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.

Monday, July 29, 2013

John D. MacDonald's lighter side

After taking issue with John D. MacDonald's dismissal of Chicago in One Fearful Yellow Eye last week, I feel like I should point out two passages from the book that I particularly enjoyed, if for no other reason than that they're atypical for the McGee novels. They don't quite qualify as comedy, but there's a lightness, even playfulness to them that is a welcome leavening to the usual McGee mix.

The first is a litany of personal disasters retailed by the story's heroine, for whom McGee is trying to recover a late husband's missing estate. It's not so much light as excessive, giving an air of a writer having fun spinning ideas:
Why in the world should my life be some sort of continuous soap opera? I think I had six uneventful years. The first six. Gloria Anne Ridgen. Then all hell broke loose. Is there such a thing as drama-prone? You know, you go hunting for the action. My daddy bought me a ride on a merry-go-round, and that was the time the man running it had to be drunk and decided he wasn't going to stop it. When they died I had to live with my nutty old aunt, and if my astrology tables were wrong any given day, she wouldn't let me go to school. The boy I went with in high school was walking by a building and somebody dropped a can of paint, and when he woke up from the coma a year later, he had the mind of a two-year-old. In college my roommate was a secret klepto and hid the loot in my luggage and when they began to narrow it down, she turned me in, and six months later she got caught and they apologized and asked me to come back to school, and the day I was due to leave I got infectious mononucleosis and my dog was run over. All I want is a plain, neat, ordinary, unexciting life. But what happens? In Buffalo one day I got off the bus downtown on a hot afternoon and the bus door closed on my wraparound skirt and drove off and left me spinning like a top in my little yellow briefs on the busiest corner in town. You know, I dream about that. There I am, and everybody is applauding and I can't stop twirling.
More deliberately comic is a passage that comes later, which shows a mocking awareness of how overly apocalyptic McGee's pronouncements about the decline of society can get. Like a lot of good comedy, it takes place in the bathroom:
I shed coat and jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves and drew a lavatory bowl of cold water. I wallowed and scrubbed and made seal sounds, and then found out that the management had thoughtfully provided one of those warm air tubes for the drying bit, the special kind that leave you feeling coated with grease rather than water. Small children think they are fun. Every adult in the land hates them. They are part of the international communist conspiracy. A nation forced to dry itself off in a machined huff of sickly warm air is going to be too irritable, listless, and disheartened to fight. Americans unite! Carry your own towels. Carry little sticks with which you can wedge those turn-off faucets open so you can get two hands under the water at the same time. Carry your own soap so you need not wash your paws in that sickly green punch-button goo that leaves you smelling like an East Indian bordello. Carry your own toilet paper, men. The psychic trauma created by a supply of the same paper stock used for four-color ads in Life magazine cannot be measured
McGee will occasionally remind himself not to take himself too seriously, but most of the time that's in the midst of a monologue where he's very much taking himself seriously, and with good reason. It's nice to see MacDonald letting him acknowledge the ridiculousness that, like the bad guy with the sap, is always a risk for a noir hero.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travis McGee is no fan of Chicago

In John D. MacDonald's One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966), his honorable tough guy beach bum protagonist, Travis McGee, offers an opinion of Chicago, which he's visiting in order to help out an old friend. I'm going to quote at greater length than usual, because each paragraph of McGee's reflections seems worth looking at:
I went out and walked south on Michigan Avenue. In nice weekend weather it is one of the specialties of the house. Chicago is a strange one. It is not on my list of favorite places. Insofar as restaurants and lounges and hotels are concerned it is strictly hinterland, strictly hick. And as you go down the scale it becomes more shabby and shoddy than rough. I do not know why anyone should expect anything special in that line from a place where the Hefner Empire seems to represent some sort of acme of sophistication, based as it is upon fantastic centerfold mammalians for the pimpled self-lovers, upon a chain of bunny-warrens styled to make the middle-class sales manager feel like a member of an in-group, and upon a laborious philosophical discourse which runs interminably in the ad-happy magazine and in the polysyllabic style of the pseudo-educated, carrying the deathless message that it is healthy to screw and run if everybody is terribly sincere about it.

