Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, but they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  And eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a sudden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

26 responses to “Review: The Hook

  1. I’ve picked up this book a dozen times in the past couple of weeks, in anticipation of this review, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to re-read it (yet). I remember feeling just a bit sour about the whole thing when I first read it, on the heels of the book that knocked my socks off (The Ax, naturally). It felt like a return to the well, but to lesser effect. Burke Devore’s dilemma gripped me as much as, say, Clyde Griffiths’ in Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” but I was less gripped by Proctorr and Prentice. This was frustrating to me. In theory I should have identified more with them than with BD, but I found I did not.

    • Well right. That’s the problem in a nutshell. We identify more with fictional characters who lead lives very different from ours, because we read fiction to get away from our lives, and into somebody else’s life. And it’s almost never a good thing when writers write about writers–or TV showrunners do shows about TV showrunners, yeah I meant you, Aaron Sorkin. I guess Fellini sort of made it work, but can I be honest here? That movie puts me to sleep, in eight and a half minutes or less.

      Write what you know, but don’t write about yourself. And Westlake knows this, he really does, but he wants to write about himself, he wants to gaze into that abyss that is the soul of a writer, and see it gaze back at him–he used to do that by proxy, writing about actors, or coffee table book compilers, or even his books about heisters–it’s all about him, just like nearly everything writers ever write is about them, but it’s not directly about him, so there’s that distancing mechanism.

      Here the only distancing mechanism is that neither of these guys writes mystery novels, and for sure neither ever did a paperback original, let alone a sleaze book, because neither of them is old enough to have had that market open to him. But Westlake certainly did write stories of foreign intrigue and adventure, with a hint of espionage and maybe some political undercurrents, and those books never ever worked out for him, sales-wise, but he kept doing them, and the computers kept going tsk-tsk every time he did. He’s laughing at himself as much as anyone else in this book. This book is, in fact, another of his criminal farces. And farce isn’t about deep emotions. They may be there, under the surface, but that’s where they belong.

      That’s one reason why Sayers is right to say we don’t feel deeply about these characters, and of course she’s horribly wrong to assume this is how Westlake always writes. He’s writing that way this time, on purpose, because he’s writing about himself, about his profession, and he needs some distance in order to say what he wants to say.

      Now of course he never had a protagonist you could identify with more deeply (says me) than the one in Adios Scheherazade (which Sayers would understandably have never even heard of), and that writer is himself, but that writer is a complete and utter failure, who has not only never published a book under his own name, he’s never even published a book under his own pen name. That creates sympathy, as the first-person narrator form encourages empathy. Here he wants to be more clinical–more like Highsmith. He’s channeling her to beat the band in this one.

      Highsmith’s characters are never meant to be liked. She does not, in fact, like them. They stand for things in humanity she does not like, things in herself she does not like, and if we sometimes like them anyway, that probably says something about us that would make her laugh in a bitterly cynical manner, and sometimes I can hear her doing so when I read her books.

      She’s not about moral judgments, she’s about moral dissection. What wouldn’t we do, when all the chips are down, all the masks are dropped? And why, she wonders, do some people who have done horrible things reach a point where they can’t anymore? And why do others never reach that point?

      And just as Westlake isn’t as good at being Jim Thompson as Jim Thompson (when he wrote the screenplay for The Grifters), he’s not as good at being Patricia Highsmith as Patricia Highsmith was. But he understands them both, very well, and he has things to say in response to both of them. And I do think those things are worth hearing. But I also think he was at his best when he was being himself. Whichever of his selves he was being at a given time.

    • It felt like a return to the well, but to lesser effect.

      Exactly my impression too. I was reminded of it during the last season of The Wire, much inferior to the others because David Simon lost the objectivity that had served him so well before because he wanted to Tell Truths about the newspaper business.

      • I often think this whole business of telling TV showrunners “This is your last season, do a finale” is a bad idea. Most of the best finales I’ve seen were unintended (many of the worst too, to be sure).

