Thursday, April 20, 2017

THE AX – Donald E. Westlake

 Almost afraid to admit it in a crime fiction community, but The Ax is the first of Donald E. Westlake's many highly acclaimed novels I've read. Doubly dangerous to be posting my report on this blog, risking its being seen by my literary advisor, Fictionaut's Kitty Boots, who most certainly would allow an inquiring eyebrow to ascend over a second consecutive popular crime novel in this space instead of something more literary. To her I would appeal for lenience in that both The New York Times and Washington Post critics raved in their reviews of The Ax. D. Keith Mano in the Times presumably stifled a gasp at its "excruciating brilliance." Too, Ms. Boots likes dark, and The Ax, as one might guess from its title, is indubitably dark. Right from its opening sentence: "I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being."

Soon enough our narrator is watching a TV news account of two of his murders:
It’s strange, but someway or other I don’t entirely recognize my actions from the blonde woman’s recountal. The facts are essentially right; I did chase the wife across the lawn and shoot her there, and I did intercept the husband in the garage and shoot him there, and I did leave without a trace, without witnesses, without clues in my wake.
But somehow the tone is all wrong, the sense of it, the feeling of it. These words she uses—“brutal” “savage” “cold-hearted”—give completely the wrong impression. They leave out the error that caused it all. They leave out the panic and confusion. They leave out the trembling, the sweating, the icy fear.

By now I'm the narrator. This happens routinely with me when I read first-person stories. I identify with the one telling the story—even if he or she is not likeable. I can't help it. Sort of a reader's Stockholm Syndrome maybe. I can think of only one instance when a first-person narrator, a psychotic serial killer, was so despicable, so repugnant that I could not stay with him. When I could see I was becoming him, I abandoned the book and took a hot shower. No such trouble being Burke Devore. I didn't especially like him, but then I don't especially like myself. I couldn't help empathizing with Devore. Considering his circumstances, it was hard to dismiss his rationale for responding the way he does.
He's been out of work a couple of years. The specialty paper mill where he was a manager merged with a Canadian company and moved his job across the border. His once comfortable life with a loving wife and two teenage kids is coming undone. He isn't the only victim. Corporate downsizing and middle-management layoffs are rife. He gets philosophical periodically to bolster his resolve. And he makes sense. This is happening in 1997. It's gotten steadily worse since then:
Long-term joblessness, it hurts everything. Not just the discarded worker, but everything. Maybe it’s wrong of me, snobbish or something, to think this hits the middle class more than other people, because I’m middle class (and trying to stay middle class), but I do think it does, it hurts us more. The people at the extremes, the poor and the very rich, are used to the idea that life has great swings, now you’re doing well, now you’re doing badly. But the middle class is used to a smooth progress through life. We give up the highs, and in return we’re supposed to be protected from the lows. give our loyalty to a company, and in return they’re supposed to give us a smooth ride through life. And now it isn’t happening, and we feel betrayed.

He illustrates this betrayal with a lesson from Scottish history. Tenant farmers in the Highlands there, who for generations had rented land, living in little stone houses they'd built themselves, were forced to leave when the landowners decided raising sheep would bring in more money than the farmers' rent. Called “the Clearance,” this process started near the end of the 18th century and continued for decades. Devore gives us one of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of clearance: The clearing (of land) by the removal of wood, old houses, inhabitants, etc. "You’ll never see a clearer proof that history is written by the winners," he concludes. "Just think; one comma less, and the inhabitants would have fallen into the etc. It’s the descendants of those landlords that are doing the clearances called downsizing now. The literal descendants, sometimes, and the spiritual descendants always."
 They left, not willingly. Some went to Ireland, some went to North America, some went to hell. Some died of cold or starvation. Some resisted, and were given the chop right there, on their own land. Well, no; not their own land.

