Mr. Westlake and The 80’s

If it seems like just a bit over four months ago that I posted my article about Westlake and the 70’s, that’s because it was.  I said it would go quickly, and it did.  The 80’s won’t take long to cover either, but in this case, I’m kind of relieved.   The actual 80’s, as I recall, dragged on endlessly, an unrelenting big-haired nightmare.  And this was the era I came to maturity in, curse the luck.  The 60’s I can barely remember, the 70’s are an adolescent blur, and the 80’s I only wish I could forget.

I doubt very much it was one of Westlake’s favorite decades either.  Perhaps the personal side of it went well, with a new and (finally) successful marriage, but professionally speaking–eh.

Westlake became a professional writer in the 50’s, but spent most of that decade developing a style (or several), and was mainly writing short stories for the pulps and novels for the sleaze paperback market.  The 60’s marked a flurry of creative activity–he wrote and published around forty (!) books in that decade, as himself, Stark, Coe, Clark, etc– that’s not counting all the additional sleaze paperbacks.

The 70’s, as I wrote four months ago, were about him slowing down, taking stock, developing his comic voice to a higher level of sophistication, finding new wrinkles to the formulas he’d pioneered in the 60’s; the Nephews, Dortmunder–but also losing the clarity of Stark, the conscience of Coe.   He was mainly a solo act.

And somehow, without all those additional names to write under, other people he could be, he couldn’t write as much.   Maybe fifteen books for that decade, all told (it’s a bit unclear, since his books were not necessarily written the year they were published, and a decade is not such a precise thing, when considered in a cultural context).

I think he enjoyed the 70’s, particularly that part of it he spent writing for M. Evans & Co., but that relationship came to an end with Castle In The Air, and he only published two books with his next house, Viking (it sometimes seemed like he was competing to see how many publishers a writer can have in one career), before forming an alliance with his good friend Otto Penzler that would last the rest of his life, under several imprints.

This was good news for the independent in him, but there are certain advantages to a major house when it comes to distribution, promotion, remuneration, etc.   If there was any chance of him becoming a ‘mainstream’ author, that pretty much died out in the 80’s (though it didn’t go quietly, and showed distinct signs of life in the mid-to-late 90’s, much to his surprise).

Kahawa was the transitional work–he started work on it at the very end of the 70’s, and published it early in the 80’s–and after investing so much time and effort, it was a resounding dud in the marketplace.  The new publisher didn’t know what to do with it–or him.   Vanished with barely a ripple.

Perhaps some of his reaction to this can be found in the title of the fifth Dortmunder novel, Why Me?   He’d produce three Dortmunders in the 80’s, each of them a triumph, creating a momentum for the series that would carry it well into the next century.  Somehow, Dortmunder was the perfect antidote to the 80’s.

And he went on experimenting with the possibilities of the comic novel, of satire, of farce.   He wrote an epistolary novel about the foibles of the publishing business (no one was better qualified) that rivals Adios Scheherazade.  He wrote another about a weekly scandal tabloid that featured his only female series protagonist.   He looked deeper than ever before into the maelstrom that is an actor’s soul.   He produced some of his best work in this decade, please don’t misunderstand me.   I only wish 80’s music had been as good as 80’s Westlake.

But there were some significant misfires.   A book about Latin America–this time a real country that actually exists there!–that just does not quite work.   Another novel, about a celebrity kidnapping, that he completed, and it’s good–but it didn’t see publication until after Westlake’s death, because he found out a Martin Scorsese film with a superficially similar storyline was coming out around the same time it was originally due to hit the bookstores, and people would talk.

And he started a new detective franchise, with a really ‘high-concept’ hero, very much a reflection of that era–and I like those books.  I’ll make it clear how much I like them.  And yet, that new beginning turned into yet another cul de sac for Westlake, a failed attempt to create a new literary persona, a chance to prove he could start over again from scratch.  And to a certain extent, I have to think that was self-sabotage, but we’ll get to that.

He’d never again craft a pseudonym that would stand on its own.  He learned, to his sorrow, that he’d become too well-known a writer to disappear into another identity anymore.   Well, that’s what actors who become stars all have to contend with, isn’t it?    The answer to this quandary would have to wait until the following decade–and he’d be toting a Smith & Wesson Terrier when he came.

