The door of Henry's lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
"What's yours?" George asked them.
"I don't know," one of them said. What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."
These are the opening lines of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers," an eleven-page story written mostly in dialog and very short narrative sentences. Ellipsis is all around, but the situation of being confronted and bullied by strangers is universal and it is not hard even for school-boys to fill in the blanks.
In the noir 1946 movie adaptation that starred Edmond O'Brien, Burt Lancaster, and Ava Gardner, the story is fleshed out one way. Don Siegel did a different version later in 1964 with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, and the Criterion Edition has many extras, including interviews and essays by director Paul Schrader, authors Jonathan Lethem and Stuart M. Kaminsky, and other fine features as well.
Donald E. Westlake's novel, THE FUGITIVE PIGEON, is another fleshing out of Hemingway's story, in a different and very original way. The two hit men come in to the Rockaway Grill and badger Westlake's protagonist, Charlie, who tells it in the first person. The protagonist has kept the grill open past closing time in order to see the end of High Sierra, on a television behind the counter, the movie ending with Bogart being shot in the back. It is his uncle who is named Al, and he is the nephew, the pigeon.
If you're anywhere near as old as I am, you probably studied Hemingway's collection, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, which includes "The Killers." I don't know if they teach it in universities these days. But Westlake's protagonist seems to have read it, for after three pages of this Hemingwayesque dialog, he thinks:
"Life imitates art. And yet I'd bet neither one of them had ever read Hemingway."Then one of the men takes a card out of his coat and slaps it on the counter. The card is reproduced in the book, a black spot with Charlie's name on it. More Hemingwayesque dialog follows as Charlie tries to figure out what it all means.
But all of us readers of a certain age recognized the card from Walt Disney's version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. It is the black spot given by the pirates to the marked man, the condemned man. Westlake might well have quoted Stevenson's text in the epigraph, but instead he gave us:
Life imitates Art, and Art returns the favor. The black spot and the X marking the spot have their historical connotations in Robert A. Prather's historical study, The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver.
"He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him." --Julius Caesar, William ShakespeareThere are many rifts on postmodernism in the book and Westlake must have had great fun in the writing of it. I was amazed to read his account of the difficulty he had in getting it published. Some undergraduate ought to take it on as a thesis.
Robert Louis Stevenson said that he wrote the novel for his step-son, but Prather shows that Stevenson's wife and former husband had ties to the silver of Jonathan Swift's legend and that, more over, there are many more connections between the legend and the novel than scholars have previously thought. He loses me a chapter where he tries to sure up his arguments with details on the Masons and Da Vinci-cryptic codes, but the documented Robert Louis Stevenson family history along with that of the mines and the maps is indeed interesting. Amazing, I should say.
X indeed marks the spot, and God save the mark.