 “Some resisted.” Devore decides to follow their example to save his way of life and that of his family. He decides to be a deliverer of “the chop” rather than the choppers' victim. He chooses as his victims not the corporate heads who are doing the modern clearances, but competitors for his one chance to get a “position” similar to one he'd been chopped from. He studies the trade journals until he finds a suitable mill that looks secure enough to avoid the kind of downsizing running rampant in the paper production industry. He decides to “create” a job for him there by killing the man already holding it. Next he creates a letterhead purporting to be a small mill, and takes out ads in the trade journals seeking someone to fill the kind of position he's seeking. He's soon flooded with applicants. He studies their resumés, winnowing them down to the six who likely would best him competing for the vacancy that will soon open up unexpectedly. Now he sets out to kill his six competitors.
I'm not with him at this point. Not yet. The empathy's not quite there. But Devore slowly wins me over. It helps that he doesn't like what he believes he has to do. He's basically decent. He doesn't celebrate after he's “snuffed out” one of his victims:
I’m weeping when I get back to the motel, still weeping. I feel so weak I can barely steer, hardly press my foot against the accelerator and, at last, the brake.
The Luger is still in my pocket. It weighs me down on the right side, dragging down on me so that I stumble as I move from the Voyager to the door to my room. Then the Luger bangs against my hand, interfering with me, while I try to get into my pants pocket for the key, the key to the room.
At last. I have the key, I get it into the lock, I open the door. All of this is mostly by feel, because I’m sobbing, my eyes are full of tears, everything swims. I push the door open, and the room that was going to be warm and homey is underwater, afloat, cold and wet because of my tears.
No crocodile tears, these. The guy's a wreck, continually arguing with himself about this “project.” And this:
I must have been crazy, out of my mind. How could I have done these things? Herbert Herbert Everly. Edward Ricks, and his poor wife. And now Everett Dynes. He was like me, he should be my friend, my ally, we should work together against our common enemies. We shouldn’t claw each other, down here in the pit, fight each other for scraps, while they laugh up above. Or, even worse; while they don’t even bother to notice us, up above.
The millennium is shaking us up, the way a high-pitched tone shakes up a dog. [...]
And that’s why I woke up in terror, thinking, What am I becoming? What have I become?
I’m not a killer. I’m not a murderer, I never was, I don’t want to be such a thing, soulless and ruthless and empty. That’s not me. What I’m doing now I was forced into, by the logic of events; the shareholders’ logic, and the executives’ logic, and the logic of the marketplace, and the logic of the workforce, and the logic of the millennium, and finally by my own logic.
Show me an alternative, and I’ll take it. What I’m doing now is horrible, difficult, frightening, but I have to do it to save my own life. [...]
I’m harboring an armed and dangerous man, a merciless killer, a monster, and he’s inside me.

We're at that point now where you don't want me to stop, I know. You want me to copy the entire novel right here in my blog. Not gonna do it. Wouldn't be prudent. But I'll leave you with this thought, the final paragraph of the Times's gasp-stifling (presumably) D. Keith Mano's review:As novels go, The Ax is pretty much flawless, with a surprise ending that will unplug your expectations. Burke Devore is American Man at the millennium--as emblematic of his time as George F. Babbitt and Holden Caulfield and Capt. John Yossarian were of theirs. Westlake has written a remarkable book.
If you can't relate to it, be thankful.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Death's Honesty (27)

A strong, sharp gust greeted them when they stepped out the front door of Luigi's. Blow's bare head was first to feel the wind's shocking chill as it rushed to his scalp through the mat of pale orange curls. Homer's Price Hardware cap tried to fly but he grabbed the bill in time, holding it down while they crabbed toward the parking lot, shoulders hunched inside their lightweight jackets against the penetrating cold.
“You were right!” The wind snapped Blow's shouted words away, but Homer heard enough to answer with what sounded like “Huh?”

“Storm coming!” Blow swung his arm up and pointed at the prematurely darkening sky.
Homer raised his arm, too, extending his middle finger at the encroaching behemoth cloud bank. He climbed into his van and gave Blow a two-finger salute before driving off. The rain came suddenly, sweeping across Blow's pickup in deafening torrents. He'd just managed to get in and shut the door before the deluge, and he sat now shivering in his storm-pummeled cab, thankful to be dry, trying to decide what next to do.

