CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: JIMMY THE KID

westlake-jimmythekid-coverIn 1974, Donald E. Westlake returned to the world of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, May, and Murch’s Mom with a book that also rekindled a bit of that Richard Stark magic (and perhaps bid farewell to that pseudonym) by introducing the group to that author’s excellent antihero Parker. Of course, since this was a Westlake novel under his own name the meeting was not some gritty crossover. Instead, it was quite the opposite of gritty. It’s a fun little lark, at turns hilarious and others merely chuckle worthy. Dortmunder and Parker can’t be any different, and those differences are made explicit (and laughable) in the third Dortmunder novel JIMMY THE KID.

While doing a brief turn in jail, Kelp had some time to read. The local community’s churchgoing women had donated a bunch of paperbacks to the jail where Kelp was, including several Richard Stark novels. As a fellow crook, Kelp of course can appreciate the work Parker does and he especially likes how Parker gets away in the end. When he reads one called CHILD HEIST, well, he gets another idea altogether. The book is so detailed and so well written it could serve as a blueprint for an actual kidnapping. Why not pitch the crime to his pals Dortmunder and Murch? He does with some of the expected results.

Dortmunder wants nothing to do with the idea. He views Kelp as a Jonah, a bad luck omen walking around in people clothes. However, he gets swayed by May who is interested in seeing her fellow get a little of his dignity and sense of purpose back. Since the loused up events of the previous book, BANK SHOT, Dortmunder has shifted gears to being a not terribly successful second story man (he sometimes gets confused about floor numbers).

In fact the novel opens with Dortmunder breaking into a storage room to collect some furs, only to encounter a helpful Kelp who kindly informs him that he’s mixed up and actually breaking into the building’s alarm-heavy first floor. An argument develops, which then wakes up folks in neighboring buildings, resulting in a comic sequence of people shouting out windows for everyone to keep it down. It’s an entertaining scene, which both sets up Dortmunder’s character for new readers (as well as his tenuous relationship with Kelp) while giving regular readers a great grin-worthy opening for the latest adventure.

“I want to talk to you,” Kelp whispered. “May told me where you were.”

“May has a big mouth,” Dortmunder said, still speaking aloud.

“So do you, fella!” a voice shouted from one or two buildings away. “How about turning it off so we can get some sleep!” (location 44)

Ever the master of the rising stakes, Westlake plays this out for laughs, getting Dortmunder and Kelp going at each other some more until the inevitable happens:

“Okay fella,” the voice shouted, “you asked for it. The cops are on their way.”

Another voice yelled, “Why don’t you people shut up?”

The first voice yelled, “It isn’t me! It’s those two other clowns!”

“You got the biggest voice I can hear!” shouted voice number two.

“How would you like to go screw yourself?” voice number one wanted to know.

Another yellow window appeared. A third voice yelled, “How would the two of you like to go drown yourselves?” (location 60)

Needless to say, Dortmunder and Kelp beat a hasty retreat, leaving these grouchy tenants to verbally duke it out.

From there, we get to see Murch planning to hijack an expensive car only to adapt his plans when a car-carrying truck shows up in the locale he’s using. He gets away with more cars than he previously intended, and later runs into Kelp who makes his play. This builds to one of my favorite lines in the book:

Murch said, “What’s the story?”

Kelp, pointing to the book on the seat between them, said, “That.”

Murch laughed politely.

“No, on the level,” Kelp said. “What I want you to do, I want you to read that book.”

“Read a book?” Murch read the Daily News and several car magazines, but he didn’t read books.

“You’ll like it,” Kelp told him. “And I’ve got an idea that hooks up with it.”

Murch picked up the book. He would like it? Child Heist, by Richard Stark. “What’s it about?”

“About a crook,” Kelp said. “A crook named Parker. He’ll remind you of Dortmunder.”

“That sounds great,” Murch said, but without much enthusiasm. He riffled through the book: words on every page. (location 274)

Kelp’s big plan is to use the Stark book as a blueprint, Dortmunder gets his feathers ruffled when he sees this as an attempt on Kelps part to tell Dortmunder he’s no good at planning a damned job. There’s some sour grapes for a while, and then the gang decides what the hell let’s do it. What follows are some fun sequences that alternate between chapters of the Stark book followed by what happens with Dortmunder’s string. Take this pairing:

When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars. He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him. There was no other furniture in the room, which had grey plaster walls from which patterned wallpaper had recently been stripped. Curls of wallpaper lay against the moulding in all corners. On the floor beside Krauss’s chair lay three apple cores. (location 693)

Contrast this with the very next chapter:

When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap. “For Christ’s sake,” Dortmunder said.

