Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch


We must dance because the Fifties zing
The Fifties zing because the Sixties swing
And the Seventies flash and the Eighties bang
And the Nineties whimper and the century hangs

Robots working in the cotton fields
Vacations on Venus just a tourist deal
Fornication on tape, instant happiness
So we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t rest

From Les Flamandes, by Jacques Brel
(very freely translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau)

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

And here we are.  The final years of a six decade career, though I never really covered the 50’s–that was the journeyman era, the cranking out short stories for the pulps and sleaze paperbacks for Scott Meredith decade.  The 60’s were the time when Westlake stopped imitating others, and found his own voice–many, in fact–the era of staggeringly prolific creation that seemed for a time to be without any limit.

The 70’s were when he began to focus–lose the aliases for a while, take stock, pull in, then stretch out.  The 80’s were when he began to deal with limitations–his, and those of the ever-changing marketplace he had to hawk his wares in. The 90’s were when he buckled down, recommitted to what was best in him as a writer, wrote his masterpiece, reclaimed perhaps his most idiosyncratic and genuine voice, that of Stark.

And the 00’s?  God, I hate typing that double aught.  Decadism, as a system of dividing up time into defined segments, has some serious drawbacks, in English at least.  There’s never a satisfying name for the first two decades of the century–‘aughts’, ‘teens’–doesn’t work.  And what happens when we reach the 20’s?  We still remember the ‘Roaring’ 20’s, because of movies and Prohibition and Jazz and The Lost Generation and Babe Ruth and such.  (Most of the meanings imposed on these arbitrary decimal points in time are imposed well after the fact.)

So from 2030 onwards, when somebody refers to the 20’s, how will we know which one?  How will we refer to the 20’s yet to come?  If we’re lucky they’ll  be the Boring 20’s, but who thinks we’re going to be that lucky?  The Historian’s Curse is a real thing, people.  So’s nostalgia for past eras pretty much nobody was all that thrilled about while they were happening.

Donald Westlake was never about nostalgia.  He almost never wrote stories set more than a year or three before the time he was writing them.  He was all about the now, because now is all there is, all there can be.  Now is when you live, now is when you find out who you are, what you can do, how you can be.  The past is always there, sure.  Change is never all of a piece, there’s always remnants from earlier eras, anachronisms, glorious and otherwise, but that’s not living in the past–that’s the past living on into the present, just like Faulkner said it would. And the future? Who says we get one?  Best not to assume.  Live now.

It’s hard to say for sure exactly when Westlake came to the realization he was typing on borrowed time.  As of July 12, 2003, when he turned 70, he’d outlived his father Albert by well over ten years.  He’d very nearly failed to live more than a few days past the date of his birth–just a quirk of fate that they’d recently developed an infant formula his digestive system could tolerate.  A man who is told that story as a boy grows up with a healthy respect for contingency, not to mention mortality.  Live now.

And there was nothing left for him to prove, as a writer.  He’d sought out new frontiers to explore, and the explorations hadn’t always succeeded, but that was less important than the fact that he’d tried, that he’d never let himself go stale, give up, write entirely to the market, do what everyone expected of him.  Most importantly, he’d never stopped publishing–he published his first novel under his own name in 1960.  After that, there are only four years he didn’t have at least one new novel out–’78, ’79, ’82, and ’99.

His last book published in his lifetime was Dirty Money, last of the Parkers, conclusion of a bloody trilogy (that was not originally planned as such), in which Parker comes face to face with Post-9/11 America, the Surveillance State.  The year after that came the final Dortmunder novel, which like the final Parker, has vague premonitions of mortality in it, but is mainly concerned with the way people were voluntarily surrendering their inmost selves to the media–the other Surveillance State.

The year after that came the posthumous publication of Memory, the greatest of his lost books, the road not taken.  So he finished out the first decade of the 21st Century with at least a book a year (frequently more).  In fact, he’s getting published again this year.  There’s no reason to think we won’t see still more of his work resurfacing in various forms for a good while to come yet, though probably no more novels.   So really, his publishing career has stretched across seven decades.  And still counting.

