Mr. Westlake and The Masterpiece

I’m not going to attempt to define the word masterpiece.  But I do suppose that any work to which the label sticks and sticks and sticks contains at least two things: an accounting, in perfect balance, of the materials it chooses to embrace; and an accounting so complete that it amounts to a summary, of the artist’s own creative method.  The content of the work must fall into place without forcing, with simple rectitude.  And its creator must expose himself in the content as wholly as it is possible for mortal man to do.

From The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

Sometime around 1998-’99, Donald Westlake wrote a very short article, that was never published in any form, until Levi Stahl saw the manuscript, years later, and put it in The Getaway Car, under the title Light.  And in essence, this article is Westlake complaining that people, both critics and readers, liked a recent book of his far too much, bought far too many copies of it, and he doesn’t know how to react to that, or what he’s supposed to do for a follow-up.  It’s just ruined his whole career.

Westlake bemoaned the fact that before this novel came out, he was operating more or less under the radar–popular enough that he could keep getting published, but not so well-known that he was burdened with excessive expectations for his next book–he had his readers, and they were willing to indulge his whims, follow him wherever he chose to go, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they followed.  He says he kept hearing complaints from his fellow writers who had some major epochal best-selling award-winning tome come out, and then struggled to live up to it in subsequent books.

Now he says he’s experiencing some of that himself, even though his book only made the L.A. Times list for two weeks, wasn’t really a bestseller in any strict sense of the term, and there were no Pulitzers in the offing.   There should have been, but it was still slotted as a crime novel, and 1998 was the year of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, now rather belatedly at a theater near you (Westlake’s book was adapted a decade sooner, by a much better director, with a slight change of venue).

He says he wrote a lighter thing, about insurance fraud (self-evidently The Scared Stiff, later published under a pseudonym), and was told by both agent and editor that it was totally unsuitable as a follow-up.

It wasn’t just the novel under his own name that created the problem–he’d also started writing Parker novels again as Richard Stark, but see, everybody knew who Richard Stark was now–a Stark novel would be treated as a Westlake novel, no longer its own separate thing.  And the new Parker novel had been greeted with great enthusiasm, and all of a sudden he’s not the ‘Neil Simon of Mystery’ anymore, the King of the Comic Caper–a relatively light mantle to bear.  Now he’s being taken seriously, and it’s freaking him out.  He says something about it being rather late in the day to have second novel problems.

Towards the end of the piece, he’s saying that for the first time since 1970, it has become ‘inappropriate’ for him to write about John Dortmunder, “the easiest and most enjoyable part of my working life.”  I have a very hard time swallowing this claim that he was being discouraged from writing about his most popular and beloved character (whose latest adventure had been made into yet another terrible movie with inappropriately cast actors), but he makes it anyway.

Perversity, thy name is Author.

And I say perversity because I have no doubt he was complaining about the exact opposite problem a short time earlier–we’ve seen ample evidence that he wanted to find a way out of the comic caper ghetto he’d spent more and more of his time in since The Fugitive Pigeon came out in 1965 (his other most successful book, and as different from the one we’re discussing here as Philip Barry is from Eugene O’Neill).

We can now read several novels of a more serious bent that he’d lavished considerable effort on prior to this break-out book, only to learn that nobody would accept stories like this coming from him–he was also very bothered by the commercial failure of hybrid works like Kahawa, that tried to work within his established niche while still venturing far outside the lines.

Perverse, but still consistent.  Donald Westlake never wanted to wear just one hat.  He wanted as many strings to his bow as he could possibly carry.  He knew full well what a burden the expectations of the reading public can be upon a writer.  When we really like something, we always want more of the same.  We object when the storyteller wants to try something else–that’s not what you do!   Do that thing you did that we liked, and keep doing it–until we don’t like it anymore, at which point we shall call you a One Trick Pony, and pack you off to the knackers, like poor Boxer in Animal Farm.  The writer is simply supposed to sigh heavily and say “Comrade Reader is always right.  I must work harder.” And eventually drop dead in the traces.

Temperamentally, Westlake was far more a donkey than a workhorse (the Irish in him, no doubt).  He got very contrary.  He was going to work on his own terms, or not at all.  And he was going to get those Benjamins in the process (you see what I did there?).  Donkeys live a long time.  Professionally speaking, at least.

So in re-reading this little diatribe on his then-current woes as a suddenly much more successful and acclaimed Serious Writer (and don’t think for a minute he’s not bragging about this even as he’s bemoaning it, we’re wise to your tricks, Westlake!), I did experience some moments of doubt regarding numerous statements I’ve made in the course of working my way through the 80’s and early 90’s–that Westlake was chafing at the bit, feeling underrated, underappreciated, and confined to a cute comic cubbyhole. My certitude was shaken, I do confess it.

