Wednesday, February 21, 2018
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..