To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Final Mystery
From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review
Dear Mr. Westlake:
Thanks so much for your response to my previous missive, and for answering my question about Ambrose Bierce (a hero of mine as a boy, as perhaps he was for you as well). So that’s what happened to him! Curiouser and curiouser–like something out of one of his stories. If I said which one, that would be breaking a confidence, of course. His secret is safe with me.
I was sorry to hear that your hopes of chasing girls in the afterlife with Robert Benchley were thwarted by his current domestic arrangements, but am nonetheless strangely moved to hear of his rapprochement with Mrs. Parker–a vicious circle closed at last. Anyway, there’s still Fred Allen, right?
So. In my last letter, I covered the two epistolary novels written by your friends Dresner & Block. I did not, as you noted, say anything at all about your own book–I have a much-noted tendency to beat around the bush (that’s what she said).
Dresner’s The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (1959), demonstrated to you and Mr. Block that your time spent writing sleaze paperbacks could be turned to good use. Mr. Dresner had used his experience to pen a comedic romp of misunderstanding and identity confusion, that ended with the hero re-committing to his profession, and vowing to seek a more personally fulfilling way to practice it.
Mr. Block, who had never been the least bit embarrassed by his own dirty books (maybe the quality of the prose, nothing else), merely sought to write better and dirtier ones, hoping he could somehow revive the sleaze form without its publisher-imposed limitations–and he failed in his attempt, but Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (1970) remains highly entertaining, not to mention arousing. There, the protagonist has never written any kind of porn, but having lived out sexual fantasies with libidinous teenagers and repressed secretaries that even the randy heroes of sleaze would envy, he’s going to just write about his experiences as if they were fiction (neat turnaround).
Both of these novels are available now as ebooks. But your Adios, Scheherezade (1968), while it appeared in a variety of editions, in a number of languages, has long been out of print, and has not been digitally re-issued. And I am moved to wonder why that is, given the ongoing rebirth of interest in your work. Many far more obscure and less distinguished works of yours are currently available electronically. I must ask–did you want this book to be reprinted? Is there some reason your estate has not found a publisher for it? While used editions are not impossible to find, they do tend to be pricey.
I don’t really know how you felt about it, but I can tell you that I consider it to be one of the best things you ever wrote. And one of the most painful. Lawrence Block thought highly enough of it to single it out in a short-list of his favorite books of yours, after your death. It has a level of gut-wrenching honesty that is rare for any author, let alone one who mainly writes genre fiction.
Oh to be sure, there are many brutally honest writers in the crime genre (paradoxically enough), but the venue does demand a certain measure of glamor, seamy and gin-soaked though it be–even Jim Thompson had to make his most deplorable anti-heroes tough and sexy. There’s always an element of fantasy in that form, which is why you didn’t employ it here, in this story about a man who specializes in fantasies of a different kind. Over-specializes, as it turns out.
This one reminds me in many ways of Memory, the much longer third-person novel you put aside in a drawer and never made any later attempt to publish–I personally believe that’s because you were ashamed of the way you didn’t give Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist, a chance to make choices that might get him out of his predicament. Even though that’s the point of the book, that his lack of memory has doomed him. I still think it seemed to you that you’d treated him unfairly. And that mattered to you, didn’t it?
Adios Scheherazade is a more focused work than Memory, from a writer with a few more years experience–it’s more personal as well, because while both are about roads you feel you yourself might have gone down if things had been different, this is a road that runs directly parallel to the one you actually took. It’s a book about a man who is–and isn’t–a writer.
I feel somehow certain that you must remember the events of this book more clearly than many others you wrote, but for the benefit of those who haven’t read it in a while, or at all (I’d advise the latter to read the book first), I shall assay a synopsis. In one sense, Adios, Scheherazade has a very simple, easily summarized story–in another, it’s almost a summary of everything you ever wrote, a touchstone for your work as a whole. It marks the beginning of your true maturity. And nothing hurts as much as maturity.
