Plug: Scott Bradfield’s Westlake Review

Came across a link to this on VWOP.  One of the best overviews I’ve ever read.  

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.)


Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

18 responses to “Plug: Scott Bradfield’s Westlake Review

  1. J. Goodman

    I’d really love to know who his pal, Gus Hasford’s, Westlake was! The author of The Short Timers, who sadly was a suicide, was also a world famous rare book thief. Now there’s some fodder for a Westlake novel or pastiche, eh?

    • At the end, I’d think he wasn’t reading much Westlake.

      Maybe this one would have helped–

      Out of print in 1993. Like that would have stopped him. No, I think the mental illness took his humor, as it so often does, and without that, you’re done.

  2. You’re right, that is a good overview article. I happen to disagree with much of it – starting with the silly “Writer’s Writer” title – but it’s good to see Westlake get the occasional highlight from such a highbrow source.

    • Yeah, I don’t even know what the extra writer in there is supposed to signify–a writer’s writer is a writer only other writers can appreciate, right?–so only the writer’s writers know how good a writer Westlake is? I think he’d have packed it in if that was his audience.

      I’ve never been convinced it’s a compliment to say of an author that only other authors can appreciate him/her. I beg to differ on that point. I’m not a writer, and I think I appreciate him at least as well. A bit better, now that I’ve tried to write in his style.

  3. One example:
    ‘The “evil” side of the criminal universe, however, is a distinctly Trumpian one: an endless, escalating chaos created by the various competing crooks and gangsters who secretly run things. These stupid, hive-minded, overpaid white guys steal everything from everybody indiscriminately, even each other; then they try to turn everyone who doesn’t work for them into corporate drones like themselves — and if they can’t turn them, they kill them.’

    In the Parker books, 361 and The Busy Body the criminal organizations are not creating any “endless, escalating chaos.” Corrupt and evil, sure – but these institutions run like clockwork . . . until an independent agent like Parker or Kelly runs into them. Then, the chaos begins because the weaknesses of The Outfit, “the organization,” etc. get exposed. Parker isn’t even the source of said chaos – it generally arises from the traitorous or incompetent clowns who ruin his schemes from the inside.

    Engel of The Busy Body didn’t seem like he was one of these “stupid, hive-minded, overpaid white guys,” and it wasn’t he that stole the blue jacket. His boss managed to neatly contain a chaotic situation into an all-Engel situation, who in turn handled it himself.

    Anyway, it’s a good article and highlights how different viewpoints arise from different people reading Westlake’s work. That, if I remember correctly, is arguably a sign of quality literature. You don’t need to be a novelist, or an aspiring one, to appreciate that.

    • Westlake tended to conflate gangsters with corporations–they’re corporations in miniature. With the same strengths and weaknesses. You have to remember, in his early work, he’s writing in what is, in spite of some social foment, a nation whose financial and political stability is the envy of much of the world. (Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.)

      His idea with his early writing on organized crime is that it’s corrupt and evil (and makes no bones about either), but it’s also a business, supplying illegal vices that people want to enjoy, like gambling, sex, intoxicants. There’s a niche and they fill it. But living as essentially parasites, forced to bow before men who really aren’t terribly smart, just terribly focused on getting what they want, they bastardize their true natures–that goes all the way back to The Mercenaries, if not before. Serve no master but yourself.

      Westlake dislikes them, but he dislikes the real corporations much more. They’re the ones doing the real damage–undermining Democracy, national sovereignty, all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. He used Dortmunder more than Parker to talk about them. (Parker just could never be made to care about that kind of thing).

      The more power you have, the more you want, and the more corrupt you become, and you try to make the whole world look like you. But it’s our fault for tolerating it. And all the individual can do is survive–or, in Westlake’s more romantic work, strike back.

      It’s not exactly clockwork. Parker couldn’t win if the mob lords were on such stable footing. He sees their divisions, their weak spots, and exploits them. Well, people really do that, if not literally with a small string of armed professionals.

      Dortmunder couldn’t win if it wasn’t for the fact that his tycoon nemeses weren’t such a pack of self-deluding narcissists, believing their own hype too much. In both cases, you have someone who knows himself extremely well, going up against someone who refuses to know himself at all, because that knowledge would be truly unpleasant.