A great university they have indeed, but if you take a train there from the center of the city, you pass through whole areas of the South Side which make the worst of Harlem look like Scarsdale. It is a gigantic shameful tinderbox everybody is trying not to notice. If you are a stranger and want to leave the university area after dark, they insist on getting you a cab.

The best of Chicago, I think, must go on quite privately, and it must be very fine indeed. Private homes and private clubs, and a lot of insulation and discretion, because as I hiked along Michigan I saw and admired what I had come to see, strolling, window-shopping flocks of women of that inimitable smartness, style, loveliness, assurance, and aroma of money which will make headwaiters and captains all over the Western world leap, beaming, to unhook their velvet ropes before they even hear the name. I feel they live in Chicago in very much the same spirit the early settlers lived in the wilderness full of Indians. They keep the big gates closed. They consort with each other, and they import those specialties their rude environment cannot supply, and when they need relief from that nerve-twanging combination of unending drabness and glittering boosterism, they take their ease at the truly smart spots of the world and, when asked where they are from, tell the truth with that mocking inverted pride of the fellow pinned to the sod with a spear who said it only hurt when he laughed.

Statistically it is probably the one city in the world where the most people have been killed in arguments over professional athletes. The middle of the city, where nine bridges cross a large sewage canal called the Chicago River, is beginning to look as if Martians had designed it. For untold years the city has limped along under what might well be the most arrogant, ruthless, and total political control in the country. In a kind of constant hysterical spasm of self-distaste, the city uglifies itself further each year by chopping away more tress and paving more areas for all those thousands of drivers who seem to have learned their art at Daytona.
Some thoughts:

1 Let's just get this one right out there: Can anyone who make his home in Florida, by choice, criticize anywhere else in America? Seriously, McGee. I know you've been to New York and 'round the world, but you do live in Ft. Lauderdale. There's a reason there's a whole Twitter account dedicated to sharing bizarre stories whose headlines begin "Florida man . . . "

2 That said, the impression I have been given by long-time residents of Chicago before my time isn't all that far off from what McGee complains about. As I was watching James Caan in Thief recently, I marveled at just how old, unsophisticated, and down-at-heel the bars and restaurants and offices he visited in 1980 Chicago were. Like a lot of American cities, Chicago spruced itself up mightily in the '90s and '00s. Also like a lot of those cities, we're really only now beginning to come to terms with the fact that a lot of that sprucing up was at the expense of neighborhoods, schools, and working people, but there's no question that along the Michigan Avenue and lounge-club-restaurant axes, we've moved beyond McGee's complaint.

3 It's no real surprise to see McGee (and, implied throughout, McDonald) take a swipe at Hugh Hefner. Whereas Playboy stood for free love, McGee always stood for love freely given, but carefully chosen, and backed up by emotions.

That said, McGee's attitude toward and relationships with women, all these decades later, seem tired and dated in a not-dissimilar way to Hefner's. McGee's approach to women is, I think, deliberately intended by MacDonald to be essentially feminist--much like, in a different way, a strain of feminism has always run through Playboy (which a book I handled publicity for a few years back, Carrie Pitzulo's Bachelors and Bunnies, does a great job of explaining). But both are tripped up by their emphasis on the relationship with men, and on the liberating potential of sex; the result, if (and I mean this seriously) well-intentioned, ends up emphasizing differences between the sexes even as it proclaims some essential sense of equality. It's hard, reading about McGee healing yet another damaged woman through a month of gentle, caring sex as they sail through the Keys, to imagine that attitude leading to a place where women are assumed to have all options equally open, all choices fully available to them. It's not wholly fair to condemn McGee (and MacDonald), for it was a different time, and I do think he was trying. But with the perspective of nearly a half century, his jab at Hefner seems like it's traveling across a much narrower divide than he thinks.

4 We still have the great university, my employer, and the South Side, though in much better shape than he's depicting, is still rough. What's interesting (and depressing) to think about is that he was writing before the destruction of the West Side, before the full effects of white flight, redlining, and the 1968 riots. Chicago's damaged and forsaken places were about to get worse, and we're still failing to acknowledge it or deal well with the consequences.

