Four brothers…EACH OF THEM HAS A SECRET! Dale has psychic powers, Barry stole some money from where he worked, Dominic thinks that he’s probably gay, and Harrison knows who really committed all those murders of those kids from a long time ago…and it wasn’t the guy everybody thought did it at the time!
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Four brothers…EACH OF THEM HAS A SECRET! Dale has psychic powers, Barry stole some money from where he worked, Dominic thinks that he’s probably gay, and Harrison knows who really committed all those murders of those kids from a long time ago…and it wasn’t the guy everybody thought did it at the time!
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
This also means, however, that the post will be going up either on Friday night or sometime during the weekend, a fact which leads to the question asked by today's post title: how do you people do it? And by "you people", I mean Jonathan, Fox, Rick, Marilyn (are you still around, by the way??), and all you other bloggers who have regular day jobs like I do, but somehow manage to get your longest and most thoughtful posts up during the week. I sometimes manage that, but generally I have to wait until the weekend before I feel like I'm fully able to marshall my resources and time and mind-powers, so that I may bring you, my readers, the thick slabs of wonderfulness you so crave.
Also, I generally have no obligations on weekends. I don't have kids, and my wife and I no longer speak, so it's just easier for me to post then, but I'm painfully aware that traffic to this site is way down on weekends. I guess because you all have shit to do or something. Going to museums and zoo meetings and Little League football parties. Well, I have none of that on my plate, so the premiere post for Overshadowed will go up when I say it will. And then if none of you come by the day it goes up, or the day after, I'll just let it sit, with no new posts to push it from the top spot, until Monday. If you still don't come by on Monday, then thanks for nothing, you fuckers.
PS - Just writing this post has been a real bear. So you see what I'm talking about, right?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Because really, my opinion of Updike's fiction doesn't matter. He has made his mark on the vast landscape of American literature -- not just that of the 20th century, but the whole of it. Since I've been aware of him, he -- along with Roth, Bellow, and a few others -- were considered the gold standard, and each of them have achieved immortality. They will be read for centuries, and their humbling prolificacy, particularly Updike's (although lately Roth is really cranking them out himself) showed what it really meant to be a writer, and to live as a writer: in short, for that to be what you are.
Updike's output is truly staggering: 27 novels, 13 collections of short fiction, 9 collections of poetry, 10 collections of essays, and 1 play. He won two Pulitzer prizes, for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and was perversely denied the Nobel Prize, I guess so the committee could squeeze in Dario Fo and Elfriede Jelinek. His last (or most recent, at least; who knows how many unpublished books are on their way) novel is The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his famous The Witches of Eastwick. That was published last year. His last (or most recent) collection of stories is slated for this year, and is called My Father's Tears and Other Stories.
As someone who does not count himself among Updike's legion of fans (which is not necessarily the same as "admirers", among whose number I do count myself), I can say without hesitation that Updike was unquestionably a giant of American fiction.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
So maybe I should let Gran Torino sit for a little while longer, but I guess I'm not going to, because here I am, already on the second paragraph. Which is around the time that I'm supposed to offer up a brief synopsis of the film, which I probably don't have to at this stage of its release, but here it is. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War vet whose wife has recently passed away. Living by himself in a run-down suburb of Detroit, he watches his neighborhood fill with Hmong immigrants, as well as Hmong gangs, and he watches his grandchildren behave like uncaring animals at their own grandmother's funeral. In short, from where he sits (on his porch, with his dog, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon), he's seeing everything he values slipping away.
