DEW Day review: Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake

Note: This is my contribution to Donald Westlake Day, hosted by Patti Abbott. Her post with the full roundup of DEW Day links is here (and it will likely be updated throughout the day, so do check back). Many thanks to all participants and to Patti for putting this together.

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The setup of Money for Nothing is tasty: Josh Redmont, struggling as most young people do while attempting to start a career post-college, begins getting a check in the mail for $1000 every month. He makes some efforts to find out where they’re coming from, but his efforts are fruitless. Oh, well. He cashes them, for seven years.

In those years, Josh has established himself professionally and married a beautiful wife, with whom he has had a son. One summer, when setting off for a weekend visit to see his wife and child who are vacationing on Fire Island, a man approaches Josh and tells him, “You are now active.”

Nice, right?

There is much of interest in Money for Nothing, but I’m not sure that I’m writer enough to mention everything I’d like to mention in a coherent, well-structured review, so instead I’m going to take advantage of the blog format and post some assorted thoughts on the novel that I probably couldn’t get all in if I were aiming for seamless transitions.

  • This is a book involving terrorism that was published in 2003, when the wounds of September 11, 2001 were still bleeding for many Americans. It is set in 1999 or 2000, and had to be. Had it been set in 2003, the characters would have reacted completely differently to their circumstances. The book is set in and around New York City, so completely differently.
  • I wonder if this one wasn’t written just before September 11 and then published with minor tweaks after it felt safe.
  • If that all makes the book sound too serious, it isn’t. It’s a humorous novel with a plot that involves terrorism. I doubt anyone found anything offensive or even insensitive about it even in 2003.
  • Westlake does take a minor jab at his conception of realpolitik, but by and large this isn’t a political novel. That part could be read as a stab at the reaction of the Bush Administration to September 11, but when this book was published, President Bush hadn’t done most of the things that upset most of the Left and some of the Right. This lends credence to my theory that it was written prior to September 11. Whatever your views, Money for Nothing won’t ruffle your feathers. In this context, that’s a positive.
  • It’s not important why for review purposes, but Josh Redmont has accidentally become a sleeper agent for a foreign power. Despite dalliances in college radicalism, the label traitor being attached to his name horrifies him. Patriotism, often fairly deep patriotism, is the default position of most Americans, and American readers will, on the whole, understand Josh’s reaction.
  • I saw a reflection of The Blackbird in the meditation (too strong a word, but I can’t think of a better one) on patriotism. Alan Grofield’s default position is not patriotism, although by the end of that book it’s suggested that he might understand it a little better. (This is a much better book than The Blackbird.)
  • Westlake uses some other Westlake stand-bys as well. Actors and theater play a big (and funny) role in Money for Nothing. How many books did Westlake write involving actors and theater? Grofield of course, Memory, a sleaze novel or two, Backflash, some I’m forgetting, and without doubt some I haven’t yet read. This isn’t a criticism. The use of a local theater and an acting teacher in Memory couldn’t be more different from the use of same in Money for Nothing. I heard not long ago an interview with Westlake where he compared himself to a jazz musician. I’m not sure he meant it this way, but he was certainly wonderful at taking certain elements and improvising radically different variations on them.
  • The one false note is that a younger Josh had a stint in the Army. It doesn’t make sense for the character, who is an Everyman, not a Tough Guy. There’s a reason that Westlake had Josh briefly working for Uncle Sam, but the Army was the wrong pick for that job.
  • It would need some changes for the screen, but the foundation is here for a really witty movie. I doubt Hollywood could pull it off these days, but Blake Edwards could have had a ball with it.
  • I really liked this book, and I also suspect that I’m a bit more fond of it than most other readers will be. Like me and A Knight’s Tale. You can probably think of some equivalent for yourself.
  • This was Donald Westlake’s last novel that wasn’t about Dortmunder or Parker.

Buy Money for Nothing