CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: BROTHERS KEEPERS

brotherskeeperscoverBrother Benedict lives on Park West, member of a monastery that is tucked between massive buildings. The Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum is a meditative group with certain beliefs about the dangers of Travel and Journeys: Those beliefs can be summed up as Travel sucks, it should be avoided except in cases of emergency so let’s stay put. And so they do, on a plot of land their founding member leased almost two hundred years ago. Unfortunately for them, the land has been leased for 99 year increments, and the second lease is just about up. Enter Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners (DIMP), a construction firm looking to erect the next eyesore on the land where the monastery currently stands. When the Flattery family patriarch, present holder of that lease, decides to give DIMP an option on the land without telling the current residents, he opens a can of worms for the monastic brotherhood there. Brother Benedict is the one to discover this unhappy fact when he reads the architecture section of the Sunday New York Times and the columnist there decries the action.

The book opens in December and the option becomes a sale on December 31, so there is little time to avert this crisis. However, if the brothers are going to keep their home they must try. Brother Benedict gets thrust into the role of unwitting and unlikely hero, when he makes a connection with Eileen, Flattery’s daughter while on his journey. Of course, that connection will serve as a provocative point upon which Brother Benedict’s faith must be tested. He has been having troubles with the idea of women, which are expressly stated in chapter one when he confesses having some troubling thoughts about a pretty girl on a shaving commercial. In fact, the entire order is uneasy around a ladies pants store on the same block, which bears the cheeky name of The Buttock Boutique. Well, a woman in the flesh is quite the temptation indeed, one that may well distract Brother Benedict from his duty to the monastery and his brethren inside it.

BROTHERS KEEPERS is the second novel Westlake produced in 1975, and while it tackles the question of faith versus the flesh, moral identity versus Real World cynicism, taking useful action versus dedicating oneself to a contemplative life, as well as the sometimes necessary evils of Travel, it is also an entertaining read about a man who becomes a fish out of water and then has to figure out just who he is. Identity is one of those concepts that gets quite a bit of page time in Westlake’s fiction, two examples of which include the argument between remaining a rational minded human being versus an animal brain driven survivor (Parker novels, ANARCHAOS), or an actor/crook who gets thrust into situations demanding he play at being a bodyguard, a detective, and a spy (those wily Grofield novels).

The main thrust of the book is Brother Benedict’s journey as a character as well as his movement around New York or even Puerto Rico. We are all moving, even when we are not moving around the chessboard world of public transportation or sidewalks. Monastic orders Travel in spiritual and mental ways.

One thing about the book. Travel and Journey are always capitalized. They call attention to themselves for better or worse. Brother Benedict’s one Sunday jaunt to fetch the Sunday times from a corner newsstand is not terrible.

I strode briskly down Lex toward the newsstand, brown robe whishling around my legs, cross dangling at my side from the white cord that encircled my waist, sandals slapping the pavement with a double te-thwack. It was a beautiful crisp late autumn evening, the first weekend in December, perfect for a walk. The air was clean and chill, the sky was clear, and a few of the brightest stars could actually be seen through New York’s aureole.

The sidewalks were crowded with Saturday night revelers.; couples strolling hand in hand, cheerful groups in loud happy conversation. I returned the occasional surprised look with a smile and a nod, and strode on. Some evenings I was treated to passing witticisms from people misunderstanding my garb and thinking me merely an isolated nut, but those were mostly-out of-towners who did that; New Yorkers are used to weirdos on their streets. (8-9)

Anything much further than that is too much to endure.

Travel. The world is insane, it really is. I’d forgotten, during my ten years inside our monastery walls, just how lunatic they all are out there, and my weekly stroll to the Lexington Avenue newsstand had not been exposure enough to remind me. I had come to think of the world as colorful, exciting, variegated and even dangerous, but I had forgotten about the craziness.

