NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.
I’m back. And let’s reopen my Violent World of Parker ledger with a Westlake Score—namely a 1972 Hodder & Stoughton British first edition hardback of Donald E. Westlake’s I Gave At the Office—with what looks like a creased photo of DEW himself on the front of the (design uncredited) dustjacket—originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1971. I found this copy in the fine secondhand book emporium Tindley & Chapman on London’s Cecil Court, hidden away in the labyrinthine basement, and was quite excited to come across it: the Westlake novels that Hodder published in hardback in the UK in the early 1970s—the Dortmunders novels The Hot Rock, Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid, plus some standalones—are pretty scarce, and this, along with the similarly uncommon Jimmy the Kid, is one of the scarcest: there’s currently only one copy on AbeBooks.
I Gave At the Office is one of a handful of Westlake novels which deal in some way with the media—see also Trust Me on This (1988) and that book’s sequel, Baby, Would I Lie? (1994)—but it also centers on an abiding Westlake preoccupation: island nations or small states which are threatened by revolution. The narrator is Jay Fisher, a self-confessed “radio man” at the Network, a New York-based media outlet. Jay gets mixed up with two ne’er-do-wells named Bob Grantham and Arnold Kuklyn, who have an idea for a TV documentary about gun-running to the Caribbean nation of Ilha Pombo, but once the show gets the green light Jay finds himself shuttling about the country to largely fruitless assignations with supposed gun-runners while Bob and Arnold run up a tab at the Network’s expense.
It’s not what you’d call prime Westlake—Jay is unconvincingly idiotic, and the plot, with its intentional cul-de-sacs, is frustratingly elliptical—but it is interesting for its experimental approach: the narrative takes the form of transcripts of Jay’s taped confession, interspersed with interviews with the various players. Each chapter ends mid-sentence, as Jay tries—and fails—to work out when the tape will end, a conceit which, in truth, starts off cute, but becomes a bit annoying by the end—a summation which in turn probably neatly encapsulates the book as a whole. That said, there’s a certain amount of fun to be had here, especially in the shape of Bob, who’s forever necking Jay’s booze (“Mind if I build myself another?”), and Linda, Jay’s increasingly odd girlfriend, whom Jay spends much of the book attempting—and once again failing—to bed, and who harbors a not terribly well disguised ulterior motive.
The version of this post on Existential Ennui kicks off a series on journalism and media-related books, so check back over there next week if that’s your bag, but if not, I’ll hopefully be featuring another Westlake novel later in that run, and that post will, of course, pop up over here too . . .