One night, one of the his younger Hmong neighbors, a quiet kid named Thao, tries to steal Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino, as part of the initation into a Hmong gang (headed up by his cousin) that he actually wants no part of. Walt chases the kid off with his rifle, and a few nights later busts up a fight between Thao and the gang that spills from the neighbors' lawn into his own. As the rest of the immigrant community in Walt's neighborhood actually can't stand these punks any more than Walt can, he is thereafter seen as something of a minor hero, though his liberal use of epithets like "zipperhead" and "gook" cause his coronation to be fraught with tension. Still, Walt's racism, repellent as it is, is revealed to be of the casual, habitual variety, and not the virulent, to-the-bone type -- we learn this because Walt grows to like his next door neighbors (one small detail I liked is the fact that, when Walt's benign nature starts to show itself early on, it's always after he's had a few drinks), particularly Thao, who does odd jobs for Walt to amend for trying to steal his car, and Thao's sister Sue, a very bright young girl who doesn't merely shrug off Walt's slurs, nor does she fire some of her own right back, which is the typical Hollywood method of melting the hearts of genial racists. Instead, she shows that she understands the kind of old man Walt is, and that he is actually a good person who through a mix of anger that is both justified and unjustified -- so much of both that he can no longer tell the difference -- has found his preferred way of living and thinking stuck in the past, and he is in no mood to do any tweaking.
If all of this sounds a little schematic to you, that's because it is. And there's more: Walt has a very bad cough, the gang is going to keep hassling Thao until somebody does something about it, Walt's priest wants him to go to confession, and so on. But had Gran Torino been made in the late 50s, early 60s, the simple, direct and open-hearted storytelling that is being derided in some quarters, would be pointed to as what used to be so great about American movies, and isn't it sad that filmmakers these days consider it unhip to be that old-fashioned. In other words, these critics seem to bemoan the absence without actually wishing for the return.
I've also heard some claim that Gran Torino is, at times, laughable, which is an odd complaint to make about a film that is trying, and succeeding, to be funny at least half the time. Walt flings around his slurs to a truly ridiculous degree, peppering his sentences with them the way most people these days use "like" or "fuck". Of course, when he takes Thao to his local barbershop, run by John Carroll Lynch, to teach him to talk like a man, Thao calls the barber a "dago prick", because that's what Walt just called him. Walt, however, warns the kid that he could get into serious trouble using that kind of language around a stranger.
Where the film really finds its place is in Walt's bitterness and sadness and guilt. He is not a happy man, he doesn't much like himself, and he knows that he doesn't have much time left. He is haunted by his war experiences, and though he claims to be at peace with himself, that peace really just involves him sealing himself away from everyone else, to the greatest degree possible, so that he can quietly drink his beer and smoke his cigarettes and pet his dog. The moment in the film that has been played up in commercials, when Walt, holding his rifle, growls "Get off my lawn" really kind of sums it up. That phrase by this time is an old joke used to evoke any old, unfriendly guy that the unoriginal funny-man spouting the cliche' has ever known, but has not actually known, and has never spoken to. Gran Torino's theme really has less to do with race than it does with the old notion that there's a lot more to people than what you think you know about them, because you're not that smart, and neither am I, and neither is Walt.
Oh, and yes, Clint Eastwood sings briefly at the end, and he doesn't have a very good voice. But I can't help but wonder if he did have a strong voice, would that moment have been so moving? I don't believe it would have been.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Speaking of big, James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat must be, in my view, the most successful manic, over-the-top piece of acting I've ever seen. I can't think of another film that focuses so intently on an unrepentent, murderous criminal that manages to elicit genuine empathy from the audience without ever romanticizing him, or demonizing those who are pursuing him, and without ever even making you feel less than repelled by him. Most of the credit for that has to go to Cagney. It's an incredible performance.
Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook cannot be considered separately when thinking of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff live particularly strongly for me, because I'm pretty sure this was the first film that I saw featuring either Livesey or Walbrook, so I had nothing in particular to expect from their work. What I got were two actors who understood to the bone the lives of the men they were playing. Walbrook's speech towards the end about how he believed the war with Germany should be waged is breathtaking (not just as a performance, but as a piece of writing), and Livesey was uniquely capable of making the audience forget the not-quite-there quality of his old age makeup because by the end, his eyes and voice did all the work anyway. All the gunk could have been stripped off his face and the then 37 year-old Livesey could have retained his natural appearance, and no one would have failed to understand the film's ending.
