Donald E. Westlake: The Writer’s Writer’s Writer

By Scott BradfieldAugust 22, 2017

Donald E. Westlake: The Writer’s Writer’s Writer
LIKE MOST PEOPLE who spend too much time with books when they are young, I eventually developed the urge to write myself but found it difficult to write anything I enjoyed reading. Largely this was because I either tried too hard or was emulating so many different writers that I couldn’t establish any control over basic fictional techniques. I was too busy hunting through my Thesaurus for complicated-sounding words and manufacturing pretentious, apocalyptic stories about worlds and landscapes I didn’t know anything about.

Then, in my early teens, I attended a “speculative fiction” writer’s conference in Seattle. One of the guest writers was Harlan Ellison, known then (and now) as a funny, aggressive, short, challenging, charismatic, and unconventional writer of manifestly angry short stories, screenplays, and essays. (It may only be my imagination, but I seem to recall seeing him, on more than one occasion, marching around the lobby of our busy dormitory wearing only a terrycloth bath towel strapped around his waist while smoking a big ornate meerschaum pipe.) And while there are good reasons for remembering his larger-than-life personality­, to this day I recall him simply as a lover of books. He was constantly throwing around the names of writers I didn’t know, and I was constantly scribbling those names into one of the notebooks I was constantly losing. Then, near the end of that first uncomfortable week, when it was growing increasingly apparent to everyone (especially me) that my fiction was pretty bad, Harlan Ellison gave me a piece of piece of good advice that I have never forgotten: “Throw out that fucking copy of Finnegans Wake you’re always carrying around and go read Donald E. Westlake. He’ll teach you everything you need to know about writing fiction. Oh, and pick up some acne medication while you’re at it. Your face’s a mess.”

The day after Harlan Ellison issued his marching orders, my friend Gus Hasford and I took our daily walk into Seattle and picked up several Westlake paperbacks that were pretty widely available. We found them in the battered, rain-stained bargain boxes outside thrift stores, in the squeakily revolving racks at Safeway and 7-Eleven, and even displayed in the front windows of bookstores among the latest crime and mystery releases. As I recall now, they were distinguished by their almost uniformly terrible covers: lots of blank white spaces populated by office equipment, hippy-like women in short skirts and beads, and men in slacks, shirts, and ties (no jackets). And while there might be a gun located here or there among the mannequins, the images suggested middle-aged attractive people plotting murder while writing memos and typing correspondence.

Sometimes there was just a simple, iconic bank vault on the cover, or a bunch of Mad Magazine–style gangsters chasing each other around with machine guns. And the titles (at first glance, anyway) were likewise flat and anonymous-sounding: The Hot Rock (1970), Bank Shot (1972), and Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974) — the first three Westlake titles I took home with me that afternoon. My first impression was that they looked extremely boring and conventional, something my parents might like. I had no idea what this Harlan guy was talking about. They didn’t look like “serious writing” at all.

And so I picked one up that evening in the top level of my college bunkbed and didn’t put it down again until I finished well after midnight. And by sometime early the next afternoon, I had read them all.

Those first Westlake books zipped by so quickly that I wasn’t even aware I was reading them until they were over. And unlike all the “serious” and “noteworthy” books I usually tried to read, they never had me anxiously checking how many pages there were left until the next chapter, or looking up words in the dictionary, or skimming back over the previous pages to find something I had missed. Every image leapt off the page; every scene quickly set me in a location so vivid and immediate that it felt like I wasn’t entering some fictional space but simply remembering an actual location where I had already been. And every line of dialogue opened up the voice and personality of the character who spoke it. Take, for example, this opening page from the second Westlake novel I ever read, Bank Shot:

“Yes,” Dortmunder said. “You can reserve all this, for yourself and your family, for simply a ten-dollar deposit.”

“My,” said the lady. She was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, small and compact, and from the looks of this living room she kept a tight ship. The room was cool and comfortable and neat, packaged with no individuality but a great passion for cleanliness, like a new mobile home. The draperies flanking the picture window were so straight, each fold so perfectly rounded and smooth, that they didn’t look like cloth at all but a clever plastic forgery. The picture they framed showed a neat treeless lawn that drained away from the house, the neat curving blacktop suburban street in spring sunshine, and a ranch-style house across the way identical in every exterior detail to this one. I bet their drapes aren’t this neat, Dortmunder thought.

