Friday, January 9, 2009

More Thoughts on Donald E. Westlake

Jim did a brief posting on this topic last week.

A full week after Westlake's passing, I find there's still more to say about him and his work.

Westlake defied all genre boundaries, even as he delivered popular fiction that mostly fit uneasily into the mystery & suspense shelves of bookstores.

This is an obstacle that may have prevented some from engaging in Westlake's world. But like Jim Thompson, Fredric Brown, David Dodge and Raymond Chandler, Westlake's work is more about people than the genteel Swiss clockwork or lowbrow dese, dem and dose that characterizes the "mystery" genre, at its most conventional.

In his open-secret nom de plume of Richard Stark, Westlake penned some of the toughest, tightest, no-punches-pulled pieces of "pulp fiction." Via the revival of the Stark series in 1997, Westlake revitalized as a writer, right up to the final Stark novel, Dirty Money, published in 2008.

Under his own name, Westlake began publishing in the late 1950s. He penned science fiction and mystery short stories for magazines. He also penned "adult novels" under a plethora of pen-names.

His first published mainstream novels, The Mercenaries and Killing Time, are skillful updates of Dashiell Hammett. They're admirable efforts, especially for so young a writer.

Westlake first found his voice in the Richard Stark vein, with 1962's The Hunter, the brutal debut of the Parker series. Even today, the book's matter-of-fact violence and sadism shocks. Yet Parker questions the need for violence. It's made clear that killing repulses him. Yet killing is the currency of his world.

Westlake's earliest writing, read now, seems surprisingly humorless. When he let his absurd, tolerant worldview seep into his fiction, in a series of "comic crime novels" beginning with 1964's The Fugitive Pigeon, Westlake broadened the boundaries of the mystery/suspense genre.

He was hardly the first to blend mystery with humor--Jonathan Latimer did that very well in the 1930s. Westlake did away with the screwball trappings of comedy, and distilled a wry, dry, highly observant style of wit that distinguished his work from the rest of the highly competitive pack.

Even the brutal Stark novels show some gimlet flashings of this worldview in the later '60s. Stark and Westlake accidentally fused in 1970, when a Stark novel became too ludicrous and humorous for the series.

Westlake created his own albatross with the grumpy, not-quite-mastermind career criminal, John Dortmunder. In outright parody of himself, Westlake found mass success with a long-running series of comic caper novels, beginning with The Hot Rock and ending, posthumously, with the publication Get Real later this year.

It's an ironic title, in ways Westlake might not have intended. The Dortmunder series became progressively weaker and more mechanical after 1990's brilliant, complex Drowned Hopes, in which the author's observational powers were at their arguable peak.

The last few Dortmunders have been extremely iffy. Some sink into the depths of shrill farce. Some have moments of true vigor and invention which keep them afloat. But, as a whole, the post-1996 Dortmunders reek of that most dreaded of phrases, "contractural obligation."

Westlake's longtime publisher, Mysterious Press, demanded that he make every other novel he wrote a Dortmunder. The 1990s were Westlake's weakest time as a writer. I care very little for most of the books he wrote in that decade. His sense of irony became heavy-handed, as in the fascinating but flawed Hollywood noir Sacred Monster, while novels such as Humans and Smoke lost me in their meandering, tentative webworks.

Amidst these failures, Westlake did create one hard-noir masterpiece: 1997's The Ax. The book is a hard-times parable that, as with Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, acquaints the reader with a horribly scarred sociopath whose worldview becomes alarmingly sympathetic at times. It is a jarring book, one that can cause nightmares, but it is rooted in the troubles and needs of our society, and has a great gravity--perhaps why it is so disturbing.

A must to avoid: its un-necessary, heavy-handed follow-up, The Hook, which is also among the most self-indulgent of Westlake's works.

I think the Dortmunder series corrupted Westlake's ingenuity as a writer. Before the series, he was able to pursue unconventional ideas, settings, plot twists, and he could blend the comic and the tragic with great novelty.

The Dortmunder books turned a great observant author into a trained seal. He gave the people what they wanted, and occasionally summoned passages of brilliance, even late in the series.

But few of the Dortmunders are really great books. Re-reading them is rather like re-watching a rerun of a favorite sitcom. You know exactly what's going to happen, and when it will happen.

The Dortmunders can be enjoyable books, to be sure. Bank Shot, Jimmy The Kid, Good Behavior, Nobody's Perfect and What's The Worst Thing That Could Happen? are all perfectly likeable and amusing. What they lack, as with old sitcoms, is a sense of resonance.

That resonance could be found in the Parker books--until the series' demise with 1973's Butcher's Moon, a dense, remarkable return to an earlier Westlake specialty--fiction about organized crime, to which he often referred as "The Outfit."

In the 1970s, Westlake was alarmingly prolific. Besides the Dortmunder series, he turned out more one-shot "comic crime novels," plus a downbeat quintet of novels under the pen-name Tucker Coe. The Coe books, which began in 1965, are a troubling lot. They're more streamlined than either the Westlake or Stark material, have much of his trademark social observations, yet they feel unsatisfying, despite their strong themes of grief and of rebuilding a broken life.

