A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.
Donald Edwin Westlake. Speaking to Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe. All of whom were also Donald Edwin Westlake.
“The direction of escape is towards freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”
Ursula K. Le Guin.
It all really began with Trent Reynolds, and The Violent World of Parker.
I’d started reading the Parker novels because I’d enjoyed two different films based on The Hunter. I wanted to know more about what I was reading, and Wikipedia wasn’t that informative. There was only one website on the internet devoted to Parker, at least in English. It was there I began to acquire context. Without which, nothing ever makes much sense. Without which, you can’t fully understand what you read. Not that anything worth reading is ever simple enough to be understood completely.
There was an official Westlake site, but it wasn’t getting updated much (DonaldWestlake.com has steadily improved as a resource all the time I’ve been doing this blog, and there were times when I didn’t know what I’d do without it).
VWOP was more than a database–it was a community, relating to not only the Parker novels, but many other things relating to Westlake. Engaging in its format, giving you the sense there was this world of limitless adventure and intrigue waiting for you between the covers of these books. As a tribute site to a great genre author, I cannot say I have ever encountered its better.
I’ve told some of this story before, no need to repeat it all, but I did what I’ve usually done since the Mid-90’s, when I find myself obsessed with a given set of fictions–I looked for people I could discuss them with online. Because preferable as conversations in three dimensions may be, it’s not that easy to find somebody in your non-virtual life who is conversant in everything you want to talk about.
I love talking about books so much, that recently, when a lawyer friend mentioned at another friend’s birthday party that she’d read something called The Essex Serpent, and had been captivated by it, I downloaded the ebook post-haste, polished it off in a sconce, and the very next time I saw her, attempted to engage her in a far-ranging literary debate on the deeper implications of Sarah Perry’s Neo-Victorian venture into the Gothic Realm. Which lasted maybe ten minutes. Shortly after, she moved upstate. (That’s one way to get out of having me talk your ear off about books.)
The novel had enraptured her, but to her it was a great love story with a sort of pseudo-paranormal slant–and it’s all of that and much more (Sarah Perry bears watching, is all I’ll say for now). But that’s all she, with her busy life, full of dogs, horses, and The Law, had time for. We can’t all be book nerds, nor should we. For many a book is just something to savor, then put aside.
You can read many thousands of books in a lifetime. You don’t get a friend for each. Book clubs are–how shall I put this?–clubbish. Oprah, for all her powers, can only accomplish so much in one lifetime. Even if you could afford to go back to school, where it’s normal to want to talk a novel to death, there are no courses devoted to Parker or Dortmunder (plenty for Buffy the Vampire Slayer). And who has the tuition money?
Somewhere out there in cyberspace, there are people reading the same things you are. The internet does have its uses, after all. (So does a life partner–mine loves both Parker novels and The Essex Serpent, but she’s never really gotten into the rest of Westlake, as I did when I ran out of Starks).
Trent had a comments section for each of his blog articles (some of them written by Nick Jones, polymath proprietor of the more free-ranging Existential Ennui, who Trent had developed a creative partnership with). I began to comment. First on Nick’s site, then on Trent’s (there was also a Yahoo!Group thingy, never did much care for that format).
I had a lot to say. I had too damn much to say, much of it snarky in nature. I never could bear fools gladly, and where there’s an internet, there be fools, myself not least among them, but false modesty does not become a lit-nerd. How shall I put this?
There were problems, for which I shall accept my rightful share of the blame, no more. But the real problem, as Nick deduced, was that I needed my own space, where I could set the parameters of discussion myself. As narrow or wide-ranging as I needed them to be. People would dig it or not, but you can’t get thrown out of your own place. (Well, maybe you can, but I’m not that obnoxious.)
And here we are. And here we’ve been, for over four years now. First me, then Ray, then Greg, Mike, jalp5dai, Anthony, Rinaldo, Phil, Adi, J. Goodman, many a kibbitzer passing on through (if I missed your name, doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the input).
It never felt like a book club–more like a loose-knit free-form crew of planners, locksmiths, drivers, assorted specialists and utility infielders, swapping insights, pulling heist after heist together–and the score was enhanced understanding of an author we all loved. And this blog was the O.J. (sorry I never could figure out how to distill my own brand of virtual bourbon).
