August was kind of an odd month, here at The Westlake Review, wasn’t it? We started off with Westlake’s one and only nonfiction book published in his lifetime, about a tiny Caribbean island most people have never heard of, and their struggle to remain independent by remaining a British colony. Then a very short novel about a public restroom, that turned out to be one of the longest and weirdest reviews I’ve ever written (that I have to stick in the qualifier really says something about both TWR and myself, but I’m not sure I want to know what that is). Then a novel set in late 19th century San Francisco, of all things, co-written with Brian Garfield, and then a novel written entirely by Garfield, that Westlake didn’t write a word of, though oblique references to him abound within. Well, that’s August for you.
Enough for now of the bibliophilia obscura (name of actual blog), the odd ducks, the apocryphal anomalies of Mr. Westlake’s long varied career, and nice as it is to know Mr. Garfield name checks his influences, our primary purpose here remains to analyze the major works of Donald E. Westlake, and over the next few months, it’ll be one after another.
Let me run down the list of coming attractions this fall–and remember my penchant for multi-part reviews when I think a book is worthy of extra attention:
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
Jimmy the Kid
These six novels were all published within the span of three years–1974 through 1976. For almost any other writer who was not doing mere hackwork, that would be a staggering rate of production, particularly since the first and last of these books are quite long and complex, the latter especially.
But for Westlake, it actually constituted a major slowdown. In the 60’s, he’d been known to publish that many novels in a single year. In 1976, his only published novel was Dancing Aztecs. The furor of the 60’s, the drive to establish himself, the need to express so many ideas, speak in so many different voices–calming down somewhat. He’s pacing himself more. He’s taking a bit more time with each book. And it shows.
Although we’ve already looked at sixteen books that bear publication dates from the 70’s, many of these were written before that decade actually dawned–no publisher could keep pace with Westlake’s staggering prolificacy (is so a word) in the 60’s, so books produced around the same time got spaced out.
And as we all know, a decade doesn’t start in earnest for a few years after it formally begins–the early 70’s were just an extension of the late 60’s, with the same basic social and political concerns, the same basic style in fashion, music, art, and fiction. I’d say the 70’s proper didn’t get going until just around the time Westlake would have written Butcher’s Moon.
What came before was, you might say, a transitional period. He wrote his last books featuring Alan Grofield and Mitch Tobin, two series characters with much to recommend them, that somehow ran their course and ended. He introduced John Dortmunder, whose course would run straight to the end of Westlake’s life.
He finished with Parker, and with Richard Stark, but in a way that seemed more like a beginning than an ending. He lost track of the Stark voice, as well as the Coe voice, but I’d say he incorporated those voices more into work he wrote under his own name. And Stark would be waiting for him well into the future, when Westlake needed him again.
As one decade ended and another began, he experimented with a variety of forms he had not previously been known for, and never would be, really–political thriller (Ex Officio), political satire (I Gave At The Office), narrative journalism (Under An English Heaven), literary parody (Comfort Station), and Gangway! is a comic western, whether the purists want to admit it or not. And while all were worth reading (and were fun to review), none of them really belong on a list of his best books. Whereas any list of his best books that doesn’t include at least five of the next six isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.
He didn’t just go back to the same old mystery rut–his long innovative run at Random House ended with Butcher’s Moon, and his short frustrating stint at Simon & Schuster was over almost before it started, but at M. Evans & Co. he began to really dig into the guts of what made his style and preoccupations work for him. He hit his stride in the 70’s, in a way he hadn’t before. He understood himself better as a writer. And there may have been one other factor in the mix.
That’s the dedication to Butcher’s Moon, and I believe the first time he mentioned Abby Adams, his future and final spouse, in a book dedication. Interesting how often third time’s the charm for some creative folks. Not that I don’t think Nedra Henderson and Sandra Foley don’t deserve credit as well for the amazing work he’d already done, but what we see now is Westlake taking stock, slowing down, and producing fully mature work–over and over again–even if that means producing a lot less. He’s come to a more stable period in both his personal and professional life. From our perspective, what this means is some really good books–but it also means we’ll get through the 70’s a lot faster than the 60’s.
Westlake published not one novel in the last three years of that decade–after the fourth Dortmunder novel, Nobody’s Perfect, in 1977, his next book was 1980’s Castle in the Air (which I like very much, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s very good), followed by 1981’s Kahawa, which he and Abby did extensive time-consuming research on. These would also be technically 70’s books.
For all intents and purposes, the 80’s belonged to Dortmunder, though there’s one or two other books from that decade I love, plus an attempt at a new series character (written under a new pseudonym), who I like well enough, but again, liking and admiring are two different things.
The next six books I both love and admire–they are Westlake at his iconoclastic genre-bending thought-provoking best. They are classics, each and every one of them. They are books to savor. And savor them we shall.