But not for very long.  Because, you see, I’ve read all the articles in The Getaway Car, and one of them was written not by Donald Westlake, but rather by Abby Westlake–the World’s Leading Authority on the many moods of her man.  And the most striking observation she made in that piece was that Westlake’s outward personality tics would change, depending on which literary mode he was in, which alter-ego, he was writing as (and given that this piece was originally published in 1977, it seems evident that sometimes he’d be writing (and living) as one of these alter-egos even when he wasn’t publishing anything under that particular nom de plume).

Tucker Coe, she observes–

–is the gloomy one, almost worse to have around the house than Richard Stark.  We see Tucker Coe when things go wrong.  The bills can’t be paid because the inefficient worlds of publishing and show business have failed to come up with the money to pay them.  Children are rude, noisy, dishonest, lazy, loutish, and above, all, ungrateful; suddenly you wonder what you ever saw in them.  Ex-wives are mean and grasping.  Cars break down, houses betray you, plants refuse to live, and it rains on the picnic.

But remember, she said almost worse–when Stark is in control–

Children tremble, women weep and the cat hides under the bed.  Whereas Tucker Coe is morose and self-pitying, Stark has no pity for anyone.  Stark is capable of not talking to anyone for days, or, worse yet, of not talking to one particular person for days while still seeming cheerful and friendly with everyone else.  Stark could turn Old Faithful to ice cubes.  Do you know how Parker, when things aren’t going well, can sit alone in a dark room for hours or days without moving?  Stark doesn’t do this–that would be too unnerving–but he can play solitaire for hours on end.  He plays very fast, turns over the cards one at a time, and goes through the deck just once.  He never cheats and doesn’t seem to care if the game never comes out.  It is not possible to be in the same room with him while he’s doing this without being driven completely up the wall.

And to some extent, even ‘Donald E. Westlake’–just another alter-ego.  No more or less real than the others.  Perhaps a bit more grounded, more complex–and more genial.  Certainly far easier to live with.  Is it a mere coincidence that of his three marriages, the one that lasted was the one embarked upon as Coe and Stark faded into the background for a very long time?  I’m sure it was more than that.  But going by his third wife’s own words, how long could you live with somebody who alternated between Stark and Coe all the damn time?

So in the light of these revelations, we can say with authority that it was ‘Donald E. Westlake’ who wrote that little article complaining about his newfound success–and then wisely shelved it for posterity to discover at a later date.  The part of him that was Coe, that was Stark (and we could throw in Curt Clark, who I don’t think ever went away completely either; Humans is proof of that, and maybe this book we’re talking about now as well)–those more somber personas could not live on a diet of non-stop whimsy, farcical felonies, mingled with satiric social observations.

Farce and satire and observational comedy were vital components of Westlake’s talent, his character–they weren’t everything he had to offer.  Like any man who knows what’s funny, he also knows what isn’t.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Westlake was spared the final age–second infancy–by a sudden and untimely death, but we can see the middle ages reflected throughout his mature work.   The Lover, the Soldier, the Justice, and maybe even a bit of the lean slippered pantaloon towards the end.  Certainly much of the whining schoolboy in his very early stuff.

In effect, he was complaining in that article he never published about having finally achieved the Bubble Reputation–something he both desired and feared, because he knew how fame and success can undermine identity, trap you inside a false self, cut you off from your muse (and it’s not only artists who need muses–we all have them, little as we heed them most of the time).

I have that Walter Kerr quote up top (he’s talking about Chaplin and City Lights) because I think this is the one book of Westlake’s that embodies what Kerr was getting at there, with his typical incisiveness.  But I don’t think this is Westlake’s only masterpiece, by any means.  I’m sure we’d all come up with different lists.

You can see part of mine in the cover images I chose, but I couldn’t very well put all of them up there.  Man wrote a lot of good books.   And if you look closely, many of them can be perceived in the framework of this book.  Many of his scattered identities.  He was bringing the whole chorus to bear here, as he had never done before, nor ever would again.

361, about a young man whose already tenuous sense of self is undone by the loss of his family, and in taking arms against a sea of troubles, he finds out who he really is.  For better or worse.  Probably both.  The first unequivocally great Westlake novel, that was composed around the same time as The Hunter, which took the Vendetta as Identity Crisis angle to a whole new level.  To some extent, that cover is standing in for all the Parker novels–collectively, they may well be Westlake’s best work, but because Parker isn’t really one of us, there are certain limitations to what can be expressed with them.  They were written in third person, but please note–all the other books I’m referencing up top featured first person narrators–like the current book.

