The Posthumous Donald Westlake: It’s All Bullshit

Donald Westlake, ever the prolific author, has had two novels released since his death on New Year’s Eve of 2009, both brought to us by the stellar Hard Case Crime imprint.  The first, in 2010, is called Memory, and was thought to be his only “lost” novel, until crime writer Max Allan Collins unearthed a manuscript for The Comedy Is Finished, which was published earlier this year.

donald westlake

Now, I’m not sure that these novels carry a certain extra weight for their timing—that is to say, had Westlake published these novels when he had written them, would they ring so much more important to me?  Or would they be just two more examples of Westlake’s superior writing skills, part of a canon that was revered within the genre well before the man’s passing?

It doesn’t matter.

Westlake will likely be most remembered for his most famous creations, the stoic professional thief, Parker, and the lighter, more outsized and comical thief, John Dortmunder.  Far be it from me to engage in any sort of half-assed psychoanalysis of a man I never met and whose pen I would not be fit to refill.  But I don’t think it would be wholly inaccurate to interpret these two characters as being opposing shades of Westlake’s own creativity.  Further, Memory and The Comedy Is Finished speak (to me, at any rate) of Westlake’s own attempts to consolidate the two.

But again: it doesn’t matter.

Not to skip to the end, but this is what fiction has taught me, this is the lesson I feel that the writers whom I admire most are trying to impart to me: it’s all a bunch of bullshit, so don’t worry about it so much.

In 1962, the first novel to feature Parker, The Hunter, was published under the Westlake pseudonym Richard Stark, the name under which all two dozen of the Parker books would be released.  Apparently, Westlake originally had no major plans for the character, and in the original draft, the calculating, cold-blooded criminal was hauled off to jail, justice served.  As legend has it, Bucklin Moon, editor over at Pocket Books, wanted Parker to escape the cops and wanted Westlake to write three books a year starring the one-named man.  Westlake, not one to pass up a steady writing paycheck, agreed and the rest, as they say, is blah blah blah.

Around the same time, Westlake had written a much longer, heavier book, an attempt to craft a more “literary” novel.  Essentially a blue-collar guy, Westlake almost certainly had no pretensions that in Parker he already had an existential hero to rival Camus’s Meursault.  So it seems that Westlake really attempted to pour as much of that into the book which would become Memory.

Parker exists.  That’s what he does.  He has no qualms about his lot in life or, for that matter, anybody else’s.  The man steals, and he steals well, and then he eats and then he fucks.  That is how his life shakes out, and conflict only arises when someone else attempts to skew that formula.

Paul Cole, the protagonist of Memory, doesn’t have that luxury.  Cole exists, but that’s not all he does.  Or rather, not all he used to do.  Once upon a time, Cole was one of the highlights of Broadway, a handsome young actor and, oh, what heights he was to hit.  But all of that went out the window while Cole was out on the road with a travelling company, and one night some angry young rube returned home to find Paul in his bed and in his wife.  One savage beating later, and Paul Cole couldn’t remember anything.

This is where we find Cole in the opening pages of the book: waking up in a hospital bed, having only the vaguest idea of who he is.  And he spends the rest of the novel feebly grasping at his own identity.  In order to make enough money to get home, he finds a dull factory job in Nowheresville, U.S.A., where he’s been stranded.  And then despite himself, he begins to form an identity: he makes friends, he’s more or less adopted by the family he boards with, he even finds himself a nice girl.  And then he throws all that away to go back to New York, to try to get back the life he once had.  He fails.

He fails spectacularly.

Paul Cole is Parker if Parker had a conscience, if Parker ever had any doubts about himself.  Both men are purely selfish, living only for themselves, but Parker simply goes about it.  He steals only money, something which is recoverable.  Cole steals people’s feelings, their emotional capacity, a rare resource for many.  He may not intend to do so—in fact, he almost never comes off as unsympathetic.  But the simple fact is, if Paul Cole just lived his life, instead of reaching for an existence that may never have been for all he really knows, he’d have been a lot better off.  But he fell for his own bullshit.  Parker never bullshitted anybody, least of all himself.

Memory, according to another crime-fiction legend and peer of Westlake’s, Lawrence Block, failed to find a publisher because it was felt that the book was too literary, too ambitious.  This was a time where the drugstore paperback rack was the bread-and-bulletholes of the industry, and so Westlake put Memory into a drawer and went back to his regular job, writing the lean crime prose for which he’s adored.  The book now serves as an epitaph for the man and his career, for what might have happened had he strove for the bright lights of high literature.  Memory is a fine book, no doubt about that, but crime was Westlake’s medium.  No bullshit about that.

