Friday, October 24, 2014

The Many Sides of Donald Westlake: The Getaway Car and The Comedy Is Finished

I am certainly no expert when it comes to the work of Donald Westlake. Nevertheless, he's someone I've been reading for more years than I care to remember. And I've enjoyed just about everything I've read by him. I guess my first Westlake book was The Hunter, which I probably read after seeing John Boorman's neo-noir classic, Point Blank.  That one, of course, was written under the name Richard Stark, who would become known as Westlake's hardboiled doppelganger. Around that time I also read The Juggler, which apparently was Westlake's least favorite Stark novel. Then I found a copy of Hot Rock, a Dortmund novel written under Westlake's own name, and part of a series typified by Westlake's sharp humour. That must have been before the movie came out, because, unlike Point Blank, the 1972 film by Peter Yates wasn't exactly a film that would have encourage me to read the novel. Likewise, the 1973 Cops and Robbers, based on another Westlake novel. On the other hand, I've long admired John Flynn's The Outfit, adapted from a Stark novel. And, of course, Westlake's screenplay Stephen Frears' The Grifters could be the best adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel. However, the two Westlake novels I think I've enjoyed the most were The Ax and The Hook, both devastating critiques of late American culture. I guess that leaves a fairly hefty number of  Westlake novels I haven't read, as well as a few movies that either I've  haven't seen or don't recall seeing.

However, you don't have to be an expert on Westlake's fiction to be charmed by the recent volume of Westlake ephemera The Getaway Car, edited by Levi Stahl, published by University of Chicago Press. Though you probably have to be somewhat familiar with the range of Westlake's work over the years. Because Donald Westlake was one of the last of the working writers, even more so than his long-time friend, Lawrence Block, who provides an introduction to the book. The Getaway Car  contains a range of Westlake's non-fiction:  a fragment of an autobiography, essays, book intros, interviews, letters, and even a couple recipes. Particularly enjoyable is his article on Peter Rabe. It's essential reading for anyone interested in one of the best pulpists around. And it's probably the best essay on the writer. Though Rick Ollerman's introduction to a recent Stark House edition of Kiss the Boss Goodby and Mission For Vengeance comes a close second. Also illuminating is the interview with Westlake conducted by Patrick McGilligan. And, of course, it was nice to read Westlake's appreciation of Charles Willeford and his extended essay on Rex Stout.  Likewise, his take on Jim Thompson, that Westlake was initially reluctant to adapt The Grifters, thinking it too grim, until Frears pointed out that the story really belongs to the mother. Moreover, just about every entry in The Getaway Car contains a sampling of Westlake's self-deprecating but cutting humour, no more so than Hearing Voices In My Head, which is a tongue-in-cheek panel discussion, its participants being Westlake's various pen personalities- Tucker Coe,  Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver as well as Westlake himself, with each incarnation acting out their part in an appropriate manner, until it descends into chaos.

Donald E. Westlake: The Sixties crime novel was joky (as opposed to funny), smart alecky, full of drugs, and self consciously its cast of blacks and homosexuals. The only Sixties mysteries with any merit at all were written in the Fifties by Chester Himes. On the other hand, the Sxities Westerns were even worse: Remember Dirty Dingus Magee?
Richard Stark: Okay, this has gone on long enough. Everybody on your feet.
Moderator: Good God, he's got a gun.
Richard Stark: Empty your pockets on the table. Come on, snap it up.
Timothy J. Culver: You can't mean this, Dick. We're your friends.
Richard Stark: No book published since '74 How do you think I live? Give me everything you've got.
Donald E. Westlake: Will you take a check?
Richard Stark: Beat the Devil, 1954. Robert Morley to Humphrey Bogart. They ought to ask me where you get your ideas. You, Tucker Coe, on your feet.
Moderator: He's not moving, he...

Another recent posthumous Westlake book is The Comedy is Finished,  recently published by Hard Case Crime/Titan. According to the Publisher's Note, Westlake wrote the novel in the late 1970s, but shelved it because he thought the novel too similar to Martin Scorsese's 1982 King of Comedy. Fortunately, he had sent a copy to Max Allan Collins, who stashed it away, only to reveal its existence after Hard Case published Westlake's Memory, which they claimed to be Westlake's final unpublished novel. Which is when Collins revealed the existence of this book. Westlake was partly right. The Comedy Is Finished does have an over-arching similarity, but the sub-plots and the characters are qualitatively different. Though I would personally prefer to re-read Westlake's novel than re-view Scorsese otherwise excellent film. One could just as easily say that Westlake's novel bears a resemblance to Don Carpenters A Couple of Comedians, though any such similarities would be equally superficial. Because Westlake's book distinctly his own, as is his absurdist view of the world. For me, its topicality- at least when it comes to the ear in which it was written and takes place- relates to those two favorites of mine- The Ax (mental note: must track down Costa-Gavras's screen adaptation) and The Hook.  In all, The Comedy Is Finished is a perfect showcase for  Westlake's writerly skills- that unique mixture of hardboiled prose and edgy, but razor sharp, humour.

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