        The open-ended series is an unperfectable form. It’s not designed to have a beginning, middle, and end (maybe TV writers are getting better now at structuring them as novels, but they never know how long the ‘book’ is going to run). Game of Thrones just may pull it off, since it’s based on a series of books (that will probably never be completed, but the producers have Martin’s outline). David Chase had the right idea–just end it. Let people imagine what happened. Six Feet Under‘s finale worked because that show was all about finales.

        Anyway, I liked The Wire‘s final season. But it is true that Simon was probably too close to the material for it to work as well as when he was writing about cops, politicians, teachers, dealers, and street people. That may in fact be the problem here, but wasn’t it a problem worth tackling? A successful writer making his protagonists formerly successful writers? AS A STORY, it’s less successful. It’s definitely much harder to review.

        And yet I feel like we have to award Mr. Westlake points for being so brutally honest about his profession. It’ll never be anybody’s favorite work in the canon, but I think the canon would be diminished without it. Adios Scheherazade is nobody’s favorite either (it’s not even in print), and that’s one of the best things he ever wrote.

        After The Ax, any return to the well would be to lesser effect. That’s what writing your masterpiece means. That’s why we should be grateful he didn’t write it any sooner.

  2. rinaldo302

    Perhaps 15 years ago, I read a number of letters from Patricia Highsmith to Paul Bowles. (I was preparing the text for a lecture-concert about him, from manuscripts acquired by the university where I teach.) I found them hugely interesting at the time, but can’t remember any of their content now. I suppose I took notes, but heaven only knows what has become of those.

    • For all the highbrow attention she’s gotten, there’s still no book collection of her letters, but I’d bet good money there will be.

      I was watching Carol the other night on cable, and my reactions were several–

      1)Was there ever a more egregious case of a perfect title (Highsmith’s own) being rejected in favor of a boring and generic one that would work for any number of unrelated stories that happened to have a Carol in them? Maybe that was her idea, but if so, it was a bad one.

      2)Isn’t this basically the latest remake of Back Street, only same-sex, and with a happy ending? The weepie lives on!

      3)Does Cate Blanchett even know how to sweat?

      I have Highsmith’s book (with the original and correct title) on my Kindle, and look foward to reading it very much. That book sold a million copies back in the 50’s, if you’d believe it. Hard to say how many purchasers were lesbians yearning for the happy ending mainstream fiction so rarely gave them (then or now, though progress has obviously been made), and how many were horny straight guys hoping for some gal-on-gal action. Of such seemingly contradictory elements are publishing niches created.

      PS: Good to see you back. Missed your input.

  3. rinaldo302

    I found the Bowles connection especially interesting (well, I would, from my vantage point as a musician, wouldn’t I?), as they both ended up living outside the US, on different continents, and were (as far as I could tell) among each other’s most regular correspondents. Bowles is a rare figure equally remembered for prose fiction and for musical composition — not of the first rank in either, but not negligible, either. His songs with piano are still mainstays, and his incidental music for The Glass Menagerie remains classic (it was included in the most recent film of the play). None of this is terribly relevant to this blog, but it happens to be what I know.

    • Seems worth knowing to me. Bowles, I see, was an American expatriate, like Highsmith. That in itself would form the basis for a connection, but I gather he experimented with surrealism in his music. Now that’s something I’m hardly qualified to talk about, but it seems to me that Highsmith’s books are themselves surrealistic, and oddly musical in their way, exuding many of the same strangely stunted emotional undercurrents of that wave of expression.

      Highsmith is taken seriously by intellectuals to a much greater extent than any other mystery writer of her generation (the qualifier may not be necessary), in no small part because she moved in intellectual high-cultural circles–she had the right connections, went to the right parties. She had affairs with other intellectuals (such as Jane Bowles, wife to Paul, who was having affairs with men at the same time, and that all sounds very complicated, doesn’t it?). Yes, I looked all this up just now, what’s the point of my doing all this typing if I don’t learn something along the way?