And because you were here, egging me on, making this exponentially more than I ever could have achieved on my own, I have finished what I set out to accomplish. (If you knew me in real life, you’d know how remarkable that is.) I’ve substantively and in some cases perhaps even authoritatively reviewed each and every Donald E. Westlake novel that isn’t a sleaze paperback. Plus short story collections. Plus a few of the less objectionable film adaptations (and one of the most objectionable).
I review by the ‘push’ method, much as Westlake wrote his fiction. No outlines, just ideas that took shape as I worried at them, making use of various found objects as I went, and at some point I stopped wondering at how the right object was always found just when I needed it. (Like I’m still pinching myself over the Adrian Benepe quote from 2006 that I used in my review of Comfort Station. I bet Westlake was too.)
OR the spooky coincidences–getting to my review of Brothers Keepers right around St. Crispin’s Day, or posting Part One of my Good Behavior review around the Feast of St. Dismas, which fell on Good Friday that year. And then there was my review of Adios Scheherazade, that I got in on April Fool’s Day. (Thanks again to Mr. Westlake for answering my celestial correspondence in time for that to happen. Sorry, I still can’t tell you what happened to Ambrose Bierce.)
Sure, if I noticed the temporal convergence, I’d work a bit faster so as to have that date stamp–but if you think I planned that out more than a day or two in advance, you really do not know who you’re dealing with here. I can’t even plan where I go to lunch more than a minute before I head out the door, and sometimes it’s a minute after. I do my taxes online, right after I get my W2–in about 45 minutes (I’ve spent my refund before you’ve finished itemizing deductions). I live by the ‘push’ method. Doesn’t everyone? Don’t answer that.
My reviews kept getting longer as I went, more complicated, more spoiler-laden, and sometimes less readable, but it seemed like the more I said, the more I had to say, and the deeper into the weeds I had to get. To some extent, that was true of Westlake as well, so it wasn’t all my fault. The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. You know?
Many of my favorite reviews are one-parters, but I hold some of my three-parters in high regard, and as for four-parters, let’s just be grateful I didn’t do a Tolstoy blog. (Never read Proust; maybe I’ll have the time now.)
As we create our own identities, we create our own realities. I came to feel that Westlake had been waiting for me. While I was gestating, getting born, learning how to walk, experiencing my first conscious memories, he was writing his first novels under his own name, and Stark’s, and Coe’s, and etc. We shared two states and a lot of years, as our lives moved on parallel lines, never meeting once. I could have met him, quite easily, as I’ve met other writers I admired. He was notoriously friendly and helpful to readers who got in touch with him. I never even read him until he was gone. Freddie-come-lately.
And the more I read of him, the more I knew I’d found a mind that worked very much like mine. Only tougher. Fiercer. More disciplined. I began to perceive that I would never be the smartest person in any room Donald E. Westlake was in. And by figuring him out, I might figure myself into the bargain. (Thus answering the Dortmunderian query, Quid lucrum istic mihi est?)
I feel like everything in my life prepared me, in one way or another, to grasp him. Too much familiarity might have gotten in the way, somehow. Many knew him up close–I scanned him from afar. In the best way anyone can scan a writer. Through what he or she wrote. Because it is through art, not conversation, or correspondence, that we humans tell the unvarnished truth about ourselves. What cannot be said can be sung.
And how he sang to us all, of darkness and light, of laughter and pain, of criminals, clowns, calamities and capers, and always, in every word that came out of his Smith Coronas, of self. Of identity. Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going? How will you get there? Will you get there in one piece? Will you let this world break you down to nothing, or will you stand up, fight back, get away clean?
Sometimes you fight best on your own. Sometimes you need a string. But either way, the fight is to be yourself. The hardest thing in this world to be. And the only thing in this world that matters a damn.
He hid his theme well, but it was always there, for those who were willing to see that this most diverting and versatile of storytellers was never content with mere diversion, and his experiments with style and form were merely conduits for a vision that went far beyond the normal parameters of his chosen genre. His hideout, if you will. Where he could plan his heists without the law catching wise.