One thing that actors aren't asked to do very often these days is play a character who is truly and uncomplicatedly decent and good. But that's what Philip Seymour Hoffman was asked to do in portraying Phil Parma in Magnolia. To be honest, his scenes with an equally impressive Jason Robards could have been a bit of a disaster if Hoffman had pulled back or pushed forward just a little bit more than he did. But he hit the seam dead on, so we have a Phil Parma who I believe could actually exist, and one who displays full-hearted emotion to the point even of being, yes, sentimental. But Hoffman knows deep down that "sentimental" isn't itself a bad thing. Dishonest sentiment -- what we call "sap" -- is the real culprit when roles like this go bad, but Hoffman is honest. He means what he says.
Nice picture, right? Apparently, Barry Nelson is not one of the first things people think about when considering Kubrick's The Shining. And yes, I know, Nelson is barely in the film, but he does something very important: he, more than anything else, sells the normality of the Overlook Hotel early on, so that the horror can dawn on the audience at the same rate as it does the characters. Anything in those first several minutes of the film that might put us on edge come from Kubrick, not the hotel itself or those who work within it. Stuart Ullman is not haunted. He's just a guy who runs a resort hotel with a bloody past, but damn it, he needs a caretaker. I love the straightfoward vibe Nelson puts across in the job interview scene, as well as his reluctance in telling the story he fears might scare off his propective employee. This is the last bit of business he needs to take care of before he gets out of that place, but it's vital, and it needs to be done honestly and correctly. So he does it. I would be fascinated to see Nelson play Ullman's reaction when he finally, some months later, receives the news.
Judge Thomas Danforth, as played by the incomparable Paul Scofield in Nicholas Hytner's insanely underrated adaptation of The Crucible, is a man with an open mind. He is not going to idly sentence anyone to hang just because they've been accused of witchcraft. He will sift through all the evidence, and draw on every bit of knowledge he has acquired on this subject over his long life, and he will condemn only those who are truly guilty. And, of course, he's wrong about everything. But he is acting in good faith on the wisdom of the era, and Scofield plays that. Scofield's Danforth has no ulterior motive. He is not a monster. He has innocent blood all over his hands, but when he calls Day-Lewis's John Proctor the "Antichrist", he is convinced that this is the truth. I think this performance is absolutely astonishing in its subtlety.
I could go on all night with this, but I'll cut it off now. Please drop in and tell my how dumb and gay my picks are, and why your own favorites are not even gay at all, but are, rather, quite wonderful. I will seriously consider all opinions.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Fox - for fostering heated yet civil debate about serious topics on his own blog, and then coming over to everyone else's blogs to talk about boobs.
Rick Olson - for being better than me, but not rubbing my nose in it.
Stacie Ponder - for loving the horror genre, and making me laugh.
Brian Doan - for being a good egg and a good writer, and for liking all the same unfairly maligned superhero movies as me.
Adam Ross - he's leaving us for a while, so maybe this is cheating, but he's a classy, funny guy who ran/runs a great blog, and he deserves one of these.
So there you go! Enjoy your Dardos, everybody! You're supposed to pass it on, remember, so get on it!
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
With that fact in mind, I have decided to carefully construct a new series of thought-pieces (or "blog posts") that will revolve around cases in which the book upon which a particular film has been based has been sadly ground into the dirt along the March of Time, while the film goes on to everlasting fame and glory. Or, if you will, the book has been "overshadowed" by the film.
So, in the coming weeks and months, I will be reading some of these books, watching or re-watching the films, and then pouring my heart, soul, and other things too, probably, into writing about my experience. The idea of comparing books to their film adaptations is obviously in no way a new one (Jonathan and Marilyn, to name but two, have already been doing this), but I think my focus is narrow enough to be considered kind of original, and plus you have the whole "building social bonds" and "global bliss" thing that I'm also trying to cram in there.