      Bradfield’s reading may be a bit superficial, a bit misleading, but I’d hate to have to try and improve on it, in the space he had to work with.

      Best thing about a blog is you have all the space you want.

      Worst thing too, of course. 😉

      PS: In related news–

  4. I mean, basically I’m awarding Bradfield huge points for just acknowledging Westlake had central themes, and wasn’t just dragging out a lot of well-worn cliches to thrill or tickle us, depending on what name he was writing under.

    Everything he wrote is connected, of a piece, as much as any writer who gets a hundred times the ink. But he hides his significance so much more carefully than they do.

    James Ellroy gets huge write-ups in the NYRB, because he’s openly writing ‘important’ fiction, isn’t even trying to cover up how important he thinks his work is. I suppose I’ll have to read him sometime. I saw L.A. Confidential. It went down better on the first viewing, kind of fizzled a bit on the second. Good movie, but it’s kind of disappeared, hasn’t it? Never on TV.

    And yet, the not-very-good adaptation of The Hunter that Brian Helgeland came up with, that Gibson butchered into a star vehicle for himself–that’s on cable all the damn time.

    Why? So much of Westlake’s dialogue and plot ideas survived the process–and you can sense his intelligence bubbling through all the nonsense.

    And maybe because Ellroy is a born fatalist, like most noir guys–and we all need to believe we can win this thing.


    • mikesschilling

      If you’re going to read an Ellroy, I’d recommend The Black Dahlia. It’s short, contained, and coherent. For one of his. (To get to Ellroy, start at Hammett, go past Chandler, and keep going for a long while. No, further than that. Really, keep going. I’ll tell you when. Not yet, though.)

      If you like that, you can go on to The Big Nowhere and then LA Confidential. (You know how the movie was dark and had too much plot? Square that, or maybe cube it.)

      • Are we there yet?

        I hate to read a writer, just to confirm my suspicions that I don’t need to be reading this writer, but sometimes you have to. And sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised. And sometimes–how about now? Are we there now?

  5. Ray Garraty

    I began reading it past summer and couldn’t finish. Now I was willing to spend 2 minutes to research this writer. The guy had a book out earlier this year, and LABR (not the best book place online) needed someone to review new Westlake’s book. The author ‘discovered’ Westlake recently and typed his thoughts. That’s probably it. Fully commercial adventure. No side of the three (HCC included) was interested in true criticism. This overview didn’t bring new insight, didn’t offer the kind of style I might enjoy. Writers discover writers every day. Some writers don’t even read. Do I need to read an overview from a guy who needed to get his name in the paper? No.

    • It says right there in the article that he started reading Westlake quite some years ago, when Harlan Ellison clued him in.

      The best book places online have all shown a marked tendency to ignore Westlake in favor of less interesting writers, so I’ll give LABR a pat on the back for breaking with that trend.

      I don’t think Bradfield was claiming to have ‘discovered’ Westlake, merely adding his two cents to the pile. It’s made pretty clear that Forever And a Death is the threadbare pretext for this piece’s existence, and he pays it proper lip service before getting to books he’s more interested in, which I have seen done in NYRB and other more high class venues as well.

      Still waiting for yours. A rote dismissal based on cursory research isn’t a critique. Even at such a low-class book place as this. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        I can’t offer any critique on this piece because I gave up after 1/3. I wasn’t willing to spend another 10 minutes to finish it. Probably that already constitues a critique of sort. When I’m hooked I finish what I’m reading. If somebody has written an overview of a writer I’m intersted in, it doesn’t automatically make this overview valuable.

        • From my viewpoint, I’m fascinated by anything anybody says about Westlake, but particularly when somebody tries to put all the pieces together–see that they’re not just a bunch of variously entertaining bits of pop cultural nonsense, but that there are unifying themes, that they do make points about the world we live in.

          Many far more esteemed literary critics than Mr. Bradfield have failed to draw this conclusion, so I felt he was in for some praise. The deficiencies of the pieces are, to some extent, necessitated by the limited space he has to work with. Also, I expect, like even many of Mr. Westlake’s most longtime admirers, he hasn’t read all of the books. Few have. I’m still amazed I was obsessed enough to do that.

          Just the Harlan Ellison anecdote was worth the time it took to read.

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