CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: SACRED MONSTER

Where do I go from here? That seems to be a driving question behind some of Westlake’s novels. I wonder if that was the very thing he asked himself before sitting down to a new standalone project. It certainly fits with SACRED MONSTER, which blends a few of the themes and topics he had been writing about prior and casts a new spin on them.

Jack Pine is giving an interview. He’s used to this sort of thing since he is a big, big movie star, and he is burdened with a lot of the problems that big, big movie stars suffer under—therefore, he’s got plenty to blather on about. He’s got ex-wives, he’s got a drinking problem, he dallied with religion, he adopts new personalities in a heartbeat, he’s got a no-good best friend he’s known since childhood by the unlikely name of Buddy Pal, and he’s got some serious guilt that occasionally bubbles up through his first person narrative. The latter is the subject of much interest for the interviewer, but Jack has no interest in pursuing. So, now he’s giving a bit of a tell-all one-on-one interview with a fellow called O’Connell, a smart prick who enjoys showing off how much homework he had done on his research subject. Or is Jack giving an interview at all? Clues dropped early on suggest an ulterior motive for this conversation.

When we first see him in the modern day, Jack is sitting in a chair wearing only a terrycloth bathrobe. It’s the kind of eccentric behavior we might expect from a Hollywood celeb, especially these days, but there are little tells letting us know that something is screwy here. Or maybe the proper term is “loose screws” instead. This interview is a bit more confessional than we might expect a tell-all to be. O’Connell uses tactics to get his subject talking that might be best dubbed interrogation. At the very least, he is versed in psychology and not afraid to use it on his subject. Something about the interview is awry, and as the story goes on Jack gets distracted, tries not to talk about certain matters, and sometimes “jumps character” to give us impressions from people he was never in the room with. Well, it is during these times that we start to get a sense that he’s maybe talking from a place that isn’t too stable. But just how unstable is he? Well, a clue comes from the novel’s title.

SACRED MONSTER derives its title from a conversation Jack has with his second wife Lorraine, an academic beauty who overuses the word “darling” and who reads Kierkegaard for fun. She has pet theories about Jack, which Jack is self-centered enough to find utterly charming.

“You are, of course, wonderfully talented, darling,” Lorraine said, “but honestly, you know, so are others. From the pool of talent in the world, the mass audience always chooses that one person, that tiny group of individuals, who represent the ethos of the age, its quintessence, its spirit and vitals. You are that band, darling. Your talent has launched you, but now it’s the age itself that drives you. Another pilot is at the wheel. You are no longer under your own control.”

“Sounds almost frightening,” Jack said, with a light but respectful laugh.

“The symbolic freight you carry, darling,” Lorraine assured him, “would crush a lesser man.”

Pleased, smiling like a puppy, Jack said, “Do you really think so, darling?”

“Darling,” Lorraine said, holding tightly to his hand as they strode along the beach, “in many ways you’re a monster, a statement of infantile voracious appetite. And yet at the same time, you’re God’s holy fool, the sacred monster, the innocent untouched by the harshness of reality. You can be the hero, incredibly strong, and yet even I don’t know the depths of your vulnerability.

Jack loved to hear talk about himself. He listened as they walked together, nodding, absorbed in what she was saying. “Tell me more,” he said.

Lorraine was willing. “And yet, darling,” she said, “in some ways you can represent evil as well. The innocent and the slayer of innocence all commingled together in one powerfully attractive package. And yet, how lightly you bear this burden.” (141-142)

Needless to say, Lorraine and Jack are not destined to stay together. She will see him at his best and at his most contemptible, and that latter part will drive her away.

What we can take from the title then is that it presents us with a person poised for greatness. Jack is a measure of his age, trapped between innocence and villainy. It’s an intriguing place to be caught in, but one that seems almost guaranteed to drive a person off his rocker if he does not take care.

The subtitle for the book or maybe the cover blurb for the Mysterious Press first edition does the book a disservice, however. It perhaps gives away a little too much. A COMEDY OF MADNESS, it says right there on the cover. Well, how can we observe that and then read this book in any way except as the confessions of a guy in a nuthouse?

It is not the Ur-FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk, of course. Sure, the novel shares an unreliable narrator with Palahniuk’s first offering as well as themes of “Who am I?” and the kind of focused lunacy of finding one’s place in a soulless career in an equally soulless decade, but SACRED MONSTER is more of a story about a man who is lost amidst the many identities he has adopted over the course of his career. Jack Pine is a shameless glory hound, and given his weird parents—the mom dumps milk over her head when she gets a little too anxious while Jack’s dad giggles and treats this as normal—it’s no surprise. At his best, Jack is a walking contradiction, however. For example, to nail a lead role in a play Jack will let the author have sex with him and then deny he was ever a homosexual.