      Westlake was not an intellectual. He did not move in those circles. He never even got a college degree. And I’d argue he was at least as smart as any of them, at least as perceptive. But there was no way they were ever going to take him seriously. And he knew that. And his reactions to that were also–complicated. And may at times have led to his writing books like this, that sort of play with that world of ideas, of hidden meanings. Because seriously, what makes Patricia Highsmith a deeper writer or a more interesting person than him? That she hated black people, Jews, Latinos, Americans (while still insisting America was the greatest country on earth), and honestly didn’t think much of gay people or women either?

      It’s almost like you get bonus points for being an asshole in that world.

      But she was a talented asshole, and at her best, an honest one.

      And I think we can say that anyone whose mother told her she tried to abort her came by her misanthropy honestly.

  4. rinaldo302

    I gather he experimented with surrealism in his music. Now that’s something I’m hardly qualified to talk about

    Nor am I, and I’ve been involved with music theory for over half a century! I hadn’t heard of the idea of surrealism in music before (what would “realism” in music even be?), but on searching online, I see that the description has indeed been used. But it seems to be connected only with extra-musical conceptions: he wrote music for surrealistic ballet or theater, or to surrealist poems, which makes more sense.

    Anyway, despite his marriage to Jane, he seemed to lead a curiously isolated expatriate life in Tangier, enjoying the company of men. (One of the byproducts of this is that we do seem to have a lot of letters.) When he was sought out for interviews and celebratory concerts late in life, he seemed genuinely surprised (even dismissive) that anyone wanted to talk about his work, never mind his personal life. Living so isolated for so long, he had missed multiple shifts in attitude on work and sexuality.

    • To a certain extent, they wouldn’t have impacted him–the upside to being anti-social is that society can’t hurt you so much. I certainly think Highsmith agreed with that attitude. But I don’t think she was ignorant of what was happening around her. As a writer whose work is nearly always set in the present (like Westlake) she didn’t have that option. Maybe she envied Bowles his ability to just tune it all out as pointless static (much the way Parker would–now there’s a comparison I bet nobody ever made before).

      Her only real problem with shifts in sexuality was that she was wary of being typed, forcibly inducted into a group. Obviously she was gay. Just as obviously, she didn’t really identify as gay, in the sense of belonging to a club with certain collective norms, bylaws, expectations. She was expressing something very personal and idiosyncratic with her writing, a defiant sense of selfhood, minority of one–to be lumped in with a lot of other people purely on the basis of orientation would be unsettling to her. Well, you could probably say the same about Oscar Wilde–who suffered a great deal at society’s hands, but he never had to worry about being politically incorrect. Nothing to declare but his genius.

      You look at the best gay writers from the long dark era of the closet, the one thing you have to say about them–the one thing you are compelled to admire–they all insisted on being themselves–no matter what the price. And the price could be very high. But they paid it.

      The goal is to be free, no? All of us. Free to be who we are, no matter what that is, as long as we don’t diminish someone else’s freedom in the process. And that’s the sticking point.

      None of which is dealt with in The Hook, at least not directly. Westlake wanted to examine the perversities of a club he had belonged to for most of his life. All the more perverse in that nobody is born a writer. That actually is a lifestyle choice. Trouble is, once you fully commit to it, you might as well have been born that way.

    • You never heard of Surrealistic Pillow?

  5. M.D.

    I’ve read The Hook three times now, and I have no doubt I’ll read it again in the future. It’s not Westlake’s best, or even close to it, but I always enjoy reading his stories when the antagonist is a writer. And, yes, Adios, was better, and Likely Story was better still (not to you; to me), but I liked this one, too.

    I don’t get the feeling that Westlake enjoyed writing this novel much, though, and I get a sense of joy when he’s at the top of his game. Adios and Likely being two examples. I think The Hook was a job, and one he had to grind out to satisfy other people. It had to be Ax-like, while not being The Ax, and the strain shows. Given his druthers, he’d have written something else. Once The Hook was out and the crowds didn’t line up to buy it in vast numbers, he was free.