His goal was never escapism. Escape, sure. We all need a getaway car, now and then. But escapism, to me (pace Dame Ursula), means wanting to forget the real world entirely. To lose yourself in stories, when you should be finding yourself there. To never learn, never confront your problems, never grow up, never become anything. To never be real. Because it hurts so damn much. It’s easier to be a phoney all your life. To never look past the surface of things. To skate on through, sweating the small stuff, missing the big picture.
If that’s what you want, you are in the wrong fucking place when you open a Donald Westlake novel. You picked the wrong getaway car (and with no MD plates; I can hear Kelp tsking). There’s a reason he never had a best-seller in his life, in spite of being one of the best-liked most-admired writers of his generation. Escapism sells because most people don’t have the guts to stare the world as it is right in the face, stare it down. He did.
But he did it without pretense, without affectation, without hubris. Without roaring in the jungles of high culture, like some literary lion, fighting the other lions over prizes and plaudits (and occasionally, plagiarism).
He much preferred to prowl the fringes, like a grinning coyote. Leaner. Meaner. More cunning. More adaptable. Built to last. Always finding a crack to slip through, a score to tide him over. A survivor, as much at home on a city sidewalk as a primeval wilderness. The equivalent of a coyote in Africa is a jackal, and guess who’s going to eat the last lion? The trickster always wins in the end.
It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? And much too complicated to be fully understood by any one storyteller. Brilliant as Westlake was, I was never out to say he was the be-all and end-all, that there were not many wordsmiths who could best him in this or that arena of their shared profession, or that perceptive as he was, he was never wrong.
He would have known too well the universal truth of Charles Willeford’s dictum, “My work is one long triumph over my limitations.” But I knew that he merited a bit more attention from the opinion-makers of the book world. That he was being taken too lightly, and he still is, and will be for some time to come. So if I overcompensated, let’s at least acknowledge I had something to overcompensate for, and someone worth doing it for.
When I named this blog, I was making an implicit pun. Yes, it’s The Westlake Review because I’m reviewing everything Westlake. But it’s also my understaffed attempt at a sort of literary journal. The kind that many other great writers have been honored with after their deaths (I think they’d have mainly preferred cash, but never mind).
The point of my reviews was never “This book is great, this one’s pretty decent, this one’s okay, this one’s kind of meh”–not to evaluate them as works of entertainment, as ‘reads,’ because others had already done that. I wanted to evaluate them as expressions of a man’s soul, commentaries on the world he saw around him, the worlds he saw inside himself, and inside all of us.
I wanted, more than anything else, to convince people that he was and is a Great Writer–he may never have won a literary prize more prestigious than the Edgar, but remind me how many prizes Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens ever won? Is he that immortal? No, and neither are most of the dead writers who actually have their own scholarly journals, where every word is parsed, every sentence deconstructed, every meaning hidden, and only other scholars give a shit.
This is a journal for scholars of the road. Scholars without portfolio. The best scholars for a meat and potatoes guy like him, though really, the tenured set might try a bit harder. We here are looking for a different kind of tenure.
I saw too few highbrows out there even trying to understand him at more than a superficial level–not just because he was genre, but because he was funny. And because he wrote so much, in so many different voices, he was too hard to get a handle on. The blind men never did get their act together with regards to this elephant, but maybe they’ll compare notes someday. Don’t hold your breath.
There was also a lowbrow section of his readership I ran into online–mainly Stark readers, and you know the type. They likewise couldn’t see past the outward trappings of genre, the macho wish-fulfillment angle, which has its place in crime fiction, just as it does in Homeric poetry, but the difference was, they didn’t want to see anything else. I’m pleased to say I saw very little of that type here–I probably bored them. The feeling is mutual.
I guess that makes me midbrow? Do people still use that term? However elevated my brow may be, it was frequently knit when trying to pierce Mr. Westlake’s mysteries. (Which I will say one last time were never about whodunnit.) He put me through my paces, slow dance to foxtrot. And the dance floor is barely scratched. I got a small piece of what’s in there. Waiting now in joyful hope for a greater detective than myself, whose gumshoes I am not fit to shine.
I’ll never say all there is to say about him, but that would hold true for any subject of note. My problem is, I have not yet said all I have to say about him. I’m not done yet. There are short stories I haven’t read. Nonfiction articles I could look at. There are sleazy paperbacks he wrote to pay bills, and I can’t give them the same treatment his real work got, but they might be worth a quick pass through (if I can afford to buy enough of them–very collectible). There’s an archive in Boston I could mine for gold, as Greg did before me. And there are things about books I’ve already reviewed that I just didn’t have enough context to pick up on the first time through.
