Dortmunder Gets Real In His Final Book


Donald Westlake was capable of many levels of writing. I think “The Ax” and “Kahawa” are serious works that capture the spirit of their respective times. They are books about significant topics, although “Kahawa” is big enough to have many funny parts, too.

I liked Westlake best when he was funny, and so I like “Kahawa” more that “The Ax.”

I recall that my mother thought that Westlake had gone wrong in the 1970s when he started writing about his criminal character Dortmunder. Before Dortmunder, Westlake had typed out funny comic-crime novels such as “The Busy Body” and “The Fugitive Pigeon.”

I suppose my mother had a point—“Somebody Owes Me Money” is one of the funniest books I ever read. But, while the quality of Dortmunder books could vary a lot, and seemed to be getting a bit stale near the end of Westlake’s long, prolific career, on the other hand, when he hit the mark in a Dortmunder book, there is little else that is as entertaining.

Think “Jimmy the Kid,” or “Good Behavior” or “Drowned Hopes.” Read all those and enjoy.

From NPR.org, cover of "Get Real."

From NPR.org, cover of “Get Real.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect to when I found a book called “Get Real” at Half Price Books. It was published in 2009, the year after Westlake had died from a heart attack at age 75. But, as a journalism professor, the topic of “Get Real”—reality TV, is one of professional concern, so I dived in.

The news, overall, is good. Dortmunder and his gang never seem to age, which is OK, and some members are more entertaining than others—I’m not sure why that twerpy kid who works for Tiny’s girlfriend has to hang around—but the premise of this book is well executed, and the critique of reality TV spot on.

In the book, one show is “The Stand,” about a vegetable stand in New York. The show falls apart when the son of the stand owners refused to marry his girlfriend because he’s gay. Not what he producers wanted in their program.

Anyway, due to an accidental cab ride with Stan Murch’s taxi-driving mom, a reality TV show producer becomes interested in, and wants to televise, the Dortmunder gang.

What follows is classic, good Dortmunder high jinks. If the quality isn’t quite “Drowned Hopes,” it’s still much fresher than “Road to Ruin.” It’s a good read.

While it’s not my favorite Westlake novel—I think “Dancing Aztecs” is probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read—“Get Real” is the real deal seen through the lens of reality TV, which, as I tell my media classes, is never really real.

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