Most pressing was the return from Europe sometime tomorrow of Chip Morowitz's parents. They were key to his client's release on bond. Blow needed Chip's help, needed to question him in an environment he trusted. The parents needed assurance their son was in good hands, that Blow was making progress toward proving the boy's innocence. It wouldn't do to remind them it had been less than three days since his arrest. He could tell them about Rev. Curtis and the guy who looked like Maj. Callahan, but unless those cases were solved they'd merely be coincidental. And Commonwealth's Attorney Fred Gobble could plant seeds with the jury Chip Morowitz was part of a conspiracy. Proving motive would be tricky, but Gobble was a capable enough prosecutor. Capable of a plausible theory. He had a smoking gun, after all. One of the better pieces of evidence in any murder trial.
It likely would be a couple more days before ballistic comparisons of bullets from Chip's gun and those that killed his friends were available. That could go one of three ways: a match would virtually guarantee Chip's conviction; distinct differences could point to innocence if not rule out guilt; and the advantage with inconclusive findings would go to the prosecution. Chip was still pulling the trigger when the first-responders arrived.
Finding the other gun was vital to Blow's case. He couldn't share with Chip's parents what he'd learned about the missing gun. Not without betraying Mundaign. Unless he could prove Mundaign didn't use the gun on Chip's friends—but first the gun had to be found. Homer would be stopping at the Sheriff's Office to poke around there. Blow knew he had to spend more time with Mundaign. He'd sensed there was something unsaid going on between Moriarty and the strange, repugnant man. Her pretext for accompanying him was to introduce them and ostensibly to assure Mundaign he could trust Blow. Some undefined doubt had begun creeping into Blow's thoughts. He wanted to talk with Mundaign alone. The rain was letting up by the time he'd worked his way through these questions. He cranked up the truck with the intention of heading back to the island.

He got as far as the junction of Misenti Boulevard, the cinder feeder road that served Luigi's Spaghetti House and Luigi's cousin's nearby auto body shop, with US 14. He was surprised at how quickly and deeply the relentless highway traffic bothered him, how susceptible to a change in daily rhythms. Rush hour on a weekday he managed easily—a minor irritation if he was in a hurry; if not, a perverse gratitude for the few moments completely to himself, to his thoughts. None of that applied right now. He'd done his thinking during the downpour, he had a destination and a sense of urgency. It was a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. Where in hell were they coming from and heading to, this endless convoy of giant spitshined pickups and vans and SUVs and little cars with aftermarket turbo pipes that amplified the sound of the tiny engines to racetrack roars, cars invariably driven by boys with gleaming eyes, cap bills perfectly askew and no inkling of the homicidal reactions they were tempting?

FUCK YOU!” Shouting within the seclusion of his own cab at nothing in particular, Blow immediately felt relief from his dilating vexation, release enough to accept with a quiet chuckle the small alarm his allowing taut nerves to twang always registered. And then, as if a cosmic traffic cop waved its baton in the interest of pity or averting catastrophe, a gap appeared in the rolling wall of glass and steel that blocked him. He caught a glimpse of fingers raised in friendly salute behind the wheel of the small pickup truck that had slowed to let him in. He waved back. Hurrah for the community of similars.

The rain had stopped by the time Blow arrived at Jay Mundaign's bungalow, and vengeful blades of light were spearing the thinning tail clouds through the western tree tops. His rearview mirror flashed some sun, blinding his glance and breaking the inertia that held him immobile in the truck after he parked. He pushed the door open and climbed out.

The temperature surprised him. He'd had a notion the cold would have passed with the storm, yet it seemed colder than before. The gusts were gentler but they emphasized the chill. At least his clothes were dry, he thought. An instant later rain-drenched Johnson grass in the sandy frontyard soil was soaking his shoes and ankles as he made his way to the modest house. Seeing no mud mat by the door, he wanted to stomp on the wooden porch to get as much of the water and sand off his shoes as possible before entering the house, but politeness dictated he rap on the door or ring the bell to announce his presence more conventionally. Finding no bell button or doorknocker, he tapped his knuckles several times and called out.