In 1970, Donald Westlake published, under his own name, The Hot Rock.  Westlake began the novel as another Parker book, but as he said, “It kept turning funny.”  So he stopped fighting it, allowing the book to progress naturally as it wanted to.  He did not want the character of Parker, however, to veer into this less serious creative space, and so John Dortmunder was born.

Dortmunder is another professional thief, but in the fourteen novels he appeared in, he takes his job a lot less seriously.  Not that money for nothing is not a serious goal, but by crafting these outlandish heists, Dortmunder gleefully indulged his anti-social side.  Never as serious as Parker, Dortmunder is still as dismissive of the straight life, if not more so.  The fact that he and his crew often end up tripping over their own ludicrous plans never dissuades him—it’s almost as though Dortmunder is in the rackets for the fun of it.  And there’s no fun without some risk.

Koo Davis, the lead character of The Comedy Is Finished, has also chosen fun as a profession.  A stand-up comedian since the good ol’ U.S.O. days of WWII, Davis managed over the next thirty-plus years to keep it funny, to never allow even the most somber of times to escape without a one-liner.  But the social atmosphere of the post-Vietnam era—the riots, the unrest, the long hair—begins to push him and his material further to the right.  Not enormously so, but just enough to make him the target of a kidnapping plot by a band of self-styled leftist revolutionaries.

On the surface, the story almost feels like it’s critical of the 1970s left and all of its symbionese liberations.  But I think Westlake generally strove to keep his work as apolitical as Koo Davis does, and The Comedy Is Finished certainly does not present either side as “right” or “wrong.”  In fact, even the most sympathetic characters are really pretty hateful, Koo Davis included.  Rather, the book is about the lengths people go to for the causes they believe in, the things for which people are willing to rob, cheat, and even kill.  And how at the end of it, it’s all for nothing.  Koo Davis allowed the great societal changes of this time to overwhelm him, allowing it to affect his art and, indirectly, his life.  The kidnappers themselves are a struggling band of pseudo-Weathermen: Peter, their leader, is so consumed by his own ego that he fails to see his plans were doomed before he even woke up that morning; Mark, the muscle, has tamped his raging emotions down so far that he is blind to the real reasons he co-plotted this caper (hint: they ain’t political).  Before the book is even halfway through, we find that each and every one of these characters has been so completely sold on their own line of bullshit, it’s amazing they were even able to make it this far.  Dortmunder may have been all about the thrills inherent in criminal risk, and he may have been convinced that some outside “jinx” was why he screwed up so often, but even he never bullshitted himself to this degree.

Around the same time Westlake completed The Comedy Is Finished, Martin Scorsese released one of his most underrated films, The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis.  Westlake felt that readers would find the plot of his book—an aging comedy legend kidnapped by whack-jobs—too similar to the film.  Westlake had sent a copy of the manuscript to Max Alan Collins, but when it became clear Westlake was not prepared to move on the book, Collins packed it away until just last year.  The Comedy Is Finished reads much more like a Westlake novel than does Memory, but I find it to be quite a poignant final word from the man himself: as soon as you veer from your path, as soon as you allow outside circumstances to affect your way of life, it’s all over, Johnny.  Finished.

Crime fiction tends to speak to me on a personal level.  The characters found in the genre, though often unlikeable, are at the very least their own people, doing whatever they want however they want to do it.  The writers of crime fiction, in their work and sometimes in their lives, lead by that same example.  Eschewing the caviar dreams of the literati, they seek to create fiction that speaks to them and to others like them, people who aren’t afraid to do what they want to do.  I think this is very apparent in Donald Westlake’s body of work, and Memory and The Comedy Is Finished only reinforce this.  The man’s work continues to speak of him and for him, even though he is no longer among the living.  And what his work tells me is quite simple.

Cut the bullshit.

Jimmy Callaway rules over Criminal Complex with an iron fist in a Playtex glove. He lives in San Diego, California.

2 Replies to “The Posthumous Donald Westlake: It’s All Bullshit”

  1. So, when are you teaching a class at the local community college on crime fiction? This is laser sharp. Should’ve ended up in the back of one of Brubaker’s FATALE or CRIMINAL comics….

    1. Folks, I don’t like to brag, but this is coming from one of the finest writers in crime fiction today. Do yourselves a favor and follow Kieran Shea’s blog over at http://kieranjamesshea.blogspot.com/

      And yes, sir, once upon a time, I was on the career fast track to teach community college English, where I’m certain crime fiction would have made up much of my syllabus. Alas, I was lured away from that path by the flashy world of warehouse work. Grad school’s still not officially out of the question, however.

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