“Huh?” Startled, Kelp sat up, scrabbled for the binoculars, dropped them on the floor, picked them up, slapped them to his face, and stared out at the Lincoln Tunnel exit.

They hadn’t been able to find an apartment overlooking the Midtown Tunnel. This one, in a condemned tenement on West Thirty-ninth Street, had an excellent view of the Manhattan exit of the Lincoln Tunnel, bringing cars in from New Jersey. It also, since it faced south, got a terrific amount of sun; even though it was now October, they were all getting sunburns, with white circles around their eyes where they would hold the binoculars.

Kelp was sitting in a maroon armchair with broken springs; this was a furnished apartment, three rooms full of the most awful furniture imaginable. The floor lamps alone were cause for weeping. Kelp’s notebook and pen were on a drum table next to him, the drum table having been painted with green enamel and its top having been covered with Contac paper in a floral design. The walls were covered with a pattered wallpaper showing cabbage roses against an endless trellis. Some of this wallpaper had peeled itself off, and curls of it lay against the moulding in all the corners. On the floor beside Kelp’s chair stood three empty beet cans and three full beer cans. (location 733)

It’s fun to see Westlake aping his own Stark books. The writing is not quite Stark lean and edgy, there are too many words in some of the sequences. This was intentional, I’m sure. It’s probably akin to other folks cribbing from his style but missing some of those essential elements that make a Richard Stark novel really sing.

A part of me wonders if this book came about after some well-meaning schmuck of a reviewer or critic opined that the works from Westlake’s pseudonym might well be feeding into a smarter class of crook or otherwise giving people ideas about how to pull perfect crimes. JIMMY THE KID is all about how Parker’s worlds rely on too much clockwork and not nearly enough randomness for the kinds of happenstances that tend to come along in real life.

Jobs never go smoothly for Dortmunder’s group because the world is not operating on a single set of rules that can be fully understood and exploited, as things seem to be in Parker’s leaner, meaner world. Dortmunder as a character seems to be a cog in an overly complex machine that is prone to coming off the rails and sometimes spontaneously restoring itself or carrying on through a previously unexpected route. If there is a cosmic force at work in Dortmunder’s books, it is chaos both in an external form as well as one based inside human beings themselves. On the other hand, Parker seldom works against a randomized world that is just as antagonistic as any characters he might encounter; he only operates against human opponents and their allies (e.g., guard dogs or alarm systems). Dortmunder is beset from all sides by bad timing, bad news, and bad luck.

What’s more, the finale of the book has Richard Stark himself show up via letters to his agent, looking for someone to sue for copyright infringement. It’s a great little gag. In fact, the book is loaded with great little gags.

Which makes the slimness of the plotting here all the more apparent, really. The story is a straight ahead heist for the most part, padded out with fake chapters that juxtapose the action with mirror images of that action. For a reader like me who enjoys this kind of slightly off repetition, I am thrilled by the character work and literary play. This is the book that made Trista a Westlake fan. However, folks reading for an expansive plot will find the book cute at best and somewhat long in the tooth at worst.

The story’s antagonist, the titular kid named Jimmy, turns out to be the real Parker-esque character here—he knows way too much, he can apply that knowledge in ways his opponents (Dortmunder and crew) never see coming. Although he has an understandable reason for sticking around the plot—he’s a city kid on his own in the country after he gets kidnapped—he pretty much calls the shots. The kid is a prodigy who has been undergoing psychotherapy for some time so he is in touch with motivation as well as manipulation. He uses this understanding to his own advantage quite a bit. So, the story is less enthralling than either the “How will these guys steal the emerald this time?” suspense of THE HOT ROCK or “How will they get away with a whole bank?” thrills of BANK SHOT. Instead, we have a mastermind playing with folks who are way, way, way out of their league. It’s a fish out of water story, and it has literary grins, but as a page turner story on its own? Maybe not so much.

Still, it’s a Dortmunder novel, and that means some great lines, plenty of bewildered characters, and few to no bad scenes. Worth a read in general. For the academics as well as the aspiring writers out there, it’s worth a couple of reads to see how Westlake pulled this off. It’s a neat magic trick, all told.

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Donald E. Westlake’s JIMMY THE KID is available in eBook and paperback editions. An audiobook is also available from Highbridge Audio.

Next up in the Considering Westlake series here at Considering Stories, we will check out the stand alone novel TWO MUCH, about a guy who pretends to have a twin so he can get a couple of gorgeous twin girls in the sack. Aaaand then things turn sideways. Is this one of Westlake’s softcore erotic novels revisited? Nah. It’s TWO MUCH, available in eBook and audiobook editions.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. JIMMY THE KID. M Evans: 1974.

“Considering Westlake: Jimmy the Kid” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts from Jimmy the Kid are taken from the eBook edition, published by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.

 

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