• 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.”
“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.