If you are one of the three people who might have read my previous post (before Marilyn stole the Internet), you may recall that I mentioned something about my Devoted Legion following along with this project -- in other words, reading along with me in order to better take part in the discussion. You should all, indeed, feel free to do so, but this isn't actually a book or movie club, so don't feel obligated. I guess what I'm saying is, if you hate peace, then don't bother. If, on the other hand, your heart beats human blood and your soul has not baked to a cinder, here is a short list of the first few books/films I plan on tackling:
Monkey Planet (AKA Planet of the Apes) by Pierre Boulle
The Searchers by Alan Le May
The Hustler by Walter Tevis
And I'm open to suggestions. I have others planned, like Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict, but I'd want to spread out the Paul Newman stuff as much as I can, so anything else you might like me to read/watch, please drop a comment in my Comment Box, won't you? And let's stick to obscure, nearly forgotten books. I think it's safe to say that, for instance, Gone With the Wind is better known as a film than as a book at this point, but only because people don't read anymore. As far as books go, that one is still pretty famous.
Okay, yay, a project, and so forth! The first post, which will be about Planet of the Apes, will go up within the next week or two. After that, who knows? I'll get to it when I get to it, but I'll announce it as early as I can, for those who want a head's up.
Good day to you.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Smiles of a Summer Night, d. Ingmar Bergman - Not surprisingly, Ingmar Bergman's version of a comedy romp about the battle of the sexes still manages to include tortured spirituality, suicide attempts, and Russian roulette. But a comedic romp it is, and I got the sense that, whether he liked it or not, this film has wormed its way into Woody Allen's subconcious far more than Cries and Whispers or The Silence, say. But that's fine, because from what I can tell, Woody Allen is actually far better at this sort of thing (excluding his mediocre riff on this film specifically, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), not least because Allen is much funnier than Bergman. Very little in Bergman's film induced me to consider the possibility of laughing (the Captain is really the only character who seems to be unamibiguously taking part in a comedy), but, even so, I found Smiles of a Summer Night to be perfectly enjoyable, which means that Bergman's film shares a curious feature that I've noticed is common in older (pre-1960, roughly) comedies that in no way holds true of their modern counterparts -- specifically, you don't necessarily have to think the film is funny to think it's good. I guess the main reason for this difference is that, unlike classic comedies, modern comedies are far more likely to include fat suits, Dane Cook, and farting, and those are really the sorts of thing that you either like, or you don't.
The Grissom Gang, d. Robert Aldrich - Aldrich has always felt like a poor man's Sam Peckinpah to me. Not an original thought, to be sure, but, like Richard Fleischer, Robert Aldrich's critical reputation seems to always be creeping upward, and, also like Fleischer, I've never been able to understand precisely why. Aldrich frequently tackled the same the same kind of material as Peckinpah (and this kind of material is very often central to the Kinds of Films I Like), but while, for instance, Peckinpah's brand of cynicism feels hard-earned and genuine, Aldrich's seems fashionable, even if it is genuine (not only that, but I can't quite see Peckinpah allowing a writer like Clifford Odets to yammer on and hamstring one of his films the way Odets did to Aldrich's The Big Knife).
The Grissom Gang is as okay-I-guess as many of Aldrich's movies (but listen, I love The Dirty Dozen just as much as the next guy, so don't everyone pile on at once). It's adapted from a nasty pulp novel by James Hadley Chase called No Orchids for Miss Blandish (a book which George Orwell called both "a brilliant piece of writing" and "pure Fascism"), and is about Depression-era Socialite and kidnap victim Miss Blandish (Kim Darby) and her relationship with her kidnappers, especially Slim Grissom (Scott Wilson), who is sort of like Lenny, from Of Mice and Men, if Lenny killed people on purpose. Wilson is, I think, a great actor, but Aldrich lets him completely off his leash, to the point where the expression on his face when the virginal Slim turns slowly to face Miss Blandish after she has just offered herself to him, puts me in mind of Alfalfa turning around to face a ghost. Wilson isn't the only actor to suffer under this sense of freedom, and, beyond that, the film feels cheap, and its style borrowed.
I recently came across this...
A great subject for a documentary, I must say, but that tagline drives me nuts. In case you can't read it, it says "He was in only five movies. Each was nominated for Best Picture". While John Cazale's particularly admirable filmography is without a doubt part of what makes him fascinating, the fascinating part isn't the Oscar nominations, but the films themselves, and Cazale's work in them. Why not just say "He was in only five movies: Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II"?