Brother Oliver and I, our cowls up protectively about our heads, left the monastery at eight-fifteen Thursday morning, after Mass and breakfast and morning prayer, and turned our faces south. And the city struck us head on, with noise and color and motion and confusion beyond description. Large ramshackle delivery trucks rounded corners continuously, always too fast, always jouncing a rear tire against the curb, always changing gears with terrifying clash-grind-snarls in the middle of the operation. Taxis, all of them as yellow and speedy as a school of demented fish, were incessantly either honking their horns or squealing their brakes, the meantime jockeying for position like children hoping for the largest piece of birthday cake. Pedestrians of all sizes and shapes and sexes (including the dubious), but of one uniform facial expression—scowling urgency—elbowed along the sidewalks and raced in front of speeding cabs and shook their fists at any driver who had the temerity to sound his horn.

Why was everybody Traveling so much? Where was the need? Was it even remotely possible that so very many people had just discovered they were in the wrong place? What if everyone in the world were to call up everyone else in the world some morning and say, “Look, instead of you coming here and me going there why don’t I stay here and you stay there,” wouldn’t that be saner? Not to speak of quieter. (35-36)

Of course, the fact that it’s Christmastime brings about a whole other crisis, this time in the identity of the Savior. A subtle battle is being fought between the God of the Bible and the Fat Red God of the season, which is a source of no small amount of irritation for Brother Benedict and one of some amusement for the reader:

There was nothing I could possibly say to that, so I turned away, looking out at the traffic, seeing in front of us now a yellow taxicab with a bumper sticker reading Put Christ Back In Christmas. An excellent sentiment, only slightly marred by the fact the lettering was colored red and white and blue, as though Christ were a good American running for re-election. But it’s the thought that counts, however muddled.

Finishing with the bumper sticker, I looked out my side window at the activities of the world. It was not yet eleven o’clock on Saturday night, the thirteenth of December, and the streets were full of people, most of them couples, most of them holding hands. The pagan Christmas icons—pictures of that fat red-garbed god of plenty—were displayed in store windows everywhere, but most of the pedestrians seemed concerned with more personal pleasures: movies, the theater, a nightclub, a late dinner out. Neither of our Western gods—Christ and Santa Claus, the ascetic and the voluptuary—seemed much in the thoughts of the citizenry tonight.

Put Christ back in Christmas. The next thing they’ll say is, Put Jehovah Back In Justice. Think about that for a minute. (92-93)

Of course, this is a argument still being made today, though these days it has escalated into the realms of the mythic and the epic becoming some “war on Christmas.” For my money, the only war worth waging on that front is to keep Christmas out of retail shops until AFTER Thanksgiving dinner is over, please.

The dichotomy in worship is an interesting thing for Brother Benedict to ruminate on. His thoughts show him to be a clever, if perhaps too critical, person for the cloth he has adopted. Of course, he is a member of a contemplative order . . .

How the gods change. Or, to phrase it more exactly, How our image of God changes. Long ago, human beings became uneasy with that stern and unforgiving God the Father, the thunderbolt who lashed out so violently and unpredictably. Western man replaced Him with Christ, who would take the rap for us. (The Holy Ghost has always been too . . . ghostlike, to pick up many fans. What’s His personality, where’ the character hook, where’s the worshiper identification?)

But even Christ carries with Him that sense of austerity, that implication of duty and risk and the possibility of truly horrible loss. So on comes jolly Santa Claus, a god so easygoing he doesn’t even ask us to believe in him. With that belly and that nose, he surely eats too much and drinks too much, and more than likely pinches the waitress’s bottom as well. But it doesn’t matter, it’s all harmless fun, the romping child in all of us. Bit by bit over the centuries we have humanized God until we have finally brought Him down to our own level and then some; today, with Santa Claus, we can not only worship ourselves but the silliest part of ourselves. (93)

A mix of Westlake’s critiques, his sense of humor at mankind’s follies, and some deep thought as well. These passages are pure Westlake, all right. The above excerpts are also indicative of the mood and tone for the whole book. Sure, there is a fist fight (over in a sentence, really), a chase after a man in disguise (over in a paragraph or two), and even a conspiracy to remove all copies of the lease, but these are not played for suspense and thrills so much as to keep things moving along. Raymond Chandler famously derided pulp fiction’s reliance on introducing men with guns when the plot got boring, and these crime fiction elements show up in a similar way. More feasible, perhaps, but nevertheless ways to break stasis. So, it’s not a crime novel the way 361 was. This begs the question what kind of book is BROTHERS KEEPERS?

