Friday, January 2, 2009

RIP - Donald E. Westlake

What a lousy way to start the year.

Donald E. Westlake, who was, to my mind, the greatest crime writer this country ever produced, died Wednesday at the age of 75. That's not such a bad age at which to go out, but I honestly thought he was at least ten years older than that, due to the fact that he was so incredibly prolific. He wrote something like one hundred books, and had shown no signs of stopping. In the last few years, he had revived his series of novels about Parker (written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark"), and this year has another non-Parker novel, Get Real scheduled for release.

I find it difficult, sometimes, to describe what it is I like so much about a given writer, and the work of someone like Westlake is the hardest for me to dissect. At his best, his writing was completely unadorned, and there are those who mistakenly believe that such writing indicates that the author is incapable of writing any other way. This may be true of someone like, say, Dan Brown (okay, it absolutely is true of Dan Brown), but read The Da Vinci code side-by-side with The Hunter, Westlake's first Parker novel, and you will quickly see that Brown is flailing, and Westlake is incredibly precise. He stripped his sentences down to achieve a very specific effect. In The Hunter, the prose needed to be as cold, focused and unfeeling as Parker was.

In truth, I've only read around ten of Westlake's books, which is a tiny fraction of his output. My own favorites among those I've read are The Ax, from 1997, and The Hook, from 2000. The Ax is a strange novel about an ordinary man who gets laid off from his job in the paper industry, and devises a plan to get a new job by murdering his competition. I've heard this novel described as a satire, and I can see that, in that its premise is easily bought in that context, but I don't remember it being very funny, which I don't mean as a knock. Meanwhile, The Hook, a play on Strangers on a Train, describes a man who feels he must murder a stranger in order to remove himself from a desperate situation. After he has committed the murder, he's a bit bemused to find that he's not really bothered by what he has done. Westlake was especially great at that: depicting people who thought they were normal, and basically moral, suddenly discovering that they are actually remorseless and cold-blooded.

Unlike many of his talented compatriates, Westlake did enjoy some critical respect -- I remember reading an absolute rave of The Ax in The Washington Post by Michael Dirda. He even had great support from a capital "L" and capital "W" Literary Writer: Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville is a huge fan of Westlake's (he's Martin Amis to Westlake's Elmore Leonard), calling his Parker novels "among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time." A friend of mine saw Banville speak once, and he told me that Banville talked about the thrill he felt when he was finally able to meet Westlake. I can imagine how he must have felt. For more from Banville on Westlake, click here.

Just so you know, Westlake, like a lot of genre writers who got started int he plup era, didn't stop at dark crime stories. He wrote adventure novels (Kahawa, High Adventure), science fiction (Tomorrow's Crimes), comedy (A Likely Story, his Dortmunder series, of which the aforementioned Get Real is apparently the last book), even a bizarre Apocalyptic fantasy (the brilliant Humans). So pick your poison, go on-line, and find something to read by Donald Westlake. He was a great writer. I'm going to miss him.

26 comments:

Marilyn said...

The Ax was made into an extremely fine film by Costa-Gavra (an underappreciated director) that I reviewed on my site.

Marilyn said...

Costa-Gavras

bill r. said...

Yours is now the first and only review of the Costa-Gavras film I've read, though I did know of its existence. I'm very happy to know that you liked it. Now if only I could get my hands on a copy...

Marilyn said...

It's available through Netflix, Bill.

bill r. said...

Oh. Well, then I'll just get it from then, I suppose.

bill r. said...

Hey! It's NOT available on Netflix! Way to get my hopes up...

Marilyn said...

I saw it on the site. Maybe it's just in the database, but not available. Sorry, pardner.

bill r. said...

It's listed as being in "Save" status, which means I can't get it. I'm so angry at you right now.

Marilyn said...

Bill, Heel!

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'm furious. FURIOUS!

But I don't know why. I didn't know The Ax was made into a movie. But I'll save it in my queue for whenever the day comes that it's available. Thanks Marilyn, I appreciate the heads up even if Mr. R. does not.

Marilyn said...

You were right to send him out with Neri. Too bad it didn't work out.

bill r. said...

Jonathan, are you still reading/did you ever actually begin reading The Hook?

bill r. said...

Marilyn, this is MY blog! I can do and say as I please!

By the way, you cancel "Marilyn Monday", and look what happens? Somebody dies.

Marilyn said...

It's Friday, Bill. Friday.

bill r. said...

Yes, I know, but still...I believe there is a connection.

Jonathan Lapper said...

No Bill not yet. Excepting for non-fiction, which I'm reading constantly, the last fiction I read was Franny and Zoe back in August/September. Currently I'm reading The Tin Drum.

And blaming Marilyn. Really Bill. I hope you feel bad about that.

bill r. said...

Prove me wrong, Jonathan. Prove me wrong.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'll figure out a way to, just wait.

Rick Olson said...

Jesus, you guys are jocular. A man just died! Have some respect!

bill r. said...

That's how we deal with it!

Besides, when he wanted to be, Westlake was a funny guy, so he would have appreciated this.

Jonathan Lapper said...

What do you call field glasses that joke all the time?

Jocular binoculars!

Badda bing!

Fox said...

What the hell is "jocular"? Is that like valley girl speak for something that is jock-like?

Fox said...

Bill-

I wish I could comment on the passing of Westlake, but sadly, I didn't know who he was (via Cinema Styles, this is a running theme for me today!).

But that's why I come here b/c you're "the reader". For instance, you say this:

In truth, I've only read around ten of Westlake's books, which is a tiny fraction of his output.

You say only, but to me that is a mountain. I've never read ten of ANYBODY'S books.

What I'm getting to is that I'm curious how many books you read in a year/month/week etc. Are you one of those who can read a book in a day? I find that fascinating. I know a girl that consumes books like food and it just blows my mind.

For the record, I am a very sloooooow reader so finishing a book in a day is something that just doesn't register with me at all.

bill r. said...

Fox - No, I don't read a book a day. I mean, I have, but generally those books are extremely short, and gripping, and I don't have anything else going on that day. I think my average in a year is about 74, which isn't as much as I'd like, but more than a lot of people, I guess. In 2008, I only read 63, but I read more long books than I usually do (it took me a month to read David Copperfield).

I really wish I was faster. I know people (on-line at least) who read a lot faster than I do -- well over 100 books in a year, like John Self, who runs the book blog "Asylum", which is in my sidebar -- and I really envy them. I need to watch less crap TV, I guess.

Fox said...

It's interesting the battles we have with ourselves over what to consume in the small frame of a day.

I love sleeping, but sometimes I wish I didn't have too. If I get out of touch with news, commentary, movie watching, and listening to music, then I feel out of sorts. Mix that in with real life (life that gets realer the older you get...) and it's quite a balancing act. I don't know how the ones with kids do it.

This is embarassing, but I didn't read one book of fiction last year. Not one!

bill r. said...

I love sleep, too, but on weekends, if I sleep too late, I get mad at myself for wasting the time. It's not like I'm building a barn or anything -- I would just use the time to read or watch a movie -- but I still get frustrated.

Did you like Blood Meridian? Because if so, why not give Outer Dark a whirl?

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