Good Behavior is a very funny book but the dedication at its beginning seems not just sad but tragic: “In memoriam: P., 1961-1973.” Who is this person who attained only 12 years on this earth before leaving — a son or daughter? Niece or nephew? Another child close to author Donald Westlake? The person was close enough but thankfully not actually alive — the initial and dates indicate not a flesh and blood being but a sly nod to another creation of Westlake’s, via pseudonym Richard Stark — the thief Parker, who as noted earlier led to the beginning of John Dortmunder himself. Stark wrote 16 Parker books during those dozen years and then, as Westlake put it, lost his voice. Parker was gone and presumed dead in 1985, although he would return for eight more books a decade later. But parts of him lived on in Dortmunder.
As a series character, Dortmunder can never truly make that one big score — some books he barely breaks even and while he’s flush at the end of Good Behavior, it’s implied that he’ll just blow it all at the track and be ready to heist again by the time the next story rolls around. To keep the books going he needs to need work, a metatextural trait he shares with Parker. But also like Parker, this literary conceit is tied to his character — for all Dortmunder’s grousing about the situations he finds himself in, he likes this work and takes a certain pride in doing it well. He may be guilted into helping the sisters of St. Filumena’s but once he takes the job he is invested in it. Dortmunder is not a specialized talent like driver Stan Murch, lockman Wilbur Howey or muscle Tiny Bulcher, and he doesn’t have the broader people skills of Any Kelp. He has utility heisting abilities but his real talent (again, like Parker’s) is the scheme — and the ability to adjust it on the fly, and to persist through every obstacle that is thrown his way.
Because he knows there will be obstacles, not just dangerous but humiliating ones. The opening section of the book is a great microcosm of this — Dortmunder is faced with near-certain capture but keeps trying to find a way out and winds up dangling over a bunch of nuns. Embarrassing perhaps, but better than the alternative. You can be embarrassed while still continuing forward. And the embarrassment only increases with the hilarious charades scene, Westlake the comic writer loves to stretch ridiculous situations and he pulls this one to the breaking point, just when you wonder why the hell no one is using a pen and paper he provides the button: Based on what they’ve seen so far, why would the nuns assume Dortmunder can read? The humiliation is just beginning.
To be humiliated is to feel like a dope, to be brought low, and this is where Dortmunder diverges most strongly from Parker. Parker gets screwed over but never humiliated, Dortmunder can’t have one heist go write without getting egg on his face in some way. What Good Behavior has a lot of fun with is playing with humiliation and humility, which are not the same thing. Humility is understanding your place in the world, that there are forces vastly more powerful than you — a fairly important element of the religious devotion one would find among nuns, say. Dortmunder ruefully accepts that he will be abused and humiliated but he presses forward, often with Parkerish resolve, in his desire to take from those powerful forces.
Frank Ritter, on the other hand, is constantly jotting down aphorisms that justify his worldview of might making right. He wants to bring about a new feudalism, where the lord of the realm is unquestioned in his power over the serfs (who would dare steal from such a man?) and who also is above any allegedly higher powers. “Power lies not in the state but in ownership of assets, and all fealty follows the line of power,” Ritter tells his failson. Fealty is anathema to Dortmunder and to Westlake himself, but one of Westlake’s other great talents is to turn over things he finds appalling, to follow them through, and Ritter’s description of neo-feudal corporate power — complete with “knights” subduing and claiming further territory — is extremely plausible. Westlake loathes Ritter but understands why his self-interested worldview accumulates power and meshes with systems of law and order, which are also not known for humility. The cops arresting Ritter at the end feels a bit off, but Westlake does base their behavior in a familiar attitude of being glad to stick it to someone disrespecting you, to rejoice in fucking over someone who thought they were above your actions.
Many people are laid low in this book, or at least flipped around. The wonderful regulars at the OJ Bar and Grill make the mistake of bringing their idiotic, drunken Amelia Bedelia-esque conversation to Tiny Bulcher and he literally lays them low. But Tiny himself is flummoxed by J.C. Taylor, his desire and vulnerability for her, and needs to make accommodations a guy of his size is not used to making. Sister Mary Grace has the fire of a true believer and is probably the most competent person here, but even she has moments of doubt and despair. And her fellow nuns are roped into criminal enterprise and escape, helping to move stolen goods and the thieves themselves out the door. Adversity is rebuffed not with arrogance but recognition and a willingness to reconsider and act.
And with humor, of course. The big rescue of Dortmunder is pretty damn ridiculous, but it’s so well-staged in off-screen action as the various mercenaries are shocked by various nudity and weirdness that the ridiculousness doesn’t matter. Westlake is a master at crafting comic descriptions — a highlight of any Dortmunder book is the introduction of Tiny, here a “kind of mastodon in clothes, a sort of lowland Abominable Snowman… Impatience exuded from Tiny like a heavy fog, probably toxic” — but he also creates plots and setbacks that allow for both mishap and triumph that can sustain a novel. If Dortmunder and company were incompetent they wouldn’t be worth rooting for, but even the somehow charmingly lecherous Wilbur is a solid professional when it comes to actual larceny, and if they didn’t have real stakes their bungling would be weightless cartoonery.
And in the middle of all this are pauses to just enjoy the characters pinging off each other, like Kelp’s polite breaking and entering to avoid a “special moment” between Dortmunder and May. Does this “need” to be there? No, but it is funny so of course it should be there. And it’s something that speaks to the non-humility in Westlake and his two thieves — he can write this and he will. Dortmunder and Parker steal not because it is morally right — the Jean Valjean scenario — or because it is philosophically justified as their right — the Frank Ritter bullshit — but because they can. There are interesting themes in Good Behavior (and in all of Westlake’s work), but it is also just a fun and funny read. Westlake himself died in 2008, right after the publication of one more Parker novel, and while he may not have been truly humble I think Good Behavior alone is enough to get him into heaven.