It was also around this time that Westlake started writing Anarchaos, which I’ll say once more is highly reminiscent of our current book (I’m really stalling about naming it, aren’t I?  What am I so scared of?).  A man is at war with an entire planet, with a brutish nasty and short way of life that chewed up his brother and spat him out, and he’s going to make them all pay.  It’s science fiction, so the protagonist can find a way to destroy that society, punish it collectively for its crimes–but once you’re outside that realm, your options get narrower, if not necessarily less extreme.

Then came Adios, Scheherazade, (still bafflingly and unforgivably out of print), which as I explained in my review, is about a man who loses the whole world and gains his immortal soul.  Much of Westlake’s 1997 book was prefigured in this early underappreciated masterwork, with a crucial exception–this book’s protagonist is headed in the opposite direction.  To hell with his soul, he wants his world back, by any means necessary.  Another first person narrative.

As were the five Mitch Tobin novels, of which I’d consider the third and fourth to be unquestionable masterpieces–the first and second come close, the fifth was just a good read.  But in Wax Apple most of all, he captured an element of pure despair–of human beings separated from each other by yawning gulfs of perception, that corruption of identity that is mental illness. A detective comes and solves the mystery, sure–and who does that help?   The detective, perhaps, but the underlying problems remain unsolved, waiting for an answer that may never come.  Tucker Coe is most of all about empathy, understanding, judging not lest ye be judged, striving to live up to Terence’s brave declaration, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  But the book we’re about to explore is more along the lines of “Homo homini lupus.”  Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It must have hurt to write it.  Westlake in this vein reminds me of no American writer so much as Eugene O’Neill, another black Irishman.  When it came time for O’Neill to write his defining work, the one about his family, we are told he would be sitting at the typewriter with tears of anguish in his eyes, opening old wounds in his soul, exposing himself as fully as it is possible for mortal man to do (Walter Kerr had some things to say about that play as well).  This work is far less autobiographical, but Westlake also had some family ghosts to exorcise within it.

I wonder how easy Westlake was to live with when he was writing this novel.  I’m sure Abby Westlake was exaggerating somewhat for humorous effect, but I’m equally sure she wasn’t just making it up out of whole cloth.  If it was hard to live with just one of these guys, imagine a house full of them.

And that’s what would have been going on, because in the writing this book, there was not one man hammering away at the Smith Corona, but a host of them.  Stark, Coe, Clark, and in the keen social observations, maybe even that shameless hack Culver.  All the voices within him, joined together at that moment to make a chilling and poignant statement about what they saw happening around them at that moment in time.  And yes, this is how things are.

But is this how things must be, always?   If we can’t be honest with ourselves, then yes.  To change a thing, you must know a thing first.  It’s always better to know.  Better, and harder.

And having ascended to that barren windswept plateau, he came back down, and never wrote anything nearly so revelatory again.  There were many good books to come, but he’d expended something that could not be regenerated.  And perhaps that whimsical little piece he wrote about how awful it is to be taken seriously as a writer after four decades of being dismissed as a genre scribbler–perhaps that was him admitting that he didn’t have another book like this in him.  He’d shot his bolt, hit the bullseye, and what followed was more along the lines of shoring up his existing legacy.

To know you have already done your best work is to begin preparing for death. Which was only eleven short years away.   Eleven years, seventeen novels, and a few story collections.  Including plenty of Dortmunder stories, because the clown in him could never be killed.  Referring back to Walter Kerr again, I’d say it was the clown that had kicked the tragic hero awake.  And now they’d all make one last run together.  Donald Westlake was going into his kick.

Let swing the Bloody Ax.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, though pretty sure this one’s never going to be forgotten.)

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36 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

36 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The Masterpiece

  1. Thanks for this. The perfect appetizer for what is (by any definition of the word) Westlake’s masterpiece.

  2. rinaldo302

    Damn, you beat me to it. I was about to say “Can we really take Abby Westlake’s words at face value, as proof of what he was like when writing?” and than you went and said much the same thing. I tend to think she was exaggerating more than “somewhat,” that’s so obviously what readers want to see her say, and she knew it. But still… I don’t doubt that there’s a kernel of truth there. He was indeed all those authors, and while popular imagination may overdo the identification of a writer with his creation, it’s not that there’s no overlap.

    So, great intro. And if any of his books justify an entire entry just leading up to talking about the work itself, it’s this one.

