Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Donald Westlake was funny

The same box that brought Ross Thomas' Missionary Stew also contained an old paperback of The Hot Rock, Donald Westlake's first Dortmunder novel. That was one hell of a USPS flat-rate package.

Here are some favorite bits of The Hot Rock, along with the reasons I chose them:
Photo by your humble blogkeeper/
photographer, Peter Rozovsky
"They passed over Newark Bay and Jersey City and Upper Bay and then Murch figured out how to steer and he turned left a little and they followed the Hudson north, Manhattan on their right like stalagmites with cavities, New Jersey on their left like uncollected garbage."
*
"`Take him,' Dortmunder said over his shoulder and turned the other way, where a stout cop with a ham and cheese sandwich on rye in his hand was trying to close another door. ... The cop looked at Dortmunder. He stopped and put his hands up in the air. One slice of rye dangles over his knuckles like the floppy ear of a dog."
Do you like those passages? Tell me why, and then I'll tell you if we like them for the same reasons.. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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13 Comments:

Blogger Philip Amos said...

The similes. "...like the floppy ear of a dog...like stalagmites with cavities...". Westlake has given them thought -- they are visually apt, meaningful, and avoid what John Cleese might call "the bleedin' obvious".

January 28, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

I had glossed over Hot Rock in my library's catalogue for many months. Now you have given me reasons to knock off the glossing and get on with the reading. Thanks. I will be able to respond to your posting more sensibly once I have read the book. However, at first blush, I am intrigued by the fresh figures of speech; I like any author who casts aside clichés and goes for originality.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

What Philip said above, adding that they're funny, along with apt, meaningful, and not bleedin' obvious.

Now that you've got me thinking about it, I love the movie, too, especially the helicopter scene, where Robert Redford gets a chance to show how he's underrated as an actor. His facial expressions are subtle, yet show that he's both terrified, and knows he can't let anyone else find out.

The Beloved Spouse and I watched BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID last week, and that's what struck us about Redford and Newman both, how perfect their expressions were, while never mugging.

January 28, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

What a little pot sticker for the mind. I'll never look at the Empire State building again without thinking it needs to see a dentist. It's also a nice memory hook for stalagmites and stalactites. Now I can remember which ones point up.

As for the cop and the sandwich, that creates a picture also, perhaps drawn by Chester Gould.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Dana--finally a fan of Hot Rock the book who doesn't scoff at the movie. It was a family favorite when I was a kid but everyone who reads Westlake tells me it couldn't possibly have been any good.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, that's right. His similes were apt, and something more than just funny. They manage to be menacing in a hard-boiled manner at the same time. One is hot with the slightly uncomfortable sensation of seeing something for the first time when one reads some of those similes. Cavities? That's no fun. A cuddly dog invoked at a moment of physical danger? That's incongruous.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I think Westlake was able to write comedy sl well because his roots lay elsewhere. His comedy will frequently have a dark or menacing undertone. I contrast this, probably unfairly, with Carl Hiaasen. I started to read one of Hiaasen's books, and I put it down because the opening scene was so relentlessly whacky, so obviously slavering after laughs, that Hiaasen's punch line instantly drains the scene of any dark aspect it might have had. This was not a good thing, as the scene was an attempted killing.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mary Beth, several of the Parker novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark have been respectfully adapted as graphic novels by the cartoonish/writer Darwyn Cooke. Since you mentioned Chester Gould, it would be nice to see what a cartoonist could do with the cop and the sandwich. I suspect the Dortmunder novels' mix of comedy with an occasional dark touch would be hard to capture visually.
(Here's a distant Gould-Westlake connection: One of Gould's successors as the writer of "Dick Tracy" was the author Max Allan Collins--who regards Westlake as a mentor.)

And isn't it testimony to Westlake's skill that he might make you see something in an entirely new way?

January 28, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

I like the distinction you are making by suggesting how adolescent Hiassen sometimes sounds (which I think you are implying) while suggesting that Westlake's humor (perhaps a bit like Hammett's and Chandler's) comes out of a more sophisticated understanding of how to use language.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana and Seana: The movie reduces the number of times Dortmunder and his gang go after the emerald, so its ending was abrupt for me, since I had already read the novel when I saw the movie. But the movie was damn good. George Segal was a perfect Kelp, and Redford, as odd a choice as he was to play Dortmunder, was good in the role. The movie taught me to respect Redford as an actor and is easily the best of the several movie adaptations I've seen of Dortmunder book.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., for all I know, the Hiaasen novel turns out to be a stirring tale of revenge and recovery. I would not want to judge an author's work by one chapter. But I can guess confidently that he could not write serious comedy the way Westlake could. Of course, maybe he never tried. Maybe slapstick comedy with occasional concern for the environment worked for him.

January 28, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

A nice summation, Peter, as I'm sure it isn't as good as the book. But that reminded me that Redford was one of the reasons a friend scoffed, having not even seen the movie.

There's a guy named James Norton who is a bit of a modern day look alike. He played a psychotic killer on Happy Valley and is now playing crime solving minister on Grantchester. I think he has shown his range, but on the other hand sometimes when he's sitting in a room full of people in his priestly garments I can't help but say, "Look out! He's really a psychotic killer!"

January 28, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the movie may not be as good as the book, but it is worth watching.

Westlake himself was amused at the choice of Redford for the role, and you'd understand why if you read some of what he says he imagines Dortmunder to be like. So I can't entirely blame your friend for scoffing, Just tell your friend that I approve.

Dana mentioned Paul Newman's lack of mugging. Newman was similarly restrained in the overheated mugfest that was "Harper." Just because he and Redford were stars and sex symbols and icons of prettiness did not mean they could not act.

January 28, 2015  

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