Thursday, January 31, 2013

Whatever Mask He Wore--Donald Westlake, 1933-2008

[I posted the following at The Red Room and at Open Salon in early 2009, after Donald Westlake’s sudden passing. In anticipation of the release of Parker, the first film from one of Westlake's Richard Stark novels to be released since his death (and the first to use the character’s real name), I decided to rewrite and repost it here on my official page)

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go hell. — The Hunter.

When the news came that Donald Westlake, among the greatest genre writers of this era, passed away suddenly on December 31, 2008, it was like a bullet through the heart.

A Brooklyn, New York, native (and graduate of no university) Westlake published his first novel, The Mercenaries (published as The Cutie by Hard Case Crime) for Random House in 1960. He rapidly became one of the most prolific writers around; so productive that, in order to keep his credibility, he adopted several pseudonyms, publishing up to four books a year, a clip that shames many of us, especially this fussy, slow-thinking scribe.

Maybe they weren’t all good, but when they were, Westlake’s novels were the best. He won three Edgar Awards and was award the Edgar Grandmaster award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. (And though I loathe admitting that neocon pundit William Kristol can be right about anything, he gets credit for good literary sense with his quixotic campaign to nominate Westlake for a Nobel Prize.)

Reading Westlake’s prose is like surfing a series of small smooth waves—one sentence rolls smoothly into the next, with swelling tension, before it curls and thumps onshore with a brutal thud, followed by a dangerous undertow. He can deftly create a scene with the terse detail or bring color to a character with a few simple words. His prose never feels cluttered and rarely ever underdone.

His best novels spring and unwind with ingenious setups and plot twists and turns, some hilarious, others savage, with barbed insights. There are wonderful turns of phrase, many uproarious, some terrifying, even disturbing in the deepest and best sense.

Westlake is known mostly by crime-fiction readers for his comic novels, many of which feature John Dortmunder, the world’s most hapless thief. Several of these novels were adapted for the movies. A somewhat miscast Robert Redford played him in a film adaptation of The Hot Rock. An even more miscast George C. Scott played him in The Bank Job (both actors—especially the ever-intense Scott—fail to capture the sad goofiness embodied by Dortmunder). Paul LeMat played him in an adaptation of the unseen-by-me Jimmy the Kid, the funniest of the Dortmunder books that I’ve read.

Westlake was also a noted screenwriter. His gimlet-eyed adaptation of Jim Thompson’s bleak noir classic, The Grifters, was nominated for an Academy Award. Another excellent script was for one of that tiny population of worthwhile serial-killer movies, The Stepfather.

The comic novel of his I love most was the non-Dortmunder Dancing Aztecs, an amiable picaresque of The Maltese Falcon that leisurely follows a goofy confection of New York oddballs in their daffy pursuit of an Aztec statue. It’s a hilarious and charming adventure and an affectionate portrait of the city and its people, circa the mid-1970s.

“I like Dancing Aztecs too,” he wrote to me after I sent him a gushing review I wrote in Swing Time magazine of one of his pseudonymous novels. (He didn’t seem to think much of the rest of my review, but I sucked it up, just like a guy named Parker would; see below).

Often, Westlake wrote seriously—meaning non-humorously. Killing Time is a bull’s-eye revisit to the grim terrain of Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece Red Harvest. A cycle of short stories, titled Levine, follows the anguish of a NYPD homicide detective trying to cope with the violent death he deals with every day. Kahawa is an epic action thriller about mercenaries on the loose in Africa. Under one of his pseudonyms, Tucker Coe, he wrote an intense series of mysteries about a fallen ex-cop trying to set his life straight.

The one serious Westlake novel that should remain his monument (by law of that unawarded Nobel Prize) is The Ax. Published in 1997, it tells a Swiftian tale of Burke Devore, a man who loses his job in a recession and goes to homicidal lengths to land a new one and regain what passes for dignity in modern capitalist America.

