I'm not quite done with Dancing Aztecs, Donald E. Westlake's 1976 comic novel discussed here last Friday. Every few pages Westlake brakes from the frantic pace of the story, which amounts to one big chase after a missing treasure, to reflect upon either New York City or the humans who live there. I counted 11 of these interludes or narrator soliloquies or whatever you might call them, but I didn't start counting until I was midway in the book These may, in fact, represent the best writing in the novel.
"Everybody in New York City wants to get somewhere," Westlake writes to begin one of these interludes. For the next page and a half he reflects on all the places New Yorkers want to get before saying, "Everybody in New York City wants to get somewhere. Every once in a while, somebody gets there," and then Westlake gets on with his story.
A few pages later Westlake writes, "New York City is amid more water than any other major city in the world, and pays it less attention." He uses this observation as a springboard to discuss how the residents of New York, unlike residents of Paris, London, San Francisco and other major cities around the world, all but ignore their waterways.
Less than 10 pages later, he writes, "Almost nobody lives in New York, and that's especially true of those born there. They live in neighborhoods, the way small-town people live in small towns, and they very rarely leave their own districts."
A few pages further on, he writes, "Although Manhattan, like all the rest of America, is entirely dependent on automobiles, it has made less provision for them than any place else in the country," and off he goes again.
Lesser writers, by which I mean most writers, would be doomed to failure if they tried something like this, especially if they attempted it as often as Westlake does in this novel. Yet Westlake succeeds every time. Each interlude rings true. Each is witty and interesting. And each somehow manages to move the story along even while interrupting it.
Westlake, who died in 2008, paid homage to New York City in his novels the way Woody Allen does in most of his movies. Nowhere else in his work does his affection for the city come through as clearly as in these Dancing Aztecs interludes.