    • I think she was kidding on the square–Westlake was one of those writers who are emotionally affected by what they write, can’t distance themselves from it. Which is to say, he was one of the good writers. He gives more than just a hint of that in Adios, Scheherazade, which I truly do consider a masterpiece on the same level as The Ax, albeit smaller and more personal (a far better book about writers and their complexes than Westlake’s half-successful attempt at a follow-up to this book).

      So yes, she exaggerated, but he did have two marriages break up, it can hardly be doubted there were problems with the third marriage (because it was a marriage, duh), and he probably was hard to live with at times, and can anyone seriously doubt he was sex-obsessed? She was finding a charmingly diplomatic way to say the guy wasn’t all sweetness and light and worldy witticisms. And why should he be?

      At the end of the day, you learn more about a writer from his or her real work than from interviews or articles. You put the mask on in order to rip the mask off. If that makes any sense.

  3. rinaldo302

    (Argh, sorry. I forgot to check the little box that will send me email alerts as the conversation continues. And if I don’t, it won’t.)

    • I get those regardless of box checking (I guess I must have checked a box at some point, but it’s my blog, so it stays checked). I don’t know what there is to apologize about, but at least it’s not another condolence. I’m overstocked with those at present. ::sigh::

      • rinaldo302

        Yeah, you’re the boss so you get it all. I get it only if I check the box at some point for a given article. (Once I’ve checked it, it never appears as an option thereafter.) And I didn’t do it with my first reply, so I had to post a second, no-content reply for no other reason than to check the box — and THAT is why I apologized. And now we have a third value-free reply so I could explain that.

  4. at which point we shall call you a One Trick Pony, and pack you off to the knackers, like poor Boxer in Animal Farm

    Interestingly, Orwell himself made this same point. From his essay on Charles Dickens:

    What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one.

    • I’d forgotten that quote (and I even linked to that essay here, a while back).

      It’s not that there should be no linking factors at all–Orwell has certain themes he returns to over and over again, as does Dickens, as does Westlake. I’ve tried very hard here to show that no matter what kind of story he’s writing, he’s still telling the same underlying story, with the same basic points. But readers often get hung up on the exterior details. And Orwell is precisely right–a writer willing to spend his entire career writing about Dortmunder, or Parker, or Tobin, or ‘Nephews’, could never have created any of them.

  5. And he was going to get those Benjamins in the process (you see what I did there?).

    And then he’d be in Clover? That whole metaphor kind of snowballed.

  6. Martin

    I enjoyed The Ax more on its second read, than the first — and more on the third read, than the second. As much as I’ve enjoyed it, and as many good things as I’ve read about it, I just don’t feel it’s Westlake’s masterpiece. Not for me, anyway.

    I sympathize with the antagonist, but I never cared for him. The book is clever, but almost everything DEW wrote was clever. It’s a quick read, it’s entertaining, it does its job…I read it three times, I’m not saying it isn’t good…but I didn’t love it.

    Do you need to love a masterpiece? Yeah, I know, probably not.

    But it’s the love of a novel that drives me as a reader. I remembered Adios, Scheherazade with such fondness, I finally tracked down a hardcover third printing just so I could read it again. Enjoyed Kahawa so much, I still reach for it when I’m on the road. But the Westlake masterpiece for me is Dancing Aztecs. No one else will likely agree. The story’s not grim, it’s much too funny, and it didn’t win any critical attention. But, oh, what a tale.

    And isn’t The Getaway Car interesting?

    • First of all, being funny is hardly a disqualification. Neither is avoiding grimness, and fuck critical attention, seriously. If there’d been proper critical attention paid to him in the first place, I would never have started this blog. The sheer tonnage of low-hanging fruit I’ve plucked thus far–with you lot as my fellow pickers–insane. The critics didn’t do their jobs where Mr. Westlake was concerned.

      And I don’t agree with you about The Ax. My feeling is you judge a work by whether the writer hits what he was aiming at. Westlake wasn’t always aiming at the same target, and you just prefer some of his other targets, which is fine. But I think this book combined so many of his interests, his preoccupations as a writer, and it combined them in just the right measure, and it all just gels. In a way few books ever do. By any writer.

      Westlake protagonists are often likable, but c’mon–Parker? Art Dodge? A writer who can only make you sympathize with fully sympathetic people is not much of a writer. I sympathize a whole hell of a lot with Burke Devore. A lot of people did. But there’s no book that reaches everybody.

      My problem with Kahawa is that he was, at times, forcing things a bit. It’s an impressive book at many points, but he’s not in full mastery of the material. He’s trying something different, and learning as he goes, and it shows. If you look at Kerr’s non-definition definition up top–does Kahawa really fit that? Does Dancing Aztecs? Adios, Scheherazade, yes. But that’s a much shorter book dealing with a subject Westlake knew very well. He was in full command of the material there.

