Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

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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.

‘Fred’

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.

::snigger::

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19 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

19 responses to “Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

  1. Ray Garraty

    Though they played with the sleaze, all three books were released in hardcover. That tell you something?
    I think pulps and sleaze had similar fate – as did the writers who wrote pulp or sleaze. When pulp started to dry out, publishers quiclky found new replacement. The times were more liberating, people wanted more sex, and publishers give new subgenre instead of a dead one. Sleaze remained cheap, quick and easy to read, played with stereotypes, used some cliches and standards, and public ate it.
    But pulp had wide variety and large print runs. So to match it, sleaze publishers had to make not worse. And they did. There were dozens of publishers, and print runs were huge. To cater to mass audience, publishers had to employ hundreds of writers, who should have written very fast and be very productive. It all applies to pulps, too.
    The pay was low, as was with the pulps. And to make a living you should have write many books a year.
    But the main outcome of that was no matter how many quickes you could write, you wanted out. You wanted make it big time. You wanted to make it to big literature. And that meant (and still means) hardcover. Pulp writers abandoned pulps for hardcovers, not for money (at first) but for prestige. And then sleaze writers did the same. And sleaze died. R.I.P.

    • I think that’s a good analysis, but I’m not convinced the average sleaze reader noticed that the good writers were jumping ship–the fact that they tried to keep their pen names going maybe shows that there was some specific following for the likes of Alan Marshall and Sheldon Lord (not to mention Dirk Smuff), but I think they could have just found a new batch of up and comers who needed the bread.

      I think the main reason sleaze died was that it was a transitional thing–as real porn became more and more mainstream, the market for heavily euphemized sex stories waned. ‘Adult’ film theaters began to flourish in the early 1970’s, and it wasn’t just old guys in dirty raincoats going there. And the skin magazines were also printing short erotic fictions–not nearly as well-written as the best sleazes, but was that ever the point?

      The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books is not even trying to be a sleaze–there is literally no sex in it at all. But it must have been problematic to sell, because it’s promising sex with those covers, and with that title. Anyway, the sleaze market was still very much a going thing in 1959–I think the book is just Dresner’s declaration of independence from sleaze, though for all I know he went on writing it afterwards. It’s very hard to find out much of anything about Dresner.

      Ronald Rabbit is, as I’ve said several times, actual porn, but with just enough story and character (and verve) to put it part of the way into Portnoy’s Complaint territory–I personally like it better than Portnoy’s (I’ll take Merry Cat over The Monkey any old day), but I would not for one second pretend it deserves to be seriously compared with Roth’s book, and neither would Block, I’m sure. You know, the main problem with that book is that Block was having too much fun with it. And nobody, I don’t care who it is, can write a good novel in four days.

      Westlake’s book is not merely a personal rejection of sleaze, or porn, but a full-out attack on it. I don’t think Andrea Dworkin (is she still around?) ever skewered male sexual fantasies half as effectively. Because, of course, she never understood them. Westlake did. And his point, or at least one of them, was that they can get in the way of understanding what you really want–from yourself, or your partner. Not that you should be ashamed of sexual fantasies, but that there comes a time to put childish things aside. And yet, as we know, his third wife, years later, would tell us he was ‘obsessed with sex’, and refused to comment any further. Easier to write it than to live it.

      • Ray Garraty

        Good writers didn’t jump ship – the ship itself sank. While it was possible to make money wriitng sleaze, they did so. But that required a lot of constant work. Many were already feeling burned down. Then, as you said, the whole subgenre started dying (many factors played a role in its death), and writers, those who had talent and ability, switched to other less demanding physically jobs. Like writing one-two hardcovers a year for the same money. Or publishing short stories in reputable magazines. Sleaze helped them to develop their craft, helped to earn money, but sleaze could not be a goal, a dream. They went to seek their dream in other places.

        • I don’t think writing sleaze bothered most of them as much as it did Westlake, but there was more money to be made elsewhere for the best among them, and there was a real risk of getting going down with that ship if you tarried there too long. Hence the pen names, and hence farming them out to other writers–none of whom seem to have developed their own reputations, which justifies Westlake’s assertion here that it was a trap that only writers who really knew who they were and what they wanted to do could escape.

