Review: Dancing Aztecs by Donald E. Westlake
There was a time when the Hustle was the dance we were doing, when a million dollars was a prize worth scrambling for—even in a city known for its hustle, NYC, that collection of "small towns and neighborhoods," where to daily life, "the fact of Manhattan upthrust on the horizon meant nothing."
In typical Westlake style, the story begins with a con game, building a cast of idiosyncratic characters, acting in their own self-interest, in expectable, even stereotypical ways. Their dance with each other creates a chaotic, unimaginably complex tangle of events and motivations, with a truly unexpected finale.
First, though, Westlake takes the entire first chapter of this book to list all the things people want in New York. A few that stood out to me:
The Parks Department is looking for trees to cut down and turn into firewood for local politicians. Residents of the neighborhood are looking for politicians who will stop the Parks Department from cutting down all those trees. Fat chance...
People at the top of the Guggenheim Museum want to get to the bottom. So do ass-pinchers, river-dredgers, and investigative reporters...
Blacks want to be equal. Women want to be equal. Puerto Ricans want to be equal without having to learn a new language...
Yes, the novel and its language are decidedly not PC. Keep the story's venue and era in mind as you read; the term "political correctness" was not yet even a twinkle in Richard Bernstein's eye. Characters are described using pre-PC stereotypes, in a way that would surely trigger sensitivities in the current social climate. Yet it works, the same way those stereotypes worked in the insanely funny 1963 movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The scramble for riches, with an ever-widening crew of obsessed participants, reminds me of that movie as well. The big difference, of course, is that Mad, Mad World is about "kind, decent folks turning into law-breaking lunatics and ruining their lives for the sake of money." In Dancing Aztecs, folks come into the story already at that highly-cynical level, and proceed on the same lines throughout, albeit at an increasingly intense pace and focus. In both book and movie, the result is wonderfully hilarious.
None of the English covers provided a good visual for the statuette that is the eponymic center of the story. I had to go hunting. I found the best on the cover of the Italian mystery-translation series, Il Giallo Mondadori, which gives a good sense of the figurine's lack of beauty, if not its leg-up dancing pose or its crystalline eyes.
Every time I have picked up a Westlake novel, it's been the result of "outside forces": a clever review, a friend handing me the book with a "you must read this" comment, or a coincidental lack of other reading material at an idle moment. And I've never not enjoyed the thing excessively. So I don't quite know why I never collected the author's work as I have others whose writing I enjoyed.
That is about to change. Because epic wild rides like this don't come along too often, but if you miss them when they're new, you can always climb on once they come around again.
And if ever this mad world—and I—needed such a diversion, it is surely now.