February, 2022 Hard Case Crime
I recently came across this posthumously published Donald Westlake novel at the library, where someone had misfiled it in the Romance section. Why I was in the Romance section is another story. But anyway the great cover, credited to Paul Mann, obviously drew my attention; yet more proof that Hard Case Crime knows the old ways are the best ways when attracting potential readers. I mean unlike the bland photoshopped covers of today, the one for Call Me A Cab, uh, “called” me right over.
But man, I really puzzled over the back cover copy…which seemed to go out of its way to tell you what the novel was not. Namely, that it wasn’t a crime novel. There was almost an apologetic tone to this back cover copy. Even more curious was that I saw the book featured an afterword by Hard Case Crime honcho Charles Adair, which was even more apologetic about the fact that Call Me A Cab wasn’t a crime novel. Curiously, in his afterword Adair takes no ownership in his own (potential) misleading of readers; I mean if anything misconstrues that Call Me A Cab is a crime novel, it would be the cover art, which of course seems to come straight off a 1950s Gold Medal paperback.
As I read all this apologism, some of it nearly desperate in its attempt to convey that there might be some kernels of “crime” in the novel, I thought to myself, “Are things really so bad in the publishing world these days?” I mean, Donald Westlake, who of course wrote Parker as Richard Stark, was quite prolific and popular. The dude surely has his readers…ones who, I’m certain, would be happy to read anything new by Westlake (who died in 2008). I mean, is it truly such a concern that readers might throw Call Me A Cab down in spite when they learn that it’s not a crime novel, but instead a sort of 1970s take on a Hollywood screwball comedy from three decades earlier?
That’s another thing. Neither Adair’s afterword nor any of the industry or reader reviews I’ve come across for Call Me A Cab have mentioned the 1934 movie It Happened One Night. I can understand this…I mean I’m sure only mutants like myself still even watch movies from 80 years ago. But Donald Westlake was born in 1933, and It Happened One Night was one of the biggest hits in early Hollywood history – and also it is often cited as the originator of the “screwball” craze. That is, comedy dramas in which two disperate personalities – a good-looking guy and a good-looking gal, naturally – find each other and fall in love amid a lot of craziness. The plot of It Happened One Night, which stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and was directed by Frank Capra, based on a short story titled “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, features a headstrong young woman who is supposed to marry a wealthy man, but instead goes on a cross-country journey with a working-class guy she gradually falls in love with.
And what’s the plot of Call Me A Cab? Well, it’s about a headstrong young woman who is supposed to marry a wealthy man, but instead goes on a cross-country journey with a working-class guy she gradually falls in love with. So it seems pretty obvious what Donald Westlake’s inspiration was. But here’s the thing. While “girl takes a car ride across the country to put off her inevitable marriage” might work in some snappily-paced 1940s screwball comedy with witty dialog by Preston Sturges or somesuch, it just comes off as very, very hard to buy in a 239-page book by the guy who wrote the Parker series. The entire plot is just unbelievable when you have so much time to ponder it; I mean, you don’t have much time to ponder the plot of a screwball movie, given that they move so quickly. Call Me A Cab, if you’ll pardon the pun, is stuck in neutral for most of the novel.
In his afterword, Charles Ardai also notes that Westlake continuously went back to tinker with his manuscript, adding some things, removing others, and this Hard Case Crime edition is comprised of what Ardai considers the best snippets. One thing Ardai leaves unstated is that Westlake obviously chose to move on to other projects and left Call Me A Cab unfinished because he himself likely saw the problems with his book. I mean, Call Me A Cab even features that hoary old cliché of “the very pregnant woman who needs a ride to the hospital or she’s going to give birth in the taxi.” Stuff like that was probably even considered a cliché in the days of I Love Lucy. And mind you, this happens fairly early on in the book. In a way I kind of wish Westlake had just continued on this goofy path, maybe with more of a topical ‘70s flair…like a PLO terrorist hijacking the narrator’s cab: “My friends, this taxi is going to Cuba.”
Speaking of which, one of the saving graces of Call Me A Cab is that it’s a product of the ‘70s, though Westlake, writing in the actual era, obviously doesn’t beat us over the head with this fact. I mean for a person like me who mainly reads novels from the ‘70s, it’s all pretty typical, but this is later in the ‘70s than my usual safe space, with occasional mentions of CB radios. Otherwise it’s your basic ‘70s vibe, with frequent smoking and occasional casual sex – I was very happy for a random part where our narrating cab driver picks up some restaurant floozie during his cross-country trek. Of course the sex happens off-page, but I’d imagine such displays of rugged virility would not be acceptable in a novel written today.