At this point, Westlake had more than earned a reputation for writing comic novels. His hard-boiled days were far behind, and between THE FUGITIVE PIGEON and this work, which includes three Dortmunder capers, he had produced over a dozen funny books. One might expect BROTHERS KEEPERS to be in the same vein.

While there is a light touch to BROTHERS KEEPERS, this is not one of Westlake’s funnier texts. Sure the monks are essentially a crew of outsiders, including a thief, a lawyer, and a boxer among their membership, but these are not the cast of a Dortmunder book. The Abbotts are generally idealistic and somewhat simpleminded men, and the current guy to fill the slot cannot seem to grasp concepts like why a company would want options to buy land instead of just buying it outright. Such confusion leads to a lengthy explanation that includes a metaphor involving the acquisition of chairs, which runs on for a few pages. Is this to help readers or to let readers laugh at the incompetence? I am not sure, but the sequence ran too long for my preferences. There are a couple of laugh out loud lines, including an exchange between Brothers Silas (the recovered thief), Benedict, and Oliver (the Abbott) about ripping off a guilty party that ripped the brotherhood off. He asks about a wall safe, gets an unsatisfactory answer, and shrugs it off.

I said, “We didn’t see a wall safe. Besides, they probably keep leases and things like that in a safe deposit box in some bank anyway. Most people do, don’t they?”

Silas nodded, reluctantly. “Yeah,” he said. “Mostly what you get in a house is personal jewelry.”

Brother Oliver said, “I hope you aren’t going to suggest bank robbery next.”

Silas glances at the other brothers all around us. “Not with this string,” he said, and went away. (243)

That one is a chuckle-worthy gag, no?

However, much of the book is closer to its contemplative clerics than to the humorous antics of Dortmunder and his crew. This doesn’t make it a boring book, just not the one to seek out when looking for a laugh every page or two. I suppose the work falls under the general umbrella of “humorous fiction” but it’s a Westlake novel no matter how you slice it.

As mentioned in the review for TWO MUCH!, there is a bit of a thematic linkage at work in several of his books from this period. HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER kicks off with the idea of a man who does not know if he is good or bad and has to figure that out over the course of a narrative. He lands somewhere in the middle. TWO MUCH! examines a man with a similar uncertainty (and perhaps a self-destructive streak) who gets shoved quite effectively into badness. BROTHERS KEEPERS is a novel about a man who has removed himself from the world, a generally good fellow who finds himself confronted with a quote from Romans 3, “Let us do evil, that good might come of it.” (139) and grappling with the ramifications.

Of course, that’s not the whole line is it? In actuality, the bit Brother Benedict is grappling with (which first shows up in the text as one of several shots in a passage-quoting battle between the monastery Abbot and Dwarfmann himself) is ultimately a pooh-poohed notion in the original Biblical text, wrapped up in questions of the faithfulness of God Hissownself and the just damnation of those who preach the concept of doing just what that quoted bit suggests.

In fact, there is more than mere thematic unity between the texts. TWO MUCH!’s Fire Island gets name checked on page 42, and the banks that own some of the neighboring buildings are those targeted for robbery in HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER.

All told, the book teases us with smile-worthy humor, interesting characters, the occasional colorful locale, a few deep thoughts often couched in rim shots to lessen their seeming seriousness, and a clean prose style. It’s a fine middle ground entry in Westlake’s impressive catalog.

#

This week’s work under consideration, BROTHERS KEEPERS, is going to return to print through Hard Case Crime in February 2019. Go on and pre-order the paperback or eBook.

Next week, we will detour away from the Considering Westlake series. A free copy of an anthology from Rogue Blades Press has arrived on our doorstep. So, we will be checking out CRAZY TOWN, edited by Jason M. Waltz, which is available in paperback and eBook editions.

WORK CITED

Westlake, Donald E. BROTHERS KEEPERS. M Evans: 1975.

“Considering Westlake: Brothers Keepers” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts from the novel are taken from the M. Evans hardcover edition of the novel. Cover art for the 2019 Hard Case Crime edition by Paul Mann.

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