5 The line about the interior life of Chicago being the real life is I think substantially true today, if I may deliberately misinterpret it a bit. McGee is talking about the sophisticated and emotionally mature hiding out from the savages, whereas what I see speaks more to Chicago's greatest little-known virtue: you can actually live here. Jobs, and pay scales, that would in New York or San Francisco or London leave you living on the outskirts and scrambling, roommated and credit-carded, here can enable you to create a stable upper middle class life. You can have a nice apartment near good transit and a park, and you can have a kitchen, and maybe even a dining room--so, unlike those cities, you can have a social life that revolves around the home, yours and those of friends, with dinners and drinks and porch parties. It is a city that enables the domestic, and in that way McGee is right: who cares what's going on with the crowds in Grant Park so long as I have a shaker, gin, ice, and a couple of friends who can swing by on their bicycles?

6 The boosterism . . . even then that was coming up. The fact that he's right--Chicago boosterism gets really old really fast--doesn't, however, mean that Rachel Shteir's much-discussed New York Times slam of Chicago wasn't just as poorly argued and devoid of critical insight as its sharper critics said. Just as there have, it seems, always been the boosters, there have, presumably, also always been those who prefer reality.

7 As for the Chicago River: it's getting better. Still noxious, but nothing like the Gowanus Canal, say, and (in part under EPA orders) getting better. Well worth a kayak trip, if you've not tried it--just don't drink from it, for god's sake. And while the younger Daley's reign may have nearly matched his father's in all the charges McGee levels against it, the one thing you can say for Richard M. is that he loved trees. Not only did he stop chopping them down, he started planting them everywhere. He left us many legacies, most of them ticking or toxic, but the green I see all around me every day, whether the young trees starting to shade the lakefront path or the forest that is the view out into the neighborhoods from my seats at Wrigley Field, is one thing I'll always be grateful to him for.

Come back in winter, McGee. Then you'll really have something to complain about.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The work of the man who is committed to chronicling instances of Sydney Greenstreet similes and depictions of hangovers in literature is never done!

While on vacation last week in Michigan, I read, among other books, a pair of Donald Westlake novels that I'd not previously gotten to, The Fugitive Pigeon (1965) and Dancing Aztecs (1976). And they happened to offer new instances of two of the aspects of all of literature that I have decided are important enough for me to track: comparisons to Sydney Greenstreet and descriptions of hangovers!

Westlake is the master--perhaps even the originator--of the Sydney Greenstreet comparison. That said, he cannot be relied on to spell Greenstreet's first name correctly. (Perhaps he should have added it to the sign he hung above his desk that read "Weird Villain," the two words he had the hardest time spelling.) So please understand that the misspelling in the second example is Westlake's rather than mine.

Here we go. From The Fugitive Pigeon:
I looked back, and at first I couldn't see the Packard, but then I caught an evil glint of chrome in the darkness back there. That car was the mechanical Sydney Greenstreet.
Let's be honest: that's a fairly weak example. The Packard was big and menacing, but so is George Raft, and Lee Marvin, &tc., &tc. But as I think that's the first Greenstreet comparison of Westlake's long career, I'm willing to cut him some slack.

And from Dancing Aztecs:
Krassmeier sat on the leather sofa to one side, sneering contemptuously at everybody like some road-show Sidney Greenstreet.
I like that one because it gets away from the obvious point of comparison, Greenstreet's girth, focusing instead on his general air of cynical, been-round-the-block superiority.

Let us close the evening with a reminder of what some folks out there will wake up with tomorrow, the hangover, as described by Westlake in Dancing Aztecs:
There are three kinds of hangovers. There are hangovers that are green and wet and slimy, full of queasiness and trembling and the conviction that one has somehow been disemboweled in one's sleep and a recently dead muskrat has been placed where one's stomach used to be. Then there are hangovers that are gray and stony and cold, in which the granite of one's skull has been cracked like the wall of the temple, and the rock of one's brain has been reduced to rubble within, painful rubble. And finally there are hangovers that are red and jagged and jolting, lightning bolts shooting in one ear and out the other, more lightning in the elbows and knees, buzzers and electric chairs and whoopee cushions in the stomach, flash bulbs in the eyes and battery acid in the mouth. Those are the three kinds of hangovers, and Pedro had all three of them.
Whatever your tipple, may you wake tomorrow with none of the three.

Friday, July 19, 2013

It has always been thus.