Edwin George Topliss (har-de-har-har) is a graduate (with what he considers a useless degree in American Literature) of Monequois College–in this instance, very clearly and directly based on Champlain College in Plattsburgh NY, which as Ed informs us, is now a defunct school that got turned into a military base–just as Champlain College did, after Donald Edwin Westlake attended it.
You said in an interview that you based Mr. Topliss on one of those guys who was writing sleaze under the pen name of a writer who’d moved on, but you gave him your middle name, your precise educational background. I think it’s pretty safe to assume you gave him other things of yours. And what’s more, you knew people who read the book would be assuming just that, drawing parallels between you and Ed, correct or not. That’s a very deliberate choice on your part. You even gave him a Smith Corona typewriter, and for you nothing could be more personal than that.
Now in a sense, this is an epistolary novel, but it is not mainly composed of letters, until the very end. Each chapter is Ed’s attempt to write a sleaze novel that he has to submit to the literary agency he works for–a novel that will be published under the name ‘Dirk Smuff’ (seriously?), the former nom de plume of his former college roommate, the now successful author, Rod Cox, who doesn’t want to write sleaze books anymore (and, when he offered the lucrative opportunity to Ed, warned him “Nobody writes this shit forever”).
The manuscript is due in ten days. Ed’s already missed two deadlines in the past, and has been put on notice that he better not miss another one, or he’s out. The literary agent in question (‘Lance Pangle’, heh, good one) is not sympathetic to his personal difficulties–of course he isn’t. He’s based on Scott Meredith, whose famous (and infamous) literary agency was the one commissioning these dubious books for equally dubious publishers–those who have read Lawrence Block’s just-released collection of non-fiction pieces The Crime of Our Lives (which I’m reviewing next week), will learn that Scott Meredith would literally not cut his own brother a break.
Rod Cox would, of course, be the successful Donald E. Westlake, farming out his porn name to a college buddy with a wife and kid, and a dead end low-paying job at a beer distributor–except you muddy the waters still further. Because Rod Cox isn’t you. He’s Richard Stark. Yeah, I figured that out. You weren’t trying to hide it, really. It’s there for the people who pay attention.
See, Rod Cox doesn’t write hardcover mysteries for a major respectable publisher like Random House. He writes paperback spy novels for an outfit called Silver Stripe (as opposed to Gold Medal, where you’d just started publishing the Parker novels). He’s getting them published all over the world, in various languages–Ed even mentions them getting published as Gallimard Serie Noires, with those striking black covers. He’s pretty hot stuff.
Rod’s got a sexy girlfriend named Sabina Del Lex (basically all the names in this book are porn names), with milky white thighs Ed can’t take his eyes off when they come to see him and his wife Betsy at their home out in the sticks. Ed fantasizes about Sabina coming on to him, which of course she never does. Ed is seething with envy towards his old friend Rod, who always knew he wanted to be a writer in college, but Ed never took him seriously.
Now wasn’t this the beginning of the time period in which you later sourly remarked that Richard Stark was outselling Donald Westlake? So you’re playing one hell of a double game here–you’ve placed yourself in the position of a loser who is writing books under the assumed name of an established writer, and the established writer isn’t even you–he’s a poorly disguised version of this Stark guy whose books you’re writing at the same time you’re writing this book–you’re his Edwin Topliss.
And a lot of people, then as now, prefer Stark’s books to the books you’re writing under your own name–Ed even mentions the 20 grand Rod got for selling one of his books to Hollywood–a pointed reference to Point Blank, which Ed and Betsy go to see later in the novel, though that isn’t based on one of Rod’s books. This is very inside baseball, even for you–how many people are there who are going to pick up on all these in-jokes? If jokes they are.
So by making Ed envy Rod Cox, a character you never really do flesh out much, you’re actually hinting that you envy and sometimes even dislike your own alter-ego, Mr. Stark. Who isn’t really you–just another mask, like Alan Marshall, only better paid and somewhat more respectable. But then who are you, Mr. Westlake? Who is Ed Topliss? Where are you going with this?