And that was the 80’s.  Honestly, I like Westlake’s version of this decade a lot better than the one I lived through.  If I can stick to a post a week (I’m making no promises), shouldn’t take more than another four months to negotiate it.   But in the words of an otherwise unmemorable 1990 Dennis Hopper/Kiefer Sutherland buddy comedy, “Once we get out of the 80’s, the 90’s are gonna make the 60’s look like the 50’s.”  You better believe it.   See you next year, peeps.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

18 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The 80’s

  1. We are going to have words about that new franchise; to me, the only word to describe reading them is “chore”.

    On another subject, it occurs to me how much Westlake’s career resembles Walter Jon Williams’s. He’s an SF writer you’ve probably never heard of, which is kind of the point. His books can be hilarious, or tough-minded, or awe-inspiring, but he never found the one thing that would lead to fame and fortune, and he’s also been with many different publishers (an occupational hazard, since SF imprints are created and destroyed almost at the speed of virtual particles.) Had his career gone slightly differently, he would have been a famous author of bestsellers, rather than a semi-obscure midlister.

    • Well, lots of people have heard of Westlake–and lots of other have not. I think he’s pretty much entirely remembered for the comic capers and the Parker novels, and he found it nigh-impossible to be appreciated writing anything else–his sheer prolificness, combined with the fact that he had sold a lot of books historically, made it possible for him to keep producing work that was interesting to him, that kept his creative juices flowing–and he went out of his way not to write the same book over and over again, even when he was writing series fiction.

      The fact is, it’s hard to write well in a lot of voices and become a best selling novelist. In fact, these days it’s hard to write well and become a best-selling novelist, full stop. My sympathies to Mr. Williams, but he did choose to write SF, so he couldn’t have been too surprised.

      Westlake didn’t have publishers or imprints shot out from under him–I think he mainly changed publishers in response to changes in the market, in the publisher itself (in his mind, he was working with editors, not magnates, and the difference between a good editor and a bad one–or just a less sympathetic one–can make a huge difference to the final product, as one book he wrote this decade made very clear). We know he left Random House in part because his agent got him in a bidding war, but that would indicate he was seen as a valuable enough property to bid on.

      He’s caught in a trap–to some extent of his making, to some extent just a consequence of some unfortunate changes in the publishing industry, but he refuses to remain a prisoner–he keeps breaking out. And it may be one of the reasons he never had a true best-seller was that he was deeply ambivalent about that–he saw that can end up being the worst trap of all for a writer. That’s the trap you never get out of.

      His biggest seller may have been The Fugitive Pigeon–still not on any best-seller lists that I know of, and yet it changed the trajectory of his entire career. He wasn’t alone in this–just read Cassidy’s Girl, by Goodis, which sold around a million copies as a paperback original (not so uncommon back then, but still a real accomplishment)–and I realized that Goodis ended up doing variations on this book (some much better than others) for the rest of his tragically short life. Goodis never found other voices to write in, and the voice he was stuck in was magnificent–but also limiting. And depressing as all hell.

      I look forward to a spirited discussion of the Holts. They are problematic books, to be sure. But I went through them really fast. So did Westlake, of course–I don’t think we lost any better books to them. I’d certainly agree it was no great loss that he shut that franchise down, but I do wish he’d gotten a bit more closure on it, as he did with Tobin–that must have bugged him. What bugs me is that we never find out which girl Holt picks. Or maybe that’s the point. He can never make the hard choices–a modern Hamlet. We’ll discuss that too.

      • And almost as if on cue, here’s an example of how becoming a world-famous best-selling author with a hugely successful media adaptation of your work can absolutely ruin you as a writer.

        Mind you, I don’t really care, since I gave up on reading those books not long after I started on the first one. His prose just does not work for me. His characters and ideas do, and the TV series has subsumed them–subsumed him. He’s become an ancillary product of his own franchise.

        Westlake would have sooner slit his wrists, I think.

        • I look at that a bit differently. GRRM had always been much better at short fiction than novels. In fact, I’ll say that more strongly. He was a terrific, multi-award-winning short story writer, and even his best novels has been, well, OK. Then he decided to write an incredibly complex series, set in many countries on several continents with literally hundreds of characters and centuries of backstory, and the whole thing got away from him. That happened before the TV series, which started in, what, 2011? The first sign was the hiatus between book 3 (2000) and book 4 (2005). They had been coming out every 2 years as fully finished, polished works, but book 4 covered only half the characters and had several new plot lines that didn’t go anywhere. Book 5 (2011) covered the other half and introduced new pointless plot lines.

