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.