Couldn’t be this is another of your beloved identity puzzles, could it? My paperback reprint says this is ‘The World’s Dirtiest Book’, but it seems like the dirtiest secrets revealed here are not mainly erotic in nature. I’m guessing we aren’t going to get any naked horny Catholic school girls here. Quelle dommage.
So anyway, Ed has to write this book in ten days. He’s done it before–it’s possible. The plot formulas are well-established, the characters need not be deep (it’s better they not be, really). He’s expected to submit a book of ten chapters, each running 5,000 words. He just has to start working, and the book will write itself. Unfortunately, the book turns out to have a mind of its own.
Ed keeps veering off on tangents, all of them in some way related to his life, his relationships, his regrets, his secret sorrows. He’ll start typing a nice piece of smut, and then the characters start talking back to him. They aren’t content to just rip off each others clothes and go at it, like good little genre stereotypes. So he finishes 5,000 words, but almost none of it is usable, and he puts the chapter aside, and starts over again. He’s got six Chapter 1’s, before he manages a Chapter 2, and then he does two more 2’s before he gets to 3. Come to think of it, this would be a challenging work to translate into ebook form. Those things always have a clickable index menu, don’t they?
Now Ed is, self-evidently, an unreliable narrator–he’s a stranger to himself, and he’s trying to write fiction, so true and false are seamlessly blended together in his typewritten stream-of-consciousness narrative, and you never know when he’s being straight with you, or himself. Man doesn’t know his own mind, let alone heart, but in the process of writing (and he is writing, and writing well, whether he thinks so or not), he is starting to come to terms with himself, and with the wreck he’s made of his life. He’s learning how to tell the truth, in prose form–which is, as always, stranger than fiction.
But nothing he’s writing about his life could be the basis of a good living. He can’t support a family live-blogging his own existence, decades before anybody knows what that means. Like most people asking “how can I be a writer?”, Ed is really asking “how can I be a writer and still eat?” Aye, there’s the rub.
You remember how you (oh sorry, that was Rod Cox) had that police detective Parker confronts at his house in The Seventh lament inwardly that he doesn’t dare try to draw down on Parker, because his wife and daughter are nearby. He thinks to himself that a cop with a family has given hostages to fortune–well, in a less dramatic way, so has an aspiring writer. If you have a family to look after, you can’t just live on cheap food, share an apartment with a few other guys, and work on establishing yourself as a writer, figuring out how to best express what’s inside of you. You have to pay the damn bills. So you have to write what you can sell. Whatever that happens to be. Like, I dunno, maybe crime fiction.
Ed married Betsy Blake, a local girl attending Monequois College while he was there, who he got set up on a date with. She was pretty enough, and after a bit of early resistance, a willing sex partner–he took her virginity, they burned up the sheets for months, and he was nuts about her–until he wasn’t. And they parted ways after graduation, and he was relieved, and he thought maybe she was too–then she phoned him to say she was pregnant.
And he did the right thing. Which he’s convinced now was the wrong thing. Except he does love her, and their three year old daughter Elfreda (Fred for short–hmm). Except he doesn’t. Except he does. Well, what is love? How do you ever know if it’s real, if you don’t even know who you are?
Betsy has been increasingly angry and frustrated with the life they’re now leading in New York City, where she takes care of the kid and shops, while her husband hammers away each day on the typewriter and sulks whenever he takes a break–making a very nice living for the time, but they somehow keep finding a way to spend it all, so no savings to fall back on.
And it’s pretty clear most of Betsy’s anger comes from knowing that Ed didn’t really want her, that he just married her because he had to, and she married him for the same reason. Ed realizes as he goes on that her future was blighted as much as his by their shared misfortune, which happens to be a little girl they both care about. But early on, he’s still feeling like she trapped him, and that she’s so much less than he was hoping for in a mate. Even her name bugs him.
