Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Comfort Station by Donald E. Westlake

Sometimes a parody can work even if you don't know the original, or don't know it all that well. If the parody is good enough, and the thing parodied was culturally important or major enough in its day that the reader has vague ideas about it through general osmosis, that can be plenty of common ground.

So I'm here to tell you that you don't need to be a connoisseur of the '60s and '70s potboilers of Arthur Hailey (Airport, Hotel, and so on) to find Comfort Station incredibly funny. I've never read Hailey - and that's unsurprising, since I'd estimate no one has read Hailey in twenty years, and not many did in the '90s when he was still cranking out his last couple of novels, either. (I was working in the field in those years, for a company that had exactly the Hailey audience, and a minute ago is when I first heard he had any novels published during those years.)

But, in 1973, Hailey was coming off HotelAirport, and Wheels - all #1 Times bestsellers - and his brand of dull endless details about ordinary people doing boring things until disaster strikes was already becoming a cliché. The movie of Airport had come out in 1970 and was a huge hit, and both Hollywood and New York publishing were churning out similar stuff, trying to replicate that success with the-same-but-different.

Donald Westlake, as usual, didn't want to do the same but different. He wanted to make fun of the whole silly thing. And so he wrote a quickie short paperback parody, originally published under the name J. Morgan Cunningham - billed in the book itself as the author of such tomes as Carport and Waiting Room and Big Liner and Hot Shaft (get your mind out of the gutter; it was about a stuck elevator). This was it: Comfort Station.

Hailey had casts of dozens working at a hotel or airport or auto manufacturer; Westlake had eight people whose lives intersected in the Bryant Park Comfort Station - the public bathroom for men behind the Main Library in NYC. He tells their intersecting stories in deliberately turgid prose, full of repetition and thuddingly obvious detail, writing right on that line to show the writing is bad but also is bad in a precise, deeply funny way on purpose.

And those eight people, as described on the first page, were:

FRED DINGBAT–omnibus operative, proud of his position in interurban transit. Too proud?

MO MOWGLI–custodian of the Comfort Station. What was it about his past that haunted him? 

ARGOGAST SMITH–plainclothes patrolman. In responsibility he found anodyne–and the testing of his strength

HERBERT Q. LUMINOUS–bookkeeper on the run. What happened to him was almost a cliché. 

CAROLINA WEISS–onetime Russian countess now A & E mechanic. In the arms of another man she sought forgetfulness.

GENERAL RAMON SAN MARTINEZ TORTILLA–deposed dictator. What was it he wanted to get off his chest?

FINGERS FOGELHEIMER–mobster. Out of the thrilling days of yesteryear, he returns for vengeance. 

LANCE CAVENDISH–Black. With him and thirty-five cents you can take the subway.

They are clichés. They do cliché things. Westlake runs them through their paces in chapters following the hours of the day, from 6 AM through early evening, in prose ever-so-slightly overheated and just that bit dumb-bestseller flatfooted. It is all very silly, and I found it laugh-out-loud funny multiple times.

Now, I've been to the Bryant Park Comfort Station, though, so maybe it's just that I know the territory and am simpatico to Westlake's aims. (Though the BPCS I've utilized is not the same one Westlake rhapsodizes about here - the one in the novel closed down before I was born and the current one was built twenty years later.) If you have no personal knowledge of Bryant Park, this may perhaps be less funny, in some odd way.

I do have one complaint: the cover. It is important to the novel, and part of the actual truth of the real world that tedious bestsellers like this spend a lot of time emphasizing, that the Comfort Station for men is the locus of this action, and a similar venue for women is on the other side of the park and forms no part of our mise en scene. So the image chosen for this recent reissue seems OK, but is deeply wrong. Oh, well.

This is a deeply silly book, conceived and created entirely as a piss-take, and I use that term very deliberately. Westlake was an expert funny writer, and he gives us some of his best stuff here. Comfort Station is hugely of its time and place, a goofy soufflé made for a specific, really pointless purpose. But that's just fine as long as it's still funny: and it is.

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