Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What's So Funny? by Donald E. Westlake

Sunday afternoon, while idly flipping through the Times' Book Review section I glanced at a half page color ad and froze. What's So Funny?, Donald Westlake's new Dortmunder book was out. My hands started shaking. I checked the ad three times to make sure it was true, then threw the paper on the floor, slammed on my shoes, grabbed my pocketbook and ran out the door straight to Partners & Crime, Greenwich Village's great mystery bookstore on Greenwich Avenue at Charles Street. "Please have it!" I mumbled all the way there. "I don't want to give my hard-earned money to Barnes & Noble. I support the independents, come hell or high water--as long as they have what I need."

I needed Dortmunder. Badly. Call it a bigtime addiction.

For the unwise uninitiated, the foolish few, or the naive nuts out there, Westlake's Dortmunder series is an ongoing riot featuring the pessimistic professional thief, John Dortmunder and his gang of bumbling burglars including Andy Kelp (former owner of Kelp's Keys, who doesn't need or use a key to get into any door); Tiny (a behemoth, the size of a walking wall), and Stan Murch (a professional driver, who knows the quickest route between two points anywhere in the New York City's five boroughs).

Most of the action takes place in Manhattan, and in the case of What's So Funny?, all the irritants of the "new" versus "old" cultures come to the fore, in ways so bizarre--yet true--you wish you had written it yourself.

For instance: Murch comes up with a plan to steal the gold dome that's sitting in a fenced off yard in Brooklyn. The dome is supposed to be installed on top of a new mosque, but the installation is being help up by lack of proper permits. Dortmunder--even before hearing the plan--dismisses it, only because it's in Brooklyn. Murch growls, "That's the trouble with all you guys . . . you're all Manhattancentric."

Meanwhile, poor Dortmunder is set up by a retired cop to pull an impossible heist--or face 15 years in prison for a former crime. His first instinct is to move to Chicago. Reading his mind, the ex-cop warns, "Police departments around America . . . are getting better and better at cooporation, what with the Internet and all. Everybody helps everybody, and nobody can disappear." Being a crook just ain't what it used to be; but Dortmunder--albeit grudgingly--doesn't give up.

The resulting mayhem is an hilarious roller coaster ride, with some of Westlake's best writing ever. They say writing comedy is tougher than any other form of writing. But when it's done right--as in this case--it's a breeze to read and rewarding to boot. They call this a "caper," which is technically accurate. But don't underestimate the echo of cultural commentary that Dortmunder, like Vonnegut, slips in to reduce the answer to the title's question, "What's So Funny?" to "This book. Wish the world was more like it."

Westlake (surprisingly) does have his own website: which is well worth a visit. But why waste time? Turn off your computer, and pick up a copy of What's So Funny? from your favorite independent bookseller.

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