But to get back to my point–he must have guessed he didn’t have much time left. He certainly knew his best work was behind him. I find it hard to believe he needed to publish every single year to remain solvent–he may not have needed the money at all.  But whether he needed the money or not, he needed the books. He needed to keep working. He needed to stay in print. Because for a writer, the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. That’s what he said once, and that’s what he believed. Don’t ask me what he thought about ebooks.

I’ve arbitrarily decided this final decade begins in 2002, since that’s the first year we can be pretty sure he was publishing stuff he finished after the new century began.  Not counting Memory, in the remaining years of the decade, he published eleven novels (one posthumously), one novella, and a collection of short stories.

For most professional writers, that wouldn’t sound half-bad for an entire lifetime’s work, would it now?  It would be asking a lot for all of them to be classics, and most of them aren’t.  The Dortmunders are mainly workmanlike, fun, inventive as always, full of lively trenchant observations about the passing parade, but the series had peaked well before that time, and he was mainly just hanging out with old friends by this point.

The last Stark novels are harder.  It’s more difficult to take their measure.  I don’t rank them as highly as the best of the First Sixteen, or even the final Grofield. I’m not sure I think they’re as good as three of the four Parkers he’d turned out in the 90’s (they’re all much better than Flashfire).  You can see his powers fading, here and there, details getting a bit fuzzy–and then he snaps back to, regains clarity, grips hold of the wheel, and there are moments of such power as to make you gasp–and shudder, because this is as Stark as Stark ever gets.   This is Stark writing with the full knowledge that he’s going to die soon.  Nothing focuses the mind half so well, as Dr. Johnson once said.

And in a very real and chilling way, this is Westlake finally surrendering himself to Stark, letting his greatest alter-ego take control of the partnership in a way that’s new–and yet familiar.  Because, you begin to see, Stark was the foundation all along.  Stark was what always lay underneath all the jokes, the farce, the whimsy, the satire and social commentary, the cheerfully irreverent asides. Stark was what was real.  Stark was the core program.  And as old age begins to take hold of Westlake in dead earnest, it’s Stark holds them all together, refuses to give in, stares horror right in the face, stares it down.

There will be an ending.  Nobody runs forever.  But there will be no surrender. There will be no talking to The Law.  There will be no despair, no second-guessing.  There will be no retirement.  Retire to what, pray tell?  That’s what Joe Sheer tried.   Remember how that worked out?  Stark did.

From 2002 to 2009, there were just three novels published that were neither about Parker nor Dortmunder, and the oeuvre as a whole wouldn’t be much the poorer without them.  One had actually been written back in the Mid-90’s, and it’s interesting in its own way, Westlake bringing back his fascination with Latin America one last time, but this time it’s the total immersion route.

And there is the 10th and final Nephew Book, or so I think of it, and by far the weakest of the bunch.  That approach to comic crime had burned itself out by the Mid-70’s, where it should have stayed.  Westlake can’t write about the Nephews anymore, because he’s gotten too far away from them, can’t really believe in them now.  Picaresques are for the young.  Stark in particular can’t believe in them. (Stark would just as soon kill them, you get right down to it.)

But he did kicked off off the Home Stretch with a comic crime novel I do quite admire, a different take on the heist story, with a different take on that type of protagonist, midway between Parker and Dortmunder, but less fixed in his career path.  A reflective reformation, you might say.  We’ll talk about that one next.

But even as we talk about it, the sound of thundering pursuit is in our ears, as we rocket down the last furlong, the crowd cheering wildly, the finish line just ahead.  And here comes Seabiscuit!   Born May 23rd, 1933.  Just about a month and a half before Donald E. Westlake got foaled.  I came up with the Home Stretch thing, because I hate typing that double aught.  Then I found the image up top.  Then I looked up the birthdates.  Then I felt a slight chill.

