Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
by Donald E. Westlake
1974 Hard Case Crime reissue
A friend once told me his plan, presumably lifted from some cinema tough guy, for if he ever found himself in a street fight: Maximum violence immediately. The idea, basically, is that the second things look like they're turning physical, you break the other dude's nose or some such, thereby demonstrating how far you're willing to go to win this fight.
Fortunately, I don't live a life that requires tests of this strategy. But it did come to mind when I read the opening lines of Donald E. Westlake's 1975 novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner:
Sometimes I think I'm good and sometimes I think I'm bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I'd know what stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, "Basically, you're not a bad person, Kunt."
"Künt," I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. "With an umlaut," I explained.
Maximum violence immediately. Except swap "joke" for "violence." Four sentences in, and Westlake is saying: I want to be clear about the kind of book this is. I intend to make you laugh, and I will even do it with a joke like this if it seems like that's what's needed.
Like the guy clutching his broken nose, that is all it takes for some readers, I'm sure. They close the book and move on to something more serious. But those of us who laugh, or even just smile through a groan, are rewarded. Because even the weakest Donald Westlake novel offers so much more than dumb jokes. And this one starts displaying that in the very next lines:
"Umlaut." I poked two fingers into the air, as though blinding an invisible man. "Two dots over the U. It's a German name."
"As though blinding an invisible man." A hack could come up with the Kunt/Künt joke. But only a craftsman--someone who both has skill with words and cares to deploy it--hits upon that image.
It's actually worth sharing the the rest of this first page, because it offers a nice capsule summary of some of Westlake's best qualities as a writer. There's the joke, dumb but effective, up top. There's that striking image. Then he goes on:
He frowned at my records. "Says here you were born in Rye, New York."
"Yes, sir," I said. Wry, New York.
"Makes you a U.S. citizen," he said, and peered at me through his wire-framed spectacles, challenging me to deny it.
"My parents came from Germany," I said. "In nineteen thirty-seven.
"But you were born right here." He bunk-bunked a fingertip on his desktop, as though to suggest I'd been born in this office, on that desk.
"I'm not denying American citizenship."
"I should think not. Wouldn't do you any good if you did."
I felt the confusion was now coming to a natural end, and that nothing more I said would be useful, so I remained silent. Warden Gadmore frowned at me a few seconds longer, apparently wanting to be sure I didn't have anything else contentious to say, and then lowered his head to study my records some more. He had a round bald spot on top of his head, like a pancake on a dead hedgehog. It was a very serious head.
In the space of a page, we get one more perfect turn of phrase (the "bunk-bunked" of the warden's finger), a very quickly sketched bit of the character of officialdom in the warden's obtuse obstinance, and, finally an oblique acknowledgment of the stuff of which Westlake's many comic crime novels are formed: confusion. In the last years of his life, Westlake's personal website opened with the line "I think my subject is bewilderment"--which, after a beat, was replaced by, "But I could be wrong." Westlake's novels live in the confusion that is inevitable when any group of humans--and especially humans who are on the wrong side of the law--has the temerity to make plans.
If what you've encountered in that first page--a dumb joke, some striking images, economic first strokes of character, and clean, straightforward prose--hasn't sold you, then Westlake probably isn't for you. If it has, this novel is as good a place to start as any. It's the perfect example of his light comedy, which, over the course of a nearly sixty-year career, he balanced with novels that are among the hardest of the hard-boiled. It tells the story of poor Harry Künt, a lifelong practical joker who has just been sent to prison following a prank involving a naked female manikin and a broken-down car on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway during a busy holiday weekend. A senator on an illicit date got caught up in the backwash; Künt paid the price. Now he has to try to figure out prison life.
The prison as Westlake presents it is appropriate for this novel in which threats are muted and comedy is at the fore: it's reasonably safe and well-run, with a warden who, though a bit unyielding, genuinely seems to care about the prisoners. Realism this ain't.
Oh, and there's a tunnel to the outside that has been in place for years, and which a select group of prisoners secretly uses to go out for day trips on the town between the morning and evening counts. Some of them even have whole lives out there: girlfriends, jobs, a social circle. The story of how Harry ends up as part of that group, and thus, eventually as part of a pair of bank robberies they're planning, drives the plot of the book.
