I can’t remember where I read this story, quite some years back, and a Google search came up empty, but I shall recount it as best I can: Richard Ellmann, literary scholar extraordinaire, and the definitive biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, was teaching at Oxford, and one day he came charging into a room where a number of his fellow Oxfordians were gathered. He stated with no small sense of drama that he now had indisputable evidence of what Wilde’s favorite sexual act was–they awaited the news with bated breath–“Fellatio,” he announced triumphantly.
In the awed silence that followed, one very elderly don spoke up, his voice quavering slightly–“Giving or receiving?” he inquired.
If you are planning to be a famous author of the late modern era (‘late modern’ meaning ‘from the French Revolution onwards’), and if your reputation should happen to survive you, there’s a very good chance people are going to know a great deal about your personal affairs, and I use the term advisedly. There’s an entire class of tenured academic scholars who will dig determinedly through the detritus of your private life, and present it to the public, generally with a large and hopefully not too unflattering photograph of you on the dust jacket.
This is done primarily out of the noble purpose of furthering an improved understanding of your work and the experiences that inspired it, but there’s also more than a touch of morbid curiosity–the biographies with sex in them sell a lot better. I would strongly advise you to get up to some kind of mischief while you’re still alive, and for God’s sake maintain a detailed diary, or people will be very disappointed in you. If you could write the diary in some kind of code your biographers would have to break in order to learn the sordid details of the aforementioned mischief, that would be all to the good.
Just recently, I was perusing a new biography of John Updike, and if you think his novels had an improbably large amount of extramarital sex in them, well let me just assure you–the man did his research.
Anyway, none of that sort of thing is to be found in The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, compiled and edited by Levi Stahl of the University of Chicago Press, with the cooperation of Westlake’s estate. There’s plenty of mischief in the book, but of a non-salacious variety. I think we can safely assume Westlake’s personal life was not utterly devoid of the salacious, but we may never know the details–hopefully we won’t be disappointed if we ever do.
The anthology itself is far from a disappointment. I described it in a recent review here as “The single most invaluable resource any aspiring Westlake scholar ever laid his or her sweaty palms upon,” and I was not exaggerating. Not that there’s been a lot of competition out there, but this book raises the bar by roughly a mile.
For a man who wrote and published well over 100 books (we may never know exactly how many, because some of his early pseudonyms were shared), and who has a diverse and adoring readership to this day, Westlake has not inspired much in the way of literary scholarship. Maybe we’ve just been having too much fun reading all the books by him to produce any about him, and maybe it’s just too soon since his death in late 2008. I have heard rumblings of a literary biography in the works, but they remain rumblings at this point.
Isaac Asimov, a dominating and world-famous figure in his specific genre, as well as an expert on–well, basically everything–died in 1992, and we have one hastily composed 1994 unauthorized biography of him (along with three voluminous autobiographies Asimov stereotypically published in his own lifetime). Genre authors don’t tend to excite much scholarly scrutiny, though there are certainly exceptions to the rule. We know a whole lot about Dashiell Hammett’s life, but that’s because 1)Hammett gets more critical respect than most crime fiction authors and 2)he was shacked up with Lillian Hellman for a long time.
Westlake admired and identified with Hammett perhaps more than any other writer, and as I mentioned in my review of the first Mitch Tobin novel, he was well aware of the long painful creative drought that afflicted Hammett in his last quarter century of life. I think, on the whole, he would not have changed reputations with Hammett for anything. Writing meant far too much to him–he knew he was on some level diminishing the perceived significance of each individual book by producing so many of them, letting supply outstrip demand, but here’s the thing–he didn’t care. “When you’re in love, you want to do it all the time,” he said in interviews, and while his torrid affair with prose fiction may have flagged slightly after the 1960’s, he remained an exceptionally ardent and many-faceted suitor to the very end.