          Books 1-3 (Seasons 1-4 of TV) told a pretty well-made story, to which the TV show is quite faithful. GRRM’s original plan was to set book 4 five or six years later, but that didn’t work, so he had to throw away what he’d done and go back and start over with no real plan, and he’s been flailing since then. Season 5 of TV was more or less books 4 and 5 combined, omitting all the stuff that was extraneous, which shows how much of what he put in those books was unnecessary. Season 6 will be the first one to go beyond the books (which I’m looking forward to; it’s never been able to surprise me before.)

          Anyway, while I’m sure the distractions have been a problem, I suspect he also uses them as a way to avoid working on a story that he doesn’t know how to write,

          • I’ve only read a little of his earlier work, and it was a long time ago, mainly in Asimov’s SF magazine (I think). I wouldn’t have known it was the same writer. I agree, the story got away from him, but this seems to have happened about the same time he got famous, which happened before the TV series, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a TV series.

            I see this pattern in the careers of many writers–they obviously crave that experience of having people come up to them desperately wanting to know when the next book is out–but once it happens, the burden of expectations can be crippling. It happens to people who make movies too. I don’t know how Dickens managed to cope with it. Maybe it helped that the books were published first in magazines, a chapter at a time.

            Thing is, I don’t even like the earlier books that much, and the series is basically the only thing on TV I truly give a damn about (well, that and Adventure Time and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)–maybe if I’d just come across them, without knowing anything about them, I’d have reacted differently.

            I think most writers, like most actors, desire fame–but they want it on certain terms–they want to control it, make it do their bidding, conform to their needs. Fame generally refuses to cooperate. You will have less than you want, or more, or the wrong kind. Basically, everybody wants attention, and nobody wants to be gawked at like a sideshow freak.

            Westlake finally did write a book he was justly proud of, that got fantastic reviews, sold very well, was made into an excellent movie by a great and famous director (foreign, of course), and his main reaction was “What have I done? This ruins everything!” And afterwards, he mainly wrote Parker and Dortmunder novels. And tried to create yet another pseudonym to hide behind, but of course that didn’t work either.

            I sometimes think even when he wrote under his own name, he was (in his own mind) writing under a pseudonym. Because, you see, nobody knew who Donald Westlake was either. 😉

  2. Ray Garraty

    How many writers we know who started write better books at the end of the careers? Dostoevsky was still good, though his novelistic outcome was not that big. Chekhov got better over time – yet he never wrote novels. Ed McBain? Only his early 87th Precinct novels are still unbeatable, what came later are hit or miss. Block? I still consider his very first novel his best. To be a professional means to kill some spark in you, and only this spark sometimes gives birth to great books.

    • Westlake wrote his best novel (in the opinion of many) in his sixties, about a decade before he died.

      He was a professional writer for quite a few years before he got to that great burst of productivity in the 1960’s. He wrote everything you’ve ever read of him as a professional, and your favorite books of his are about the ultimate professional. Parker isn’t creative? He is in his own way.

      Most of the novelists we call great didn’t write a lot of books. But how much of that is about critics making false assumptions about what kind of writing is ‘important’?

      I think it’s about age, not professionalism, Ray. At some point in time, you just get tired. Some writers get a second wind, even a third. Others hit a wall. Inspiration runs dry. Or success can take away their motivation. Or too much failure. Or bad health. Or other interests. Or they only had so many viable ideas to start with.

      Professionalism is not the problem. Unless you are only writing for money, and that was certainly never true of Westlake.

      Westlake’s final decade as a writer wasn’t that innovative, to be sure–he mainly wrote Dortmunder and Parker novels. But never the same one twice. He never stopped trying. He never lost that spark.

      • Ray Garraty

        Professionalism is not when you write for money. It is when you just write and then do everything to sell what you wrote.
        As always, there are so many factors at play. When you are a pro writer, when you get paid for your work and that is your sole source of income, you can’t just quit, even if you feel that your later work is not on par with the earlier work. You get tired of writing, but you don’t switch to making tables or wating tables.
        It’s a very complicated topic, writers with a long careers. One day I’ll write something about it. At some point these long careers become more about readers, not about a writer.

        • By this standard, Peter Rabe was a better writer than Westlake. He switched to teaching psychology. Hell, by this standard he’s a better writer than William Shakespeare, who did retire from writing plays, but only to live a bourgeois gentleman’s life of leisure in his few remaining years.