Betsy. Is that a great name? Betsy Blake. She sounds like something out of Archie Comics. The Blake part she couldn’t help, of course, and Blake by itself isn’t a horrible name, but Betsy? Of the six thousand different things that Elizabeths are called, Betsy is the absolute worst.
You know, that’s true. Two out of five girls are named Elizabeth, and they all wind up with one of the Elizabeth nicknames, and it tells you an awful lot about the individual girl which one of those nicknames she gets for a label. Like Liz is almost always a real whory swinger, a gutsy good-time girl, unless she’s very bony and has the clap, in which case she’s Lizzie. Bess is respectable but she puts out but she feels guilty about it. Beth saves herself for one man and works in the library and is very square but also reliable and intelligent and a rock in an emergency. Bett is bitchy and expensive, but also a great lady. Elsa is a ski-weekend swinger, but when she gives her word she keeps it. Eliza hasn’t been seen since the ice floe broke up, but before that she was a whiner. Elsie is lower class, cheerful, big-mouthed, big smile, she doesn’t get laid much because nobody wants to take advantage of her. Ella has a lot of female complaints and can’t hold her booze and is very quiet and if things go right she’ll mother you. Lisa has the self-image of a D.H. Lawrence heroine and likes horses and night clubs. Betty is an all-American girl and gets married and has two point four children and lives in one of those crappy suburban developments like where I am right now and it’s her kitchen where the kaffeeklatsch is held and she collects for muscular dystrophy. Betsy is a moron.
(What freaked me out most when I first read this passage is that there was at that time an Elizabeth at the library I work at, and everybody called her Beth. As to the rest, I couldn’t say. You were making all that up, right? Right?)
So of course Ed feels very guilty about that and the other nasty things he says about his wife, and he knows it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and it’s precisely what he meant to say, and rather well-written, but that doesn’t make it right. He starts trying to be nicer to Betsy, and they start making love again, and the marriage seems to be getting on a firmer footing, and then he finally gets to Chapter 2. And hey–it’s starting to feel like a real book.
See, there’s this guy named Paul Trepless, he’s coming home from work, and he’s married to this wonderful girl named Beth, and they have a daughter named Edwina, and the marriage has been a bit rocky for a while, but it’s been going so much better of late, and he’s happy with her, but just like any man might, he kept a secret diary of his sexual fantasies, none of which were true–he was totally faithful to Beth. And he gets home, and Beth and Edwina are gone, and he realizes–Beth read the diary! She’s left a note saying that if he tries to come after her, her brothers will kill him.
(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, if I may be so bold as to inquire, what was it with you and the name Paul? Your two most personal-feeling early books, Killy and Memory, both feature protagonists by that name. You later gave one of your sons that name. It obviously meant something to you. Did you, like Oliver Abbott in Up Your Banners, hate the name you’d been given, and have a secret name for yourself? Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far you’ve only answered my question about Ambrose Bierce, and I can’t even tell anybody what you said).
So yeah, Betsy read the discarded chapters, which Ed had left in his desk drawer. Which included a totally fictitious account of how Ed was having sex with their teenaged babysitter, who just barely knows Ed is alive. And now Ed is alone, and still trying to finish the damn sleaze book, seeing if he can turn his real-life tragedy into a book, because he doesn’t know what else to do. She really does have two brothers who are very tough customers–they combine a Christmas Tree business with a smuggling operation, and they do come after Ed with the pretty clear intention of putting him in the hospital if not the morgue, and Ed’s life is suddenly a lot more like a Rod Cox novel than a Dirk Smuff.
And this won’t do, because he’s still got a sex book to finish. So he goes and does some research in Times Square–picks up a black hooker. And what follows is the most unsexy sex scene in the history of the sleaze genre. He knows this woman despises him, and she won’t even take off her bra when he asks her, and when he tries to draw out the act, she just exercises certain pelvic muscles and finishes him off. And then brushes him off. And while he’s angry at her about this, and thinks about writing a version of the encounter where he gives her an orgasm, his main reaction is to loathe himself even more–and not just himself. His entire race. His entire gender. His entire civilization. And the New York Times.