Should those who lament the corporatization of the University--I'm looking at you, Lars Iyer, among many others--take heart from the fact that Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong (1959) reminds us that it's been going on for a long, long time? Or should it be yet another source of distress? From the novel:
Treece had never really wanted to come to the ball in the first place. It was the Vice-Chancellor, who spent the weeks before these student occasions in indefatigable effort, gathering up members of the faculty to go along in order, as he liked to express it, "to put up a bit of a show," who had tempted him here. The Vice-Chancellor, like all vice-chancellors, had clear ideas of what a university should look like, and taste like; vice-chancellors all share in common a Platonic ideal for a university. For one thing, it should be big. People should be coming to look at it all the time. There should be a special place for parking Rolls-Royces. There should be big sports grounds, a science building designed by Basil Spence, and more and more students coming every year. There should be new faculties--of Business Administration, of Aeronautical Engineering, of Sanitation, of Social Dancing. Vice-chancellors want big universities and a great many faculties; professors want small universities and only the liberal arts and pure sciences. Vice-chancellors always seem to win.
It's not quite Iyer's nightmare-born "Faculty of Sport," but it's close.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A different approach to parties

On Monday, I shared a party scene from Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong in which an early guest made himself a bit too much at home. Today I'll share a passage where that party's host, now attending a do at someone else's house, makes himself at home in a less intrusive, but hardly more appropriate way:
"Did you bring a book to read?" asked Viola, when Treece had had time to thaw a little. This was a reference to the fact that, at parties, Treece had a habit of reading in a corner, with his back to the assembled company; there was a famous occasion when, at a faculty dinner, he got through A Farewell to Arms.
I am not at my best at parties. I have a bad habit of finding the people I know and sticking close to them, then leaving fairly early. But at least I'm not that bad. The most I've ever gotten through at a party is a very short story.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Comic novels often reach their heights in party scenes. It's the perfect situation, after all, bringing together drunkenness, awkward conversation, and shifting groups of characters. (And did I mention drunkenness?) To my mind, they're second only to hangover scenes as a chance for a comic novelist to really cut loose and have fun.

While Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong is sadly devoid of hangover scenes, it is rife with parties, all quite funny. The best is held by the protagonist, Treece, for some of the students he works with, and the funniest part of that party is built around the breach of social etiquette that opens it: Louis Bates, an awkward student, arrives far too early.
[Treece] was straightaway presented with a major social quandary: could one fairly ask the too-early guest to wander about the cold winter streets and return in an hour, when the sandwiches would be made and the preparations completed, the old pair of working trousers and the frilly apron replaced by a suit--or must one invite him in and perhaps even entertain him? Louis, on the other hand, had no such social doubts, and politely and firmly indicated what he considered appropriate:

"I'm afraid I'm a little early," he said, "but that's because I didn't want to be late. I have no sense of time."

"I think we said four o'clock, didn't we?" asked Treece, opening the door no wider. "It's now not quite three."

"I know," said Louis, and at that point it dawned on Treece that Louis actually intended to stay, for some abstruse purpose.

"None of your colleagues has arrived yet," Treece said.

The remark did not perturb Louis at all. "Apres moi, le deluge," he said.

Treece saw that he had no alternative and gave way, and Louis stepped confidently into the hall, unbuttoning his coat and looking with interest about him at the decoration. "I thought we might have a little chat about how I was getting on, you know," said Louis.

"I think we might try and preserve this as a social occasion," said Treece.
Leading Louis into the drawing room and helping him out of his huge overcoat, "which he had somehow contrived to wind about him like a shroud," Treece apologizes:
"You must excuse me if I leave you here, but I haven't finished getting things ready yet, and I have to change," said Treece. Louis appeared at first hurt, and then baffled, by this news. He was well awared that if he was left alone in an empty room he would quickly be nibbled by misfortune; he would pull over a bookcase while trying to take out a book, or be discovered by an unwarned housekeeper and accused of burglary. He knew himself and he knew his gods; he knew the rotation of his misfortunes. "This is a nice room," he said quick-wittedly.