Beyond that, of course, is the implication that John Cazale holds a place in film history because of some fluke-ish bit of trivia, and not because he was a great actor who landed great roles because filmmakers respected him and, you know, wanted him in their films.
But, okay, it's just a marketing ploy to bring in the kind of audience who has no idea who John Cazale is, but who positively loves semi-obscure Oscar facts. Those three people can join the rest of us in watching this thing when it airs on HBO some day in the future, or when it comes out on DVD.
Hey, don't any of you forget about the inaugural post for the Oldest Established Really Important Film Club! Said post goes up some time tomorrow, and it will be/has been brought to us by Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The film this month is The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia. Be there, won't you?
Sort of, anyway. This is actually just an announcement for an announcement, but I have anywhere from two to three semi-big projects in the works, blog-wise, that will begin in the next couple of months, and the announcement for the first project will be going up on Tuesday. The announcement will describe the idea behind the project, and will also give a short list of titles that will be involved, so that you can better take part in whatever discussions arise. I have no firm dates, though, so I guess that means I'm going to have announce this thing twice.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
AVC: ...It's more than 20 novels into the series now, and we still don't know [Parker's] first name.
DW: Well, he wasn't supposed to be a series. He was supposed to be one book, and if he was only going to be in one book, I didn't worry about it. And then an editor at Pocket Books said "Write more books about him." So I didn't go back at that point and give him a first name. If I'd known he would've been a series, I would've done two things differently. First, I would've given him a first name—I don't know what the hell it would be, maybe Frank—but I probably wouldn't have named him Parker, because that means for 27 books, I've had to find some other way to say, "Parker parked the car."
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I just watched Martin for the first time in well over a decade, and I thought it was so strong, so original and insightful into its own story and characters, and so observant in its little details, that I'm left bewildered and saddened that this is the same guy who has more recently given us Diary of the Dead and Bruiser.
Many artists lose their grip on what used to make them great later in life -- and, after all, Martin was made in the same era during which Romero gave us his RenFaire biker epic Knightriders -- but I really feel like the problem in Romero's case is that he has completely bought into the line of bullshit about him being first and foremost a social satirist, and being a writer and director of horror films has become secondary to that. And before you say anything -- seriously, hold on for a second -- I'm not claiming social satire isn't part of what Romero does. I'm merely saying that he was never that first, and plus, probably more to the point, he's not really all that good at it. Zombies wondering around a mall works as a joke for about five seconds, before you (I) start to get wrapped up in the characters again.
You can say, rightly, that satire is not completely absent from Martin, because Romero's low view of religion does get full representation, but that's a shading to his story, not the story itself. A moment in the film that really struck me was when Martin gets dragged to church, and the service is being held in a shabby old attic, because, we learn, the actual church has burned down. If you want it, the way this scene plays out works well with Romero's theme of religion-as-superstition. But it also works beautifully as a throwaway bit of real-life detail, a moment that makes the film and characters and setting breathe. Had the scene not played that way, the thematic stuff would just sit there staring at you. In short, it's good storytelling. It doesn't hurt that Martin also has its share of easy and natural performances -- especially from John Amplas and Christine Forrest -- and set pieces like Martin's home invasion, that patiently and cruelly squeeze every drop of suspense and dread from the situation.
Romero used to have no money to make movies, and he doesn't have much more now, but he has some. That "some", and an unfortunate sense of importance, has killed his movies, in my view. He used to have to invent more, and he found that he was able to. Night of the Living Dead is one of those perfect ideas, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Frankenstein, that can be reworked, for good or ill, for decades, if not centuries, to come, because the basic story so directly taps into our fears and weaknesses. I can't fault the guy for only being able to do that once, but with Martin he showed that he could still create at a very high level. He coul still invent. But now he's just shrilly reworking the same ideas that less original filmmakers have already hammered all the life from. Not just the ideas of Night of the Living Dead or Martin, by the way, but also the limply "important" ones that came after.