The world is not simple enough to understand.  With books and their authors, we can at least try.  So let’s try.


Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

24 responses to “Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

  1. If I recall correctly (and my memory on this point is admittedly pretty hazy), Westlake began having difficulty with his eyes during this decade. What I remember is that he could not longer see the words he was typing, or at least no longer see them without difficulty. He wrote about this some on his web site, but those passages appear to have been scrubbed. I can’t remember if he ever revealed how he compensated for the disability, if he dictated or if he continued to touch-type, having someone read back to him what he had written, but either way, the mostly private exercise of writing a rough draft would have become collaborative by necessity. In my view, it had a noticeable effect on his writing. (See also Henry James, whose style changed dramatically once he began dictating his novels.) I also believe the difficulties he was having with his eyesight cleared up before his death. And that’s reflected in the books as well. We’ll get to that.

    • I knew about him getting Lyme Disease around the time he was writing Breakout, and obviously he developed some heart issues, which is not surprising given what he mentioned about his father riding out a heart attack in a hotel while traveling for business. This I did not know. It must have been a very painful time for him.

      I would imagine Milton’s 19th sonnet came into his mind more than once. We’ll get to all of that, indeed. Glad somebody was paying attention to the Westlake blog then, that’s really important information. There’s still so much we don’t know, and I can respect the family’s wishes in this matter (whatever motivated them, and maybe it was just an oversight). But with a writer of his caliber, there comes a point when posterity outweighs privacy.

  2. ADD

    I wonder if those lost blog pages could be recovered at’s Wayback Machine?

    • Not a bad idea. Take a fair bit of searching, though. A useful tool, that. Much obliged, Mr. Peabody. 😉

    • Good call. I’ve been poking around, and I can’t find the references to his eyesight, but they could be in a cranny I haven’t yet discovered (or I could be misremembering completely). But I did find his remarks on “Nobody Runs Forever,” which it turns out I quite accurately quoted from memory in a different comments section:

      When Richard Stark came back to me after a suspicious absence of over 20 years, it seemed right to me to title his return COMEBACK. Some gremlin then convinced me to follow with a series of titles that leapfrogged from that one — BACKFLASH, then FLASHFIRE, then FIREBREAK, then BREAKOUT. I began next to look at the word ‘out’, only to realize that what I mostly wanted out was me, from the chaingang of those titles. Once I accepted my freedom, a title rushed to the surface of my brain; I think it had just been waiting for me to finish playing that other game. The only problem with NOBODY RUNS FOREVER is that it sounds like the end of a series, which I certainly don’t intend. Think of it as a liberated OUTRUN. And Stark is back at work, I’m happy to say, on a book which may be titled ASK THE PARROT. But for now, here’s the start of NOBODY RUNS FOREVER. Enjoy.

      • Many did jump to the conclusion that the title meant Westlake was somehow ending the series, or at least winding it down. That turned out to be true, in a sense. But like so much of Westlake’s work, it was purely serendipitous.

        And let me just say this–I am always interested in what authors of fiction have to say about their work. I listen, and I learn. And I read between the lines. And I always take what they say in their fiction more seriously than what they say about their fiction. Because as Isaiah Berlin correctly noted, it’s only when people tell stories about things that didn’t really happen that they tell the whole truth about themselves. Perverse, I know, but that’s the way it is.

        The title didn’t just come to him out of thin air.

        And Greg, since you’re here–and so’s everyone else–where should I end the reviews? What book, I mean.

        The options are Dirty Money, Get Real, and (depending somewhat on how quickly I get through the remaining books) Forever And a Death.

        I am seriously torn about this. I’m also torn about whether to review the final Starkian Triptych one after the other, or as they came. It’s haunting me. Obviously if Forever And a Death had been in print sooner, I’d have reviewed it just before The Hook. But that didn’t happen. So do I end with Parker, with Dortmunder, or with the very last novel we’re ever likely to see from Donald E. Westlake? The floor is open to voting.