    And when it comes to reviews, yes, in a just world, you’d receive significant coin for the work you do. I enjoy your Westlake reviews more than the book reviews I read in major newspapers. Your words are insightful, they wander into interesting places, and they’re just flat-out fun. Thank you.

    • I agree with everything you said, except you meant protagonist, right? 🙂

      I’d call both Adios and A Likely Story masterworks–they’re such different books, in spite of their obvious relationship to each other, that I don’t feel like ranking them. Might as well debate over King Lear vs. Much Ado About Nothing.

      The Hook is an experiment, written under pressure, as you said. See, in those two earlier books about writer-protagonists, there’s only one protagonist–he’s telling us his story in the first person–and in the end, he finds out who he is, in the process of losing what he thought he wanted. That’s the arc of most of Westlake’s best books–the protagonist rediscovering himself.

      This book reverses all that. And that is a less satisfying story. But still a story worth the telling. He told it much better in Two Much, but that protagonist only wrote snarky jokes for smutty greeting cards. This is a far more serious downfall.

      • M.D.

        Protagonist, of course. Never post when you’re chugging along on two hours sleep.

        Finished Two Much not long ago, too. I found it much more fun (despite the murder-ness of our hero) than The Hook. And, yes, murder-ness is not yet a word but, again, I post on less than two hours sleep.

        • Two Much was one of his most successful experiments. I consider it to be easily one of the ten best novels that don’t involve a series character. And unlike Adios and A Likely Story (also in the top ten), there’s an ebook.

          But see, that book has one hell of a hook to it–“A guy pretends to be twins in order to fuck twins.” Hooks like that don’t come along every day.

          Murder-ness could be a word. Personally, I prefer Murderocity. Or in some cases, Murder-licious. 😉

  6. Ray Garraty

    I assume I’ll like it more than I did The Ax, since Westlake writing on writing life is always fun. But I wonder is it that new a genre, as Sayers said it is, meta-pop? Writers have been writing on about writers who are writing about writers since the birth of poetry, I think.
    NYT Sunday book reviews are hit or miss, sometimes it’s like a broken love match machine. The overall quality is OK, but never striking. Not every author is a good reviewer.

    • I think it’s hard for authors to be objective reviewers. For that matter, composers probably don’t make the best music reviewers, or playwrights the best drama critics. A critic needs a great familiarity with the subject at hand, combined with a certain distance from it. Shaw wrote some excellent musical criticism–his primary contribution to drama criticism was to try and convince everyone Shakespeare was a lousy playwright. There’s always this competitive aspect to people reviewing somebody else’s work in their own field.

      Westlake could write first-rate essays on the mystery genre, sizing up each seminal figure’s strengths and weaknesses–and that, ironically enough, is because he always felt a certain distance from the genre he made his living in. He understood it, but saw it from a distance. You could argue that this book we’re talking about is at least as much a work of criticism relating to genre lit (not quite the kind he himself wrote, but related) as it is a mystery story. It has a lot of layers to it, but the bottom layer is Strangers on a Train. Which he fully expected people to see. And Sayers apparently did not.

      I read her review, and it seemed to me what she was really saying is “I don’t understand what this is, or why it was written.” Which to me, is the same thing as saying “I have failed as a critic.”

      But Westlake wouldn’t have begrudged her the effort–he’d have noted, perhaps, that she hadn’t published a book in four years (he could only imagine how that would feel), and at least she was only killing him with words. A writer’s proper weapon. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        Even smart writers can write dull and dumb reviews. Not every writer is a great critic. NY Times with their practice of filling up Sunday book supplement with reviews written by other writers on some weeks look like an advertising supplement: writers give pats to each other, or writing reviews just for the sake of promoting their own work. In the entire section only one review can be striking, the rest are filler. Westlake certainly understood that.

