Wednesday, February 21, 2018

I remember therefore I am: Memory by Donald Westlake

I can't believe there are still some readers out there who have never had the pleasure of reading a Donald Westlake novel. A man of multiple pseudonyms- at least seventeen by my count-  Westlake (1933-2008) had a writing career that lasted some fifty years. It's hard to say exactly how many novels he wrote. Most likely over a hundred, while some twenty-five of his novels have been adapted for the screen. Then there are his screenplays, not least of which is his adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears in 1990 (not to mention his screenplay for Dick Spottswood's 2005 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground).

Most hardcore crime readers would no doubt favour Westlake's novels written under the name Richard Stark. For no other reason than those books mark the  essence of modern stripped-down, fast-moving tough-guy crime fiction in the tradition of  Paul Cain and Hammett. I suppose if Westlake is known for one book it would probably be The Hunter, if only  because that's the novel on which John Boorman based his 1967 film Point Blank. As excellent as Boorman's film is, it differs  considerably from the novel.

Then there are all those  Westlake comic crime novels featuring  John Archibald Dortmunder ("My own worst fears when I get up in the morning," said Westlake regarding his creation. "He's everything that can go wrong."). An unlucky criminal genius, Dortmunder first appeared in the 1970 Hot Rock, which began as a Richard Stark novel, but Westlake realised the novel, concerning someone who commits the same crime over and over again,  was moving away from the hardboiled style of the Parker novels. With his eccentric concept of criminality, Dortmunder would go on to feature in more than a dozen novels.

Other than the Stark novels, my personal favourite Westlake books are what I call his "social" novels, like  The Ax, The Hook and his final novel Memory, published posthumously by Hard Case Crime in 2010. Not that other Westlake novels lack a social dimension;  in fact, they are all subtly political regarding the way they expose society's fissures and failures. For instance,  the Stark novels, in which Parker, ever the individualist, battles against organized crime, in other words corporate capitalism.  But, for me, Westlake's "social" novels are more explicit in their critique and commentary, whether concerning, as in The Ax,  someone who finds himself unemployed, and so, to maintain his life style, sets out to murder anyone competing for the job he's after. Or, as in The Hook,  about a successful novelist who has come down with a case of writer's block, so, to once again keep up his life style and help pay off his divorce, hires a hack writer,  to write his next novel, which turns out to be a success. Which means even though the two writers will split the money, the hack writer, as part of the deal, and in what could be viewed as an updating of Highsmith's Strangers On a Train, has to the other man's divorce-seeking wife.

Likewise,  Westlake's final and posthumously published  (Hard Case Crime) novel, Memory, which I only came across recently. It's a novel full of surprises in which Westlake moves from  the social to the margins of philosophical speculation, as he examines the relationship between memory and identity. Writer Luc Sante has called this novel "hardboiled Kafka," and he's not far off the mark. Not without humour and never stretching credulity beyond breaking point, Memory recalls one of Westlake's earliest (technically his second novel, if one discounts earlier soft-core porn efforts), Killy, about a couple union organizers called into  a company town, only to be implicated in murder, although Memory is a more mature and well-rounded novel.  And, as usual, Westlake rarely wastes a word.

It's a novel centered on Paul Cole, a New York actor in a traveling  theater group working in a middle-American small town. There he has a one-night stand with a woman whose husband discovers them together and hits Paul on the head with a chair- "What a cliché," acknowledges Paul-  rendering him unconscious. He awakes in a hospital with amnesia. The doctors assure that his condition is temporary. However, the authorities make it clear that someone with such loose morals is not welcome in their town, so accompany him to the bus station where Paul gets a ticket as far as  his money will take him. Not to New York but to another small town where he finds work in a tannery. He more or less settles into life there, has friends, including  a girlfriend, but, though he doesn't realize why, he knows he must return to New York. It's only when he finally arrives there that his real troubles begin.

I can't think of many novels that examine so closely  the relationship between identity and memory, as well as its various implications. After all, if  one's memory is wiped out, where does that leave the entire nature vs nurture debate?  And what remains of the person? What is the person other than his memories? And if one's circumstances dictate, to some extent,  one's personality,  can one, should amnesia strike (that Paul has partial amnesia only complicates matters), simply start over?  Longer than the usual Westlake/Stark novel, Memory might also be Westlake's most literary effort. "Literary" in the sense of mainstream fiction. Which isn't to say other Westlake novels are not literary; in fact, they are deceptively so, even if they are left to define  their own particular literariness. Moreover, Memory might also be Westlake's most personal novel, as it delves into a subject befitting someone moving into the last years of his life.

