Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Human see, human do: An appreciation of Donald Westlake’s out-of-print Humans

(Westlake photo by David Jennings)


Hearing that Donald E. Westlake, the best writer in the world, had died while on vacation in Mexico on NEW YEAR’S EVE, all I could think was, “Is this the beginning of one of his novels?”

Unfortunately, it’s not. Sigh

I’m just going to concentrate on one of Westlake’s novels in this post, as the start of what will be an ongoing look at out-of-print books that should be searched out.

But for further Westlake:
The Bad Plus’ blog “Do the Math” has an in-depth look at all of Westlake’s books as well as a good reminiscence of the author as a friend, and a concise compendium of his traits as a writer HERE.

Meanwhile, there’s a mindbogglingly exhaustive collection Westlake tributes and recollections HERE.

A nice tribute to Richard Stark, Westlake’s alter-ego HERE.

Phil Nugent at Nerve’s The Screengrab gives good obit and provides a nice focus on the Westlake books that have been made into films.

And speaking of the Hell of Hollywood, The Los Angeles Times had a good article titled, “Hollywood rarely did Donald Westlake justice.”

And as much as I liked the man’s work, I’m ashamed to admit that it was only upon reading all these obituaries that I found out that Westlake was the co-creator of the mega-flop TV show Supertrain—which actually I used to watch regularly—for the model work; us sci-fi nerds were starved for special effects back then and had to take what we could get. (see below)

I honestly can’t remember which Donald Westlake novel I read first. But I’ve enjoyed them all (of the ones that I’ve read—including the very weird, but appealing to me as an ex-pornographer, Adios Scheherazade (Thanks Colin!)), some more than others of course, but Westlake is a writer whose work I return to regularly: The Ax, Two Much, Jimmy the Kid

And Westlake’s books are the ones I always find when I check out a used bookstore in some out-of-the-way locale, or if I’m on a business trip to a medium-sized burg in the middle of nowhere. I’m really lucky that way and in all honesty, it’s how I’ve scored most of my books by Westlake.

This review of Humans was originally written for a sci-fi website back in the late-1990s—but I’ve updated it and tweaked it a bit since then.

Who do you root for when God wants to destroy the earth and Satan wants to save it? A look back at Donald E. Westlake’s Humans.

The scenario Donald E. Westlake sets up in his fantasy/satire Humans (published in 1992 by Mysterious Press/Time Warner; now out-of-print), one of his rare forays out of the crime/mystery genre, is delicious.

It seems that God is fed up with humanity and He’s going to do something about it. Remember Agent Smith’s wonderfully creepy speech in The Matrix, where Smith compares humanity to a virus? Well, that’s how God feels. But He just can’t snap His fingers and make us disappear.

The magnificent paradox of God’s omnipotence and Man’s Free Will gets in the way. “Thus it is that God has always nudged men, has engaged in confidence tricks and little scams, has played at times with a stacked deck, has thrown up illusions and toyed with mirrors, all to get humankind to want to do what God has in mind,” explains the novel’s lead character, the angel Ananayel (italics are Westlake’s).

Westlake is best known as an author of mysteries and crime thrillers (both serious, like the relentless socio-economic shocker The Ax, and comic, like his Dortmunder series), and it is somehow fitting that with his mentions of “stacked decks,” and “confidence tricks and little scams,” he essentially presents God as perhaps the greatest con man ever, someone not to be trusted.

The Lord sends Ananayel to Earth “to arrange things, to set the stage, to coach the unwitting actors in their parts.” Using heavenly subterfuge and various disguises, the angel (who admits he hasn’t had much experience with humanity—which may prove to be his undoing) assembles a ragtag crew of eccentric nihilists to put the wheels of apocalypse in motion.

It’s with the humans that Westlake really shines. He’s the grand master of sharp dialog and he gives all his characters unique voices, making them all the more real. He gives us Frank, the ex-con looking for that one last big score (this is a Westlake book after all); Grigor, the Russian fireman poisoned by the radiation of Chernobyl who moonlights as a joke writer for Moscow’s version of David Letterman; Kwan, the Tiananmen Square activist with sex on the brain; and several others.

