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Literature / Dancing Aztecs

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A piece of Comic Literature by Donald Westlake. Dancing Aztecs follows 70's petty crook Jerry Mianelli, a small time crook who is hired to bring a crate of copies of the priceless Dancing Aztec statue out of an airport before they go through customs (one of the statues has been replaced with the real one). Due to receiving instructions in the Spanish alphabet, Jerry takes the wrong crate. Seeing the panicked reactions of his employers, he figures out what is going on and, aided by his three brothers-in-law, sets out to steal the real statue for himself. Unfortunately, it turns out that the sixteen statues were given out as prizes to the Open Sports Committee, a minor Civil Rights group that recently succeeded in their goal of bringing a squash court to Harlem. Jerry and his partners, Jerry's clients, and Wally (a swimming pool salesman having an affair with one of Jerry's sisters who stumbles across their plan) all scramble to try and find and test (via breaking) the sixteen statues to find the real one.

Hilarity Ensues.

The story is well-known for capturing the feel of the seventies (mixing satire and faint social commentary), and for its constantly shifting style of narration and prose, brilliantly capturing the mood of whatever character is receiving the most focus at the time.


  • Abuse Mistake: Frank and Floyd are mistaken for rapists twice when Open Sports Committee members Amanda Addelford and Felicity Tower catch them in their apartments trying to to steal statues.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Felicity Tower thinks this, a little (although she is genuinely terrified in spite of this) when Frank and Floyd arrive for her statue and then leave without touching her.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Mel and Angela, after a night of talking things over once her affair is revealed, come out stronger.
  • Banana Republic: The country the statue comes from is an impoverished, South American military dictatorship.
  • Batman Gambit: Ultimately how Wally gets the statue, by hanging onto a copy that they knew wasn't the right one and pretending to break that when they did find the right one, causing Mel to check that statue of the list while Wally snuck away with the real one.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Jerry's main source of income obviously pre-911 involves just driving up into the airport, pretending to be a licensed freight hauler and being let on through. He then proceeds to rob various shipments, or pick up items that are being smuggled and can't go through customs.
  • Best Friends-in-Law: Mel, Frank and Floyd are the husbands of Jerry's two sisters, and Frank's brother respectively, and the four get along pretty well, run various scams together and are equal partners in the statue hunt.
  • Big Applesauce: New York is described in great detail by the author throughout the search. There are also multiple, page long tangents at the beginnings of different sections that go "Everybody in New York is looking for something." "Everybody in New York wants to get somewhere." And "Everybody in New York wants to be somebody", with long, humorous lists of examples describing the city and its people from multiple angles.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Bud Beemis's pet Great Danes Hamlet and Ophelia are playful rather than menacing toward most intruders.
  • The Brute: Earl is the irritable muscleman for Corella.
  • Butt-Monkey: Just about everyone besides Jerry and Bobbi suffers lots of injuries, stress, or humiliation by the end of the novel.
  • Cast of Snowflakes: There are sixteen members of the Open Sports Committee, four members of the "Mianelli mob", Corella and his two henchmen, Krassmier, Wally, the three South Americans, various family members and a whole lot of others.
  • Camp Gay: Open Sports Committee members Kenny and David are both stereotypically effeminate gay men.
  • The Cassandra: Bubbuh telling Leroy how he's convinced that he doesn't think all of the "celebrities" Leroy is recognizing at the funeral are the real people gets jeered at even though they are imposters.
  • Celebrity Impersonator: Played for Laughs. Bad Death Jonesburg demands a bunch of black celebrities at the funeral he's throwing, and when Xavier the undertaker is unable to find any on such short notice, he has all of his relatives and employees dress up as people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Pam Grier.
  • Coattail-Riding Relative: Famous football player Wylie believes that his brother in-law married his sister just to get on the gravy train.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • While fleeing the house of Bud Beemis after checking his statue, Mel runs into Eddie and Jenny, who are just going on a road trip with their statues (which kept Frank and Floyd from finding them at their house), with the narration even calling this the kind of coincidence that no Hollywood movie would try to get away with.
      • And then the cop who arrests Mel in the aftermath of that incident turns out to be a client of his literary agency, causing him to let Mel go.
    • The owner of one of the statues recognizes Frank due to both of them working at the same theater. Jerry describes the social combinations necessary for this as mind-boggling.
    • Mel once sold a car with a deceptive payment plan to a relative of Wylie Cheshire and is recognized for it while robbing Wylie’s house and trying to talk his way out.
  • Did Not Think This Through:
    • The three men selling the statue to Krassmier and Corella, threatened with exposure due to the delaying of their payment (once the statue is lost) decide to hijack a plane, fly to America, then sneak away and go find Krasmier. The plane they hijack doesn't have enough fuel to make it to America in one trip. Forcing them to stop and refuel several times, giving the media time to get interested in the case and ensuring a large enough police presence to make just sneaking away into the crowd once the plane finally gets there impossible.