          The reason Ed Topliss can’t escape is that this is all he’s known for–he never wrote anything else, and because this is a genre the literary agents like Scott Meredith have locked up tight, the guys who aren’t established can’t go elsewhere and make any kind of living at it. There are actually some good professional tips for aspiring writers concealed in this ‘sex book’ nobody seems to want to discuss with me.

          However, even very successful writers might go on hammering out this stuff, if they needed a bit of supplemental income. As you probably already know, since you’re the one who alerted me to Larry Block’s new collection of nonfiction pieces that I intend to review next week, which is startlingly frank about some of his now-deceased friends and colleagues. I can say this much–if you tell Mr. Block a secret, just make damn sure you outlive him.

          He tells us a mildly shocking tale of the late Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, originally Salvatore Lomboso, who was certainly a very successful writer by this time–he’d had several best-sellers (which Westlake never did), there’d been big movie deals, he had the 87th Precinct series, and he was raking it in–not E.L. James money, but who said life was fair? Anyway, a man can always use a bit more money, particularly if he’s got a girlfriend he doesn’t want his wife to know about.

          So he had this little side-arrangement with the guy who published Nightstand Books and other sleaze imprints, and according to Block, he was spending several days each month writing sleaze under the name Dean Hudson–something he always denied in public, it should be mentioned. Then, again according to Block, he got tired of it, and farmed the name out (because nobody can write this shit forever–you really need to read the book I just reviewed here, Ray–and I wish somebody who did would pipe up here).

          But see, the point of it was not that he was so terribly short on cash, but that he needed an income stream his wife didn’t know about to keep the mistress in the fashion to which she’d become accustomed without alerting the missus to the arrangement, capish?

          And then, as you probably already read about, Scott Meredith, one of the great bastards in American publishing history (and given that this includes the likes of Wliliam Randolph Hearst, that’s no small distinction), got peeved at his former client for dumping him, and let the wife know about the arrangement, and much unpleasantness ensued, and when Mr. Meredith died years later, one of those who rejoiced to hear the glad tidings was Evan Hunter.

          Honestly, I never knew Larry Block was such a gossip. And yet he has very little of a scandalous nature to say about his old friend Mr. Westlake, and I don’t know if this means that 1)There was nothing much of that nature to say, 2)He loved the guy too much to spread tales about him, or 3)Westlake was too smart to tell him any secrets he didn’t want trumpeted about after his death. What do you think? 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            Some became famous because of their sleaze stuff. Some just tried their hand at it. And if some mystery writers were a little ashamed of their sins of their youth (that’s the phrase Mr. Block used in his Twitter replying to one of my tweets), then some “big” writers also were ashamed – of writing just crime stuff.
            I think Westlake was more secretive than most other writers. Even though he lived long enough and lived part of his life in the Internet era, we don’t know much about him. Block probably hasn’t heard from Westlake much, not even small secrets, just regular stuff. One can only wish that DW were more of a blabbermouth.

            • Secretive, perhaps–and yet he tells us so much about himself, in his fiction. I really do believe in that Isaiah Berlin quote I mentioned when I started this blog. No matter how enigmatic a man may be, when he sets his hand to fiction, he tells the truth about himself. But you have to break the code to learn that truth. And in learning it, you learn something about yourself as well. Which is the only real point of the endeavor, right?

              • Ray Garraty

                Yet one cam only wait for an official biography. Only who can write that? An insider? Or somebody from the outside?

  2. Anthony

    Would love to pipe up, Fred, but I haven’t read this book since the 1970s. Much as I love Westlake, I’m not going to shell out insane bucks for a used copy. If your efforts to convince Mr, W to haunt/heckle his surviving family members into getting it available by Kindle pan out, let me know (yes, Ive checked my local library: bupkis).

    • I didn’t pay that much for my copy of the Signet reprint–$19.93, with shipping, via Amazon Marketplace (the actual seller was Goodwill Industries of San Joaquin Valley). Not a first edition, of course. You can find similarly priced editions now, on Amazon and ebay. Personally, I like that red paperback edition better than any of the hardcovers. It just seems like a book that should have been a paperback original.

      I really do wonder why it doesn’t have any recent editions (and Mr. Westlake declined to help me out). In my review of Memory, I wondered if one reason he never got it published was that it was too personal–this is obviously a great deal more personal–the most personal thing he ever wrote, I’d say–and from a writer you somehow don’t expect these kinds of revelations from, however oblique and encoded they may be. You just know the real Westlake is in there somewhere, telling us deeply private painful things about himself, but as he tells us in the book, he’s concealed the genuine truths amidst outright fabrications, so you have to make up your own mind what to believe–or not.