  3. I’m still of the opinion that you should seek out an advance review copy of Forever and a Death. I would think that would be available soon, and you have a pretty strong argument for receiving one. As for the triptych: I don’t believe the first and last book completely work on their own, and are best considered as the first and last parts of a whole. (On the other hand, Ask the Parrot works just fine on its own.) Strictly chronologically, Get Real should be last, but Dirty Money is a much more fitting ending to Westlake’s body of work. Aargh… I’m starting to understand your dilemma.

    • I’ll look into getting an advance copy, but I couldn’t write my usual review in advance of publication, Greg. Too many spoilers. Not fair. I’m thinking that whenever I get to read it, I’ll be doing two reviews–the second one in the typical format, and well after the book is available to everyone.

      Your argument about the first and last book in the triptych not functioning as separate wholes is a strong one. And yes, it is a conundrum–you feel my pain, don’t you? Just as I intended you should. (insert evil grin here).

      What do you say to this? I put off reviewing Nobody Runs Forever until I’ve reviewed all the Dortmunder stuff except Get Real (perhaps triggering a fatal Dortmunder overdose, but what a way to go, eh?). I work my way through the triptych then, and publish the reviews for Dirty Money and Get Real at the same time (this would mean making them one-parters, but somehow that’s what I want, for both of them). Get Real would still come last, but that works both chronologically and alphabetically, and the final line just works, you know what I mean?

      Forever And a Death is out of sequence, any way you look at it. We’re going to be talking about that one for about a month, so I shouldn’t get too hung up over its place in the queue.

      (And I still wish they’d gone with Wake Up And Die as the title, but what the hell. I’m sure somebody will use it someday.)

      • Okay, I sent Hard Case an email. I guess now we find out whether they live up to the name. 😉

        Working it out in my head, I think if I hold off on the last three Parkers, and just work my way through the remaining single-o’s and Breakout, and the next three Dortmunder novels, plus Thieves Dozen, plus Walking Around Money, I should be done with all of that just around the time I should be advance-reviewing Forever And a Death, or very nearly. With all of that out of the way, I can move on to the triptych, and Get Real.

        And then maybe you could recommend a nice rest home? 😐

        (editing) Wow, Ardai got back to me in less than half an hour. On a Saturday. He’s read the blog.

        And he had to politely remind me to give him a snail mail address to send the book to.

        Not enough eyerolls in the world, kids.

        • Ardai has promptly responded in person to every single e-mail I’ve ever sent Hard Case (which isn’t all that many, but still). I think your planned schedule is just fine. I can’t wait to discuss FAAD — and to re-read it myself, as I’m sure there are a few bumps that Ardai will have smoothed over, as well as details I forgot (or just got wrong due to the constraints of the situation).

          • Well, given that I should have the book in a few days, I could have a review up very shortly. But it’s not out for nearly three months. I’m going to keep my powder dry, and wait a bit.

            Ardai mentioned the length of the manuscript–sounds to be in the Ex Officio/Kahawa range–he trimmed it a bit. Hmm, maybe this is the final swan song of Timothy J. Culver, at least in part. Well, I’ve always liked his stuff, hack though he be. Stark shouldn’t have shot him. 😉

  4. The ten Home Stretch novels include four Dortmunders and four Parkers. This doesn’t make Westlake unique, of course. Of the last six Heinlein novels, four were (more or less) part of a series going back to the 30s and one was a sequel to a short story from the 40s. The novels Asimov wrote in his last decade were all but two Foundation, Robots, or (in a very unfortunate move) a Foundation/Robots crossover. The 17 novels written in Wodehouse’s last two decades include 4 Jeeves and Berties, 4 Blandings Castles, and only four not starring characters he’d created thirty years earlier.

    • You get old. Ideas running out. If you get a new idea, people’s image of you is so well-defined by then, it often gets rejected. You want to keep writing and getting published. You know that you can always get an audience for this or that series people remember you for. I guess you could call it the workaholic’s version of retirement?