I admit that  I'm no expert when it comes to Westlake's fiction, but I can  say that  I've appreciated everything  I've ever read by him. And, if nothing else, Memory seems to be a fitting end to a long and perhaps under-appreciated career.  If you haven't read Westlake, Memory is as good a place as any to start. And if you have read him, you won't want to miss this novel. Certainly, if you are interested in Westlake, you might want to check out Scott Bradfield's recent article in the LA Review of Books.  Then there's a comprehensive look at Westlake's writing career by the excellent pianist and noir aficionado Ethan Iverson. And for ephemera, there's Westlake's essential Getaway Car, not to mention the official Donald Westlake website, complete with bibliography, interviews, multimedia, etc..

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Noir Graphic Novel: Alison Gaylin and Megan Abbott's Normandy Gold

A not-so-guilty pleasure over the past year or so has been my discovery- I know, some will say what took you so long- of noir graphic novels. Easy to read, engaging, and an ideal medium for those interested in seeking out that intersection where noir fiction and film meet.  And these days there's no shortage of them out there. Of course,  I have my favourites. At the top of the list is still  the four  Parker books by Darwyn Cooke- Slayground, The Outfit, The Hunter, The Score (IDW Publications). Though that's not surprising since those Westlake/Stark novels on which they're based happen to be amongst my favourites as well. Then there's Graham Chafee's To Have and To Hold (Fantagraphics), as well as the series by Brubaker and Phillips's Fade Out (Image), and The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery (Seven Stories), a comprehensive anthology put together by Russ Kick, featuring an assortment of artists.

I can add to that list the recent Normandy Gold (Hard Case Crime/Titan), a  collaborative effort by novelists, Allison Gaylin and Megan Abbott, with artwork by Steve Scott, Lovern Kindzierski and Rodney Ramos. Out in April- until then you can read most of it in instalments- Normandy Gold might not be as visually arresting and innovative as some of the above, at least when  it comes to framing and editing, but whatever it might lack  in that department, it makes up for in  narrative drive, made all the more effective by the use of what amounts to a voice-over that works contrapuntally to the story-line.

Normandy Gold (is she Jewish or is her surname simply  a reference to her obvious bling?) is an independent, long-legged eye-stopper of a woman. Not only tough as nails, she does little if anything to make herself likeable. Her sole  concern is to find her sister's killer, and to mete out whatever rough justice might be necessary. At the same time, her permanent rage and self-destructive streak leads her to some dark and dangerous situations. It's no coincidence that Normandy reminds the reader as someone like Westlake/Stark's Parker. With a series of 1970s films in mind, not just Point Blank but the Parallax View and the Conversation in mind, one isn't surprised to find lines ranging from "Nobody's innocent here" to "What if we're not real? What if well just characters on a TV show?"

Moreover, Normandy Gold is a throwback to an era in which porn- hard-core, soft-core and anything in-between- seemed to be  entering mainstream, pre-AIDS, culture.  In that sense, one could view Normandy Gold as an off-shoot of David Simon's HBO series The Deuce, to which Abbott was a major contributor. But since I haven't seen The Deuce, I'm unable to say how deep that connection runs or even if it really exists. One obvious difference is that Normandy Gold is clearly aimed at young women in search of a raunchy, kick-ass female protagonist. Not much precedent for that other than in various various underground comics, with a nod of course to their predecessors in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sort that came under attack by those obsessed with commies using the medium to corrupt  the youth of America (Anyone interested in what might be the origins of the genre might seek out the opening chapter on Dick Tracy in critic Donald Phelps's excellent Reading the Funnies).

Of course, Normandy Gold isn't  the only noir bande desinee in Hard Case Crime/Titan's locker. They've also recently published Peepland by hard- boilers Christa Faust and Gary Phillips, an incongruous but effective pairing, with excellent artwork by Andrea Camerini. Then there's the even more visually arresting Matz/Walter Hill collaboration Triggerman and The Assignment with art work by Jef, as well as Max Allan Collins and Szymon Kudranski's Quarry's War. All of them subversive in their own right.

And all illustrative of just effective the graphic novel can be when it comes to visualising a genre already reliant on a sharp camera-eye, minimal exposition and sparse dialogue. Add to that concerns about texture, imagery, editing and story-line, and the result if perhaps the ultimate visualisation, not to mention democratisation, of the genre. All of which allows the reader to  glide through its pages, moving from image to dialogue to image in a roller coaster ride down an assortment of thoroughfares formerly the province of pure text or the screen.