      I don’t think any of his absolute best books are very long books, but I do think some of his most enjoyable writing is in those very long books. I even like Ex Officio, you may recall. But I would not call it a masterpiece. Westlake basically called it hackwork, and he’s got a right to his opinion, and I don’t agree with him either.

      And a sad thing it would be if we all agreed on everything. Boring!

    • rinaldo302

      But the Westlake masterpiece for me is Dancing Aztecs. No one else will likely agree.

      Oh, Dancing Aztecs is my instant reaction to, when asked that question. Not a moment’s hesitation. (As for lack of agreement, I bet it would be a popular choice, if there were any way one could poll all Westlake readers — on this site, of course, we have a relatively small group.)

      I’m happy to play, but mine will be a shorter list. Not because I don’t enjoy a huge number of the master’s works, but I don’t want to throw around that loaded word “masterpiece” too readily. (Any more than I do as a musicologist, when considering musical oeuvre: Yes, Mozart wrote an astonishing number, but there are very few on his level.)

      So, already leapt in with Dancing Aztecs, my automatic #1. What else? Sticking to the titles under his own name:
      Brothers Keepers
      The Ax
      The Hot Rock
      Good Behavior
      Adios, Scheherazade
      A Likely Story
      Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

      And I think that’s it. There are plenty of others that are delightful but evaporate when I’m done (some other Dortmunders), or propose a great idea but don’t quite finish it off (Humans, Smoke), or are marvelous in parts but not consistently (several of the Nephew titles). And a couple of your chosen titles would rank near the bottom of my own tally of his achievements, but I’m not here to pick fights or quarrel with someone else’s taste.

      • I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

        Finally a chance to quote the Rowdy One.

        I actually love your list–very focused. And note with some anguish that the first and last three books on it are all out of print, and have never had an electronic edition. A complete list of his best work would have to include Stark and Coe, and I really do feel Anarchaos is worth a mention, if only for its very exceptional place in the canon, and the fact that it gives us a look at Westlake the political scientist, as well as his offbeat take on Red Harvest in Space. And that’s out of print too.

        My feelings about Dancing Aztecs were, I hope, made exhaustively clear in my review, and in the comments section. I love it deeply, I consider it his comic magnum opus, it absolutely belongs on a list of his best books, but I think there are crucial failings in it that disqualify it from being a true masterpiece. Structurally, thematically, it’s a bit of a mess–a glorious mess is a mess all the same. Its central protagonist isn’t one of Westlake’s best, for the simple reason that he’s mainly figured himself out before we met him, and he’s no Parker (the true protagonist of the book is New York, obviously).

        And much as I agree that the book is politically incorrect on racial matters out of a feeling of brotherhood and inclusiveness, not hate, he does hit a few off key notes in the process of embracing the multitudes. In that specific area, I’d say Charles Willeford did a better job, perhaps because he doesn’t even know what politically correct means. I’m not sure I’d give Dancing Aztecs to a black friend to read. And I have some black friends who are anything but PC. I would give a black friend Up Your Banners to read. That’s his best statement on race. But not a masterpiece, either. Just a very good book that is also out of print.

        Magnum opus is sometimes used as a synonym for masterpiece, but not by me. It’s a large, sprawling, unfocused, damned near Rabeleisian effort, and that’s a fine thing for it to be, but is that really what we collectively remember Westlake for?

        He is large. He contains multitudes. But I’d say he’s at his best when he’s very very focused on just a few among the multitudes. When the cast of principal characters takes up two pages by itself, he’s pushing things a bit, and I’ve said many times that his desire to keep pushing his limits is part of what makes him a great writer. But shall we argue over how great a book is, when most people out there haven’t read the book at all? Here, have some bubblegum, I found some more. 😉

  7. So while we wait for me to get the actual review going, here’s an exercise we could try–what are Mr. Westlake’s other masterpieces? We can quibble over the exact meaning of that word, but let’s say what are his most fully achieved works? Novels where the content fell into place without forcing, with simple rectitude.

    Apart from what I’ve already mentioned (which leaned heavily towards the darker side of the spectrum, for obvious reasons), my list would be–

    The Spy in the Ointment
    Up Your Banners
    The Hot Rock
    Bank Shot
    Jimmy the Kid
    Lemons Never Lie
    Cops and Robbers
    Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
    Two Much
    Brothers Keepers
    Dancing Aztecs
    A Likely Story
    What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

    I admit to having a soft spot for both Killing Time and Killy, which I think anybody would be proud to have written. But I chose 361 and The Hunter as the best examples of his early hardboiled efforts. The Hunter is also standing in for the Parker Saga as a whole.

