CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: TWO MUCH!

westlake-twomuch

Many authors struggle with the expectations of genre, no matter if they are writing in a particular field (say, detective fiction) or aspiring toward the literary. It’s all genre, folks. A lot of writers aspire to be sui generis, or a genre unto themselves. You know these sorts of folks because they eventually get qualities named after them. The term Lovecraftian generates certain expectations about the intersection between fantasy, horror, weirdness, and cosmic aspirations (and racial intolerance, a few chuckleheads add from the back of the room; and multi-syllabic adjectives that don’t describe things at all, a few other chuckleheads add from the window seats). I don’t think Westlakian is really a term as yet, but it’s only a matter of time before it becomes one. He started out writing hard-boiled novels, shifted gears to create the Richard Stark oeuvre and then went on to refine comic crime fiction to pretty much create the comic caper novel. At this point in his writings, 1975 or so, we find a book shaped peg that I will be damned if I can figure out quite what genre label slot it fits into.

TWO MUCH! starts out as a first person account of Art Dodger, a con man writer of funny greeting cards, on vacation with his pal and his mistress (the pal’s wife) in a well-to-do section of New York called Fire Island.

Most of Fire Island is middle-class money, but Point O’ Woods is money money. They’ve build a fence across the island at their border to keep the riffraff out. That’s the kind of money I like, snotty money; I’ve always meant to go get some of it. “It’s nice in Point O’ Woods,” I said, as though I’d been there often. (location 58)

He does the vacation thing pretty well, and even gets a chance to hobnob with the middle-class. He has little in common with these people, but that’s okay because he is mostly concerned with getting laid.

All the houses in Dunewood look alike, except for the colors. The one we wanted was up near the beach, and the music could be heard three blocks away. The owner had built an extralarge deck on the back of his place so he could tell it from all the others, and it was full of people dancing and drinking and shouting at each other over the music. Suntanned women in bikinis and big dark glasses dancing to rock music; how they moved it all around. (location 13)

It is here he meets Elizabeth Kerner, a woman who kind of hates the rich set even though she is a part of it. She’s a fox and she’s got brains in her head and a catalog of one liners. She is a street-savvy Lauren Bacall in a sea of mindless beauties, and after a quick seduction, they are off together enjoying the activity that consenting adults often enjoy. Soon enough, Art learns that not only is there an Elizabeth (Liz), but there is an Elisabeth (Betty), her twin sister.

“You said we have a house in Point O’ Woods.”

“Oh.” She faced front again. “My sister,” she said, as someone might have said, “Yes that’s my newspaper.”

“Ah,” I said. “She as good-looking as you?”

“Probably,” she said. “We’re identical twins.”

“Twins!” I was thrown off stride by that. It was one of my basic questions, and it had never collected that answer before.

She glanced at me this time as though she might be thinking of getting annoyed. “Something wrong with that?”

“Not at all.” I needed something to say, something to make the transition. “It’s just a coincidence, that’s all.”

“What kind of coincidence?” She was almost hostile.

“I’m twins, too,” I said. It came out of nowhere, just words to fill a gap and smooth things over. I had no idea where it would lead me, no plot in my mind at all. Not that it would have been possible anyway; nobody could have schemed out in advance everything that would follow from that one innocent remark. I have a natural glibness, that’s all, and I’d merely chosen a statement intended to heal a potential rupture and give us a small something extra in common. A little white lie, nothing more. (location 64)

He soon enough works up a plan to maybe woo both sisters, inventing a twin brother Bart. So, he juggles both of these roles, managing to pull the wool over the twins’ eyes. Art soon finds himself in an even stranger crowd of folks. If he had little in common with middle-class folks at that earlier party, then the wealthy crowd are a species all their own.

Then they brought me through into the next room and what a collection of store-window mannequins they’d assembled for their party. There were men present in cummerbunds, I swear to God. Most of the men appeared to be named Frazier and most of the women Grahame. He piano was being played by a hireling, a lanky black youth with Belafonte good looks and a totally untrustworthy smile; he was probably saving his money to buy a machine gun. Two automaton black girls in black uniforms with small white aprons circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres, while the bartender blockaded behind his white-cloaked table was a beefy Irishman of about fifty who laughed heartily at all the drink orders, as though phrases like “dry vermouth on the rocks” or “two rye and ginger ale, please” were both witty and profound.

What kind of party was this to be hosted by two girls in their mid-twenties? There were perhaps forty people present, but only about a quarter of them were under thirty, and they were as stiff as their elders. There was no dancing. In fact, there was scarcely any commingling of the sexes at all; women stood with women to discuss department stores, Arthur Hailey novels, absent friends and other parties, while men grouped with men to talk transportation, taxes, politics and horses—breeding not racing. I actually did hear one man say, as I was strolling past, “After all, racing does improve the breed.” (location 169)

In short, as the ALADDIN song tells us, Art has entered a whole new world.

In the end, he succeeds in his mission to bed both women. In fact, he succeeds in ways he never could have anticipated, his alter ego actually ending up engaged to the more straight-laced of the two sisters, Betty. But is that enough? Or is it too much? Because soon enough he’s hit with an engagement from Liz as well, and what’s a guy to do?