“Hello! Mr. Mundaign? It's your attorney Joe Stone. Hello!” He cupped his hand around an ear turned to the door, but heard no sound through the wood panels. Several arguing crows in a nearby tree, and a distant dog's sporadic barking comprised the outside audibles, but nothing from inside the house. Waiting to be certain before trying again, it occurred to him there were no other cars on the short lane leading to the turnaround circle in front where Mundaign had parked. This might mean Mundaign hadn't gotten home yet, as there didn't appear to be anywhere else nearby where he'd be apt to park. The yard wrapped around the rear of the house, but Blow saw no tire tracks in the soggy soil. He decided to wait awhile in his truck. He was starting to turn around when the door rattled open.
The face looking out at him had a disembodied effect. This was partly a result of the series of shocking recognitions the face instilled in him, starting with the certainty it did not belong to the man he'd come to see. Next were the darknesses. The room behind the face was dark, and darkness seemed to surround it, leaving only the face to reflect expiring sunlight. Most unsettling was the darkness in the eyes. Carbon irises joined with their pupils promising a nonrefusable respite from the surrounding aggressive globes of white. The contrast created a tension that both taunted and assured: escape from the glare via dual passages to oblivion. The eyes were cunning and treacherous. They held deeply rooted violence in check with a predator's amusement. Transfixed, Blow felt the hairs on the back of his neck flare in alarm and cold drops of sweat trickle from his armpits. He feared his throat had gone dry, but he had to speak. It came out a barely audible rasp.
The deputy stepped aside and gestured with an arm. “Come in, Counselor. Come in.” The voice had a nasal shallowness that belied the dark visage, but it was relaxed and confident, implying some of the insolence of the eyes.
Blow hesitated. “I'm here to see Jasper Mundaign,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, but feeling at a disadvantage, and foolish.
Teach's grin under the thick brush of mustache was cruel, as was his sneering tone. “Well, whattaya know. So am I. Come on in. Have a beer. We might as well wait together.”
“Thanks, but I can come back. I have another appointment.” Locked in a staring duel he felt too stunned to break, he knew his voice had come out weak. He'd no doubt Teach's anger could be lethal. Homer had overheard a couple of deputies talking about it, that Teach bragged of killing someone with his hands when he was a Marine. Blow felt it coming an instant before it happened, felt paralyzed from doing anything, anything at all. Quick as a snake the hand that had welcomed him was at his throat, fingers gripping his collar. Terrible pain then. Head exploding. Terrible pain.

The pain moving now, spreading, leaving a swirling in his head as it crept down his neck and back. The swirling eased enough that he could see he was on his back, that Teach was looming over him. When Teach spoke, though, his voice seemed distant. Blow heard the words “resisting arrest” and “self defense.” A complete sentence, “So you have a piece, you smirking little pissant. I won't have to plant one on you.” Blow realized his hand was in his pocket. He knew the stakes had just gone up.
A change then. As if a switch had tripped in his brain. The pain was gone, his fear had become an abstraction. He knew only one thing, he wanted to live. He shifted his focus to offense. Time slowed down as his mind searched for practical options. One quickly became obvious. He'd learned it by accident in football when it happened to Homer. His back was still against the doorjamb, giving him a fulcrum. Teach had moved in, pistol now in hand. He was near enough. Blow lashed out with a leg, planting it squarely on Teach's knee. He heard something snap, then a terrible cry. The thump when Teach landed shook the porch. His groans were gut-wrenching.
Blow knew the fight was over, and his strength was returning. He rolled onto his knees and peered at the heap next to him. Teach was in a fetal curl, hugging his knee and rocking back and forth. His face had turned chalk white. He managed to choke out some words when he saw Blow looking at him.

“Assaulting...police officer...felony...pissant...”

Blow crawled over and stared into Teach's face. He held up a little digital recorder. “This is the piece you thought I had in my pocket, Teach. It's the recorder I brought for my interview. I can see by the red button light it's been on all the while we've had our little conversation. I'd play it for you, but I'd rather leave it running awhile longer. It already has enough evidence to convict you of attempted murder, but you know what? I don't much care about that, at least not now. Know what I want? You don't have to speak. Just nod your head when I've finished. What I want is that pistol, the one Mundaign gave you Friday night. I want you to turn it over to Maj. Callahan. Do that and we'll be straight. Okay?

Teach continued groaning.

“Do I need to repeat what I've just told you?”