Even in the later 1960s, Westlake's "comic crime" books could be mechanical farces. Some have not weathered the test of time. Perhaps in 50 years, they'll take on a period charm and work well again.

There are some gems sprinkled throughout his 1970s catalog: Brothers Keepers, Help! I Am Being Held Prisoner, Dancing Aztecs, Two Much and the first half of the twofer novel Enough--a virtuostic piece of whodunit writing that set that tired genre on its ear.

I must mention, in passing, the homophobic strains that run through his novels. For a man who seemed such an admiring student of humanity, his use of gay and lesbian characters, right up to 2008's Dirty Money, is bothersome. At least, in recent years, he had ceased to make them harmless comic foils and given such character more narrative weight in his stories.

In this regard, Westlake comes off like a saint compared to most mystery/suspense-type writers.

From this period comes the author's favorite of all his works, 1982's Kawaha--another sprawling, ambitious book that sought to break genre boundaries. Someday I hope to have enough patience to read it.

An offbeat book I much prefer is 1984's A Likely Story, a witty insider's satire of the publishing world, sexual politics, and the life of an author. Those wary of gunplay and heists might do well to try this book. It offers a large, palatable dose of its author's weatherbeaten but essentially sunny worldview.

If Dortmunder sucker-punched Westlake, with the series' generic enclosures and stifling audience expectations, the author bitch-slapped himself back to life with the revival of the Richard Stark franchise, beginning with 1997's Comeback.

The title said it all: here was Westlake at the height of his fictive and observational power. Better yet: Westlake allowed glimmers of humor to seep into the brutal, airless world of Parker.

I have just re-read this eight-book cycle of second-series Parker novels, which climax in the vivid trilogy of Nobody Runs Forever, Ask The Parrot and Dirty Money.

This reading was a follow-up to a chronological reading of the 1962-73 Parker series. Parker's world can be a rough place to live with, but it's compelling. It does not let you go. These books are among the most consistently intelligent, sparse, violent and thoughtful of all "suspense novels."

Thank goodness the University of Chicago Press has chosen to reissue the original Parker series, at a rate of three volumes a year, in uniform, handsome trade paperbacks. These are books that will stand the test of time. They take place in the "eternal now" that distinguishes the greatest noir writing. They are breathtaking showpieces of lean, spare, essential prose.

To read them in order is to be rewarded with the long-term plot threads that are seemingly woven casually into the overall fabric of the series. The high prices of out-of-print installments of this series has made this quite a challenge in recent years.

* * *

Westlake's novels--many of them--were made into movies. Regrettably, aside from 1973's Cops and Robbers, a clever, down-to-earth police procedural, all of them I've seen are wretched things. Another exception, of sorts, is John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank, which is loosely based on the first Parker novel, is a fine movie--but, like almost all Westlake movie versions, it isn't faithful to the book.

I hold out hopes for 1968's The Split, based on the seventh Parker novel which was, appropriately, called The Seventh. It is impossible to find at present, and may be too obscure for anyone to bother issuing in digital format.

Time and again, Westlake-based movies botch the job thoroughly. I wouldn't wish most of them on my worst enemies.

Westlake dabbled in screenwriting, but I'm none too fond of his original script, The Step-Father, nor his arch, camp retooling of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, as directed by Stephen Frears.

The irony of a master storyteller unable to translate to the movies, mostly due to inept tampering with his foolproof premises, characters and plots, is funny enough that I almost think Westlake might have appreciated it. It was probably also painful to him.

* * *

I believe Westlake wrote over 90 books. 90 books in a less-than-50-year career. Just think of it. That half of them are good, and even a third of them great, is still a remarkable accomplishment. He is among a handful of authors whose work lends itself handily to re-reading. Indeed, my current bedside book is his '60s "comic crime" gem, God Save The Mark, which I've read before and will likely read again.

Lest you feel I've been too critical of Westlake's works, these are just my personal reactions and opinions, formed from reading these books. You may love some of my least favorites--and vice versa. But if you have never read his work, give it a try.

Your public library probably has several of his books--including some that are out of print.

Here are six I'd suggest to a first-time reader:

Richard Stark: The Hunter, Comeback
Dortmunder: Bank Shot, Drowned Hopes (these were designed for new readers to jump right in, so no worries)
"comic crime": Help! I Am Being Held Prisoner, God Save The Mark

I'd also suggest a two-book series, about bemused tabloid reporter Sara Joslyn: 1988's Trust Me On This and its follow-up, Baby, Would I Lie? These are great examples of mega-observational, very funny, high-stakes Westlake. I regret that he abandoned this series.

Or, if you're a brave soul, try The Ax. I'd honestly suggest one of the funnier ones as a starter. The many facets of Donald E. Westlake reveal themselves in a sea of books, and in the least likely moments. He is a great 20th century popular writer who will last into the 21st century, without a doubt.