases at work on the inside. he looked like something that couldn't get you if you held a crucifix up in front of you. He looked like the big fat soft white something you might find under a tomato plant leaf on a rainy day with a chill in the air.
That's a writer who's having fun, and stretching some wings he didn't know he had.


  1. Just to let you know that movie expert David Bordwell wrote an appreciation of Westlake's writing on his blog:

  2. Thanks, Julian. I just recently spotted that myself. I knew Bordwell was a fan, but I didn't realize the extent of it. Great to see.