Such was his ardor that he pursued it under a variety of names, because it would have been impossible to publish as often as he did under his own. But this weakness of his for pseudonyms was mainly restricted to novels. His short stories, screenplays and film treatments, nonfiction articles, and one work of history, were mainly credited to Westlake–entirely so once he was an established name. He didn’t produce enough of that kind of work so as to need a variety of names to publish it under.
The one thing you’d have thought he’d want published anonymously–his scathing and controversial take on the science fiction field, entitled “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” (to be found in this anthology, along with a somewhat more measured follow-up) he credited to himself. He wasn’t trying to hide from anybody (as Alice Sheldon, who wrote far better science fiction than Westlake ever did under the name James Tiptree Jr., most certainly was)–he used alternate names mainly for the purpose of practicing alternate styles, alternate worldviews. While he may not have contained multitudes, he certainly had enough for a good-sized poker game.
But when he gathered some of the more prominent among them in one room, it was for the purposes of an ersatz interview–that terminates in armed robbery and murder–that’s in this anthology too. I happened to have purchased the book that little flight of fancy was originally written for, simply to read it–and here is why we all owe Levi Stahl a huge vote of thanks, for saving us all that trouble and expense and shelf space.
But a lot of this material has never seen print before, and would not have been available at any price. Most significantly, there’s several fragments of an autobiography Westlake worked on, but never deemed fit for publication (he was no Asimov, as he himself would cheerfully admit). These are entirely drawn from his early life, before anybody had heard of him, and before he’d met any of his three wives, but it tells us a number of things about his parents, his childhood, and his life of crime, such as it was.
I’m not going to reveal too much of the specifics here–I don’t want you to think you’ve gotten the gist of it from my review, and feel like you can spare the cost of a copy. The more this sells, the more likely we are to get a sequel, and a sequel we definitely need (Stahl makes it pretty clear there’s at least one more book’s worth of material in the Westlake archives).
But I think I just have to spill this one solitary bean–Westlake was arrested for theft as a college student. Those of you who, like me, have been devotedly absorbing his criminal oeuvre will immediately shout “EUREKA!” Or perhaps “Elementary” if you are of a more cerebral disposition. Nobody could write so much and with so much empathy about thieves without having been one, however briefly and ineffectually. I’d already guessed he had been in trouble with the law, well before I ever read The Getaway Car (see my review of The Score, among others), but I didn’t know the specifics until now.
Needing money badly, he stole one microscope from a science lab, and pawned it. A dorm mate put him up to it, and then due to an unfortunate and wholly unpredictable turn of events involving a trafficker in stolen goods and an unfaithful wife, he and the dorm mate got ratted out, and the cops got them both in separate rooms, and then his father came in to save the day with a politically well-placed attorney, who got the records sealed. And Westlake writes–with a combination of pain, and love, and lingering guilt–of how his father apologized to him at the police station for not being able to support him properly.
And perhaps it was this, even more than the resentment he’d felt towards the no doubt amused detectives, and the terror his brief incarceration inspired, that burned this incident into his soul–and how many times did he indirectly write about it? You can’t help but feel this may be the keystone to more than half of his work–much as Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with innocent men on the run from the law much more famously goes back to his childhood, when his parents would have the local constabulary lock him up in a cell for a few hours when he misbehaved.
The guy who is guilty of something, yet perversely furious at those who accuse him without real proof–from The Mercenaries all the way up to The Ax, we saw variations on this scenario repeated, most directly and personally in the latter, of course, where the murderous protagonist of the book, whose son made the same stupid mistake Westlake did, briefly plays the same role Westlake senior did, decades earlier. He was writing about this well before The Mercenaries, actually. Hey, beats talking to a shrink–this way they pay you.
How many ways did Westlake find to say “Dad, if you hadn’t gotten me out of that mess I got myself into, I don’t know what would have happened to me”? He’d had a narrow escape, and he knew it. And yet–some not-so-small part of him must have enjoyed that moment of surreptitious rebellion–and wondered what it would be like to be a competent thief, the kind who gets away with it, the kind those smug cops can never break. The road not traveled was a road Donald Westlake spent much of his life exploring, via his beloved Smith Coronas.