Treece looked around, surprised; it had not changed, it was as it was, and that was patently the last thing that could be said of it. If he was the sort of person who liked nice rooms, he was damned if this was the sort of room he would be living in.
As Treece attempts to flee to the kitchen, it gets no better:
"Isn't there anything I can be doing?" [Louis] suggested. "I'm afraid there isn't," said Treece, nervous of Louis's desire to please. He made hastily for the door and Louis planned an even more desperate move. "Do you think I could have a bath?"

But Treece had gone. He had withdrawn to the kitchen and, up to his elbows in pastry (Mrs. Watson had taught him how to make cakes), was wondering what Louis was doing and what would have happened to the room when he got back. In fact, Louis passed through all the stages of privation in a strange house--he examined the ornaments on the mantel, looked at the pictures on the walls, noticed the books in the bookcase and read the spicier pages of the medical directory, peered at his teeth in the mirror, made sure his fly buttons were fastened--and he was cutting his hair at the back with a pair of scissors found in an open drawer of the bureau when Treece returned, nearly an hour later, to start the fire. "I ought to have done this before I came," said Louis Bates.
And all of the before anyone's had a drop to drink!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The modern novel

As I write this, it's late on a hot Fourth of July, and through our open windows we can hear the constant barrage of celebration. Illegal celebration, as Illinois doesn't allow fireworks--and all the more entertaining (at a distance) therefore.

But against that backdrop, do you really think I'm going to write a post titled "The modern novel"? Seems like too big a task on a night like tonight. So I'll turn the topic over to Malcolm Bradbury, from Eating People Is Wrong:
"You are not converting me," cried Treece furiously. "All the modern novel seems to have discovered since Lawrence is that there are some people in England who change their shirts every day. I knew that already. I don't need to read modern novels."

"But you should," said Viola.

"Why?" cried Treece. "I read this one because someone said I was in it. And I am. Do you realise that the story about the professor who left the script of one of his articles among some student essays, and another tutor gave it C minus, is about me? Someone must have told this man. Even down to the bit about, 'This is good lower second stuff.' It was B minus actually. That makes it worse."

"Poet's licence," said Viola.
The joke itself is fun, of course, but what I love most about this passage is the earnestness of Treece's complaint about the modern novel. He really is an Edwardian at his core, and an early Edwardian at that--he's no Victorian, no prude, he wants to be a liberal intellectual, with all the doubting and questing that that entails, but the new and the now simply do not appeal. Usually, he can hide his distaste under the openness and relativism of his creed, but once in a while . . . it emerges in a cry straight from the heart.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"A Rupert Brooke without a Gallipoli"

Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong is full of great comic moments--from the level of observations (the lobby's "huge leather armchairs that looked like cows; you wouldn't have thought it odd if someone had come along to milk them") to extended scenes and exchanges of dialogue. The book is so good that I feel I should put all my (admittedly limited) resources to nudging it out of the long shadow of Lucky Jim, so I'll be sharing bits from it through the next few posts.

Today, I'll share a description that I admire not merely for how it captures a type of person that we can still picture now, long after the reference points Bradbury uses have ceased to be alive in our world, but also for how, not content to simply come up with a funny comparison, Bradbury gives them one further nudge, developing them until he's wrung every last bit of humor out of each. Here you go:
Merrick, if he was anything, was a gentleman. He was, it always seemed to Treece, a typical Cambridge product gone to seed; he was the bright young man of fifty, handsome, fair-haired, bursting with romantic idealism, the sort that nice girls always loved, the sort that had gone off in droves to fight the First World War. There was something passe and Edwardian about Merrick. He was conceited, cocksure, a public school and Cambridge Adonis fascinated by what he called "the classical way of life." Treece privately described him as a Rupert Brooke without a Gallipoli, and this was really almost fair; he seemed as if he had outstayed his lease on the earth, and now his romanticism was turning into a kind of Housman-like light cynicism, his open and frank assurance curdling, his Grecian-god looks becoming almost grotesque with wrinkles. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and took out a gold cigarette case: "Gasper?" he said. He would, naturally, wear a waistcoat; cigarettes he would call, of course, "gaspers." He smiled brilliantly at Emma and put his cigarette case before here; you felt that, like Bulldog Drummond, he would say, "Turkish on this side; Virginias on that."
You can see him, no? Pocket watch as well, I trust, and possibly a very narrow mustache? Or even a monocle?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Blimey! It's slang time!