Teach, still groaning, shook his head. He turned his face to Blow. “Okay,” he said.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Dan Rhodes, sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, introduced me to the Zero® candy bar. Until then the Fifth Avenue® bar had been my favorite. It still is. Not that the Zero is a bad bar. It's not, in fact it's pretty good.
It's just not a Fifth Avenue. I've had only two Zeros in my life. I bought the first one at the Dollar General store out of curiosity because Sheriff Rhodes was hooked on them while solving a mysterious homicide in Murder in the Air, the first in the Rhodes series I read, and the 18th in the series.
I had my second bar while reading another Rhodes mystery, the first in the series,
Too Late to Die. I figured it would be fun to chew on my Zero bar as Sheriff Rhodes chewed on his while solving the murder. But Rhodes hadn't discovered the Zero bar yet. He still hadn't discovered it in Cursed to Death, the third in the Rhodes series. 

[Darn it, I hate to break up the narrative flow here but I got to thinking about the Zero bar, and suddenly had to walk down to the Dollar General and get another—my third. I ate it on the way back to the library. It was as good as I remembered, but it still wasn't a Fifth Avenue. The Fifth Avenue, by the way, is becoming a tad hard to find. None in the Dollar General or in the Rite Aid next door. Might be a mystery that needs looking into.] By now you're undoubtedly wondering if I've slipped off the trolley tracks of the standard book review format. Not that my reviews (which I prefer to call “reports” because I do not feel qualified to critique any literary endeavor) ever follow the standard trolley tracks. In fact the only trolleys I remember seeing were what my parents called “streetcars” and they were in Milwaukee when I was a child, and, so far as I know, are long, long gone.
Crider at work
To those of you getting angry or horribly bored now--and I'd be surprised if at least some of you aren't--I humbly submit that my attempt to write like Bill Crider writes his Dan Rhodes mysteries has fallen woefully short. Here's what I mean:
Details. They were always important in any investigation of any crime, and it was funny how often you overlooked them, even the most obvious ones. But it wasn’t as if they were forgotten, or never noticed in the first place. Sometimes the details suddenly jumped into your mind, coming all at once out of whatever dark corner they’d been hiding in, and made everything clear. Maybe things would work out like that in the Martin case, which was still bothering Rhodes. It wasn’t easy to think about murder and a missing man when your mind was on being engaged. Or it could have been the other way around. It wasn’t easy to think about being engaged when your mind was on murder and a missing man.
Rhodes gave it up. He went out back, fed Speedo [his dog], and drove back to the jail.
Did that help? Not yet? How about this:
Rhodes had entertained several thoughts. Kidnapping hadn’t been one of them. “No note,” he said. “No phone calls. At first I thought he’d just gone out on a party, but now I don’t know. It’s pretty certain that he didn’t leave that van there, all wiped down.”
Then we can say that you suspect ‘foul play’?” She pretended to be writing notes on a nonexistent pad.
I don’t say things like that,” Rhodes told her.
I know. It’s part of your charm.”
Rhodes didn’t say anything to that. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t think of himself as having any charm, and he thought maybe Ivy [his betrothed] was kidding him.
Ivy might have been kidding Rhodes, but she was right. His earthbound, uncomplicated common sense is part of his charm—a large part of it, and of Crider's narrative voice in the 24-book Dan Rhodes series (with the 25th due out in August.) I intend to read them all, gulp them down like Cheetos®, but I can't be obvious about it. They must be slipped in surreptitiously (a word Sheriff Rhodes would never use) between the darker, more complex works my literary advisor, Fictionaut's Kitty Boots, assigns periodically. I can do this, but I can't report on them all, not with Ms. Boots keeping an eye on this blog. The inadvertent confrontation might be similar were Ms. Boots, expecting me to be watching a televised production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, to catch me instead sneaking a peek at a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. Truth be told, Sheriff Rhodes enjoys watching Andy Taylor, Mayberry's widowed sheriff, solve domestic problems and the occasional crime like those Rhodes handles in Blacklin County. Short of murder, that is. It's something Rhodes ponders (altho he would never use that word):
As he watched the episode unfold, Rhodes wondered if anyone had ever disappeared in Mayberry. Or if anyone had ever been murdered. He was sure that Sheriff Taylor could have solved things in less than thirty minutes and then made sure that Barney got credit for the whole thing. Rhodes wished his own case were that easy.
Rhodes's case is indeed perplexing (nor that one—I'm not trying to mimic Crider anymore). A local dentist whose hobby is buying rental properties goes missing after one of his tenants, enraged because he removed the TV from her home for nonpayment of rent, came to his office and put a loud, frightening curse on him in front of his entire office staff. And then, as Rhodes bumbles genially along trying to find out what happened to the dentist, the dentist's wife turns up clubbed to death in their home. Definitely not your customary Mayberry scenario.
Sunday-go-to-meeting Crider
Sheriff Rhodes, unlike my recollection of his TV likeness, gets into some serious scraps. He's neither a macho type nor a big man, like Sheriff Taylor. He just wades in and does his job. Here's Rhodes expecting trouble at the start of a confrontation with a suspect he wants to question: “Swan looked even bigger than he remembered. Rhodes’s pipsqueak neck tingled in anticipation of Swan’s fingers encircling it.” They fought. Rhodes's neck survived.
Rhodes doesn't like to use his sidearm, either, but he uses it, and not to especially good effect. Does he solve the murder? Does he find the missing dentist? Does he manage to keep from screaming at the two wiseass geezers who run his jail and handle the dispatch radio? Of course, to the first and the second, and yes to the third.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