I feel a little bad, already, for writing this. I didn't intend to be so negative. It's just that Martin is so damn good! I just want Romero to kick himself in the ass and, once again, show these lousy punks who feed off his leftovers what it really means to tell a horror story.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Or something like that. Anyway, I don't have anything to write about tonight, so here is a random asortment of pictures of twenty actors I like.
I mysteriously tag no one.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Adam, wisely, kept his list short and to the point. I shall now attempt to do the same:
1. I will watch both Satantango and Our Hitler this year. Tarr's film is notorious for being 7 1/2 hours long (and for consisting of, what is it? Three shots?), and the slightly more obscure film by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg is just about the same length. Both have been floating around in my consciousness for a long time, and both are now available to rent. For years, I've thought "Man, being able to say you've seen those films is like being able to say you've read Ulysses. The mere act of sitting through them commands respect." Plus also they might be good. Really, I do want to see them for aesthetic pleasure, or whatever it's called, but I'll take respect wherever I can get it.
2. I will see more films in the theater this year. Last year I saw possibly fewer than I have during any other year of my life, and quite a few that I genuinely wanted to catch passed me right by. Laziness played a part, but so did the sheer volume of older films available to me through a wide variety of resources. In order to watch any number of genuine works of cinematic art, I not only don't have to leave the house anymore, but I barely need to even stand up. Well, that's going to have to end this year. Or, at least, happen less.
3. I will clean out my DVR. My wife and I have only had a DVR for a little over a year, but I still have movies sitting in their from 2007. Louis Malle's Black Moon, for instance, and several Coffin Joe films. My problem is that I record them, and then think, "Well, now I have that movie!" The problem is that having a film makes it much easier to not watch it.
4. I will watch more of the films I bought on DVD sight unseen. I didn't used to buy films I'd never seen very often, but last year I raked in a whole pantload of them. The closing of our local Hollywood Video and subsequent selling of their stock at rock bottom prices, and the opening of a pretty good used DVD place near my apartment, as well as various other sales I've stumbled across, have caused me to load up on the following films I still haven't watched: The Professionals; The Grissom Gang; Mississippi Mermaid; White Dog; Fanny and Alexander (theatrical version); Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell; Rampo Noir; Johnny To's Throw Down; Clash by Night; Nightmare Alley; The Bride with White Hair; Kill, Baby...Kill!; Lisa and the Devil; Songs from the Second Floor; Tess; Lust, Caution; Army of Shadows; Nicholas Winding Refn's Pusher Trilogy; and quite frankly, many more. Time to get on those, I think.
5. I will educate myself on the films of Max Ophuls. Pretty self-explanatory.
6. I will continue to give chances to Godard and Antonioni. These are the two big guns that I probably like the least. I think Godard is obnoxious, and Antonioni is dull. I've given Godard a fairer shake than Antonioni, in that I've seen probably twice as many Godard films, but I feel obligated to push forward with both of them, if for no other reason than to become better able to explain why I hate them.
7. I will choose one month during which the only films I watch will be film noir. Okay, not quite "only". If the wife and I feel like throwing on Shaun of the Dead again, then that's what we'll do, damn it. Also, TV. Lost is coming back, and do you guys watch those cooking contest shows, like, what's it, The Next Chef at the Top, or whatever? Those are crazy! One chick didn't know how to make pie crust. I said, "You're a chef! How do you not know how to do that!" Another one didn't like fish. But whatever, anyway, the deal is, any time I want to watch something I haven't seen before, it will be film noir. I'm certainly not ignorant of the genre, but it's a favorite, and there's still so much out there, so I just want to play a little catch up. I just don't know which month to choose. Any ideas?
8. I will invent a film-related meme. You know, like this one. Something with which to annoy my fellow bloggers. Or maybe I'll host a blog-a-thon. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm not doing either of those.
9. I will...um...make a... or no! I'll write a book about...how movies can sometimes...if, you know, if, or I mean unless we watch them with...with, ah, more sophisticated eyes, then we, as a nation -- indeed, as a people -- will...as a people we will...ah...most likely, what will happen is... Fuck it, I can only come up with eight.
I tag Dennis, Ed Howard, Rick, Marilyn and Arbogast.
Friday, January 2, 2009
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.