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.)