I was in Europe, with the Army, when At Play in the Fields of the Lord came out. In 1965. I paid it no heed. My literary tastes at the time had drifted from academic to more popular influences—Mailer, Baldwin, Ellison, James Jones, Eugene Burdick...—writing I considered edgier or maybe more accessible, or a mix of the two, than the classics seemed to offer. I vaguely remember reading about At Play when it hit the reviews, and I vaguely remember thinking, nah, not for me. And that was that. Never looked back.

Until a couple weeks ago. Once again my literary adviser,'s Kitty Boots, rescued me from the obscurity of going to my grave without having given a well-worthy novel at least due glance. At her subtle invitation I glanced and glanced some more and soon got yanked into the maw of Peter Matthiessen's masterpiece which I suspect by then already had entered the Valhalla of classic literary works availing precious few alibis to self-respecting literati.
It was perhaps opportune that I had come down with a particularly virulent strain of flu when I started reading At Play. Or maybe not. My fevered nightmares and the drug-drenched interior raves of Lewis Moon were jibing, either accidentally or the book was deliberately leaking psychic chemistry into my blood. I had to lay off awhile until I could be sure which mental state was in charge. Coherence remained obscure in both venues, but in the one, Matthiessen's narrative artistry did promise to get me over the jungle wall and out of immediate danger without a pillow soak. The following might describe the nightmare of either of us, the other being Lewis Moon, half-breed soldier of fortune experiencing the start of a life changing epiphany among a primitive tribe of Indians he was being blackmailed to drive out of their home in the Amazon jungle—with bombs and machineguns if necessary. The catalyst is an Indian concoction with powerful hallucinogenic properties:
The bottle stood upon the sill; he drank it to the bottom.
He felt like crying, but did not. He had not cried in twenty years—no, more. Had he ever cried? And yet he did not really feel like crying; he felt like laughing, but did not. [...]
He crouched beside the window sill, his back to the world without, and far away he heard them coming, the marching of huge nameless armies coming toward him, and once again his hands turned cold. He felt very cold. On the wall of the room, over the door, he saw a huge moth with a large white spot on each wing. It palpitated gently; he could hear the palpitations, and the spots were growing. And there was a voice, a hollow voice, very loud, and very far away, calling through glass, and there were hands on him and he was shaken violently. The voice rose and crashed in waves, rolling around his ears; it was getting dark. […]
...colors rich and somber now, and shapes emerging; the shapes flowered, rose in threat and fell away again. Fiends, demons, dancing spiders with fine webs of silver chain. A maniac snarled and slavered, and rain of blood beat down upon his face. Teeth, teeth grinding in taut rage, teeth tearing lean sinew from gnarled bone. Idiocy danced hand in hand with lunacy and hate, rage and revenge; the dungeon clanked and quaked with ominous sounds, and he kept on going, down into the darkness…
I banished my demons eventually with a Z-pak and prednisone. Lewis Moon stole an airplane in the dead of night, flew over the jungle, and parachuted into a village of savages who received him as a god.
Sound familiar? The horror, the horror? I never read much Conrad, either, back in the day. I'm drawn now irresistibly to that master of dark. Because of the magic. The magic that one critic claimed is missing from At Play. In his whiny New York Times review, Eliot Fremont-Smith starts out with such effusive praise one might expect he and Matthiessen wore identical fraternity rings. Then, after presumably allowing a disdainful sniff, he unloads this: “ every page, one is interested, admiring, agreeing even--but not transported, not engrossed. It's like reading Conrad, but without the magic (I have no other word for it). Because of the book's many obvious qualities and because passion is there, powerful though fixed, one's disappointment at being less than absorbed is keen and eventually overriding.”