A couple of novels I've read recently have thrown up some slang terms that seemed worth a bit of a look into, so, to deploy a new gleaning from the Urban Dictionary, I won't ramp with you--I'll get right to it:

1 That word--"ramp"--is actually the first one, though not, it seems, used with any of the meanings offered by the Urban Dictionary. I encountered it in Malcolm Bradbury's wonderfully funny campus comedy Eating People Is Wrong (1959). A faculty member is irritated that coffee in the faculty lounge must be paid for by departmentally issued tickets, and she says, "Isn't it a ramp?" A colleague then reflects,
Treece admired Viola's indignations. She was always full of protest about ramps, and over charging, and overcrowding in houses, and lack of toilet facilities at the bus station: her principles were always directed against tangible objects, whereas Treece's, these days, could fix on nothing save unresolvable complexities.
So a "ramp" is a scam, perhaps? An irritation? A bureaucratic irritation? English readers--is this a familiar term and I've just never encountered it?

2 The second term was in Matthew Specktor's new novel of Hollywood, American Dream Machine, one of the best books I've read this year. (It's like a more realistic, less distanced cousin to Steve Erickson's Zeroville--whereas Erickson deliberately offered up a naive cipher as his protagonist, and let Hollywood roil around him almost like a fever dream, Specktor gives us a number of fully realized, convincing characters and shows what happens when dreams become business, rebellion gets rich, and every human relationship takes a backseat to questions of success and fear of failure. It's perceptive, smart, funny, and beautifully written, with an emotional honesty and intensity that makes the prose sing.)

At two points in the book, younger characters address each other as "holmes," as in, "Hey, holmes." Now, the word itself isn't new--I'm not hip, but I'm not that not hip. My surprise came from the spelling: I'd always assumed it was "homes," from "homeboy."

And according to the Urban Dictionary it is. "Holmes," however, is also correct--and here's where the Urban Dictionary shows its weakness: a real dictionary would explain which was the preferred, or more common usage. Instead, we're left on our own. Me, I'll stick with "homes." The other version just makes me feel like Watson.

3 I'll close with a locution that's not slang, but seems to fit today's theme nonetheless: "tailor style," used to describe cross-legged sitting, with the lower legs toward the body and crossed low on the ankle. It's one of Donald Westlake's favorite descriptive terms--if I remember right, a murder victim in Plunder Squad is even impaled on a sword while sitting tailor style. Aside from Westlake, however, I've only ever encountered it in the work of Lawrence Block--who, as a friend of Westlake, I thought might have picked it up from him (or vice versa).

Wikipedia, however, assures me that it's a common term. The entry for "Sitting"--good glorious god, there's an entry for "Sitting"--says it is found in several European languages (though the link to the Wiktionary entry does come up empty).

So now you have an assignment: Come up with a sentence that uses all three terms, and leave it in the comments. Don't let me down, homes.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

"So I just had him deal with those cops, you know?"

One of the pleasures of working on my forthcoming collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction, The Getaway Car, has been reading a lot of interviews across many years. Westlake was something of a performer in interviews--he had a number of essentially stock answers and anecdotes that he broke out at appropriate times, but 1) they're good ones, and 2) there's enough variation in questions and focus among the interviews that you're able to pick up something new from pretty much all of them.

The best I've found yet, and one that I'm planning to include, is an interview by William DeAndrea for Armchair Detective's Fall 1988 issue. It's a long interview, touching on pretty much every question any Westlake fan would want to ask, and it also offers new details from or angles on familiar stories. Like this one, about the origins of Parker:
WESTLAKE: Of course, the first book wasn't going to be part of a series. Nothing happened the way I anticipated it was going to happen with that book. I was doing one a year in hardcover from Random House, and I thought, okay, time to have another name, and I'd been reading all these Gold Medal books--which is where Peter Rabe came from--so I wrote this novel to be a Gold Medal paperback original novel. Certainly not a series. In fact, Parker got caught at the end. The editor at Gold Medal turned it down, and I was confused. Then it was sent to Pocket Books. There was an editor at Pocket Books named Bucklyn Moon. Buck Moon.

DEANDREA: Great name.