The chuckle goads a reaction from my friend with the pad. Repugnance half strangling his voice, he says, “You went to bed with George Castleberry?”

“Waterbed,” I say, explain, explicate further, and the memory of that oceanic encounter, full of slipperinesses and heaving and absurd near misses makes me chuckle again.

The interviewer is appalled, well and truly appalled. “But—” he says, stutters, stumbles, “but—you’re completely heterosexual! All those marriages, all those girlfriends, all those children!”

I shrug, nod, acquiesce, explain: “It was a great part.”

“A great part!”

“I wanted it,” I say. “I’m an actor, that’s what I am. When I don’t work, when I can’t work, I get into all these things, all this trouble. After Miriam, after Jack Scullmann blackballed me in the theater, after the empty months of being nothing and nobody and having no idea where I was going or if I was going anywhere, I wanted it. The role of Biff Novak was the only thing in the world at that particular moment that I really and truly wanted. So I got it. And the emptiness went away.”

“You had sex with George Castelberry!” Has ever an interviewer before in history had such large, round eyes?

“Mostly,” I say, “George had sex with me.” (44-45)

It’s a curious state of mind, actually. Jack is content to play roles when necessary, particularly when it will get him what he wants (other roles included), but these parts he plays through life seem to have zero impact on the man inside. When later O’Connell asks if Jack was having an affair with his best friend Buddy Pal, Jack is boggled. “—for God’s sake, man, we’re both straight!” (55)

Of course, Jack buys into his stories, except when he does not. He buys into his flashbacks, except when he does not. Parsing the truth from all these shadows is a mystery all its own, and then there’s the overarching mystery of that intrusive, intermittent, italicized content that shows describing some kind of chaos:

screams, screaming, engine roars, flashing lights in red and white reflecting from the bumper chrome, slicking on the heaving trunk of the car, madness, danger, movement, peril, speed . . .(4)

This particular passage will return at various points in the narrative, leading Jack to clam up and quickly change the subject. It’s foreshadowing and a ticking clock at the same time. We know the story behind this string of words will come to light. The nature of that origin is tantalize and pregnant with possibilities:

Did Jack do something terrible? Is there a crime lurking in the background here? Or is he simply trying to grapple with coming unhinged in the only way he can think to do?

SACRED MONSTER is a book with a lot on its perhaps broken mind. It tackles questions of identity among the acting set, a subject Westlake explored in his Robert Bloch-inspired novel about a serial killer in the summer theater set PITY HIM AFTERWARD, his Richard Stark pseudonym’s crime stories involving actor/thief character Alan Grofield, as well as his more comic crime novels about actor turned amateur sleuth Sam Holt. This book takes another gander at the paparazzi who populated Westlake’s previous book TRUST ME ON THIS (this time from the perspective of the paparazzi’s prey), though the reporter angle might not be real at all; a couple of chapters seem to come from O’Connell’s perspective itself, dropping ominous hints that this interview is not a press conference interview at all . . . Finally, SACRED MONSTER takes the opportunity to look at good and evil in a similar fashion to the trio of books Westlake wrote in what I have previously dubbed The Morality Trilogy (check out my reviews for HELP! I AM BEING HELD PRISONER, TWO MUCH!, and BROTHERS KEEPERS); here we see a man who is capable of being pretty loathsome, but who tries to redeem himself by finding Jesus, only to get the push back into loathsome behavior by the ever present Buddy Pal . . .

And what about that Buddy Pal guy? At times he seems like an hallucination or mental projection, at other times he is an active character in the plot seen and interacted with by those around Jack. One thing is certain, he has a strange hold over the narrator, able to get loans he never intends to pay back, clothing he never intends to return, and he even takes cracks at the women in Jack’s life without fear of reprisal. When asked about this relationship, Jack is uncharacteristically laconic: Oh, that’s just Buddy! He’s my oldest and best friend!

When Buddy Pal first came on stage, I expected him to be a Tyler Durden type character, a projection of the narrator’s own ugly id, but he is more than that. I suspect Palahniuk may have read this book when it came out in 1989; there are some intriguing parallels with his first novel, but those could be coincidental. They could be.

SACRED MONSTER is a breezy read, a short book that manages to move along at a gallop. When I sat down to read it, the pages seemed almost to turn themselves. Short though it is—the first edition hardcover clocks in at a mere 231 pages—the book has a labyrinthine quality. The mind is a labyrinth, one of the HELLRAISER movies tells us (in fact, it was 1988’s HELLRAISER II: HELLBOUND), and that is never more evident than here. Jack’s mind in particular manages to be quite the maze indeed, filled with dead ends and narrative turns that seem to be going somewhere but then end up somewhere not far from where we seemed to start out.