Well I’ve only tiptoed around it, but here’s the plot of Call Me A Cab: a taxi driver in his early 30s (who has a college degree – so that we’re to understand the guy isn’t a total “New York cabbie”-type, of course) named Tom Fletcher gets a fare from a lovely young woman whose name turns out to be Katharine Scott. She’s antsy and nervous on the ride to Kennedy Airport, and eventually reveals that she’s engaged to this socialite plastic surgeon in California, and right now she’s on her way to the airport to go to him and promptly get married. But she’s been putting him off for years and she’s still antsy, so in one of the more implausible scenarios ever she hires Tom to drive her to California so she can think over the situation and reach a decision on the marriage before they get there. And it’s gonna cost her four thousand dollars! Hell, maybe even Preston Sturges couldn’t have saved this one. Anyone with half a lick of sense would say, “Lady if you’re willing to pay four thousand dollars for a cab ride just so you can put off seeing the guy, I think it’s safe to say you don’t wanna marry him.”
But our narrator is all for it, and thus ensues the wacky plotting of Call Me A Cab. Only, it’s not very wacky. Indeed, it’s kind of slow-going, which makes the reader ponder over the implausibility of the setup all the more. And hey, here’s another nit to pick – NO ONE ACTUALLY CALLS A CAB IN THE BOOK! I mean even the goddamn title is a joke. Katharine “hails” Tom’s cab on a Manhattan street, she doesn’t call for a cab, nor does she tell anyone to call her a cab.
As I read Call Me A Cab, I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a novel by Len Levinson. But man, with the philosophical New York cabbie in his Checker cab, the feisty beautiful woman, the ‘70s New York setting, not to mention the fact that almost the entirety of the novel is dialog, with the two characters discussing their philosopy…it’s all very, very Len Levinson-esque. With the caveat that, if Len Levinson had written Call Me A Cab, it would’ve been about a thousand times better.
For one, Len would have at least bothered to make the characters believable, and probably likable to boot. Neither Tom nor Katharine are believable or likable. Tom is either a blue-collar guy or a prototype slacker, depending on the current needs of the plot, and Katharine comes off as way to indecesive and wishy-washy for the “strong woman of the 1970s” that Westlake clearly intends her to be. Also, so far as that goes, Westlake tries to broach the Women’s Movement of the day (something Len also did at the time…in much more memorable fashion), but Tom’s already on board with the whole idea, coming off as a lot more progressive than your average cab driver. There goes the opportunity for any kind of screwball-esque bantering between the two. Indeed, they get along rather placidly…Katharine doesn’t even really bat an eye over Tom’s mid-novel boinkery with the aforementioned waittress.
Back to that unlikable note – narrator Tom has this cynical, world-weary tone, but in Westlake’s hands it just comes off more as acidic than it does humorous. I mean, Tom does nothing to engender any sort of reader empathy. Like there’s a part where, halfway through the country, they come across a New York cabbie on vacation, one who is understandably shocked to see a New York Checker cab sitting outside the hotel, and Tom steers Katharine away from the guy before he can start talking to them. Why? Because the guy’s clearly a New York cabbie and would be eager to tell them his life story. Well, so what? I mean with just a few sentences this guy is more engaging than the New York cabbie who happens to be narrating the damn book. Also, Westlake tries to develop this implausible scenario where Tom begins to get jealous of Barry (Katharine’s would-be fiance, in California); that said, Westlake does have a great line, that beautiful women cause competition between men simply by the fact that they (beautiful women, that is) exist.
But as mentioned the fun on-the-road road hijinks scenario you might envision doesn’t really happen in Call Me A Cab. The most humorous thing I took from it was the part where Tom and Katharine bicker over the onion rings Tom gets at a McDonald’s, and so far as that goes, I was just more interested in the fact that once upon a time you could get onion rings at McDonald’s. Or at least I guess you could. Or maybe Donald Westlake had never actually eaten at a McDonald’s and got this detail incorrect. Like I said, I was born in 1974, and I sure went to McDonald’s a lot, but I was getting the Happy Meals and I can’t remember what the actual food was. I’m sure it was fries. How many kids prefer onion rings to french fries. Hardly any, I’m sure.
Well anyway. The plot of Call Me A Cab, like any screwball, hinges on whether the two protagonists will indeed find love in the end. I won’t give anything away, but Westlake tries to do something different in this regard. Sort of. I mean it’s still pretty clear from the last line of the novel what the future holds for these two, but at least it’s not a cliched Happily Ever After.
In the end, I think it’s easy to figure why Donald Westlake dropped this novel – though, I forgot to mention, he did publish a short story version of it in Redbook, in June of 1979. It would’ve been cool if this short story version had been published here with the novel. I’m thinking a short story format would work better for Call Me A Cab, as the reader wouldn’t have 230-some pages to ponder the implausibility of the plot.