      Now mind you, Plum always did a lot of series fiction–given his original publishing venues, that was the expected thing. It’s just that his career went through so many phases for so long, some of his franchises wore out (like Psmith) and were replaced by others (like Mulliner).

      Another example–Evan Hunter published sixteen novels in his final decade–nine of which are 87th Precincts. Two others feature Matthew Hope (I never had the pleasure). Maybe that doesn’t really count–the 87th dominated his oeuvre for most of his career, but eleven out of sixteen is a pretty high percentage. The final decade featured an Evan Hunter/Ed McBain crossover, but no series characters from either. Not sure how that works–I personally never saw much difference in the writing styles.

      (And what’s with the crossovers? Wodehouse did some too, as I recall, but that wasn’t particularly an old age thing for him. I think that was more along the lines of cross-promotion. Westlake did those two crossovers with Gore mainly because Gore was a sort of protege, even though he was actually a little older than Westlake.)

      Westlake was fighting health problems, had been slapped down repeatedly with his attempts to change up. He enjoyed writing Dortmunder novels, and he’d taken such a long break from Parker, it all seemed fresh and new (which is why those books don’t feel like any kind of retirement gig). It’s not his absolute best writing, by and large–but it’s not just putting the trained seals through their paces, either. Not that you said it was. You’re right, this is a thing they do, genre authors. They fall back to their respective redoubts and wait out the siege. Perhaps making the occasional sortie.

      Lawrence Block seems to be bucking this tendency–we haven’t seen Scudder, Rhodenbarr, or Keller since 2013 (Tanner’s been gone since 1998). I don’t think he did any crossovers ever. He’s been doing a variety of standalone stuff since then. Not a lot, but interesting varied work–just came out with an anthology of works by other famous authors, all somehow influenced by Edward Hopper. A likely story, eh?

      However, he’s not mainly working with the big publishers now. He’s adapted to the new market, the electronic market, which doesn’t pay as well, but which offers a lot more flexibility (you can even do novellas again!). An early adopter, relative to his generation. Damn, he is Kelp. 😮

      • Hmm, Wodehouse crossovers…

        When Psmith moved over to books for adults, he went to Blandings Castle (as an imposter, of course.) He got married off and was never heard from again. When Uncle Fred moved to novels, he went to Blandings Castle (as an imposter, of course.) He’d been married for years, so he was safe.

        The big one would have been Wooster/Blandings, but it never happened. (In one of the Sandman comics, there’s a library of books that were never written that includes “Jeeves at Blandings”.) . Bertie does mention Lord Emsworth in one of the stories, and there are characters that appear in both series, so it’s definitely the same universe. IIRC, Bobbie Wickham, who’s one of Bertie’s girlfriends, is also a Mulliner relative. As far as I know, Ukridge doesn’t cross over with anything else.

        There’s a very fun book called Who’s Who in Wodehouse that lists the appearances of each character. Used copies have gotten cheap, it appears. Years ago, I was glad to find it for $25.

        • That’s a bit unsettling about Psmith, disappearing like the hard consonant that should rightfully begin his name. In a different genre, I’d suspect him of having been done in and then fed to the Empress a piece at a time. But the butler didn’t do it. Beach is above such things.

          Authors often like to create an interlinked world, referring to places and people of earlier stories in new stories. Faulkner, obviously. Stephen King, a bit more obliquely. Many many others. But that’s not the same thing as a crossover.

          Westlake toys with crossovers within his own universe, but never quite commits to it. The Grofield Dortmunder knows isn’t the same one Parker knows. The Richard Stark who writes Parker novels that Kelp reads so avidly and then wants to sue Jimmy Harrington for plagiarism isn’t the same Richard Stark we’re reading with equal raptness.

          There’s a Jay Fisher working for a TV network in Dancing Aztecs, as there was in I Gave at the Office, but are we supposed to know for sure it’s the same guy? No reference to his earlier troubles, just a brief cameo, a quick nod of the head and wink of the eye to the readers who pay attention, and there’s no end of those over the years. I’m sure I’ve missed half of them at least. I mean, I try to pay attention, and surely that counts for something.