Well, in the case of Art, he knows that keeping up the act is going to be an exercise in frustration and exhaustion. He knows he should “retire” one or the other brother, but for some reason he cannot. He’s addicted to both of the girls. However, as he gets more involved in their lives he discovers some shady goings on. His life begins to unwind as well, as his mistress decides to leave her husband and Liz’s lawyer decides to poke his nose a little too much in his client’s business.

What starts as a novel about the pursuit of nookie and a conman’s spur of the moment game soon delves into a work about betrayal and broken trust, a game of one-upmanship played between multiple parties, which builds in a more or less lighthearted fashion until murder. Then, a situation that was already tense takes a turn into the terrain of the chilling.

Americana’s jet set has never behaved as badly as they do in this book.

In some ways, this novel seems to be an attempt on Westlake’s part to write the sort of fiction that catapulted James M. Cain into stardom. Although that author write quite a few roman noir works in his time, two novels in particular remain well known (and in print) since they first appeared in the 1930s. Those works would of course be THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Each of these works is a unique beast, of course, telling individual stories about male protagonists who let their little heads take all the blood that should be driving their brains and who ultimately get involved in plots about offing husbands of icy blondes. However, each of those books also relies on a bit of both coincidence, something Westlake excels at writing, as well as inevitability. In the ends of the books, the characters cannot escape judgment and punishment even if they might manage to elude the law. TWO MUCH! seems to be using the Cain style of storytelling, a sort of tabloid noir about everyday folks getting caught up in sleaze, in high passions, and eventually in murder, but doing away with the inevitability.

However, since we the reader has been steeped in that second part of the Cain equation, the inevitable fall into despair, we turn the pages wondering how long Art can stay ahead of his own metaphoric (or literal) hangman’s noose. Westlake is not content to rehash Cain, of course, and the novel he builds is a literate, sometimes funny, sometimes chilling exercise in dismantling the Cain archetype and exploring some of its aspects through a Westlakian lens.

Is it a crime novel? Sort of. Is it in the vein of the sex stuff he wrote early in his career like A GIRL CALLED HONEY? Not really, but there are sequences informed by that material. Is it a comedy? At the beginning, perhaps, but once the shoe drops the comedy is finished.

TWO MUCH! is the kind of novel that many writers might have attempted, but where most would not be able to move past aping Cain’s style, Westlake boils away the specifics and gets right down to what makes Cain’s works not only move but sing.

This is not to say that TWO MUCH! is an easy read. It’s one of those novels with a bastard for a protagonist who manages to be a throwback to some of the worst outlooks on sex and manipulation from the roaring seventies. A charmer like Austin Powers this guy ain’t. Parts of the book are a slap in the face of the kinds of expectations and socially acceptable interactions we share today. However, well done fiction seldom serves to placate our views on the big topics. It challenges, it provokes, it pokes us in our comfort zones to get a response.

Thematically speaking, TWO MUCH! strikes me as a companion piece to HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER. On the surface, both of the books tackle a comedian character who is caught up in mounting trouble, finding themselves in increasingly tense situations about possible punishments for their initial crimes of whimsy. However, digging a bit deeper, we can see some thematic lines of contact as well. The previous novel about a comedian incarcerated for a practical joke grapples with the question “Am I a good man or a bad one?” throughout the text. The character there cannot seem to make up his mind throughout the narrative, and by the novel’s end falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. TWO MUCH! focuses on a character grappling with a similar question of intent and then shoves him in the direction of badness. He has many opportunities to rebound back into the realm of goodness, but something in his nature prevents him from ever coming back to the light side. Perhaps this is the cause (or a result of) his self-destructive sense of humor. Perhaps it is the cause (or a result) of his relentless psychological tendency to rationalize his antisocial behavior. In fact, this is a theme Westlake would return to in his next release, BROTHERS KEEPERS, which tackles the topic from the angle of someone who is on the essentially good side of the extreme. This is a subject we will return to when we consider that book. For now, we can see these two books as grappling with the question of moral identity and the consequences of that grappling match.

In this book, the motifs of punishment and damnation are everywhere: events kick off and come to a head on Fire Island and the protagonist’s name is a none-too-subtle appropriation of Dickens’ no-good urchin The Artful Dodger. More elements can be found for eager motif hunters.

Needless to say, although there is a level of sleaze to Art Dodger, the character undergoes some fascinating analysis in Westlake’s hands. The writing style is as relentlessly readable as ever, but don’t let that fool you. This is no shallow puddle. There are depths here worth exploring.

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TWO MUCH is available in an eBook format, these days. Original hardback and paperbacks editions are floating around at third party sellers, but there are no new artifact editions of the book.

Next time, we will check out the third volume in this loose thematic trilogy of works that kicked off with HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER, a novel about a man who has left the world behind to join a monastery to think higher thoughts only to get pulled back into the rude world of real estate. BROTHERS KEEPERS is slated to be released by Hard Case Crime in February, so paperback and eBook editions will be available soon. Right now, you can go pre-order a copy or hunt up an older artifact edition.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. TWO MUCH! M Evans: 1975.

“Considering Westlake: Two Much!” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts from the text were taken from the eBook published in by MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media.

 

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