          Westlake never wanted to have a dayjob. All he really wanted to do was write, from his teens to his final days. It was hard for him, at times, to make enough money at it, but he seems to have just been compelled to keep working at it. And what’s more, to try and keep coming up with different ideas, to avoid just writing the same book over and over again, to the point where he’d abandon profitable series characters because he felt like he couldn’t do them justice.

          Ever read Somerset Maugham’s Don Fernando? It’s a travel book, about Spain, and at one point he discusses why the Spanish produced so few great writers in their golden era, compared to other European nations. He thinks it’s because the aristocratic culture there tended to look down on writing for profit (and it took a long time for them to develop much of a middle class).

          For every Cervantes and Lope de la Vega (basically the only two Spanish authors of that period anyone talks about), there were so many dilettante grandees, who’d write some book out of vanity, or passing interest, but not work at it, not develop their craft. A writer is a writer is a writer. Yes, inspiration can strike anywhere, an amateur may produce a genuinely great work–but he’s unlikely to do so again. Over time, the professional will always outdistance the amateur, no matter how talented. Nobody ever got really good at something without working at it, really hard.

          Now one could object that there are exceptions–I once told someone I’d rather have written Lampedusa’s The Leopard than the entire oeuvre of Stephen King. Lampedusa was a Sicilian prince, he wrote only one book, and it happens to be a masterpiece. He felt no need to write anything else. He’d said all he needed to say. It’s a brilliant timeless novel, but is Lampedusa therefore a great writer? I think a great writer needs to do it more than once. To prove it wasn’t just a fluke. Say what you will about King, he’s no fluke. He’s proved that many times over, and he’ll probably prove it a few times more before he’s done. Maybe he’s not a great writer either, but he’s a writer. Lampedusa was merely a talented dabbler, whose life constituted his research.

          One might argue that Lampedusa’s whole life built up to that book, and quantity doesn’t automatically trump quality. J.R.R. Tolkien really didn’t write any fiction of consequence other than his great trilogy, and the supporting works he wrote around it, where his interest in somehow melding his Christian values with his love of northern European pagan mythology found its apotheosis. On reflection, I question whether Tolkien was a great writer as well, and this is coming from somebody who loved those books as a kid. An important writer is not the same thing as a great one, and neither is a beloved writer.

          There may not be a correct answer to this question, the amateur vs. the professional, and I agree it’s not about whether you accept money or not. The most important thing is to produce work of lasting value, whether you do it one time or a thousand. But I think if you look at the writers who produced work of lasting value, you’ll see that the great majority of them spent their whole lives learning how to do so.

          One hit wonders have their place in the scheme of things, but taking music as a counter-example, you don’t look at a band that produced one song everybody knows, and nothing else of note, and think that’s one of the great bands of all time. You just think how neat it would be to live off the royalties while screwing hot middle-aged groupies.

          You shouldn’t feel like you have to be a great writer in order to write, but if you want to be a great writer, you’d better write a lot.

  3. Anthony

    As far as losing the spark – hard to say. Sure, in the last decade of Dortmunders and Parkers he remained creative, but there was a certain I don’t give a damn vibe to it all. Westlake stayed there because it was comfortable and – at least in the case of the Dortmunders – they were characters he just enjoyed hanging out with. I wouldn’t necessarily call it laziness, but I think whatever spark previously drove him constantly to explore the new was being ignored if not actually gone.

    And, what the hell, good for him. He was at the age when most people just want to be comfortable and hang out with folks they enjoy anyway. (I do have a question – is it possible that the limitation to his two serial characters was imposed by the publisher?)

    As an aside – I’ve always thought of Drowned Hopes as a rehash of The Hot Rock. Sure there’s the Jimson induced tonal difference, but Dortmunder’s stuck in a cycle of having to try over and over and over again to obtain the same thing. It’s not the same book written twice, but still…

    • Okay, last thing first–I strongly disagree. Drowned Hopes is very much its own animal. Repetitive theft is not really what that book is about (particularly since they’re not stealing anything, they’re just repeatedly trying and failing to retrieve money that was stolen much earlier, and of course they never actually–well, we’ll get there). I can’t think of a Dortmunder novel much more different from The Hot Rock. Westlake was really stretching the form there. And introducing a character who was seriously capable of murder (and in fact, intent upon it). Parenthetically, I think I know where he got that character from, and it wasn’t the work of Jim Thompson.