He tells us he was reading the Times book review, that most prestigious place for a writer to get written about, trying to figure out what makes you an author, and not just a cheap hack, and what he noticed was that really, nobody seems to know. He just knows that the books he writes are not in there. Then he notices something else.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Way in the back of the Book Review, page 76, there’s a review of a book of photographs of Africa called African Image. Some of the photographs are shown, and do you know what is the main central photograph taking up almost one-third of the whole page? A bunch of female spades with their tits hanging out. Right. In the Book Review of the New York Sunday Times, November 26th, 1967. Not 1867, and not the National Geographic.
So I guess I am in there after all. No matter what the hard news up front, no matter what the self-image we’re all pushing this week, back in the back of the Book Review there am I. All the grubby old attitudes are still alive, all the sneaky little scatological sniggering nastinesses, all the little-boy-pulling-his-wee-wee dirtiness is still inside your head and mine and the head of the New York Times, and it always will be. Because if those had been white women they would not have run the picture.
Now I know why that hooker wouldn’t take off her bra.
Why do I say that’s me back there, weeping and sniggering on those dusky boobs? Because it is out of the adolescent garbage in men’s heads that I have made my living for almost three years. The adolescent garbage in my head feeding the adolescent garbage in their heads, a real meeting of minds, a real communion, so when you come right down to it what I have been doing is closer to the definition of art than anybody in that jazz section will ever get in his whole life.
Phooey. That’s garbage, too. I have never risen above the material any more than my readers have, and if you can’t rise above the material you ain’t an artist. And it’s tough to rise above quicksand.
(You mention in this book all the little tricks writers of cheap paperbacks have to fill up pages–us bloggers have similar tricks, often involving long quotations from books we didn’t write.)
So anyway. Ouch. Direct hit. Well played, sir. And now let me say something you may or may not want to hear–there have been a number of semi-obscene books about men’s sexual problems that were huge sellers–I’ve got images of two of the most famous up above, and I know you read both–Portnoy’s Complaint came a few years after you wrote this, and see how the publisher reprinting your book in paperback tried to make the cover look similar? Yeah, that didn’t work. You know why?
Because Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy are not Everyman. They are very specific men, with very specific problems, and very specific pains, and very specific sins, and we can read those books, and maybe get some vicarious enjoyment out of them, and still say “Well, that’s nothing like me.” And we don’t get that escape valve with this book. It hits its target dead square on center, and that target is the reader.
Personally, I didn’t care much for either of those books, if you want to know. I suspect I’m never going to get all the way through Lolita, which I find to be a meandering melange of mendacity, and screw what the critics and lit professors think. Portnoy’s is intermittently moving and honest, but it’s basically just one successful promiscuous Jewish boy complaining to his shrink about how successful, promiscuous and Jewish he is. I can’t relate on any front, sadly. Few of us guys can manage more than two. So we can admire him, feel sorry for him, be entertained by him, and not be terribly upset by him (particularly since the whole thing ends with a classic punchline). And as for the other half of the world’s readers, wouldn’t you know, even the misogyny in Roth’s work (and in Roth himself) can turn some women on. He’s no Everyman.
But, you see, Edwin Topliss is Everyman, as odd as his personal situation may be. He’s speaking for all of us. And he’s speaking very well, but in such a way as to offend and turn-off nearly everybody. My girlfriend, who loves your Parker novels, put this book down a few chapters in, and wouldn’t go on. And I’d say why I thought that was, but she reads this blog sometimes, and regardless of what Mr. Topliss thinks, there are valid life lessons one can learn from American literature.
(Mr. Westlake, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about when I tell you I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves, “Oh dear, Fred’s in one of his moods.” Hey, I don’t charge you guys to read this palaver. Not even 35 cents. I’ll get back to Dortmunder & Co. soon enough. Humor me, willya?)