        • In this case, she had no recent work to promote, but for an English professor living in a small college town in Indiana (Notre Dame University has over twice as students as the town of the same name has residents), reviewing a book for the Times is a big deal–many far less well-regarded novelists than her have also done it. I doubt she came to them and said “I want to review The Hook.” She was contacted and sent a review copy.

          Boucher’s reviews in the Criminals at Large column he helmed for years were definitely him trying to support mystery writers he felt deserved a larger audience. But many of Westlake’s novels were clearly reviewed by other writers who knew little or nothing about him other than that he was getting published a lot more often than they were. And it’s not as if they could just drop everything they were doing and read a good cross-sampling of his work.

          And to be sure, a novel should be enjoyable and rewarding in its own right, even if you’ve never read this particular author’s work before. Maybe the idea is “An established author’s faithful readers will follow him/her anywhere, so we need somebody who isn’t that familiar with this writer to stand in for all our readers who want to know if this is something they’d like.” They avoid paying somebody a regular salary, they provide a bit of extra income to writers of fiction (who can nearly always use it), and it looks classy.

          I just don’t think it works very well, as criticism. How well does it work in terms of telling readers if this is something they’d enjoy? I could not possibly say. I don’t believe I ever in my life purchased a book because I read a good review in the Times. I guess the important thing is that the book got reviewed there at all. Not all of his novels had that honor.

      • rinaldo302

        I think it’s hard for authors to be objective reviewers. For that matter, composers probably don’t make the best music reviewers, or playwrights the best drama critics. A critic needs a great familiarity with the subject at hand, combined with a certain distance from it. Shaw wrote some excellent musical criticism–his primary contribution to drama criticism was to try and convince everyone Shakespeare was a lousy playwright. There’s always this competitive aspect to people reviewing somebody else’s work in their own field.

        It’s hard, but not impossible — for that matter, it’s hard for anyone to be a good reviewer; it’s a hard discipline. I’ve tried it in the area of music, and though I’ve received some nice responses, I wouldn’t rate myself more than fair.

        I know it takes on a certain urgency when it’s a response to something brand new, and sales depend on it, but really I think the only sensible thing to ask of a reviewer/critic is not “objectivity” or “rightness” (what would it be measured against?) but readability — in the sense of leading a reader to think about things in unaccustomed ways.

        Your example of Shaw doesn’t hold up, I think. His music criticism (which I reread periodically) is just as questionable “factually” as his dramatic criticism, of which more in a minute. He found Brahms a ridiculously overrated contriver of insignificant trifles, and to him the giant among late nineteenth-century composers was… Goetz. (“Who?”, indeed.) He made fun of objects of mass adulation like Gounod, yet still from our stance overrated them. As for dramatic criticism, the biggest thing for which he can be faulted is aiming to make room for his own kind of (yet future) playwriting, and blasting anything that got in the way. But he never said Shakespeare was a lousy playwright, full stop. He did critique him and poke at him, a necessary corrective in an era when his name was routinely deified while his actual plays were cut to shreds and uncomprehendingly played on the stage. And he made no secret of his impatience with certain moments or aspects of Shakespeare’s work, a precursor to the healthier current attitude that Shakespeare was a hard-working playwright conceiving his work for the rough-and-tumble of actual theatrical conditions (and modern editors make sure they’re in touch with those conditions, and are in touch with actual theater vastly more than older generations of editors ever were). Shaw was in there fighting that fight too, though he confessed later in life that some of his public stances had been personally motivated.

        The critics I continue to return to are the ones who keep expanding my outlook, whether or not I agree with them: Pauline Kael on movies, Charles Rosen and David Hamilton on classical music, Conrad L. Osborne on singing, Arlene Croce on dance. (Of them all, only Rosen and Osborne were practitioners.) There are things I could say against all of them, and sometimes I do, but in the end I don’t care.