      It lacks the focused perfection of The Hot Rock or Bank Shot, because it’s one of his rare epics, where he deals with a wide variety of things, and doesn’t worry so much about structure. It’s one of the better novels in the series, but it’s also probably the weirdest.

      He definitely was constricted in what he could publish by what people expected of him, what publishers would take from him. But I don’t think that’s the only reason the 00’s were all about his two stalwarts.

      I think his health was clearly failing by then. You don’t just drop dead at 75 when you’ve been in great shape in the years coming up to that. I don’t think he was writing by then to make a living. He was writing to stay alive. Every time he sits down to write a book, he knows it could be the last one he ever writes. His bout with Lyme disease (when he was working on Breakout) probably took a whole lot out of him. And yet he kept going, producing novels faster than most professional authors half the age he was then ever do. And they were damned good novels, all of them. Yeah, even Flashfire, flawed though it be.

      We can talk about it when we get there, but I think he needed Parker and Dortmunder at the end–they were his support system. When everything else failed, they sustained him, held him up, kept him going. As peripheral systems failed, he fell back on what he knew best. And he said things of genuine interest and value with them, as he felt the reaper closing in. There’s a real sense of finality to those books. And yet, particularly with the Parkers, you see him setting up new storylines, new possibilities–because he won’t leave himself without an outlet. If he lives a few more years, he wants to have stories to tell. Because without that, he’s not really alive. He’s just breathing.

  4. Anthony

    Well, if we’re going to disagree…(grin)

    One thing I enjoy about Drowned Hopes is the focused perfection. What starts as an apparent gag about the dam employee who just happens to be getting married to the girl who just happened to be doing so at the church where Tom just happened to have hidden one of his stashes when the gang just happened to want to retrieve it. Well, all part of a very well thought out plot.

    I will stand by my premise. The doing over and over again is common to both books. Yes – they are about as different as two novels featuring the same protagonist can be, but the fact remains that Dortmunder has to do the same thing over and over again in each one and it pisses him off. To our delight.

    • Good point–it’s more sprawling, more loose-jointed, but it’s still extremely well thought out. A whole lot more moving parts than The Hot Rock, you must agree. And one hell of a different ending.

      I think the ‘doing over and over’ thing is not the main point of the book. It’s just a plot device to hang the real ideas of the book on. You might as well say Hitchcock kept making the same movie over and over, because so many of them are about unjustly accused heroes on the run. Hmm, maybe you would say that. 😉

      • Drowned Hopes is a unique Dortmunder book because the stakes are so high that the characters change. May endangers herself to force Dortmunder to do the right thing. Murch is at times genuinely scary, not just friendly and car-obsessed. It’s sort of the same way that Night Watch is a unique Vimes book.

  5. Anthony

    Worked for the new Star Wars movie…

    • Some writers repeat themselves.

      Other writers repeat other writers.

      The latter frequently make a whole lot more money.

      But they can’t take it with them. Though I believe there’s a lot of lawyers and accountants looking for a loophole there. 😉

      • Dan Brown makes an (obscenity) of money repeating himself. At least I hope there’s no one else who writes like that whom he could be repeating. But seriously, the formula of learn just enough about something to make a complete hash of it, then display your almost total ignorance in a thriller written in a language vaguely resembling English is all Brown.

        Michener wrote Hawaii, what, a dozen times, just setting it in different locations. WJW, whom I talked about above, said

        When in my teens I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse, till I realized all his books had the same plot and I lost interest. (Now, as a writer, I can only admire Wodehouse his ability to write ninety-odd books with the same plot.)

        I’m kind of impatient to get to the later Parker books, because Westlake is doing something really interesting there: repeating himself while going in a whole new direction.

        • If you write enough books, you kind of have to repeat yourself to some extent. There’s only so many stories to tell, when you get down to the basic elements. And you are going to have certain personal preoccupations, that form the backbone of your work–that’s what makes it different from everybody else’s, but if each book is completely different, there’s no underlying theme that holds everything together, makes a collection of books and stories a body of work (for example, Westlake’s obsession with identity).

          The trick is to make it different, even though underneath it all, it’s the same. But readers very often really do just want the same thing, over and over. And then we notice, as we’re reading a certain author’s latest rehash, “Hey, this isn’t as much fun as it used to be.” Because the writer isn’t having any fun. He’s just making a living.

          I don’t think Westlake was ever just making a living. I don’t think he ever wrote a book that didn’t matter to him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s