And still quibble-worthy. Not everything in Westlake is about money (not that Bradfield said it was, and I can understand him needing a focal point). Money isn’t something his heroes seek for its own sake, but rather so they can remain independents, remain free, remain themselves. Identity was his topic, money was the modus operandi. But a damned important one, and he’s got the right idea here. The Organization Men vs. The Independents, and it’s never hard to tell which side Westlake is on.
Loved the reference to Harlan Ellison–see, Westlake was never that colorful. He didn’t tend to draw attention to himself (even in school, he said, he wasn’t the funny kid, he was the kid who hung around with the funny kid).
So he developed his readership, attracted many a prominent admirer, while he operated below the radar–like most of his protagonists. Because he was afraid, I think, that if too many people had an image of him, it might screw up his self-image. And that’s a legitimate fear. Writers who become too famous often lose track of what made them writers in the first place.
And it too often happens that The Next Book becomes a monster they have to slay, instead of a new friend they can’t wait to make the acquaintaince of. They end up spending most of their time burnishing their sacred reputations–always with that Memento Mori echoing in their heads, reminding them that posterity will stick most of them on a dusty neglected shelf, to make room for new names.
Westlake was never one of the writers everybody talks about. Never a Literary Lion, an icon of the book world, a celebrity. He was something better than that. He was a storyteller, who people showed up to read just because he was fun, and he told people things they needed to know to survive in this world.
I recently advocated for him to get a Library of America collection, and no doubt at all his work merits it–but I had other doubts. Maybe that would be a kind of prison for a writer like him. I definitely don’t think his work that’s perpetually in print should get that treatment.
Some of his best novels have been out of print a long time now, because they fall through the cracks, don’t fit the mental images of any of his disparate readerships, and those are the ones I’d like to see revived, somehow, because you can’t understand Westlake without them. Vital pieces to the puzzle, like Adios Scheherazade and Up Your Banners. Which do still have a lot to say to the world as it is now. I know what Bradfield means about the WASPy gangsters (though there were a lot of Micks and Dagos and Jews thrown in the mix), but Westlake did not always write about white folks.
Because he broadcast on so many different wavelengths, often represented by different author names, it was more like he had many reputations, instead of one–everybody knew him, but nobody knew the same guy. You could never nail him down, pigeonhole him, bring him to justice. He’d always find a crack to slip through, and get away. Like Dortmunder. Like Parker.
Let me quibble once more with this superb piece. Bradfield makes it sound like Grofield is tender-hearted, refusing to go on a job where innocent people might get hurt. In The Stark Lands there is no such thing as innocent people. He just figures the less mess you make, the less attention you draw to yourself. Unlike Parker, he can feel guilt, but he doesn’t tend to let it stop him. It would be self-deceiving for him to go around thinking you can rob supermarkets and payrolls with loaded guns and nobody but other criminals will get hurt. Grofield has his flaws, but he doesn’t lie to himself.
I agree he’s a great character, but he’s not in the same league as Parker, and there’s a reason Westlake stopped writing about him. Too many internal contradictions, and no way to resolve them in that kind of book. Grofield is a fascinating experiment, that didn’t work out as well as Westlake hoped (so Stark pulled the trigger on him).
But see, this is my point–Bradfield has his Westlake. I have mine. You have yours. They’re all real. And they’re all projections. And there the real Westlake goes, out the back door, laughing at all of us. Well, we’re funny. Bradfield refers to the Trumpian adversaries of Westlake’s fiction (at least one of whom was partly modeled after Trump). We made Trump President (some of us). We’re funny as a heart attack, man.
But he was in deadly earnest, and never more when he was joking. It wouldn’t kill us to recognize that more. This is one of the greatest and most enduring American writers, who pulled off an amazing magic trick–to publish one popular well-received novel after another, for five decades, without ever really becoming famous, or revered–or forgotten. The cover art changes, the books go on. Not because they’re ‘important’ but because people can’t stop reading them. Now they’re impulses on the internet. Next….?
Missing my comments section cohorts, so if anybody else has quibbles–with Bradfield or me–speak up. Hey, I’ve got another one–why has there never been anything like this in the New York Review of Books? “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.” Mark that well. (Had to get a pun in there somewhere.)