The 80’s segment of this blog dragged on longer than I anticipated or desired (much like the real 80’s). I could, if I wanted to, count the next book in the queue, published in 1990, as an 80’s effort. It was probably written mostly if not entirely in 1989, and the first book I counted as a true Westlake 70’s novel was 1974’s Butcher’s Moon. Because I felt like Westlake (and to some extent, America) was still more or less in 60’s mode before that–also because he was writing books faster than the publishers could get them in stores, so the publication dates were often misleading.
But in my opinion, he got himself into 90’s mode a lot faster. I don’t think he cared for that Reaganaut big-haired MTV decade any more than I did. Anyway, there’s always something arbitrary about an era’s starting and ending points, and I hereby declare the 1980’s are dead as far as The Westlake Review is concerned. Long live the 1990’s!
The 90’s constitute Westlake’s last groundbreaking era as a writer. He wrote some very strong books during the first eight years of the 21st century, but with one significant exception, they were all Parker and Dortmunder books (the others will be something of a chore for me to review, but I’m game if you are).
He was drawing back into himself, marshaling his remaining creative energies. As the 21st century dawned, he knew the best was behind him. He also knew that the public (and the publishing industry) would not accept his ventures outside the genres he was known for. As we’ve been discussing elsewhere on the blog, he produced one more unpublished novel in the 90’s, and was actually rebuked by his agent for doing so. In short order, I hope to link to Greg Tulonen’s review of that book, currently languishing in a Boston-based archive–but even more I hope to see it given the public airing it deserved in the first place.
In spite of such bruising disappointments, the best was still ahead of him at the dawn of the 1990’s, the decade in which he hit the big 6-O . The true test of a writer–youth fully behind him or her–is whether he or she can do more more than just restate what’s come before. To draw upon the decades of experience, and come up with something new, that builds upon the past without being stuck in it. To gather his or her creative energies for one last definitive statement.
It didn’t start that promisingly for him. He had some more serious misfires, most notably a return to science fiction (with a dash of C.S. Lewis) that I’d call his most intriguing and ultimately disappointing failure (that he retained a perverse affection for). But he followed up shortly afterward with an homage to H.G. Wells that turned into possibly his best (and longest) satire, and a damned good heist story to boot (of course not everybody sees it that way). He also turned out a sequel to Trust Me On This, and I wouldn’t call that a triumph either. I’d call it a decent bit of a mystery read, mingled with some good amateur anthropology, and nothing more.
Dortmunder kicked off this decade for him, and for that star-crossed thief, 1990 marked the epic to end all epics (except it didn’t). Counting the 1990 book, there were four Dortmunder novels that decade, and all of them rank among the very best for me. Starting the decade with perhaps his most Sisyphean endeavor (and his most heroic), Dortmunder became less and less of a Jonah as the decade wore on, gaining a fuller understanding of his powers, and using them in an increasingly retributive fashion.
But as the decade reached midway point, Dortmunder was pushed aside for a time by the unexpected return of Richard Stark and Parker. Retrospectively, there were plenty of hints this was coming. Westlake convincingly resurrected the Stark voice, and somehow made it seem as if Parker and some of his associates (and enemies) had gone into a kind of protracted hibernation, emerging into the Information Age like the splendid anachronisms they always had been.
No coincidence at all that just before he came back to Parker, Westlake produced his masterpiece. The book that somehow became a fruitful and terrifying collaboration of all the many voices of Donald Westlake, that most perfectly expressed what he had to say as a writer, and as a man. Once that was completed, and received with a level of critical and commercial success he found oddly unnerving (there was even a good film adaptation!), you could say he’d shot his bolt. He would have been well justified in just enjoying his final years, maybe turning out articles and short stories–he had nothing left to prove.
But even semi-retirement simply wasn’t an option for him. He could never top himself again after The Ax, though a follow-up book with a very similar title served as a more personal take on the same general theme–the walls closing in, options narrowing, desperate measures taken–but this time set in the world of novelists.
Westlake was done playing. Whether he wrote as Westlake or Stark in the 90’s, the harder tougher side of him began to take increasing precedence, even his comedic work taking on a stark edge. Because nothing, I’m afraid, is starker than old age. He only produced three Parkers in the 90’s, the beginning of a loosely linked five-book series that led into a final grim trilogy in the 00’s. But Stark is present in many other books, and to a lesser extent, so is Coe.
This is one decade I’ll be in no hurry to get through, but it’ll go all the quicker because of that. The closer you get to the terminal station, the faster the train seems to go. Or to put it differently, the closer you get to shore, the faster the leaky boat seems to sink.
But before I get to that great aquatic Dortmunderian epic, there’s something I have to clear up, regarding Mr. Westlake and a far less distinguished (but still rather fascinating) crime fiction author–almost like a game of correspondence chess. Unless I’m imagining it. Which I may well be. You be the judge.