There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Aw-tour theory: John Dortmunder as a reader of Richard Stark: Jimmy the Kid by Donald E. Westlake (1974).

Jimmy the Kid by Donald E. Westlake (1974)

The trouble began (as it so often did) with Andy Kelp:

….The way Kelp had come across that book, he'd been in jail at the time: a fact he didn't intend to mention to anybody. It had been upstate in Rockland County, a small town where he'd run into a little trouble when some cops stopping cars to look for drugs had found a whole lot of burglar tools in his trunk. It had taken five days to get the whole thing squashed because of the element of illegal search, but during those five days Kelp had been kept locked up in the local pokey. And a very poky pokey it had been, too—nothing to do but roll Bugler cigarettes and read paperback books donated by some local ladies' club.

Several of the books had been by this writer Richard Stark, always about the same crook, named Parker. Robbery stories, big capers, armored cars, banks, all that sort of thing. And what Kelp really liked about the books was that Parker always got away with it. Robbery stories where the crooks didn't get caught at the end—fantastic. For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose. Wagon train wiped out, cavalry lost in the desert, settlement abandoned, ranchers and farmers driven back across the Mississippi. Grand.

Child Heist was the third of the Parker novels he'd read, and even while he was reading it he'd known it meant something special to him, even more than the others. And as he was finishing the book the revelation had come on him like a sudden flood of heavenly light, like his little gray cell had just been illumined by a thousand suns. That's the way it had been. And when, the next day, the Public Defender had finally gotten him sprung, he'd walked out of there with Child Heist concealed inside his shirt, and as soon as he'd made it back to the city he'd gone to a bookstore and picked up half a dozen more copies….

Kelp wants to convince Dortmunder and Stan Murch that they can use the Stark novel as a Bible to commit their own child heist.

….May cast around for another argument, considered a specific mention of the friendship between Dortmunder and Kelp, and finally decided not to do that. If she did, he might just be angry enough now to deny the friendship, and then later on he'd think he had to stand by the denial. Better to let the dust settle for a minute.

They were finishing the Jell-O when she started again, coming in from another direction entirely, saying, "I read that book again. It isn't bad, you know."

He looked at her. "What book?"

"The one Kelp showed us. The one about the kidnapping."

He straightened and looked around the room, frowning. "I thought I threw that out," he said.

"I got another copy." She'd gotten it from Kelp, but she didn't think she should mention that.

He turned his frown toward her. "What for?"

"I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all."

"Kelp with a good idea." He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.

"Well, he was smart to bring it around to you," she said. "He wouldn't be able to do it right without you."

"Kelp brings a plan to me."

"To make it work," she said. "Don't you see? There's a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you've got and the places you'll be and all the rest of it. You'd be the aw-tour."

He cocked his head and studied her. "I'd be the what?"

"I read an article in a magazine," she said. "It was about a theory about movies."

"A theory about movies."

"It's called the aw-tour theory. That's French, it means writer."

He spread his hands. "What the hell have I got to do with the movies?"

"Don't shout at me, John, I'm trying to tell you. The idea is—"

"I'm not shouting," he said. He was getting grumpy.

"All right, you're not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn't really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that."

"The writer isn't the writer," Dortmunder said.

"That's the theory."

"Some theory."

"So they call the director the aw-tour,' she explained, "because that's French for writer."

There is a wonderful tension in Jimmy the Kid as the characters fight over carrying-out the complicated methods of Child Heist. At one point Murch's Mom reads from it verbatim when calling abductee Jimmy Harrington's father with the gang's demands.

"....We have your boy."

"Yes, you said that. And this is the phone call."

"Right. All right. Your Bobby's fine. And he'll—"

"What say?"

"I said, 'Your Bobby's fine. And he'll stay—"

"Are you sure you have the right number?"

"Jimmy! I didn't mean—I meant Jimmy. Your Jimmy's fine. And he'll stay fine just as long as you cooperate."

Bobby, you see, is the name of the kidnapped boy in Child Heist.

Jimmy Harrington, the boy Dortmunder's crew kidnaps, is a child only in age. He is a cinephile, and by the end of the caper he out-auteurs Dortmunder, turning the tables on his captors and everyone else.

Jimmy the Kid was the last Dortmunder novel I needed to read. It is a modest tale, not quite as breathless as Bank Shot and not quite as magisterial as the great Drowned Hopes. But any Dortmunder novel is a comfort; they show there is always someone more defeated in their life than we readers.

….Dortmunder said, "I don't intend to make any big issue of this, but I just want to say one thing. This is not what I had in mind when I decided to go in for a life of crime."


11 April 2018

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