Anyway, even after all of this self-revelatory insight, and after being chased out of his own house, and then out of the apartment of a (surprisingly) intimidated Rod Cox by his two semi-homicidal in-laws, Ed is still trying to finish the damn sleaze book! He’s sneaking into stores that sell typewriters and hammering out more pages, and then leaving when some salesperson asks if he want to buy anything. We don’t even get an explanation of how this confused narrative has been conveyed to us, no framing device, ala Lolita–Ed tells us his earlier chapters are lost, yet we can still read them. But that’s quibbling, isn’t it?
Betsy, who completely disappears from the story, though not Ed’s confused consciousness, after she walks out with Elfreda, told the police he’d committed statutory rape with their babysitter, which he didn’t, and the babysitter said so, but her father had her medically examined (ew!) and turned out she wasn’t a virgin (teenagers had sex back then? who knew?), so they don’t believe her. So the cops are after Ed as well. Not merely his writing career, such as it was, but Life As He Knew It, is over.
And I must say, he seems mainly relieved. Sad, chastened, still deeply ashamed of having failed to understand Betsy’s pain because he was so focused on his own, but still–relieved. And somehow empowered, odd as that sounds. As he starts to bid farewell to everything, we realize–he’s lost the whole world, and gained his immortal soul.
He’s trying to write a chapter about this guy named Brock Stewart, who Beth Trepless (Paul’s estranged wife, remember? Of course you do) picks up as she’s escaping, and there’s supposed to be a sex scene between them, but he can’t bring himself to write it. So Brock gets off at a crossroads where there’s a small diner, empty but for a pretty young waitress. Per the ‘La Ronde’ form of the sleaze novel that Ed told us about earlier, Brock is now supposed to seduce this girl, or she him, so the mating square dance can continue and instead we get this–
“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “you have to do, don’t you? You can’t just give up, can you?”
“Sure you can,” she said.
“Well, I’m not going to,” he said. “Who would I be if I gave up?”
“You mean, where would you be?”
“No, I don’t. I mean who would I be? Whom would I be?”
“You’d be you,” she said.
“I can feel the ground crumbling away beneath me,” he said. “I’m terrified.”
She said, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you?”
“Everything stops,” he said.
“You mean, you die?”
“No,” he said. “I mean I don’t get the book done, and Betsy doesn’t come back, and I don’t live in that house any more, and all of the things that I have been and roles that I have played and personas that I have assumed will come to a stop.”
“And what is left,” she said, “‘will be you.”
You won’t believe this but a third-generation (!!!) TV writer named Joss Whedon who did this show about a teenaged vampire slayer wrote basically that same exchange for her and a vampire she was fighting, thirty years after you wrote this, and people were over the moon about it, and comparing him to Shakespeare on the internet. He’s making untold millions now doing comic book superhero movies. And in a few more decades, nobody will remember him. Such is fame, for a writer. Many called, few chosen. Or chosen, then forgotten. You knew all about that.
Nobody will remember Edwin Topliss. The book he’s the hero of (and he is that, strange though it seems to say so), may never get republished, though I hope it will, someday. And yet, I consider this a hopeful ending, by the standards you upheld in life, because he threw away all the masks and pretensions, took a good hard look at himself, and decided he preferred his real face, homely though it might be.
And you went on writing popular books (never too popular, but durable as all hell), and rising above the material, and trying to find yourself in it. As some of us are still trying to find you in it, but you could have left us a few more clues, Mr. Westlake.
And I passed my self-imposed limit of 5,000 words–I guess maybe all formulas have their limits. Still, I’d best bring this epistolary review to a close. Au revoir, connard. Give my regards to Ambrose, and tell him I said these things will happen. Oh, and April Fool’s. Like that needed mentioning.
PS: I bet you thought nobody would ever check, but I did. And there it is, dusky boobs and all. Page 76 of the New York Sunday Times Book Review, November 26th, 1967. African Image, Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95. Photos by Sam Haskins. The review is fittingly entitled A Feeling for Africa.