Call Me a Cab–The last fantastic Donald E. Westlake novel arrives… without a crime

Review by C.J. Bunce

First of all, by all accounts McDonald’s has never sold onion rings.

My favorite works by popular creators are the ones that are frequently what the multitudes rarely put on a greatest hits list.  Like Philip K. Dick’s In Milton Lumky Territory or Stephen King’s Joyland.  Now we have Donald E. Westlake′s last novel Call Me a Cab (available now here at Amazon) a heretofore unpublished novel from 1977 (unpublished except in a briefer version in a serialized magazine edition ages ago).  It’s a novel ahead of its time full of 1970s attitude, with realistic, thoughtful characters, without cliché or canned, artificial controversy, and, although it’s from Hard Case Crime, there’s not a single crime in sight for 3,000 miles.  And it’s as riveting as any of his previous brilliant works.

So what about the onion rings?  Back to that in a moment.

New York City cabbie Tom Fletcher didn’t expect to pick up an unusual fare on that sunny day in the city.  Katharine Scott needs to get to Los Angeles but doesn’t really want to go.  To delay her arrival so she can think through a major life decision she asks how much it’d cost for Tom to drive her across the country.  And that’s the set-up.

Westlake had savvy insights for his day.  The world he envisioned with his characters is fully formed and realized–for the most part–today.  Katharine Scott is like many women in the late 1970s after a difficult struggle to get an Equal Rights Amendment in front of Congress and the States.  She’s a professional, she’s the boss, and she’s doing quite well.  And then a new decision throws a wrench in her way.

Call me a Cab could be called The Sure Thing meets When Harry Met Sally in a road movie of two very different people, the framework of The Green Book swapping race issues with equality for women, a similar mostly lighthearted character study full of wonderful banter and camaraderie.  You might also see it as National Lampoon’s Vacation, but not crass, just thoughtfully fascinating and deeply nostalgic–a genuine look at what tens of millions of Americans experienced on their own road trips in the 1970s.

This is a romantic comedy that doesn’t feel like a romantic comedy.  It’s more of a comedy with a feint of romance.  Consider this the best of that over-used trope–the one where a woman is getting ready to marry a man, but meets someone else, call it the “disposable fiancé” or similar plot tool used in shows like His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Graduate, Only You, The Butcher’s Wife, Sleepless in Seattle, and While You Were Sleeping, complete with a ticking clock, a “race for your love”–a love at first sight or true love–right at the last minute like in Defending Your Life or Sleepless in Seattle.  This is Westlake, so he was just better at writing it, and this demonstrates he could probably write anything.  Like Dick.  Like King.  Is this better than his regular genres?  You’ll have to decide that for yourself.  And don’t worry if you think I gave away the ending.  It’s not at all predictable.

Westlake holds back on the typical bias from New Yorkers in stories like this, that NYC is the only city in the world and everyone else is a rube, but it seeps into his writing now and then with his intransigent but open-minded cabbie, especially the further into the sticks they end up.

Every minor character is authentic and fantastic, from a frazzled fellow in one of several Holiday Inns back East to a mechanic in Colorado giving out free shirts with your name on them (or not).  Along the way is the dread that there might be some surprise dull thud at the end, a horror movie springing to life, or worse, something like Lost in Translation.  When you think there’s no place left to go, Westlake takes this fantastic left turn at Albuquerque (or flatland eastern Colorado) and the scene is Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man meets Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park meets a rural spin on Bonnie and Clyde meets Pulp Fiction.

This 1970s Westlake story feels a lot like Max Allan Collins’ 1970s lead characters Quarry or Nolan, but only in their ability to notice and document the scenery and surroundings–a nice dose of nostalgia for those of us who fondly miss Stuckeys and avocado-colored… everything.

About those onion rings–Westlake early on in the story spends more than just a passing moment with Katharine and Tom eating onion rings from McDonald’s.  It’s one of those innocent things that may make a reader scratch his head, because doesn’t everyone know McDonald’s didn’t sell onion rings in the U.S. back then (it only started a few years ago, long after Westlake’s death)?  It’s one of those odd bits you’d have thought an editor would have noticed.  And it makes you wonder if Westlake had ever actually been to a McDonald’s.

Call Me a Cab is one of Westlake’s best, and it’s sad this is probably the last of his posthumously released lost and found novels.  Don’t miss it, available now here at Amazon.  It is another solid selection by editor Charles Ardai that expands the scope of the Hard Case Crime imprint–another classic story without crime, like the previously published Westlake novel Brothers Keepers (reviewed here).  And don’t miss my prior reviews at borg of Westlake’s Forever and a Death, Castle in the Air, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, and Double Feature.

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