    • Likewise, when Angela is rescuing Mel from the Cheshires, she sends her sister (along with Frank and Floyd's cousin, one of their bridge partners) to the door to provide a distraction without working out the exact cover story they'll use, so one of them starts talking as if their collecting to fight cystic fibrosis, right as the other is saying that they represent the League of Woman Voters.
  • Distressed Dude: Frank and Floyd are briefly captured by Bad Death Jonesburg and his gang during their first attempt to burglarize F. Xavier White's funeral parlor for his statue, and Mel is captured by Wylie Cheshire while trying to steal his statue (and making matters worse, is recognized as having sold a relative of Wylie a car with an installment plan that resorted in the mob-owned finance company breaking the man's arms).
  • Do You Want to Haggle?: Bud Beemis and Corella have a couple scenes of bargaining over how much of the profits Corella excepts from the statue will go to Bud for his help, with the number changing several times.
  • The Driver: Earl is a chauffeur for Corella.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Wally overhears about the statue while hiding from Mel (whose wife he was sleeping with) and then goes after it himself.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Aside from a few flashbacks and a distant epilogue, the entire book takes place over three days.
  • Genre Savvy:
    • Both Jerry and Chuck figure out the whole switch with the statues (Jerry from the reactions of the people he delivers the wrong crate to, and Chuck due to his own knowledge of the statue from a teaching job, and due to realizing no one would bother stealing worthless copies) fairly quickly.
    • Maleficent White, when contemplating suicide, makes sure to leave a note so that her husband and the woman she believes he's sleeping with won't be accused of murdering her, with the narration lampshading how it's amazing that she didn't have to read a romantic tragedy novel to come to that epiphany.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: The sixteen statues (one of which is priceless, while the others are copies it was smuggled into the country with), the owners of which are all developed characters, and naturally, the main characters don't find the statue anywhere near their first try.
  • Happily Failed Suicide: Maleficent White's suicide attempt is interrupted by the arrival of Frank and Floyd, causing her to faint. When she wakes up, she believes that the damage to the statue they'd come to check is a divine sign not to kill herself and to commit to fixing her marriage with Xavier rather than wallowing about it.
  • Honesty Is the Best Policy: Jerry telling Bobbi the truth turns out to be the best way to make her trust and cooperate with him.
  • Hot for Teacher: Leory and Buhhub joined the Open Sports Committee because their teacher Ms. Tower was a member as well and they liked her romantically. She doesn't reciprocate though.
  • Informed Judaism: Mel Bernstein and Open Sports Committee Member Ben Cohen are culturally Jewish and often bring it up with their thoughts or words but aren’t too religiously and observant.
  • Internal Reveal: The narration reveals that Bobbi's statue, seemingly the last one, is not in fact the real one several chapters before the characters find out.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em Everyone but Chuck, Corella and Frank has given up interest in the statue by the epilogue, with Jerry and Bobbi being the first to do so, with Jerry noting that too many people were involved and demanding equal shares to really make it worth pursuing anymore.
    • Earlier in the book, after some various injuries and humiliations obtained in the first night of the search, Corella's henchmen Earl and Ralph refuse to show up for work the next day.
  • Language Barrier: The man telling Jerry which crate to pick up said Crate A. Too bad no one ever told him that the Spanish alphabet's pronunciation of the letter E is pronounced similarly to the American alphabets pronunciation of the letter A.
  • Liquid Courage: Pedro has to get drunk before going through with the hijacking and keeps throwing up on the pilot when the plane is taking off and landing.
  • MacGuffin: The gold statue. Too bad no one has any clue which of the sixteen is real.
  • The Mafia: Subverted. Corella claims to be a bona-fide mobster, but just for Villain Cred. He's really just a low-rent smuggler and Union racketeer. The actual mafia is referenced a few times though, notably when Mel once had a used car dealership where he'd sell the car for a low amount of money (which he pocketed) and installment payments in used appliances for the finance company (who got stuck with the bills for the cars that Mel was selling fast such a fast rate for good deals). Then the mob took over the fiancee company and started breaking bones of people who tried to pay them with stuff like washing machines, knocking Mel out of the racket.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: While Jenny and Eddie (two members of the Open Sports Committee) aren't married yet, their relationship has shades of this. They’re pretty happy together, but Jenny is hiding their relationship from her parents and a cop they complain to about being robbed doesn't take them seriously due to them being a mixed race couple.
  • Meet Cute: Jerry arranges this with Bobbi (it involves sabotaging her car) but then it begins to get real.
  • Mistaken for Cheating:
    • Chuck Harwood keeps believing his wife Bobbi is sleeping with their friends and patronizingly saying he doesn't care but is annoyed she lies about it. Bobbi in fact isn't sleeping with any of them but gets so fed up with this that near the beginning of the book she leaves Chuck and throws his clothes out the window.
    • F. Xavier White's wife is convinced he's in love with his assistant, although there's nothing in the text to support this.