The book’s structure supports this maze. The story offers first person narration in its untitled chapters (no Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, these just arrive and end) mixed with third-person narratives in Flashback chapters (these are numbered and sometimes lettered, granting them a bit more serialization with previous entries, less sequels than continuations of a scene interrupted by Jack’s self-defensive prattle). As I mentioned before, irregular interruption chapters give us O’Connell’s side of things, and these are all labeled LUDE, which is less a name than a nod toward the term Interlude.

Westlake has always had quite a bit to say about people who can lose themselves in one headspace or another. This book seems to be the closest he has yet come yet to assembling his notes about who we are and how we as a species can (or can’t) keep the facts straight when we lie to everyone around us. Jack has his bouts with being a survivor, relying on animal instincts instead of reason. He has higher purpose until he doesn’t. He has his own identity until he doesn’t. Jack Pine would be a meaty role for an actor to actually play, one that would have been a watershed portrayal for someone like Robin Williams, who was himself a master of creating many characters—of course, Williams did not lose himself in his characters, he instead tried to escape crippling depression and loneliness through them. Alas, he did not succeed in these efforts.

With SACRED MONSTER, Westlake finds himself pondering the kinds of questions about the lies we tell to ourselves and one another. Some might call these questions of identity, and they certainly are that. However, they are also matters about knowledge. Awareness. In PITY HIM AFTERWARDS and the Sam Holt series, the characters are often at a loss for understanding themselves, their own capabilities. The roles they play on the stage or on television (or in appearances) are roles that become second skin close. SACRED MONSTER takes this to another level, giving us a reptile that walks, talks and acts like a person who manages to grow and shed skins so that there’s no saying what is second skin close and what is the original skin. Who is Jack really? He seems not to know. Asking him who Buddy or his ex-wives or even his interviewer are will yield a bumper crop of non-answers and assumptions. It’s pretty simple: If he cannot understand himself, then how is he supposed to begin to understand anyone else? In fact, he cannot. There is a break here, a schism he cannot overcome. What starts out as a question of “will Jack be able to come back from the remote place he currently occupies?” soon becomes “how ruined is he?” The book is a horror story of the psychological kind, and the answers it offers are not comforting in the slightest.

I have come to SACRED MONSTER from an interesting perspective. Having just seen ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), which is a movie about actors getting older, a little less reliable, and still trying to ply their trade (as well as developing a strong friendship between two male leads), the book gains a new life, light, and relevance. While the characters in Tarantino’s ninth feature do not veer into the sort of cracked headspaces that SACRED MONSTER’s Jack Pine does, the world of Hollywood in the 60s is one that is pretty crazymaking. It’s the world that Jack Pine came up through, actually. That feature and this book make a fun little duo.

Likewise, SACRED MONSTER works as an intriguing flipside to Westlake’s actor turned amateur sleuth, Sam Holt. Where Sam has a healthy support system, Jack does not and gets lost in the lunacy of his profession . . . The two characters can be read as two sides to a single coin. I much prefer Holt’s company, however, and I can only hope that (had his series continued) he would not have ended up in quite the desperate straits that this strange, unlikeable and yet ultimately pitiable individual did.

SACRED MONSTER is not a book I can say I particularly liked. The characters, the acidic sense of humor, and the waxing back and forth in time is akin to some of the less in-your-face works of the late Jack Ketchum. There is a simplicity of style here, an easy readability that only masters wordsmiths can pull off, and yet there is such a taint of unease to the whole thing that it’s a bit of a turn off. SACRED MONSTER grapples with the big themes, and it might make one hell of a stage play (or a vehicle for an actor of Robin Williams’ caliber), but it’s a nasty little work, too. I respect it. I admire aspects of it. I cannot bring myself to say I liked it, however.

#

SACRED MONSTER is sadly out of print. I would not rank it among Westlake’s top five novels, but it’s a solid entry in his catalog with plenty to say about life among the fabulous actors. Hopefully, it will see new life, soon. Come on Open Road Media or Mysteriouspress.com or whomever! Artifact editions exist in the wild. I picked mine up when it was discarded from the Burlington, Mass. Public Library.

Next week, we venture back into the dark country of Dennis Etchison’s fiction for a glimpse at his second novel SHADOWMAN. I read it once, when it was first released as part of the seminal Dell Abyss line of books. I did not particularly like it back then. Returning to the author’s short fiction and first novel made me intrigued enough to pick it up again and give it a second read. These days, the book is available in eBook from the aforementioned Open Road Media . . .

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. SACRED MONSTER. Mysterious Press: 1989.

“Considering Westlake: Sacred Monster” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover and excerpts taken from the Mysterious Press first edition.

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