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Memory (Hard Case Crime)
Memory (Hard Case Crime)
Donald E. Westlake
Hardcase Crime, 2024
366 pp., 7.5

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Joseph Bottum

Go Ahead and Flinch

A lost novel by Donald Westlake.

You've probably forgotten—you've certainly forgotten—but back in the early 1960s there was a serious American novelist who achieved some small success writing psychological dramas. His name was Donald Westlake, and the explanation for his fading from the modern reader's memory may be, in part, that his work was so typical of his now sepia-tinted time: grim, knotted, unpleasant, intense, fascinated with the relation of social and psychological perception, and drawn to a vision of America as a wildly disturbing place.

He wrote ten books or so, all of them the mildly praised kind of midlist volume that reviewers think they should like, although they don't, really. The Mercenaries, Killing Time, and 361 are good examples, along with Pity Him Afterwards: the kind of novel of which maybe every other one gets taken up on page six or so of the Sunday New York Times book section, in a review that usually mentions something about close observation and hard-edged prose—and always employs the word "unflinching" somewhere along the way.

By the late 1970s, unsurprisingly, he was burned out, his will to write such novels, and the market to read them, having finally been extinguished, never to return. I'd say that such hard-edged psychological dramas from the early 1960s, born when Freudianism met the existential anti-hero, are worth revisiting, but they're not, really. And, besides, this is the biography of a Donald Westlake who never was. A Donald Westlake who could have been—who probably should have been, if the real Donald Westlake hadn't decided, instead, that the game wasn't worth the candle.

In fact, somewhere around 1965, the real Donald Westlake simply abandoned such serious work and sat down to write instead comic crime capers under his own name and straightforward hard-boiled genre fiction under the penname of "Richard Stark." It's a curious question—the answer to which might tell us something about the history of fiction—why Donald Westlake became a much more seriously important writer the day he gave up writing serious and important fiction.

If you haven't read the real Westlake, start with such early works as the 1963 Stark crime thriller The Man with the Getaway Face and the 1965 Westlake comedy The Fugitive Pigeon. And keep going with Stark's stories about the hard-edged criminal Parker and the burglar-actor Grofield in such books as the 1971 Lemons Never Lie and the 1974 Butcher's Moon, not to mention Westlake's farces about the sad-sack criminal Dortmunder in such books as 1970's The Hot Rock and 1974's Jimmy the Kid. After that, you probably won't need any other recommendations, because you'll want to read them all.

And you certainly won't need a recommendation for Memory, the posthumous novel just released in the fine Hard Case Books mystery series. But that's because Memory derives from the other Westlake, the one who wrote the serious novels that never quite clicked, the one who failed to be a success, the one who's now forgotten.

The manuscript for the book was completed in the early 1960s, but set aside till now, two years after the author's death in 2008. Westlake, notes Library Journal, "left a huge body of work as well as a devoted following. Noir fans will be eager to jump on this 'found' work." Publishers Weekly adds, "Westlake's fans will note the author's typically careful use of description and dialogue." And Booklist chimes in, "For his fans, absolutely a must-read."

It's revealing when the prepublication journals all take the same line. Praise it as you want, Memory is a sadly dark and sadly dated book. His fans will want read it, but that's mostly because they'd read a shopping list if it had Donald Westlake's name on it. Substitute another name from that ilk and era—Who now reads John Rechy? Who can remember Meyer Levin?—and the book would never have been printed these days.

Not that it's bad, you understand. In fact, it's superior fiction of its nearly unreadable kind. It begins with the actor Paul Cole, caught in bed with another man's wife. That other man takes a chair and beats Paul into a coma—and when he wakes up in a hospital bed, his memory has become incapable of holding things for more than a few days.

Out of money, and left behind in a midwestern town by the troupe with which he had been acting, Paul has to somehow raise enough money to get back to New York—back to the Greenwich Village his unfamiliar personal possessions tell him he should remember. The set scenes throughout—in a factory, in a rented room, in an actor's study, on a bus—are as serious and closely observed as Westlake ever managed, in prose that is hard-edged and unflinching.

Unflinching. Yes, but why? The unpleasantness and the darkness serve no purpose and lead to no goal. That early 1960s genre, combining the existential character with the Freudian investigation into mental process, was a cul de sac—a dead end into which too many novels of the time were running headlong. The greatest manifestation of Donald Westlake's genius may be that he saw it so early, locking the manuscript of Memory in a drawer and sitting down to write not novels but entertainments. Comedies, superior genre books—the lighthearted, lightfingered writing that will keep him in print forever.

Joseph Bottum is the editor of First Things.

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