The Washington Socialist <> January 2017
By Andy Feeney
Book review of Donald E. Westlake’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Dortmunder Novel. Warner Books, New York (1996), Paperback, 324 pp.
The late comic crime novelist Donald E. Westlake probably wasn’t an actual Marxist, and the rotten billionaire bad guy at the center of this story probably wasn’t modeled exactly after Donald Trump. Not exactly.
But for class-conscious readers with a little larceny in their souls, this tale of how Westlake’s fictional sad sack criminal, John Dortmunder, gets revenge on a fabulously successful and arrogant real estate and entertainment mogul who has humiliated him, may help chase away depression as Trump prepares to take office in Washington.
The plot begins with Dortmunder, a hardworking and fairly morose thief whose best criminal schemes always seem to go wrong, embarking on a caper to burglarize what he and an associate think will be an empty mansion on Long Island, since its owner, Max Fairbanks, is currently enmeshed in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding and is not supposed to be using the place. As it happens, Fairbanks is ignoring the bankruptcy court’s orders and having a tryst with a Playboy centerfold model at the house when Dortmunder and his associate break in. The billionaire stops Dortmunder at gunpoint and proceeds to call the police, which is fair enough from Dortmunder’s perspective, if unfortunate. But when the police arrive, the gleeful Fairbanks not only has them arrest Dortmunder, but falsely claims ownership of the lucky ring the thief has on his finger.
Humiliated and embarrassed, and intent on salvaging what he thinks remains of his masculine honor, Dortmunder spends the rest of the book extracting his revenge on the arrogant rich guy who has robbed him. The twisted plot gives Donald Westlake the opportunity for social satire targeted not only at amoral businessmen and male folly, among specimens of all social classes, but also at Washington politicians, the entertainment world and the Las Vegas casino scene, among other exemplars of capitalist folly.
As Dortmunder and his associate Gus are en route to the Long Island mansion, for example, Dortmunder asks why they are going to rob someone undergoing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, adding: “This guy is broke, and we’re on our way to rob him? What’s he got left?”
“It’s a special kind of bankrupt they have for people that aren’t supposed to get hurt,” is Gus’s reply. “Like when countries go bankrupt, you don’t see an auctioneer come in and sell off the towns and the rivers and stuff, it just means a court takes over the finances for a while, pays everybody eight cents on the dollar, and then the country can go back to doing what it was doing when it screwed up. This guy, he’s that kinda rich; it’s the same deal.”
After pondering this a minute, Dortmunder says, “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick the locks.”
“You got it.”
The remainder of the book is peppered with wry observations of this ilk, notably so when Dortmunder and another associate break into an apartment that Max Fairbanks maintains at the Watergate and steal $50,000 in political action committee funds intended for Congress. In this as in other Dortmunder novels, a key part of what makes Westlake’s writing worth reading is seeing the world through Dortmunder’s endlessly cynical sensibilities. And in the end, Dortmunder is vindicated and the wicked Fairbanks is brought low, in a nearly believable plot climax involving the shakedown of an entire Las Vegas casino.
What’s the Worst That Can Happen is a fairly old book; it was first published in the mid-1990s and has since been loosely adapted to provide the plot for a Hollywood movie with the same title, featuring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito, which got only mediocre reviews. It’s therefore possible that many Washington Socialist readers have already come across the book, or the film version, or both. But if you haven’t, and you’d like something to help you laugh even while Trump is being inaugurated, you might want to pick up this Westlake novel at a used book store or your local library.
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