And there are a few other crime writers I want to talk about–each of whom has some kind of oddball connection to Westlake. Each of whom had his attention, and they have mine too. I need more context there as well. Which means I need time to read up on them. Which means I may not be posting so often for a while. It’s going to depend on what found objects surface in the coming year.
But to go back to where I started, this all began with The Violent World of Parker. Which showed me what could be done with an internet connection, a bit of spare time, and a lot of passion. It convinced me that you could create an online community devoted to a writer who isn’t yet counted among the immortals, and it also proved that running out of books doesn’t mean you’ve run out of things to talk about. That was my first model for what I’ve done here. Showed me the ropes.
It also warned me this is an ephemeral medium. Back in 2015, VWOP vanished from the internet. There had been outages here and there in the past, but they never lasted long. This one dragged on for seeming eons. Nobody knew the story. I’d have emailed him, but the only addy I had was from VWOP. Going by the metaphor of somebody’s blog as his or her getaway car, it began to seem like we’d seen Trent’s last mace. Oh please, you knew that was coming.
Then, days ago, I got an email from him. Asking if I’d update the link to VWOP in my Known Associates sidebar–which I never had the heart to get rid of, even though it now leads to a site hawking hair products to Japanese men. Don’t ask–well, if you must.
If I hadn’t read so many Westlake farces, I’d call that outlandish yarn of VWOP‘s foreign abduction a bald-faced fib. (You knew that was coming too.) A Likely Story indeed!
On a purely selfish level, I’m relieved I don’t have to go back and update all those links to sections of his site that I put in my reviews. What’s that, you say? Now that the addy for VWOP has changed, however slightly, I still have to do that? That should keep me busy a spell. Anybody remember which reviews those were in?
But here we are again with the freaky coincidences. VWOP was a long time dead. Nick Jones had pretty much stopped writing about Westlake, before I ever got started. All that while, I was holding forth here, on my long slog through the canon. What were the odds VWOP would come back–with Nick Jones once more contributing–just as I was writing my last review? And that, at the very same time, a new voice was heard singing in the marshes? (Can’t wait for him to get to The Blackbird.) The world is not simple enough to understand. Neither is the internet.
Ethan Iverson’s vitally important summation, with its unique insights, never left. David Bratman’s pioneering compendium of pocket reviews not only survives, but has been updated recently. The Official Site continues to expand, and I think you might say we’ve got a quorum here. Always room for one more.
Timing is everything. I came along at just the right time to have a level of access to Westlake’s work that earlier enthusiasts could only dream of. The last unpublished novel (they’re pretty sure) came out this year. The Getaway Car came out just as I was starting. This is, in fact, a golden age for Westlake scholarship and general appreciation. The only thing we don’t have is–well……
I think sometimes about his very last day on earth. In a country he loved. As the country where he lived embarked on a new era, his opinions of which I could not comment on, except to say he’d have preferred it to the one we’re in now. (He really did try to warn us, you know. We really should have listened, you know. But hey, what’s the worst that could happen, huh?)
Details are sketchy about his demise. He took a trip to Mexico, and never came back. (He and Bierce must have had a good laugh about that). Seems that he who lives by the ‘push’ method may also die by it. Were there last words? I’ve long heard that the famous last words of famous authors are generally more like the last reasonably coherent things they said–penultimate words. So what were they? Somebody knows.
I respect his family’s privacy. In this and many other things. But there should be a biography of him, and not that far into the future. I heard somebody was working on one. That was years ago. Don’t look at me. You don’t write scholarly tomes by the ‘push’ method. And I suppose I’d end up preferring the man I imagined. The face I could see as I read his work.
At the risk of repeating myself (And don’t I always? Hasn’t killed me yet.) I shall close this section of The Westlake Review with the same words I finished my review of Kahawa with–the finishing lines of George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens, one of the writers Westlake most identified with. They work oddly well for him too. A man born out of his time, who nonetheless chose to live and write in the present, because that’s where the fight is.
He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.