“Yes,” he said, and gestured at the promo leaflets now scattered all over the coffee table and the near-by floor. “You get the encyclopedia and the bookcase and the Junior Wonder Science Library and its bookcase, and the globe, and the five-year free use of research facilities at our gigantic modern research facility at Butte, Montana, and —”

“We wouldn’t have to go to Butte, Montana, would we?” She was one of those neat, snug women who can still look pretty with their brows furrowed.

Within four brief paragraphs, two characters have come to life: a weary con man with some encyclopedias (the literary equivalent of swampland in Florida) he wants to sell and an obsessively “neat,” infinitely repeatable middle-class woman who’s so busy worrying about what the con man’s right hand is showing her (“We don’t have to go to Butte, Montana, do we?”) that she never realizes the left hand is offering her piles of glamorous stuff she will never see. Each image is vivid and exact — the stiff, plastic-looking curtains; the promo leaflets scattered over the table; and the blacktop curving off over the edge of the meaningless suburban planet — so that the reader is propelled into a landscape filled with voices, urgency, and confrontation. Then, just as the con man (his name is Dortmunder, and he eventually occupied more than a dozen of Westlake’s caper-comedies) awaits delivery of another 10-dollar bill to his wallet, he hears this supposed born-sucker in the other room calling the cops. Maybe, he thinks suddenly, she isn’t as dumb as she looks — and he turns out to be right.

That’s because nothing goes quite where you expect it to go in a Westlake novel, and these perfect little comic dislocations satisfyingly occur over and over again, always perfectly composed, always surprising, and always delivering what had to happen. Sentence after sentence. Scene after scene. And book after book. Until, of course, you start the next one.

Westlake didn’t wear “big ideas” on his sleeve, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them; and even at their most entertaining, his novels deliver an unforgiving picture of a postwar United States in which the overriding philosophy of social life is money: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to keep someone else from getting it from you.

On the one hand, there are the systems of cold commerce that drive criminal enterprises in the obsidian-black towers of Manhattan, presided over by well-salaried, faceless administrative hacks working for generic-sounding enterprises known only as the Organization or the Outfit. They send men out on jobs, collect the proceeds, and reinvest in further robberies, drug rackets, and prostitution rings. Unlike the racialized criminals of conventional crime fiction — from the paisans of Mario Puzo to the African-American and Latino street gangsters of Elmore Leonard and Chester Himes — Westlake’s bad guys are almost uniformly Waspish and unspecific, from the Carters and Fairfaxes of the Parker books to the multinational corporatist eco-villain, Richard Curtis, of Westlake’s recently rediscovered Bond pastiche, Forever and a Death (2017).

In Westlake’s universe, money isn’t just something you use to buy groceries and lawn ornaments; it’s a system of governance indistinguishable from the dull professional societies we work for, and from the politicians who do their bidding. It’s not an “urban” thing; it achieves its apotheosis in the suburbs, where the Organization’s CEOs and board members go home to play with their kids. In Westlake’s America, crime isn’t an aberration; it’s the way things work.

On the other hand, the Westlake “heroes” qualify as heroes almost entirely by virtue of their ability to work outside the big office towers and top-down corporate hierarchies; and as highly skilled, self-regulating freelancers, their main occupation is to steal money back from the corporate thugs who stole it from everybody else. For example, there’s the racehorse-betting cab driver, Chet Conway, in Somebody Owes Me Money (1969), who spends an entire novel dodging the guns coming at him from various gangland rivalries for no more altruistic a reason than his desire to be paid what he is owed on the only decent bet he ever laid down­. Meanwhile, his dad enjoys his twilight years trying to figure out ways to cheat the life insurance companies, and the girl of his dreams shows up just in time to teach his friends how to deal cards from the bottom of the deck.

Everybody is either a crook or a mark in Westlake’s universe, and the only distinguishing characteristic of the “good” crooks is that they only want to be paid what they are owed and not two cents more. They aren’t greedy. They don’t steal from other professionals like themselves. They always keep their word to colleagues. And once they get paid, they trot off happily to the next gig.

The “evil” side of the criminal universe, however, is a distinctly Trumpian one: an endless, escalating chaos created by the various competing crooks and gangsters who secretly run things. These stupid, hive-minded, overpaid white guys steal everything from everybody indiscriminately, even each other; then they try to turn everyone who doesn’t work for them into corporate drones like themselves — and if they can’t turn them, they kill them. The only people who survive outside this ruthless corporate world are freelancers, such as Alan Grofield (one of Westlake’s best series characters), a consummate paid-by-the-heist professional featured in another excellent novel, Lemons Never Lie (1971). (He originally appeared in some of the early Parker books, presumably to keep Westlake entertained while he wrote those humorless, hard, excellent little thrillers.) He always shows up to work on time; he never hurts innocent bystanders; and if he even suspects that any bystanders might be hurt on a job, he quits.

And when each job is over, he spends his hard-stolen money operating a theater-in-a-barn somewhere in the middle of deadly-dull Illinois, where he paints his own sets, directs, and stars in his own productions, bringing art to the vast American television-saturated wasteland. As Grofield’s girlfriend reminds him: “What you do is best. Taking from banks and armored cars and places like that. That’s not really stealing, because you aren’t taking from people, you’re taking from institutions. Institutions don’t count. They ought to support us.” Damn straight.

The publisher Hard Case Crime has undertaken a long-term project to recover many of Westlake’s least-known books, and they have already yielded some great and enduring stuff. Besides bringing out the first US paperback editions of Lemons and the 1962 novel 361 (former nice-guy Air Force serviceman seeks ruthless payback when somebody kills his dad), Hard Case has also published for the first time three long and remarkable manuscripts — suggesting that, hey, Westlake may have actually misplaced more good books than most of us will ever write.

In addition to the recently released Forever and a Death (which shows that Westlake might have transcended the eco-thriller genre as successfully as he transcended the comic caper and hard-boiled detective formats), Hard Case published Memory in 2010, a longish, noirish, 1960s-era novel about possibly the greatest threat to American “identity” — the fact that there might not actually be one. Paul Cole — another of Westlake’s frustrated artists — gets lost in middle America after a violent altercation with his girlfriend’s husband that leaves him with recurring amnesia. Over several months of struggling to return home to Manhattan, he keeps forgetting who he is and what he wants; he industriously slogs his way into a mindless factory job, a series of mindless new social responsibilities, and a potentially marriage-bound relationship with an interchangeable (and possibly even mindless) new girlfriend. Then, once he earns the money he needs to return to his old life in Manhattan, he launches himself into a new series of mindless routines all over again. Memory is a funny, microscopically exact picture of the haunting sameness of middle America, filled with the rigorous naturalistic descriptions and compulsions that drive Jack London’s Martin Eden and Zola’s L’Assommoir.

But the pick of the Hard Case lot is almost certainly The Comedy is Finished (2012), another unpublished Westlake novel that is even better than some of his oft-reprinted ones. In some ways, Comedy is yet another caper novel but set in the divided political world of ’60s America, when all the old lies about American exceptionalism were coming up hard against the ugly, CIA-sponsored geopolitical violence of Vietnam and Central America. (Contemporary United States, take note.) Out of all the several dozen Westlake novels I have read and enjoyed, Koo Davis is probably his greatest comic creation: a Bob Hope–like hack comic whose silly shtick of cornball USO shows and stand-up jokes about ditzy “flower children” starts to make him feel complicit in the American-Dream-turned-sour.

Kidnapped by a white-bread version of the Symbionese Liberation Army (middle-class white people clearly scare Westlake more than anybody, and the scariest of these privileged terrorists may well be Joyce, a former Brownie, Campfire Girl, and member of the Junior Sodality at her local church — uh-oh), Koo tries to take his situation seriously as a potentially doomed bargaining chip for a prisoner exchange with the FBI, but he can’t resist firing off corny zingers and toilet jokes at every opportunity. Even when he’s being beaten, poisoned, threatened, and lectured on dialectical materialism, he keeps seeing life as an endless comic routine in a country so stupid that it will probably never get the joke. According to the publisher’s notes, Westlake felt this book might read too much like Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy, so he stored it away and it was eventually forgotten. But it is a richer, more politically complex, and more moving story — and a hell of a lot more fun besides.

When the final volley of bullets arrives in The Comedy is Finished, one of the kidnappers tells Koo: “It sounds like the critics found you.” And while it is likely that critics might not have found or appreciated a novel this good even had it been published back in the time it was written, Westlake clearly didn’t care too much about being taken “seriously,” continuing to produce serious-even-when-funny great books in a remarkable career that never ended until he died. Over several decades of calm, passionate literary production, he never wrote a bad sentence or a bad scene, and he produced so many good books that he needed a filing cabinet of pseudonyms just to keep up. Which, come to think of it, may qualify him as that rarest beast of all: the writer’s writer’s writer. There was always too much of him to go around — which means the rest of us have plenty of time to catch up.


Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).

LARB Contributor

Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. A retired professor of English at the University of Connecticut, his books include The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and, most recently, Why I Hate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”: Several Decades of Reading Unwisely (2014) and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).


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