          If all stories are made up, and yet all stories are true, and all stories influence all other stories, writers all swimming in the same ocean together and all, then isn’t everything a crossover?

          Food for thought. And for the rest, there’s pancakes, with real maple syrup, from upstate New York. Want some? 🙂

  5. Enjoyable as ever. I just want to jump ahead to say the last line of DIRTY MONEY is one of the most brilliantly cold endings in American literature. The only author who ends his career with a sentence as
    clever as Stark’s is probably Rex Stout (A FAMILY AFFAIR).

    • It’s also one of the greatest anticlimaxes to a long-running series in any literature. And yet, somehow there’s this note of finality to it. When we get to that one, we’ll have to talk about whether Westlake (or Stark) knew he was writing an ending there. Well, nobody not on Death Row can ever really know, but suspected. Had an inkling.

  6. Damn, now I have to do a Breslin piece.

    Does this mean I have to refer to myself in the third person while writing it?

    I’ll think about it tomorrow.

  7. “But whether he needed the money or not, he needed the books. He needed to keep working. He needed to stay in print. Because for a writer, the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. That’s what he said once, and that’s what he believed.”

    Re-reading that got me thinking about Heinlein’s foreword to “Solution Unsatisfactory” in the re-compilation volume Expanded Universe, in which he gets counsel from William “Anthony Boucher” White on the same subject.

    • Boucher’s full name was William Anthony Parker White, and I’ve long wondered if that, in fact, is where Westlake got the name from. I’m guessing it cropped up in a number of crime-related places (like in Dashiell Hammett stories), and it was the confluence that convinced him.

      I think it’s quite possible he’s the most influential figure in all of 20th century genre fiction. It’s him or Campbell, and you’ll note Heinlein references both. But Campbell didn’t have much impact outside of science fiction.

      I think writers who are only in it for the money can retire, once they make enough. Arthur Hailey’s 10th and final novel came out in 1997, and he died in 2004. You can’t seriously say he couldn’t get published. Maybe his health gave out, and he had a long decline. But according to the Wikipedia article, he went on writing after that–but mainly just as a hobby. He didn’t feel like working anymore.

      That’s all it ever was for him. An incredibly lucrative hobby. He wasn’t a real writer. You only have to try to read one of his books to know that.

      • A fair etymological theory — certainly better than anything I can come up with offhand (mostly riffing on the fact of its being a pen name).

        And Heinlein was in it for the money at the start — he said so, right there. He tried to lay off the stuff when he didn’t need the money any more, and found he couldn’t do it. Hailey may just have stopped selling on his own hook rather than stopped being able to sell to others — but he kept on meeting the literal definition of a writer.

        (I will happily take your word on the issue of whether Hailey was a real writer in a more qualitative sense, though I suspect our definitions on that point would be fairly close. Given my judgment on the movie he’s best known for, I’d prefer not to read any of his books, and continue to base my judgment on that movie . . . than which I’d rather see the ZAZ take-off, and even its sequel, any day in the week. And don’t call me Shirley — or Squirrely. Which, thanks to the magic of Wikipedia, links me to Don Elliott whom I knew better from the musical “Thurber Carnival” . . . and to Elliott’s work with Quincy Jones on the score for — wait for it — “The Hot Rock”!)

        • I think Heinlein sincerely believed he was in it for the money. But then he found out that was just a fringe benefit. He had things he needed to express, and this was how he did it. I personally don’t think he was a great writer, but he was an important one (it’s a fine distinction).

          Yes, Hailey may have still liked to write things for fun, but a real writer can’t just write for fun. A real writer needs to get published. Which means somebody says “I will give you money for the rights to put this in print.” Heinlein could have just written in his spare time, and showed his stuff to friends. He certainly was rich enough by the end. No, he could never do that. The bug bit him. In Hailey’s case, he was the bug that bit publishing, and it’s never entirely recovered. 😉

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