      If you read the book, you remember the episode with the hooker–it feels absolutely 100% real–up to and including a description of what her vagina felt like–could it have actually happened? Well sure, there were hookers in Times Square back then. Not anymore–they cleaned that part of town up good. No more porn movies, no more (openly soliciting) prostitutes, very little crime, and forget about going to see a Shaw Brothers Kung Fu triple feature at the Empire. Now you just have to worry about getting mugged by SpongeBob and Spider-man, and about coming up with a few hundred bucks to see some Disney animated flick turned into a Broadway show. I have a hard time seeing this as progress, somehow. But it’s clean.

      Now we know William Goldman was paying a great deal of attention to Westlake around this time–he was adapting The Hot Rock round about 1971, I’d guess–and in 1973, he came out with The Princess Bride. Which was a huge success, and got turned into a terrific film, and has entered the pop cultural zeitgeist in a big way. And I’d bet good money he was influenced quite a bit by Adios, Scheherazade.

      See, both books cut between fantasy and reality–that alone wouldn’t mean much, since Westlake hardly invented that (I have no idea who did). But in the novel, as opposed to the film (which sticks mainly to the fantasy elements), Goldman writes about how he, William Goldman, whose father read him this amazing adventure book by this Morgenstern person as a kid, is now a successful writer, famous for Butch Cassidy (which he tells us was directly influenced by The Princess Bride), only his success has a dark side, and his marriage is unhappy, and his son is a fat stupid disappointment, and life is unfair.

      And it’s bullshit. He had two daughters, not one son. His wife was nothing like the woman he describes in the book. And there never was any such book as The Princess Bride before he wrote it, and he wrote it after he wrote Butch Cassidy. He’s blending the real and the unreal–making himself a character in his own work, and distorting things to the point where you know he’s telling you things that are really true, but you can’t know quite where the truth ends and fantasy begins.

      And he’d never written anything like that before–and Westlake had, in this very book, and with at least equal skill, I would say. And he was reading Westlake avidly, as he said himself at the time the Hot Rock movie came out.

      But what Goldman did with it was very clever, artistically and commercially–most of the book isn’t tawdry and unreliable personal revelations–most of it is wondrous adventures, great heroes, true love, an idealized reality, that somehow still casts a harsh revealing light on actual reality. So those who want a great story can read it with pleasure, and filter out the unpleasant truths within–or accept them. It’s their choice. Hence a best-selling novel. Instead of a book about a personal and professional failure trying to write a bad porno–a book that basically has no audience, because it’s upsetting to people who hate porn and to people who love it, in just about equal measure.

      But I think maybe some might like to read it now, so I sure wish they’d republish it. It still has a great deal to say. But probably Westlake should have put a few good swordfights into it. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        It’s Otto Penzler who handles Westlake’s ebooks. As far as I remember, Penzler is a fan of Dortmunder and Westlake’s comic stuff. Maybe that explains why his Mysterious Press avoids early hard-boiled stuff and other stand-alone novels from Westlake.

        • Possible, but this is, in its own tragic way, a comic novel. It was originally marketed as such. It isn’t comic the way Dortmunder is comic, that’s for sure. Westlake’s early hardboiled stuff has no problem finding publishers now. But this book isn’t hardboiled either. It basically mocks and derides sleaze. And yet, in a twist that I can almost hear Westlake chuckling darkly about from The Final Mystery, many of his sleazes, written as solo efforts or in collaboration with Block, have made it to ebook form in recent years, and are much easier to obtain than Adios, Scheherazade. So I don’t think we can blame Otto Penzler for this sin of omission. Not that I’d want to blame him for anything.

          It may be as simple as the fact that as I mentioned, this is a book without a natural audience. It doesn’t fall into any genre, and it could be regarded as a critique of formula fiction in general, as well as of porn specifically. But I think mainly it’s just not what people expect from Westlake. It doesn’t fit his ‘brand’. He was always getting critical letters from readers when he tried something they didn’t expect from him. Too much politics in this book, too much sex in that one.