Speak for yourself, Fremont-Smith. At Play absorbed the bejeebies out of me. At the same time I'm curious about “the magic” that apparently elevates Conrad to a sublimity only the most cynical, tenured lit. professor might deride. No swoons in this class!
But I cannot agree to such a rigid division, with “magic” on one side and “merely explainable” on the other. Not in the New York Times, anyway, where one expects literary reviews to be, well, literary rather than metaphysical. Unless Fremont-Smith found himself in a deadline hurry and used “magic” as code for “too subtly artistic to try to explain here given my space/time limitations,” or “Conrad gives me acid flashbacks.”
Then again, allowing different toques for different bloques, I can easily say the subtle artistry Matthiessen employs throughout At Play insinuated itself so deeply into my psyche it summoned a long-buried bummer or two from my days of deeeep breaths and tightly constricted exhales. The kind of hypersensitivity that focused on minute nuances—a loaded glint in the eye, lethal tone or emphasis of a distinctive syllable, a word projecting all of its connotations at once with one in particular aimed directly at your deepest insecurity. All but you laughed, secretly, it seemed. You felt the sweat in your armpits. Paranoia, we called it before the California argot took over.
Peter Matthiessen
 Matthiessen endows his characters with this extreme acumen to the extent it lends credence to theories that explain ESP in purely physical terms. Hesitation or movement at the wrong moment, a barely perceptible change in pitch of voice, timing of a facial expression, a bead of sweat can give people away, offer glimpses into character. Here's a scene that illustrates the sudden shift in dynamics between the two mercenaries, Moon and Wolfie, flying over the jungle with a crate of bombs they're intending to drop on the Indians. The longtime friends are tense. They're not agreed over the mission. Wolfie suddenly pulls his knife and draws blood from Moon's throat over a perceived anti-semitic slur (Wolfie's Jewish):
Moon glanced at him quickly; he caught the faint humorous flicker before Wolfie could suppress it. “Not that that’s the only reason,” Wolfie snarled.
Did you see that guy shoot an arrow at the plane?” Moon considered knocking Wolfie’s arm away and throwing the plane into a roll. But though he had little to lose by this maneuver, he had nothing at all to gain; Wolfie would kill him with the first reflex. Then he heard Wolfie’s voice again, and from its tone he knew that he had won.
That’s a reason not to bomb? Are you outa your mind, Moon? You really mean you’d cop out on our only chance because some lunatic of a Indian is nutty enough to shoot an arrow at us?”
And though this was exactly what Moon did mean, he now turned his head and gazed coldly at his partner. He was sorry that he had pleaded, however obliquely, and now that he had gained an edge, the knife point at his chin infuriated him.
I found Moon and Wolfie the most interesting of a small ensemble cast of characters. A close third was Father Xantes, a clever, sardonic Catholic priest competing evangelically with two Baptist missionary couples. Ironies abound. I could almost hear the Kingston Trio plinking and harmonizing throughout with their version of Sheldon Harnack's Merry Minuet: “They're rioting in Africa...and I don't like anybody very much.” The protestants in At Play hate the Catholics, and can't get along with each other. The Indians hate all of the white interlopers, and can't get along with each other.
All of the characters are carefully and realistically drawn. At times I wanted to slap one or another of the Baptists, and I kept thinking of Claude Rains playing Father Xantes in the movie, reprising his role of Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca. Probably some sort of chemical flashback.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]