09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Un-Reality of Reality TV: A Book Review

GET REAL, by Donald E. Westlake
Genre: Comic Caper
Print: 288 pages
Audio: 7 hrs and 4 mins
Narrator: William Dufris
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Audio Edition: only

"Reality shows do not solve society's problems. They don't even consider society's problems. Reality is escapist entertainment at its most pure and mindless." -- Doug Fairkeep, fictitious TV show producer to his writer on why the on-screen story can't actually be real.

It takes the wonderfully off-centered mind of Donald E. Westlake to nudge the whole notion of reality TV into such absurdity that it comes across as, well, real. Here's the set-up: "Get Real," the TV show that shows you real people doing real things, hires real criminals to plot and execute a real crime. While this may be the producer's first mistake in judgment, the second one is hiring John Dortmunder and his uncommonly common gang as the series burglary regulars.

For the uninitiated, Dortmunder and company first appeared in print in 1970 with The Hot Rock, a soft comedy caper, later made into a movie starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder, with George Segal and Ron Liebman. Redford was actually the wrong casting for the gang's leader since Dortmunder's more gloom than glamour. The rest of the gang is classic archetypes: the big, ugly muscle guy, the sharpie with the line of patter, the testy driver, the innocent kid, and the melancholic mastermind, Dortmunder -- house number casting today would be Adam Sandler.

The reason Get Real is so appealing, along with many of Westlake's thirteen others in the series, is you get to root for the robbers, not the cops. These are not Robin Hood's merry band stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. They're more like bowling league regulars, stealing from the rich and keeping it mostly for themselves -- and not always successfully, which only adds to their appeal.

Initially, the gang's reluctant to star in a TV show -- incarceration being the main concern, which flips to fear of cancellation after they're offered $20,000 a piece, plus per diem, and an assurance their faces would be blurred on screen. Being Dortmunder and company, the boys figure a way to turn the creatively un-real TV show into a very real burglary with the ratings-at-any-cost producers as the suckers. You'll get a kick out of Westlake's ability to make the likeable criminals the honorable ones and the commercial TV people the reprobates.

The audio edition's narrator, William Dufris, adds considerable entertainment to the story gliding smoothly and effectively among the various accents of male and female voices ranging from base to treble.

Westlake fans will cheer and lament, this being the last of Dortmunder, as the author died last year. Newcomers who like to savor soft comedy in the vein of the old The Lavender Hill Mob, will find entertainment delight in Get Real and many of the others in the series.