His attitude towards authority, and specifically towards cops–something you can see him struggle with, wanting to be fair, trying to see their point of view, knowing they had him dead to rights, knowing they were just doing their job, but also knowing they enjoyed it too damn much. And he knew that if his father hadn’t intervened, those same cops would have happily ruined his future, for one lousy microscope–for one mistake. That interrogation room they easily broke him down in was a room he came back to, over and over.
And we’ve all been in that room, in one way or another. One of the things we love about his books is the way they get us out of that room–that sense of vicarious empowerment, of triumphing against the odds, against the system. Guilty or innocent, we all get railroaded, sooner or later. It’s just a matter of degree.
And this is just one small part of the book. Most of it isn’t so serious, but it’s all damned fascinating–a whole article where Westlake discusses the various film adaptations of his work, and how they came to be, and what he thinks of them (generally speaking, not much). An interview via the mails between Westlake and the then-incarcerated Al Nussbaum, a genuine felon and future crime writer, who had a bunch of good questions to ask Westlake, and he answered them all, and you’ll want to hear his answers.
One thing I particularly loved (and hated) learning was how many of his novels had been optioned by Hollywood–and the movies never got made. Mind you, in many cases it was probably just as well (I would have given a lot to see Robert Mitchum’s Mitch Tobin), but it gives you an insight into how Westlake made a living–a lot of his income came from Hollywood speculatively buying his books and doing absolutely nothing at all with them. Which on the whole I think he preferred to having Hollywood do something stupid with them. Just so long as the checks cleared.
Most of the information we get is professional, not personal–including several essays and lectures on the history of crime fiction, which also tell us a lot about the essayist–but for Westlake, nothing was more personal than the professional. He talks in one (unpublished) piece about how the new level of fame he’d gotten recently was making him uncomfortable–he didn’t feel like he had the same room to maneuver he once did. People were starting to expect things from him. He didn’t like that–he wanted to stay just below the radar. Is there a touch of sour grapes there, from a writer who never had a real best-seller in a very long career? Maybe a little, but I think he felt like the grapes really were sour. The point is not how many people read you–the point is whether what they read is what you wanted to write.
For a guy best-known for creating two fictional thieves who kept ending up in (mainly very bad) movies, he really didn’t aspire to that kind of fame–the Mickey Spillane/Ian Fleming kind, I mean. He just wanted enough of an audience to justify him getting to go on writing and publishing a wide variety of books, making enough money to support himself and his family doing what he wanted to do, and though things got tough here and there (as we learn in one piece), and he came close to giving up a few times, he pulled it off. An entire adult lifetime of spinning yarns, and getting paid for it. I see pictures of him as an older man, and I get this sense of triumph–he’d beaten the odds. He’d gotten out of that room.
Here’s the thing–the more attention you get, the more pressure there is to produce this or that kind of book–it becomes a sort of prison. For a Stephen King, this can simply translate into a very lucrative one-man industry, but for many others, it can be a dead end. I mean, what was it like to be Norman Mailer, or J.D. Salinger, known entirely for a few books, never able to live up to their early promise, come up with a second act? What was it like to be Dashiell Hammett, staring at a blank sheet of paper for 25 years? Westlake never wanted to know. So he kept breaking out. If he wrote enough books, with enough different subjects (including a few later works that really have to be called science fiction, so his farewell was premature), he could keep people guessing, and avoid the waiting pigeonhole.
I wonder what he’d have thought about a book just published, in which a woman who was a neighbor of Harper Lee’s basically wrote of her personal acquaintance with She Who Was Scout–simply because people were so insatiably curious about this notoriously private woman’s private life and thoughts (and why she never wrote another book). I’m not condemning the author of the book in question, who told Lee what she was doing, just saying–didn’t we learn all we needed to know from the book she’ll always be remembered for?
