Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 30, 2007

Bookshelf

• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

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• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

What’s So Funny? is the latest episode in the life of John Archibald Dortmunder, a sad sack who has been on a losing streak ever since he emerged from the womb. As all true Westlake fans know, Dortmunder was born in Dead Indian, Illinois, raised in an orphanage run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and thereafter relocated to Manhattan, where he now operates out of the O.J. Bar and Grill, a seedy Upper West Side joint whose obliging bartender allows small-time crooks to conspire in the back room. Dortmunder’s widely varied capers have two things in common: they always involve the same string of maladroit, maladjusted hoods, and they never quite work out.

The fun in the Dortmunder novels comes partly from the precision-tooled farce plots (one of them is called, appropriately enough, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?) and partly from what happens in between the disasters. Westlake is a master of droll description who loves to salt his books with sharp one-liners and amusingly testy digressions about whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment:

John said, “Can you tell the difference between ostrich burger and bison burger?”

“Bison’s got four legs.”

“Burger.”

“Oh. No. Turkey burger I can tell. All those others I think they come outa the same vat, back there in the kitchen.”

“I can remember,” John said, “when ‘burger’ only meant one thing, and the only word you ever had to stick in front of it was ‘cheese.’”

“You’re showing your age, John.”

“Yeah? That’s good. Usually I show twice my age.”

This time around, Dortmunder runs afoul of an ex-cop who blackmails him into trying to track down a Russian objet d’art that went missing in 1920. Hijinks ensue more or less promptly and escalate with the usual alarming rapidity, and by the time it’s all over you’ll know you’ve been well and truly entertained.

Donald Westlake’s admirers have been known on occasion to exaggerate his merits. One of them, the Irish novelist John Banfield, recently called him one of the “great writers of the 20th century,” which reminds me of the equally overenthusiastic critic who once compared Patrick O’Brian to Proust. He is, however, a consummate craftsman who makes fun in an exceedingly intelligent and imaginative way, and What’s So Funny? is one of his neatest, most satisfying pieces of work. Long may he reign.

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Hillary’s Time Tunnel: Episode 2

The 1960’s TV-program, The Time Tunnel, in which the central characters go back into the past and alter the course of history, was gripping science-fiction, at least gripping to me when I was eleven years old. But Hillary Clinton, who is older than I am by almost a decade, seems to have thought it was a reality show.

As I noted in an earlier post, her shifting position on the Iraq war is based upon the impossible idea—impossible except by entering the Time Tunnel—that if she knew what she knows now when she voted for the war, she would reverse her position and then our country (and her presidential candidacy) would be much better off.

Lo and behold, time-traveling is becoming a recurring theme in the Clinton campaign. Addressing an audience of Democratic activists in California on the weekend, the former first lady said “she wished she could turn the clock back to a different time.” In particular, she expressed a desire to “rewind the 21st century and just eliminate the Bush-Cheney administration, with all their mistakes and misjudgments.”

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The 1960’s TV-program, The Time Tunnel, in which the central characters go back into the past and alter the course of history, was gripping science-fiction, at least gripping to me when I was eleven years old. But Hillary Clinton, who is older than I am by almost a decade, seems to have thought it was a reality show.

As I noted in an earlier post, her shifting position on the Iraq war is based upon the impossible idea—impossible except by entering the Time Tunnel—that if she knew what she knows now when she voted for the war, she would reverse her position and then our country (and her presidential candidacy) would be much better off.

Lo and behold, time-traveling is becoming a recurring theme in the Clinton campaign. Addressing an audience of Democratic activists in California on the weekend, the former first lady said “she wished she could turn the clock back to a different time.” In particular, she expressed a desire to “rewind the 21st century and just eliminate the Bush-Cheney administration, with all their mistakes and misjudgments.”

Fascinating possibilities for radical change are opening up here. Before the Bush-Cheney administration, there was the Clinton-Gore administration, during which, if I remember correctly, some mistakes and misjudgments were also made. If only we could enter the Time Tunnel, we could go back and stop Monica from drawing the President aside into a White House alcove and revealing her thong.

A whole chain of events followed from that suggestive action, including the bombing—possibly—of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan and the impeachment—not possibly, but definitely—of the President of the United States.