    And while I’d never call them masterworks, I think Comfort Station and Castle in the Air both deserve mention, as beautifully executed minor works in a lighter vein, exercises in style. We don’t turn our noses up at Eine kleine Nachtmusik because of Don Giovanni. Westlake’s ability to compose well in many different modalities is one of his unique strengths as a writer.

    Anybody else want to play?

    • rinaldo302

      (This isn’t my weekend. My reply to you shows up ABOVE. Clicked wrong Reply on the page.)

        • rinaldo302

          (I give up. I tried to hard to choose the right level on which to reply, and it still came out way up the page. So I repeat my reply here.)

          I disagree with several of the statements there. I think Dancing Aztecs proposes what it’s going to do, carries it out, contains plentitude while doing it, and finishes itself off in a superbly satisfying way. I recognize no rule about what a protagonist must or must not have figured out; and I read Westlake for anything he cares to offer in a given book, as long as he grabs me and convinces me. This time, he absolutely did.

          • Agreed! But I think he did it better in The Ax, and without an omniscient narrator (who turns into a black man when He’s overlooking Harlem) to make his case. You don’t have to accept Kerr’s non-definition definition of a masterpiece, but if you do, you have to admit, The Ax fits it better.

            The Ax was certainly more widely acclaimed, probably sold more copies (the number of foreign editions I’ve found online is mind-boggling), got a film adaptation from a great director–albeit in French (Dancing Aztecs was also adapted in French, by a much less esteemed director, and both films are now irritatingly hard to find with English subtitles). Which proves nothing. But if these factors favored your side, you’d sure as hell bring it up. 😉

            Honestly, it’s like debating whether The Pickwick Papers is better than Notes from Underground. That’s the most remarkable and yet baffling thing about Westlake–that you will recall I proposed to try and resolve, in the very first post I made to this blog. Westlake wrote so many good books of so many different types and styles and genres and moods, that he created rival fanbases within his fanbase.

            Bear in mind, I began with the Stark novels, read every last one (and the Coes) before I read a single Westlake. That’s my focal point–I branched out from there, and in the end, I decided that I could never choose between the different sides of Westlake, that they were all somehow indispensable to me. I have had arguments with Ray Garraty and others, who consider Westlake very much the junior partner of the firm (at least when he’s in comic mode). This is the inevitable fate of the completist. You get hit from all sides. (And just to add to the confusion, Ray just recently read The Ax, and he told me he didn’t like it.)

            Here we are, two men of Hindustan, to reading much inclined–and we still can’t agree on the nature of this elephant we’ve been eagerly groping (which has kindly refrained from trampling us). And maybe both of us are blind, but I’m the blind man with the blog, and on this blog, The Ax is Donald Westlake’s supreme masterpiece. Except in the comments section, where anything goes. As long as nobody says it’s Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, because even the most open societies must have standards.

            I am curious, though–which books on my list were the ones that you consider to be among his worst? If it was the very last two I mentioned, feel free to consider them guilty pleasures on my part, though I’m not really guilty about them at all. Feeling guilty about pleasure is a waste of time, as Parker would surely agree. 😉

            • rinaldo302

              Hey, The Ax is a masterpiece, no question — it was the first one to come to mind after Dancing Aztecs. (OK, I listed Brothers Keepers before it, but that was mostly from chronological association with Dancing Aztecs.) But for me, Dancing Aztecs is the one that comes instantly to mind first; it has everything I love in a book, including amplitude. The Ax fulfills its mission completely but it’s, I don’t know, his focused masterpiece as opposed to his world-encompassing masterpiece. Both great, and it’s only a matter of personal preference that makes one of them that little bit more satisfying for me.

              In music too (my actual profession) I have a wide range of loves but I recognize the greatness of the masterworks of chamber music more than I actually want to settle down with them. I like to have more color and size going on. And that includes not only the central canon that most would agree with — the Ring cycle and Die Meistersinger, say — but also big choral-orchestral outpourings that don’t generally get ranked at the top of their respective composers’ lists: Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Britten’s War Requiem, Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I was able to write articles promoting three of those (two of them in The New York Times), and that was very satisfying.

              I am curious, though–which books on my list were the ones that you consider to be among his worst?

              Oh, so I can be mocked, huh? As you just said, you’re the one with the blog here.

              Just kidding; I’ll tell. The main title I meant was Up Your Banners. I just don’t find it convincing, however sincere its intent and despite the quality of the actual writing being up to his usual level. It felt like an experiment that didn’t succeed. In fairness, though, I discovered your blog after you wrote about it, and I haven’t reread it in decades (don’t own a copy). So I owe it some attention at some point.

