Friday, August 22, 2014

Still funny after all these years

For nearly 40 years I have believed Dancing Aztecs to be one of Donald E. Westlake's funniest novels. Returning to it for the first time since its publication in 1976 has confirmed my belief. The novel, at 374 pages also one of Westlake's longest, really is a joy to read.

The plot is both simple and complex at the same time. A number of imitation gold statues of a dancing Aztec priest have been sent from South America to New York City and distributed as thank-you gifts to members of a civic-minded sports committee, but thanks to a mix-up, the original gold statue worth a million dollars becomes hidden among them.

That's the simple part. It gets complicated because so many different characters have statues and a gradually increasing number of people, both mobsters and ordinary joes, are trying to find the valuable one. If you have seen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you will have an idea of what this story is like, except that Westlake's version is a lot more fun. Somehow he manages to make each of these many greedy characters unique, each one with his or her own story and personality. There's the idiotic college professor. There's the swimming pool salesman who sleeps with other men's wives but loves his mom best. And so on. Following the action, and there is plenty of action, is not nearly as difficult for the reader as it might seem.

The novel seems a bit dated now, not so much because of technological change as social change. No reputable publisher would be likely to accept some of the slurs directed at blacks and homosexuals, not all of which are character-driven. If one can forgive that as a product of the times, Dancing Aztecs stands as one of the funniest novels you are likely to read.

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