‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.
In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader. That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it. Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.
And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print). All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels. Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there. The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there. Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers. (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)
The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition. His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly. Ex Officio. Dancing Aztecs. Kahawa. Smoke. You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.
Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor. You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)
And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace. Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.
So I can’t really complain that his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit. You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.
But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough. Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades. And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form. I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet. I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.
I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America. Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death. But nothing came of them. And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–
Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago? I could make some guesses, but guess what? I don’t care why. There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.
Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?
Maybe not. Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point). And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest. But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).
(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman? Most people still don’t understand how great she was. I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)
My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will. They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).
I truly admire David Goodis. I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him). He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake. Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis. I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him. (Psst! They like Westlake too!)
Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers. Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!). George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is. You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart). I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying. Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days. I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!
One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun. One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy, which I find LOL-worthy), you start seeing things like this–
(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)
So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection. But that being said, what would such a collection look like? I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.
If Leonard got three volumes comprising twelve novels, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system. I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy). Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way. But here’s how I’d do it.
Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984
The Spy in the Ointment
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
A Likely Story
Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975
Up Your Banners
Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997
My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out). It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe. A net positive, I think.
I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now. Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical. Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms. And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now. People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.
Just dreaming out loud. Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him. Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar. Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.) Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.
I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.
I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.
I’m just putting it out there.
And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).