              • I felt in that case that the experiment itself was so worthy, so honest, so bravely and unflinchingly executed–that it had to be properly acknowledged. Few books of that time really came to grips with white racism the way Up Your Banners does–not drunken rednecks in white sheets, but decent educated urban northerners, of all classes, blinded by their own delusions (and corresponding blindness on the part of some African Americans is likewise acknowledged, but correctly shown to be a secondary problem, arising from the first).

                It’s not the kind of book Westlake will be remembered for (though it is, in essence, one of the Nephew stories), but that’s partly, I think, because having been commissioned to write it, he didn’t have to stop and consider the market for once. I wouldn’t feel right about leaving it off my list. It’s also quite possibly his best love story. And that book I would give to a black friend to read. Not that I’m in the habit of pushing books on any of my friends. Most of my friends don’t even know this blog exists.

                I can appreciate preferring orchestral music to chamber music, but you must admit, there is no possible objective basis for doing so, and greatness can occur in venues of any size (otherwise we couldn’t talk about short story writers having masterpieces–hell, I think some of the greatest artists who ever lived did comic strips–great art occurs in miniature all the time).

                Let’s switch metaphors–Dancing Aztecs is out of Bruegel the Elder–a Renaissance work, a sundrenched canvas packed with bodies; lusting, loving, dancing, feasting, drinking, competing, striving to get more out of life in the short time they have allotted to them.

                The Ax is more out of Expressionism–Max Beckmann, Kathy Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Edvard Munch, and of course Van Gogh. A somber assessment of the darkness of human existence, of the power of evil, of the ugliness we allow to fester inside ourselves, the loss of balance, that turns us on each other, that ruins our potential, over and over, that casts a shadow over life itself.

                I can appreciate the beauty of the Bruegel, the hope, while still feeling that the expressionists have more to say to the times we live in now. You know what I mean. Today, of all days, you know what I mean. That doesn’t make what Bruegel said a lie. It’s a promise. That we have to find a way to honor. But we can’t do that if we don’t confront the darker side of things first.

                I actually left out a masterpiece–Memory. A book that cuts completely against the grain of the image most people have of Donald Westlake as a writer, or a man. So far against the grain, in this case, that he never tried to publish it, after his original failure to find a buyer. But he never stopped trying to find a way to let that part of himself out, within the limitations of the commercial niche he found himself in, and to a very great extent, The Ax was his triumph over that confining cubbyhole. Probably because it is, in its own grotesque way, a story of triumph, not defeat. He so rarely let his protagonists lose. Even Dortmunder wins in the sense of remaining free, defeating his smug tormentors, expanding his surrogate family.

                But his earliest novels are studies in defeat, you see. He started with that. And here–I don’t know. Does Burke Devore win or lose? Oh well, I should probably save this for the review.

              • rinaldo302

                I can appreciate preferring orchestral music to chamber music, but you must admit, there is no possible objective basis for doing so

                Oh, of course. I thought I’d bent over backward to stress that I knew that. And I make sure never to be asked to review chamber music, because I’m not the right person to give it its due. As is also the case for me with visual art, so I bow respectfully and acknowledge that others understand it better.

              • If you can find somebody who understands the visual arts less than me, I’ll be most surprised. But like any philistine, I know what I like. 😉

              • The message I get most out of Dancing Aztecs is that life is a dance, and we all need to be more aware of the other dancers, so we can all move together. We’ll both work on that, eh? Gotta hustle. Today of all days. GOTTA HUSTLE. (to the hustings!)

  8. Masterpieces? Let’s see…

    The Score
    Kahawa
    Drowned Hopes
    The Ax

    It’s an inconsistent list, since some are there for the size of their ambition and some for being small but perfect. The Ax is both highly ambitious and perfect, which is why in my opinion it’s by far his greatest work.

    • That’s how I feel about it–it’s one of his small polished gems, but on a grander scale, somehow. He wrote a lot of his best stuff when he wasn’t really trying anything that outwardly ambitious. The Ax is inwardly ambitious.

      The Score, yeah. There’s not a word out of place there, not a single scene you could do without. I could read it a hundred times, and find something new every time.

      Kahawa isn’t on my list, but I’m far from certain I should have omitted it. I think he made some critical errors in writing it, but the same could be said of many of the greatest novels ever written. I think the problem is that it’s a heist novel and a look at Africa, and since the main heisters are not Africans themselves (i.e., not born there, not talking about race), it creates a certain split in the narrative. Westlake was himself a non-African who loved Africa, but still basically a tourist there. So it’s an outsider’s perspective on the place. Which is valuable. The setting of The Ax is very very familiar to him–he’s on home turf. That makes him stronger.