          And if I achieve anything at all with this blog, I’d like it to be that people reassess Westlake, realize just how large a writer he was, just how multi-faceted and unique, and that as Lawrence Block said in his posthumous assessment of him, that he could have written anything and made it work. He just happened to be a mystery writer, a crime writer, a comic caper guy, a hardboiled guy. It worked for him. But he’s so much more than that. And the reason his crime fiction holds up so well today, when so many others have fallen by the wayside, is you can feel that expansive questing spirit within it, pushing against the limitations of the genre, willing it to become more. To rise above the material. And asking the reader to do the same.

          • Replying to myself (since I think this thread may have run its course, at least until one of my other regulars reads or rereads this book), just wanted to say that before I came up with the epistolary review angle, I was going to open with a quote from the book itself, and with a fragment from the lyrics of a song I think you all know.

            Obviously this guy would never have made it in the sleaze book market. 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            Block participated in digitizing his books, Westlake couldn’t do the same, It’s up to a publisher. He, as you noted, just couldn’t find a way to marketize some of them. Maybe gradually if he’s made enough money off Westlake’s ebooks he’ll release it as ebook.

            • True, but actually some of those books are as much Westlake’s as his, and a number of Westlake sleazes that he wrote by himself have been digitized and marketed.

              I’ll say again, in a piece he wrote immediately after Westlake’s death, Block mentioned a handful of books he personally wanted to single out as being important parts of Westlake’s literary heritage, and Adios, Scheherazade was one of them. And that was over six years ago. And all the other books he mentioned are easily available now–and were at that time as well, I believe.

              Not that he was trying to compile a definitive list–he was still absorbing the news of his friend’s death–but for the record, the others he mentioned were the Parker and Dortmunder novels, The Ax, Dancing Aztecs, and Baby, Would I Lie? And the only one of those I’m kind of iffy about is the last–maybe he meant Trust Me on This? Much better book, but like he said, make your own list.

              Mine would certainly include Adios Scheherazade. Far and away the most important Westlake novel that is totally out of print, in any format. At least Anarchaos was reprinted fairly recently, so not hard to obtain a cheap copy, even though it’s not in print at the moment.

  3. Ray Garraty

    It seems strange to me that John D. MacDonald never wrote sleazes (as far as I know). He wrote for the pulps, wrote (mostly) for paperback market, was very prolific, yet he didn’t try his hand at sleazes. Perhaps he made enough money off paperbacks, not to seek more niche markets.

    • He put so much sex in his crime novels and others that you could say he was always writing sleazes, just not identified as such. But remember, he came up in the 40’s, before the sleaze market existed–he was writing for the pulps. By the time the sleazes came along, he was very well-established in both mystery and science fiction. And clearly a big influence on the people who did write sleaze to pay the bills.

      I have a hard time taking Travis McGee seriously, but I should probably try reading something else. I saw the movie they made of A Flash of Green, and loved it. He was more than just male wish-fulfillment. But the way McGee keeps finding The Perfect Woman, then she dies, then he avenges her, then he just meets another Perfect Woman and forgets all about the last one–you must admit, it’s a bit much. I have to believe Westlake was reacting to that (and James Bond) with regards to Parker’s love life. It’s just as much of a fantasy, but it’s a much more honest fantasy.

      • Ray Garraty

        I finished today The Drowner, his stand alone novel. It’s nicely written, with a sex angle, yet without any real sex. Probably it is so, that he never had the need to write sleazes, he could make much more money writing what he wanted to write.

  4. rinaldo302

    I have the paperback edition of this, but for a Westlake purist it’s unsatisfying, because they get the page breaks wrong. It’s part of the pleasure of the narrative delivery that each chapter is exactly 15 pages long, and in this edition they’re not. I wonder if that’s part of the challenge in turning it into an ebook — the need to have definitive page numbers.

    • I’ve never even seen the hardcover edition, except online–they’re damned expensive–and I like my paperback fine. I mean, the books he’s satirizing here were paperbacks. It just seems more appropriate, somehow. Also, I dislike the cover art for the hardcover. They should have found one of the artists who used to do sleaze paperback covers (or hell, go big and get Robert E. McGinnis, who pretty nearly always works in that vein, no matter what kind of book it is), and do it up right.

      I wish Hard Case would hire McGinnis, release the book as a small paperback with lurid cover art (and proper page breaks), and see what happens. The ebook edition is a problem, but not an insoluble one.

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