These people might all be disillusioned enough to eventually at some specific point want to see the world end (which is what Ananayel is trying to accomplish after all), but none is unsympathetic in the extreme—even Pami, the almost-feral, AIDS-stricken prostitute from Kenya who keeps willfully infecting her customers.

But as subtle as his machinations are, the angel’s activities finally attract the attention of someone else. God may be fed up with us, but Lucifer certainly isn’t. “We love this world!” howls the unnamed demon chosen to thwart Ananayel and God’s plan. “Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin,” the fiend vows, “We will save you.”

(So why is it that Ananayel and the unnamed demon are going toe-to-toe and not God and the Devil themselves? The angel explains that “Like the limited wars on other people’s territories that the so-called Great Powers have indulged themselves in over the last half-century of Earth’s little history, it is only through proxies that my Master and His Opponent can contend.” Ananayel further explains that while Lucifer will surely try and cheat, that the Prince of Darkness wouldn’t dare to try to overwhelm the angel, because “that would bring into play a truly Great Power”—more of Westlakes’s droll humor.)

And so the race is on, with Westlake throwing another monkey-wrench into the mix: Just who the hell are we supposed to root for? I guess I sort of answered myself there, but you get the point. Ananayel is a nice guy and his growing love for the beauties and wonders of the Earth is inspiring.

The humans, despite their flaws and foibles, all have legitimate gripes. The demon is absolutely despicable. But out of these three groups, only one is actively trying to stop total planetary destruction. Westlake has lots of wry and sardonic fun toying with his audience’s emotions at this point, and the book becomes the quintessential page-turner with plenty of twists and turns.

The novel lags only towards the end, and then only slightly. This is a gripe I only noticed upon re-reading Humans—and please take this with a grain of salt—but at the conclusion, when the group than Ananayel has brought together take over an experimental nuclear research lab, I was not sure if the story was taking place over the course of days or weeks (when it’s the end of the world, these things are important).

Earlier in the novel, Westlake has months passing between chapters, but towards the end, the novelist doesn’t create enough of a sense of immediate urgency to keep me as riveted the second time I read his book. (I’m willing to concede that perhaps knowing how the novel concludes could possibly be influencing my assessment.)

However, Westlake wisely leaves the ending quasi-ambiguous. The author is more concerned with the characters—he’s neither on God’s nor Lucifer’s side (well, maybe just a little on Lucifer’s—but solely for pragmatic reasons); Westlake is thoroughly on the side of humankind.

Humans is recommended especially for those who are fans of the quasi-theological sub-genre of fantasy.

I’m loath to call these books fantasies, but I guess they are. It’s just that when you’re dealing with fiction of a theological nature, using a term like “fantasy” seems demeaning, if not downright sacrilegious.

It just doesn’t seem right to lump books that question the motives of God with books about gnomes and unicorns and sword & sorcery. But maybe that’s the latent Catholic in me talking…

With its concentration on the humans rather than the angels/demons, Humans is closer in tone to Jeremy Leven’s recommended Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. (originally published in 1982), than the more “goofy” angel/demon-centric antics in the Monty Python-esque (but also recommended) Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (1990; Ace), which is a book a lot of people love. (I just like it a lot.)

Other recommended sacrilegious/theological fantasies include the excellent To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust (1984; Orb Books), which is reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s Hugo-winning Lord of Light in its treatment of the expulsion of Satan (who in Brust’s novel is not the same entity as Lucifer, Beelzebub or Mephistopheles); and John Collier’s Milton’s Paradise Lost: A Screenplay for the Cinema of the Mind (1973; Knopf/Random House), which brilliantly translates the literary classic into screenplay format.

Humans is a fine fantasy novel, one that goes beyond the boundaries of “mere” genre, and it deserves to be back on the shelves.

Because Westlake is best known as a mystery/thriller author (he also writes the ultra-violent “Parker” series under the name Richard Stark), I think Humans unfortunately got lost in the shuffle of his more commercial work. It would be simply divine (snicker…) if a SF/fantasy publisher somewhere went and acquired the rights to this wonderful book and put it back into circulation.

But with Westlake’s death, who knows? He might get one of those posthumous blasts of republishing that can happen when one of the Mighties kicks the bucket; we can only hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment