Monday, March 1, 2010

Everybody Dies

Of all of Donald E. Westlake's fiction, Levine feels like a bit of a lost book. This is maybe not surprising when you consider that it is, essentially, a series of six long short stories (or "novelettes", which is a term that I don't think anyone really uses anymore, but which Westlake uses to describe these stories in his very interesting introduction to the book) about a Brooklyn plainclothes detective named Abraham Levine. So it's not quite a novel, and not "just" a collection of stories, making it harder, I imagine, for some people to latch onto and categorize. But it's pretty terrific stuff. Abraham Levine is in his 50s, and has a bad heart. He's also terrified that his heart will give out before it should, and this effects his relationship to life and death, particularly the brand of death he encounters on his job. What particularly infuriates him is when he sees anyone treat life as something frivolous, whether the life in question is someone else's, or their own. Life is something Levine is sure he's soon to be without, and the idea that anybody can take such a gift lightly is horrifying to him.
Five of the six stories were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and each one deals with a different kind of crime, and a different kind of death -- suicide, murder, Levine's killing of a suspect, and so on. In each one, Levine's heart seems to be getting worse -- he discovers a way to block his hearing and listen directly to his heartbeat, and since that heartbeat is already irregular, he focuses on the number of beats he can hear before it skips one, and he dreads the moment when it will skip two, because that means lights out.
In his introduction, Westlake talks about his relationship to these unusual group of stories, and to the character, and how those stories changed over the years. The fifth story, "The Death of a Bum", is probably the most interesting of the bunch, in that it focuses on an aspect of police work that almost never gets dramatized, because nobody ever thinks there's any drama in it. Westlake knew better, though he also knew it would never sell to any of the normal mystery magazines (because it's not a mystery), so while he could write it free of any thought of markets or audiences, it also took three years to finally place it. By that time, he felt he'd lost momentum with the Levine stories.
However, in the 1980s, Westlake was approached by Otto Penzler about putting together a book of the Levine stories, but was told he needed to write one more, which he did. "After I'm Gone" was written in 1984, and it's the best written piece in the book -- obviously, by that time Westlake had matured as an artist quite a bit, but he was also the same age as Levine. The first five stories were written by a guy in his 20s about a guy in his 50s, but in "After I'm Gone", Westlake and Levine were contemporaries. As a story, "After I'm Gone" loses something to "The Death of a Bum", and, in fact, each of the five early stories has, as stories, a more unique kick to their plots than "After I'm Gone" (although "The Sound of Murder" is a bit much, tipping over almost into Gothic territory, and isn't quite in keeping with the every-day realism of the rest of the book). But the last story has a brilliant final page, sad and sardonic and moving in the most off-hand kind of way. After reading about the death-obsessed Abraham Levine for 150 pages before reaching this final piece, it's not hard to guess what the last page is about, but Westlake makes it hurt anyway.
This may sound like faint praise, but reading Levine made me feel like I was watching episodes of an old cop show from the 50s, a particularly ambitious and original one that, due to its somber and unique take on cop dramas, only got six episodes before it got yanked. And it's a show everybody kind of remembers, and which sometimes still gets shown on TV, and which everybody wishes had gotten a longer run.


Ivan said...

Bill R.:
Good essay about one of Mr. Westlake's lesser known works.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Ivan. I don't think I'd heard of it myself, until I did some digging on Amazon. I'm really glad I found it.