But one of the distinctive features of The Time Tunnel was that, try mightily as they did, the show’s protagonists never once succeeded in altering the course of history. Hillary’s wishes notwithstanding, we cannot rewind history, and, even if one agreed with Hillary that it would be desirable—which I do in the case of Monica’s thong and do not in the case of the Bush-Cheney administration—neither can be eliminated from the historical record. It is preposterous of Hillary to think otherwise.

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News from Ramadi

It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

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It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

Max,

Sorry about the delayed response, but email went down and then I had a couple real busy days. Bottom line on last week’s VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks—

The first one targeted an IP [Iraqi Police] station. It was intercepted and destroyed prior to reaching the station but caused 5 IP WIA’s [wounded in action] and over 20 civilian WIA’s. Another VBIED attacked an IP checkpoint on the highway resulting in 13 IP KIA [killed in action] and 8 IP WIA. This VBIED was also attempting to destroy an IP station but was intercepted before it could reach its target. The casualty count was so high because the IP’s were in the process of shift change at that location.

Last week the IP’s successfully intercepted a VBIED on the highway with no civilian or IP casualties. The IP’s did the same thing yesterday with no casualties. I gave awards to last week’s heroes and will do the same for those who stopped yesterday’s VBIED attack.

The IP’s in Ramadi are constantly on guard against VBIED’s. Unfortunately, even if the VBIED fails to reach its target, they still are deadly to anyone nearby. Al Qaeda will continue to try to attack the Ramadi IP’s and civilians with these VBIED’s in order to gain headlines. They know they were defeated in Ramadi so this is their attempt to save face and strike back at the force that drove them out of town. These murderers don’t care how many civilians are killed as long as they get a headline. Unfortunately, U.S. media seems to reinforce this behavior. One thing is certain, the people of Anbar will never accept al Qaeda and the police here will continue to fight back regardless of the danger they face. These attacks only strengthen their resolve.

We are currently conducting a large operation to clear terrorists out of the Abu Bali tribal region east of Ramadi. This area developed into a terrorist safe haven after we cleared Ramadi. Using coalition forces and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], we are doing the same, deliberate clearing methods that we used in our previous operations. We have encountered many IED’s (reminds me of [Operation] Murfreesboro [in February-March]) but have cleared the area and are building another new JSS [Joint Security Station]. Almost immediately, the local population asked to start a neighborhood watch, and now these citizens are pointing out caches and IED’s.

We also successfully cleared an area to our south called al Tash. This was another area al Qaeda moved to when we cleared the city. We started getting increased IED attacks from this area so we went and cleared this town and established a JSS. Locals there now want to join the police force, and we haven’t had a single incident down there in about 2 weeks. I think al Qaeda is beginning to get the idea that we don’t like them in the neighborhood.

We are also working very hard with local religious leaders to improve popular support and conditions here in Ramadi. I have been meeting with prominent Sunni clerics from Anbar, and we think we will be able to reopen the main mosque here in Ramadi next week (I’m sure you saw it while you were here—it’s the really big one just north of the Malaab). This will be a huge event since this mosque is the centerpiece of Islamic worship here in Ramadi and has not been in operation for years due to the fighting. We are working religious-leader engagement at every level, and it is really paying off. A couple months ago, about half the mosques in Ramadi were broadcasting anti-coalition messages. Last Friday, there wasn’t a single anti-coalition sermon, and there were even a couple mosques that broadcast a pro-coalition message—I’ve never seen that before in my three tours over here.

Have to get back to work now . . . will give you an update on our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild in my next email. This is an important aspect of counterinsurgency that will take a little time to explain.

Take care, John.

Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
COL, Infantry
Commanding
Camp Ar Ramadi, Iraq

As Colonel Charlton keeps me posted, I will pass along his updates. They are not all likely to be positive. There is a war on, after all, and the enemy remains tenacious and brutal. We mustn’t set unrealistic goals in Ramadi (or anywhere else in Iraq) and then engage in self-flagellation if we don’t achieve them. Anbar, and the rest of Iraq, will remain violent for years, probably decades, to come. The question is whether we can get that violence down to a sustainable level, a level that doesn’t threaten the functioning of Iraq’s emerging government and civil society. So far that’s just what Colonel Charlton and his men have managed to pull off in Ramadi. Even the New York Times is taking notice. But all such accomplishments are fragile.

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