        • I was obsessed with Shaw for a time, and read everything I could of his, also going to revivals of his plays, and there were quite a few good ones back then (not so many now). I also read a lot of books about him. I may have overstated my point, and perhaps he never really believed he was going to bring down the Colossus of Stratford (at least he never tried to say somebody else wrote the plays), but he was pretty critical.

          His point was that Shakespeare’s language was beautiful, but there wasn’t much else there. Shakespeare could create this ‘word-music’, but he wasn’t a particularly good or meaningful storyteller (of course he was more of a story REteller).

          Many of his specific nitpicks rang true (as did Twain’s equally humorous and arguably more successful assaults on James Fenimore Cooper), but he was really the one overstating his point–and to a certain extent, he did this as a way of promoting himself, creating controversy. But is that really the best way to write sound criticism?

          He even wrote a short Punch&Judy type show, Shakes vs. Shav, in which hand puppets representing him and the Bard have at it. And I still think Shaw is a great playwright, whose best work will endure, but the final line of that entertainment was in fact the likely verdict of posterity. Some geniuses hold up better than others. “Out out, brief candle! ::puff!::”

          Shaw was a highly influential critic in his day, of music and theater. And you know what all influential critics of the past have in common, rinaldo? They all made jawdropping, eyepopping, kneeslappingly funny mistakes about who was going to matter in the future. And no doubt that tradition shall continue for as long as criticism of any kind of written.

          • rinaldo302

            And you know what all influential critics of the past have in common, rinaldo? They all made jawdropping, eyepopping, kneeslappingly funny mistakes about who was going to matter in the future.

            Sure, I just said so. But that’s not what we (at least I) read them for, anyway. It’s true that when they do something like Shaw’s championing of Goetz, we at least stop for a moment and smile. But still, neither I nor my musicologist friends hold it against him — it’s just an extreme oddity, and at least it shows he was thinking for himself and not parroting received wisdom. Likewise with what he wrote about Shakespeare (the overstating of how “the word music” made up for poverty of thought is something he ‘fessed up to, half a century later, as part of his campaign for his kind of drama). But it’s better to have Shakespeare as someone who can withstand some questioning and criticism (and even admitting that he wrote a stinker or two) and be none the worse for it in the end, rather than an immortal Bard to be admired unquestioningly.

            • I’m not clear on whether Shakespeare was admired unquestioningly in the early 20th century (in some quarters, Shaw himself might have been more admired). Shaw was absolutely rebelling against the extreme reverence for him in popular culture, and that was a good thing, I agree. It’s that very adulation that creates all these ridiculous theories about him being some shy nobleman writing endless popular entertainments under a pseudonym. The image of Shakespeare never matches the real man. But in fact, the real man matches the plays very well.

              Shaw knew very well that Shakespeare came from the middle class (to the extent Elizabethan England had a middle class), but he went too far. He said he was a narrow-minded man with no religion or philosophy. That’s nonsense, with nothing to back it up (Only university educated men can have religion or philosophy? That would come as a surprise to Jesus and Socrates).

              Whatever he may have said later, he meant it at the time. He felt superior to Shakespeare–and yet he knew that the way he geared his own plays to social issues of his time meant that many of them would not age well. Like seriously, how is anybody supposed to sit through Major Barbara now? I loved that play with a passion, from high school onward, and now it reads like an NRA propaganda piece. Maybe in a saner time it can be reclaimed.

              Shaw loves to play with ideas–that’s what makes him Shaw. He played with the idea that Shakespeare was just a good poet with a small mind. But he was wrong. He lived a very long life, and he had a lot of time to think before senility crept in, and he probably did realize, after a time, that he’d been wrong. But will he ever admit it? That’s decidedly not what makes him Shaw. 😉

            • Yeah, I think Mr. Pound should have worried more about his own place in the canon. For reasons not entirely relating to his poetry, which is excellent, but not in Shakespeare’s class. As to Chaucer, he will always remain the preeminent poet in a dialect of English that is about as intelligible to most present day standard English speakers as pidgin, or whatever some rappers are speaking of late (hitting you where you live there, boyo). 😉

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