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.