    • When Kenny and David catch Jerry in their apartment, trying to steal their statues, each of them believes that he's a guy the other one picked up for casual sex, and tries to pretend it's no big deal even as they’re clearly hurt by the implications.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Pedro and his partners are accused of being gay by a homophobic stewardess, due to having a hushed conversation in the lavatory together prior to the hijacking.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Bud has a business as a literary agent (although he doesn't do that much work to get the books published) but has been writing a book of his own, which various characters think is good after finding out about it.
  • My Beloved Smother: Wally's mom is somewhat firm about keeping him in her sphere of influence.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Harlem gangster Jeremiah "Bad Death" Jonesburg is not a peaceful man,.
  • Rage Breaking Point: After having already been cheated by Corella throughout the statue hunt, and forced to go through some humiliations, Krassmier physically attacks him in a rage after Bobbi's statue turns out to be a fake and no one can figure out which -if any- of the other fifteen statues as the real one.
  • Road Trip Plot: Jerry spends most of his scenes in the second half of the novel following (and falling in love with) Bobbi after she leaves her husband and is driving across the country.
  • Seen It All: Oscar Russell Green, head of the Open Sports Committee, shows some of this the third time his apartment gets broken to in one evening, casually talking things over with the housebreakers.
  • Self-Defenseless: When Frank and Floyd decide to kidnap Mandy after she recognizes Frank, she tries to mace them with a can of pepper spray that she's carried in her purse for six years in case anyone tries to mug her. After six years without being used, the mace can doesn't have enough pressurization to shoot anything more than a brief trickle of white foam.
  • Self-Made Man: While not explicitly stated, this is implied with Open Sports Committee member Bud Beemis, who has a good business, and carries himself very well, while Corella notes that "Some stink of the street still clung to him."
  • Sibling Team: Frank and his brother Floyd work together for most of the statue hunt.
  • Single Mom Stripper: Jerry's one night stand from the beginning of the book, Myra, is a stripper and mentions having a kid whose staying with her mother.
  • Stereo Fibbing: Unusually, the characters actually do have time to come up with a cover story in advance, but still fail to do so (presumably due to being nervous) while ringing a doorbell to distract the house owners so that one of their relatives can rescue her husband (who got caught breaking and entering). One of the women ringing the doorbell says they are from the League of Women Voters and the other says they are raising funds for cystic fibrosis patients. Then, in a panic, they both switch to the story the other woman is telling. The householders fail to grasp what is happening, but are left utterly confused.
  • The Stoner:
    • Chuck Harwood. The appendix even calls him a pothead.
    • Ethelred Marx (the boyfriend of Mel's secretary, and the guy who actually writes the letters offering advice to the aspiring authors who contact them) is also described as constantly high, with the appendix calling him a visitor from another planet.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: Victor Krassmier, a museum trustee (and Corella's partner) who "let himself" be negotiated into paying a high price for the statue when he was one of the ones selling it.
  • Talk to the Fist: Corella's enforcer decks the confused guy who gave Jerry the wrong instructions as he tries to figure out his mistake.
  • This Banana is Armed: Frank and Floyd escape from Bad Death Jonesburg by convincing him that their pencil flashlight is a cleverly disguised gun. Because Bad Death thinks their Federal Agents, and is a fan of the kinds of movies were federal agents use those kind of weapons, it works.
  • Those Two Guys: Leroy and Bubbuh are constant companions and sources of humor.
  • Thrill Seeker: Jerry freely admits that he commits crimes because they simulate him, and that whenever he has money he just spends his way through it easily and is happy to go onto the next thing, although he does come to change a little throughout the story.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Kenny Spang, who is black and gay.
  • Unexpected Virgin: Hot Teacher Felicity Tower has never had sex, much to her chagrin, was raised to be too focused and can't quite get relaxed enough to encourage anyone to go that far with her until the end. She eventually loses her virginity to Pedro after a random encounter.
  • Villain Cred:
    • The reason Corella falsely claims to be a mafia member is to get more fear and respect.
    • Bad Death Jonesburg is practically doing a jig when he captures Frank and Floyd during their search for the statues and believes that they’re FBI agents and he's important enough to warrant Federal surveillance.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Open Sports Committee member Dorothy Marwood, who also throws some wild parties, is a well-known philanthropist.
  • Wham Line: The bit setting up the later Internal Reveal, while discussing Bobbi's statue.
To look at him, nobody would think he was at all valuable, and in fact he is not. He's the wrong one, he's made of plaster. What? That's right, he's a copy, he isn't gold at all, everybody's chasing the wrong statue. One of the sixteen statues handed out to the Open Sports Committee is the real one, worth over a million dollars, bu not this one. This one is worth twenty bucks. Someone has made a mistake.
  • Worthy Opponent: Bad Death Jonesburg claims to feel this way about rival gangster Mole Mouth Dundershaft (who he is rumored to have killed himself) and insists on throwing him a lavish funeral.