      Drowned Hopes! Yeah, I can see it. (I made that review a four-parter, I’d sound pretty stupid saying I couldn’t see it). I only listed the first three Dortmunders for their thematic focus. And What’s The Worst That Could Happen, probably out of superstition (I was first in line in my election district this morning). Drowned Hopes is just a splendid sprawling monster of a book. But if I included that, I’d have to include Butcher’s Moon, and then Good Behavior, and things would start spinning out of control.

      The Ax is the one that has to be on the list. Or that list isn’t telling the whole truth.

  9. I consider Butcher’s Moon, with its grand epic ambition, to be a masterpiece. But also Slayground for its contained tension and escalation. (Slayground/Butcher’s Moon is my favorite one-two punch in any medium.) Drilling down even further, I consider the following sentence (from The Mourner) to be a mini-masterpiece: “The somebody came up the fire escape about as quiet as the Second World War but trying to be quieter and stopped at Parker’s floor.”
    There’s a wryness to that sentence not often evident in Stark. A lesser writer might have gone with “as loud as” rather an “as quiet as” and likely wouldn’t have thought at all to add “but trying to be quieter.”

    • My own feeling is that the first sixteen Parkers add up to a kind of mega-masterpiece. Certainly some are much better than others, but even The Black Ice Score, disliked by many fans of the series, has its special pleasures for me. I haven’t gone through the final eight in a while, so I’m going to hold off on deciding whether they measure up to that standard (pretty sure Flashfire does not). Rereading is the test. And going by that standard alone, Slayground is very tough to beat.

      Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Parker novels is how consistent they are, while each remains very much its own entity within the series, with its own individual quirks and revelations. Not a retread in the bunch. Much as I love the Dortmunders, they can get a bit repetitive at points. Westlake says in that article about The Ax that he had to stop himself from writing more of them. I think he had a much harder time finding variations on that theme, those characters. To be sure, comedy is in many ways the hardest form to write well in, but he was maybe too comfortable in that world as well. Westlake never let himself get too comfortable writing about Parker. Or more to the point, Parker wouldn’t allow Westlake to get too comfortable writing about him. Not big on the comfort zone, Mr. Parker.

    • Slayground/Butcher’s Moon could be seen as a single work in three acts:

      Act 1:Parker fights the Outfit to a draw. Ends with Parker determined to come back someday.
      Act 2: Parker and Grofield return, and seem to have the upper hand. Ends with the shooting of Grofield.
      Act 3: Parker marshals all of his resources to take revenge. Ends with the complete destruction of the Outfit followed by a brief epilogue.

      The act break is almost exactly halfway through Butcher’s Moon, and each half is only slightly longer than Slayground.

      • Yeah, that works–except the mob in Tyler isn’t The Outfit–in fact, Lozini calls Walter Karns, to let us know The Outfit still exists and Karns is still running it. Not even Parker could take down a national organization like The Outfit–he only decapitated it, after making sure the replacement head would be easier to deal with. You knew that already, I’m just being nitpicky, as is my wont.

        So yes, you could conceive it as a sort of epic criminal opera, starting at the amusement park, and ending with the destruction of the Tyler mob. But Westlake needed to give Parker enough motivation to go back for his money, after very nearly dying in Slayground. Hence the intermezzo that is Plunder Squad.

        And boy, that’d be some opera. Staged over three nights, I’d say, or else they’d need multiple intermissions, along with the intermezzo. And the music would keep building up to Parker’s big aria. And he’d just sit there in the dark, staring into space, not singing, while the crickets chirped (I’m thinking maybe they’d be doing this at Wolf Trap). Though I suppose his speech to his fellow heisters in Butcher’s Moon is a sort of aria. I dunno, can you imagine him singing? Howling, sure.

        Parker would definitely be a baritone.

  10. P.S. Pour one out for violentworldofparker.com, which appears to have vanished off the face of the internet.

    • I hope not! I thought the same thing, some time back, and turned out to be temporary. Nick Jones told me it had happened before. Could just be switching web hosts or something. Like I know what that means.

      Trent hasn’t been updating much since he got hitched. May come a time when I’m not updating much here, either. I do have some ideas for what to do when I’ve run out of Westlakes to review, but that’s going to be a very involved project, that will involve a whole lot of background reading to pull off. Job One is to finish the reviews, and that will quite certainly be accomplished well before the end of 2017. So if the new President could just hold off on destroying civilization until then, I’d be most grateful. There’s a good chap.

      Would you believe I’ve only used about 15% of my free space at WordPress?

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