WESTLAKE: Yeah. He was an interesting guy. He was a white guy whose three great interests were mystery[en-dash]private eye-[en-dash]crime novels, poetry, and black writing. He edited anthologies of black poets, for instance; he was the American champion of Chester Himes--Gravedidgger Jones, Coffin Ed Johnson. These things all came together in him. At that time, I was represented by Scott Meredith, God help me. Buck called Scott, and then he called me, and said, "Is there any way for you to let Parker get away at the end of the book, and give me three a year?" I said, "I think so."

DEANDREA: "And you're gonna pay me for them, and everything?"

WESTLAKE: In 1961, the two companies that paid the top were Gold Medal and Pocket Books, and Gold Medal was a little better, because they paid on copies printed. Which is rather a wonderful thing. When I eventually did get published by them, when they would do another printing, they'd just send you a check for the number of books they'd printed.

DEANDREA: They work that way in Germany.

WESTLAKE: Well, Otto used to work that way with Mysterious Press. Until he became a serious publisher. (Laughter) But, at that time, a $3,000 advance was very good. So in '61, being told that for my second name I would do three books a year, which would be no problem, that would be $9,000 already. On the first of January, I know I'm going to make at least $9,000 this year--that's terrific. And I'd really had to distort the book to have the guy caught in the end anyway, so I just had him deal with those cops, you know? Parker unchained.
In order:

1. I knew of Bucklyn (elsewhere spelled Bucklin) Moon from this story, but I had never heard about his interest in African American literature.

2. Gold Medal paid on copies printed? Holy hell, that's amazing. Should I, a publishing professional, have already known that that's how a mass market paperback publisher once worked? Because I certainly didn't. Wow. 3. I have read many accounts from Westlake of rewriting the ending of The Hunter, but this is the only one I've come across where he explains that it was hard to have Parker get caught, convincingly, in the first place--and what fun is in that line "So I just had him deal with those cops, you know?" We know. Oh, do we know.

Trust me, folks: this book is going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again, or, Gene Autry never mentioned the sores!

Though I make no promises, tonight marks an attempt to get back to blogging more reliably following my Getaway Car–induced slowdown. (I've turned in the manuscript, and while there are still many hurdles still to leap, things are moving along nicely--and best of all, I really like the book as it's come together. In the course of assembling it, re-arranging it, and typing large parts of it, I've read the whole thing probably three times now, and I find myself enjoying Donald Westlake's company just as much every time--a good sign.) There's a better than reasonable chance that upcoming travels and work stress will keep me from returning to a regular schedule until autumn, well, to quote Sampson Starkweather, "It's true, people cannot be trusted / but do it anyway. It's great! Trust me."

As with any pursuit you let lie fallow for a while, it takes a bit of stretching and plodding to get back into it. Neglected muscles grumble; skills, disregarded, refuse to answer the call. (You should--or, more properly, shouldn't--hear me at the piano after a week on the road. Good god.)

So for tonight, I'll merely praise Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong (1959), a book that, as a mid-fifties campus comedy, molders unfairly in the shadow of Lucky Jim. Oh, there's no doubt that Lucky Jim is the better, funnier book, but more than a half-century on from the publication of the two, I think there's room enough for both. As I ease back into all this nonsense, I'll likely share a number of passages from it that made me laugh out loud. For now, however, I'll simply share two invocations of Shakespeare, both of which get at the genius at the book's heart--the attempt to portray the ultimate dilemma facing the liberal intellectual: once we admit that all can (and should) be doubted, where can we find firm footing, and how can we ever hope to move beyond self-criticism (and self-analysis to support that criticism) to grapple with the world as such? (The title sums it up brilliantly: Yes, eating people is clearly wrong, but when one considers . . . )

Herewith, passage one:
There are people to whom life seems so simple, and so pleasantly simple, that when you look at them you wonder, "Well, look, perhaps I just haven't through this through far enough--I, and Shakespeare, and the rest of us."
It would be a good line, a funny line, if its only joke was the so-English diffidence of "Well, look, perhaps." But the late, and, one assumes, reluctant, invocation of Shakespeare raises it to genius.

Then there's this:
Of course, in a way Hamlet was a man of action--look how he was always killing people.
I know that this isn't necessarily the aspiration of all comic writing, but is there any higher praise than this: that line could have been delivered by Bertie Wooster.