Yes, but when a writer moves us in any way, we get curious. We want to know where his/her ideas came from. We want to understand why he/she is this famous beloved author, and we’re not. What did they have that we didn’t? The will to keep typing, and the ability to withstand rejection, mainly–but there must be something else. If we could know everything that ever happened to them, maybe we’d get it. Yeah, right. I think the lack of a real biography is the main reason there’ll always be a group of people trying to prove Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, even though he clearly did. We already know where Shakespeare got his ideas–from plays and stories that already existed, that he retooled and remade in his own image.
Westlake wrote with great humor about where his ideas came from–the movies, quite often, he has Richard Stark mention in passing in that mock interview I mentioned. Another piece has him going into some detail about where he got the story for Jimmy the Kid–the format is him talking to a small crowd of rather shallow literary persons at a cocktail party. Then at the end, he reveals to them that they are just literary devices themselves, and that he got the idea for this article from Tom Wolfe. “Which one?”, he’s asked–“Both of them!” he responds joyfully.
He is also seen to say in this book that he doesn’t like to talk about his sources until certain copyrights have expired. But I’ve divined enough of them to know he nearly always improved on them, and never stuck very close to them, because that would be dull and pointless. What he did constitutes plagiarism no more than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi. I can imagine him rolling his eyes now. Maybe it’s time to cut this one short.
Ever since Westlake’s death, we’ve seen a handful of unpublished novels come out, and there’s been new material added to the official Westlake site, and books we didn’t even know existed (or couldn’t find or afford used copies of) have been republished, if only on Kindle. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say “I’ve read all of Westlake’s novels that aren’t porn”–because I wouldn’t have been able to get all the books. This is a sort of golden age of Westlake fandom we’re in now, only made less lustrous by the fact that he isn’t here to share it with us. And by the fact that there’s not going to be any more novels.
And while nothing could be as precious as an undiscovered Westlake novel, this anthology comes very close–because it finally gives us context, background details, a basis on which to really start to understand the man behind all those felonious plans, comic capers, and sometimes searing insights into human nature, and our perpetually confused understanding of ourselves.
There were many great crime fiction writers, some of whom outsold Westlake easily, and more than a few have faded more and more into obscurity, known only to a few aficionados. Because the fact is, there’s only so much room at the top of a living genre. What Westlake did that sets him apart, keeps him alive, was to transcend that genre, see its strengths and limitations with exceptional clarity, and because he was never too comfortable with it–because, as he put it, he was wary of the ‘ritual’–we can never quite take his measure. He’s always got another surprise for us. He always keeps us a bit off-balance. He always leaves us wanting more.
And this book isn’t going to change that one bit. Unless that unpublished autobiography (which I do hope we’ll see the rest of someday) is a lot more revealing than I suspect it to be, it won’t answer all our questions–and as I’ve already said, the answers we get will just lead to more questions.
Great title, I should mention in conclusion–it sums the work up very well. If there’s anything Westlake was endeavoring to impart in his fiction and nonfiction alike, it’s this–always have an escape plan ready. His books have been my favorite getaway car for several years now.
So there was no sex in this review at all, was there? Well, I can fix that. Go down towards the bottom (so to speak), assuming you’re not offended by (mainly female) public nudity. No, look at the books. Obviously an advance copy. Good to see young women keeping abreast of current literature (::ducks::). Thanks to Ray Garraty for providing this link, and to Lawrence Block for providing it to him.
And in my next review, I come to one of Westlake’s best known novels that doesn’t feature a series character–one of the ‘Nephew’ Books (the quote marks are actually unnecessary in this case), and some might say the greatest of them all, if only because it got Westlake his first Edgar Award, and his only one for a novel. I’m not quite so high on this one as some others have been, you might be surprised to learn–but clearly it has a certain special place in my heart. And stealing shamelessly from the movies, as seems appropriate in this context, let me just say in conclusion–