Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Pity Him Afterwards

In my slow attempt to read all of Donald E. Westlake's novels (and thus catch up to Ethan Iverson), I recently made it to Pity Him Afterwards (1964). Westlake's fifth novel, it's interesting but still feels very much like journeyman work--oddly, it's not as well-conceived or executed as his excellent first novel, The Mercenaries (available now from Hard Case Crime under Westlake's preferred title, The Cutie.) Nonetheless, for a novel that starts as unpromisingly as this one ("The madman clung to the side of the hill"), it's far from uninteresting: a crazed killer, escaped from an asylum, attempts to hide within the newly assembled cast of a summer stock theater, and the mix of actors, local officials, and the remote setting all offer pleasures.

Westlake knew summer stock from his first wife, an actress who spent at least a couple of summers at upstate theaters like this one. The speech the theater's manager gives a hungover new arrival seems likely to have be lifted from reality:
I want to get you interested in this theater, and I want to get you interested in this season. I want total commitment from you, Mel, for the next eleven weeks. We have an impossibly tough schedule here, a new play every week. You'll have a major role in only four or five of them, but you'll be working in all of them. You'll be a stagehand, or you'll run the flies, or you'll work props. You'll help build sets, and you'll help strike them. You'll work a seven-day week, and you'll work a fourteen-hour day most of the time. You can't do that and last the season if you don't give a damn about what's happening here.
Mel Daniels, the actor to whom this speech is addressed, feels like a prefiguration of Grofield--a Grofield whose straight life is his only life, and who hasn't yet figured out just how good he is with women. On his way to the theater, he enters a diner:
The little man in the white coat came over and asked him what he wanted. He asked for coffee, and then changed his mind and asked for iced coffee. The little man said, "No iced coffee. Iced tea."

He was going to go into a Hemingway routine from that--repeat everything the little man said, and ask when the Swede came in for dinner--but he didn't have the energy. And the little man wouldn't get it, he'd figure Mel for a smart aleck. So he said, "All right, iced tea."
Westlake's other characters include an actress with ambition to direct, a vigorously rude director ("shaped like a bag of lard, soft and sagging, with a petulant jowly face and pudgy hands"), and a self-doubting police chief who spends his winters as a college professor. It's a promising cast, and--the problems with crazed killers aside--an effective plot structure, as Westlake contrives to prevent the reader from knowing which actor is actually the madman for most of the book. But ultimately the book is less than the sum of its parts: after all this set-up, Westlake rushes to the end too quickly, and since we're less interested in the madman's fate than in the characters he's threatening, it's unsatisfying.

Westlake explained in a couple of interviews that Pity Him Afterwards was the quickest writing he'd ever done: start to finish, it took him something like fifteen days. And while it doesn't feel in any way slapdash--did Westlake ever write anything that did?--it does feel like a book the more mature Westlake would likely have continued poking away at until it opened up into something bigger and better.

I'll close with a couple of notes that tie in to particular interests of this blog. First, an explanation of the title. It comes from Samuel Johnson, via Boswell:
If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.
And, finally, one more indication that Westlake at this point in his career was just getting his feet under him: the book includes the first of what would be many uses of Sydney Greenstreet as a point of comparison (Huzzah!) . . . but he's not quite there yet:
He was a stocky man who looked to be about thirty, five foot, ten inches tall, with a heavy face that could become Shakespeare's Falstaff or Hammett's Casper Gutman with equal aptitude.
Within just a few years, Westlake would cut to the chase, moving beyond Hammett's character straight to the actor who played him, and the universe of similes would never be the same!

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