Donald E. Westlake

(July 12, 1933 – December 31, 2008)

He seems to have mostly written pulp, but superior pulp (we rather like 2 films scripted by him – The Stepfather and The Grifters).  But The Varnished Culture particularly remembers Donald on his birthday for his very funny literary work, A Likely Story.

Journeyman writer Thomas Diskant (i.e. Westlake) writer of the novel The Pink Garage Gang and important non-fiction commissions covering El Alamein, Golf Course of America, The Ins and Outs of Unemployment Insurance, The Films of Jack Oakie, among others, proposes the ultimate Christmas Book – a seasonal compendium with eclectic contributions from the great and good covering what the yuletide means for them.  Tom’s first editor is warily supportive, despite his relentless cynicism:

“Well, the novel’s dead anyway,” I said. “I wouldn’t come here to talk to you about a novel.” “Bless you, Tom,” he said, his merry eyes crinkling. “You always know what to say.”

…”Please,” he said. “Not a history of American publishing, not while I’m eating.”

Tom gets the go-ahead and starts circulating an invitation for submissions: “In addition to Christmas art through the ages, and such rare and unknown treats as Kipling’s “Christmas in India,” the publishers and I intend a strong contemporaneous flavor by actively seeking out original stories, essays, reminiscences or whatever from the major writers and thinkers of our time…”

The response is mixed:

“Dear John Irving, “The Stars Wink,” your short story about a bear whose eyes are put out by feminists on Christmas Eve, is certainly a powerful piece of writing…”

And Isaac Asimov keeps sending quirky contributions such as “the uses and meanings of gold, frankincense and myrrh in the ancient world.”

Enter Vickie Douglas, Tom’s new editor, who famously rescued from the slush pile an “ex-hooker’s diet-and-pornography book which became known in the trade as Fuck Yourself Thin”  Vickie is equivocal about The Christmas Book: “It’s hard to know what the thrust of the book is, what its argument is…Vonnegut, Galbraith; these are all rather yesterday, aren’t they?”

Vickie keeps going on about her mother and avoiding engagement with The Christmas Book, till at a boozy lunch in the ‘Tre Mafiosi’ Tom decides to let it all hang out:

It was partway through that third drink that I put the glass down beside my untasted salad and said, “Vickie. Shut. Up.”  She blinked at me. Her eyes became more than usually owlish. “Tom?” “Vickie,” I said, “I have had enough. I don’t give a royal fuck about your mother. I figure she’s probably just another self-centered big-mouth like you, and she deserves you just as much as you deserve her. But I don’t deserve either of you.” I have never in my life seen as astonished an expression as was then on Vickie’s face. The waiter arrived at that moment, bearing food, and as he reached to place her oval plate of sweetbreads before her, Vickie said, “Why, you utter horse’s ass.”

…Sharing a cab the way home, Tom is contrite and asks if Vickie is all right: “I’m fine,” she said, staggering on the sidewalk. She wasn’t crying any more, but her face was blotchy. “I’m peachy. Destroyed at fucking lunch with a writer. Home a basket case. Go away, you sonofabitch.”

Naturally, Tom and Vickie end up In flagrante delicto.

Next, Tom is saddled with another editor, Dewey Heffernan, the very acme of a sub-optimal mind. And then Maureen Muddnyfe of Muscatine, Iowa, gives notice of a suit for the theft of her idea for the Christmas Book, a suit that threatens to develop despite the inevitable printers’ strike that torpedoes the book ever being released.  Tom ends up glancing at his galley, the only remnant of his beautiful dream, and realises that “I am home, I appear to be happy, and all my problems are small ones: a million dollar lawsuit, a tenuous handhold on the lower rung of an imbecile industry, and the growing suspicion that I am that dullest of all creatures, a family man.”

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