The conceit is clever and fun, the heists--and especially the pranks Harry secretly pulls to foil the first few attempts in an effort to somehow keep from becoming an actual criminal--are inventive and entertaining. Westlake's plotting, as usual, is superb and surprising. You could read the book for that alone and come away satisfied; you could also imagine a mirror image of this novel in which the concept and the heists are taken seriously. (Actually, there's a bit of that in the recent film Logan Lucky, directed by Westlake fan Steven Soderbergh, in which two characters sneak out of prison to pull a job, then sneak back in to preserve their alibis.)
The real fun, however, in most Westlake novels isn't so much what he does as how he does it. As in the lines quoted above, it's the stray thoughts, apt images, and insights into the quirks of human character that will stay with you after you close the book. When Harry first agrees to be part of the tunnel gang, for example, "The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way." Later, he's loitering in town, dressed in thrift store clothes, trying to figure out how to come up with his share of the weekly dues demanded by the tunnel gang without having to mug someone:
I had a sudden, frightening thought. I'm a suspicious character, I thought, visualizing myself as I must look to those people coming toward me: a longer, shabbily dressed, scuffling around in the middle of the night with no apparent destination in mind. And in a town dominated by a state penitentiary. They'll think I'm an escaped prisoner, I thought. (It was only later that it occurred to me that technically I was an escaped prisoner.)
He tries some panhandling:
The final couple, mid-twenties, full of high good spirits, stopped to chat. "You want to be careful in this neighborhood," the male said, reaching into his pocket. "The cops can get tough around here."
What a thought; first time out on my own and get picked up for begging. "Thanks," I said. "I'll move on."
The girl, sympathetic but too cheerful in her own life to really give much of a damn, said, "You ought to go to the Salvation Army or somewhere. Ask people to help you."
Advice, Ambrose Bierce said, is the smallest current coin. "I'll do that," I said. "Thanks a lot."
The man had finally come up with some coins, which he pressed into my hand as though they were a message to be taken through the lines. "Good luck, fella," he said.
I was beginning to hate them. My misfortune was merely capping their perfect day. ("And," I could hear them telling one another later in bed, after a perfect copulation, "we helped a bum.") "Thanks," I said, for the third time, and after they walked on I opened my hand to look at a dime and two nickels. I'd been given a lot of valuable advice, and twenty cents.
Later, a con who managed to get married as the result of a tunnel-enabled courtship tells Harry he should meet his wife:
"You two ought to get along, Alice is a real reader."
My image around the prison, I think I may have mentioned, was that of educated hood. To the illiterate, all readers share a bond, a commonness that assures they will "get along" with one another ,regardless of the particular thing they happen to read.
When circumstances make Harry briefly seem like a risk to the rest of the tunnel gang, they hold a vote on whether he should be expelled--with extreme prejudice--and one of his fellow members reports the result:
"You got a majority in the vote," Max told me. I said, "It wasn't unanimous?" and he said, "Don't worry about the past, Harry."
Then there are the stray images. A bored high-school-aged waiter "floated by like a bottle with a note in it." Harry wakes up from a night in the cold "stiff as a motel towel." Norman Mailer's prose "combines the tortuousness of Henry James with the colloquialness of Rocky Graziano."
The plot ticks along, its resolution surprisingly satisfying, all the way to a wonderful final line. Even so, that's not what you read Help I Am Being Held Prisoner for. As Westlake himself once said of a botched Rex Stout plot, "No matter, no matter." You read this book because it is pure fun. And amid a year and an era and a cacophonous political nightmare where escape is difficult and fun hard to come by, Hard Case Crime's reissue of Help I Am Being Held Prisoner starts to feel like some sort of act of service. At one point, Westlake describes one of Harry's fellow prisoners as he's telling a story: "The small smile of the accomplished raconteur tugging gently at his lips." Put yourself in the hands of this accomplished raconteur for a few hours. The small smile is contagious.
Levi Stahl is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany and the promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at www.ivebeenreadinglately.com, and you can find him talking about books on Twitter as @levistahl.