Burke is like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, if Willy, instead of committing suicide, decided to get back at the world by breaking bad. Thanks to Westlake’s concealed artistry, he comes to life as one of those who have been shunted aside after a lifetime of playing by the system’s rules. Read it, then read today’s economic news and you’ll see it hasn’t aged at all. It’s truly a novel for all recessions.

But the kid came back, carrying a small satchel. “I’m packed,” he said. ‘I left the note on the dining room table.’

“Good,” said Parker and hit him twice.

He buried him in the cellar in the hole the kid had dug himself.—The Jugger.

When I first read the passage above, from The Jugger  by Richard Stark, I threw the book down and stormed about my apartment, muttering,  “He killed the kid . . . he killed the kid!”

Some years later, when I read the same passage at a literary soiree in San Francisco, the audience screamed. Then they applauded.

Richard Stark: Westlake’s most famous pseudonym, another literary monument, cruelly provocative novels built brick by solid brick under a name that strikes like hammer, that cocks like a trigger.

Through 24 novels, from 1963’s The Hunter  to 2008’s Dirty Money, Richard Stark wrote what many believe is the best series of crime novels ever, noir and otherwise. They’re certainly the best I’ve ever read.

The Richard Stark novels tersely detail the grim career of a professional thief we know only as Parker. Besides palming all of Westlake’s other virtues, Stark tells these tales of heists gone wrong with spare power. I consider Parker to be one of literature’s great criminals, one who stands alongside such implacable monsters as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter and—maybe this is far-fetched—Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Stark, as I recall from an interview where he wore his Donald Westlake mask, said he conceived of Parker as a “robotic John Dillinger”—single-minded, relentless, unfeeling.

I first met Parker during the mid-1980s, the early days of the Reagan Era, over ten years after the appearance of the last Stark novel, Butcher’s Moon. The plot of The Black Ice Score seemed a little shaky, but the writing was so strong that, whipped on by some Stark-loving friends, I started over wtih the first novel in the series, The Hunter.

The first three pages of The Hunter hit me like the first three pages of Gravity’s Rainbow: I was captured by a seething, relentless vision. I had read plenty of hard-boiled fiction, but this was different. 

Strangely however, Parker strode across the George Washington Bridge into my mind in a different way than perhaps Stark intended. On top of the vicarious thrill of riding around inside this exuberantly lawless world, I sensed a vastly darker world lurking underneath. 

Then, we were at the beginning of unleashed, unregulated capitalism whose wild whirling bandit’s shadow is only now passing (we hope).

To me, Parker seemed an emblem of the world at that time: the final logical end of an ideology of absolute individualism where the nihilistic pursuit of profit is the first value. Parker practiced a brute amoral pragmatism. (Parker does do good but it’s most always a trickle-down good, a mere side effect, as coolly shrugged off as the corpses he leaves behind).

This interpretation is not explicit in the text, but as in other great books, it hides, clever, malignant, and cold behind a curtain of coiled prose. The Parker novels growl at you, low, urgent, dangerous. You can hear Stark grinding his teeth with smoldering fury. The tongue may occasionally show in the cheek, but it’s barbed and deadly.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head. Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.” –

Butcher’s Moon

When I read the above passage at the same literary soiree all those years ago, they all screamed again. And applauded again.

At times, the Parker novels have the impact of a great horror novel. They are rarely, if ever, explicitly gory. Nor are they papered with wall-to-wall violence. But, thanks to Stark's chisel-and-hammer style, violence always lurks underneath the surface, a grim serpent. Unlike most noir novels, novels provoke a deep shudder.

This also is due to how Stark’s style fuses with his singular character. Parker is a monster, a monster of indifference to human feeling and suffering and the prose captures this, often line for line, as you can see in the quote above. When Parker gets angry, it’s a cold anger, like a wall falling on the perpetrator; the ruthless dismissal of someone who has little use for other human beings, unless they can help with his primary goal, namely stealing.

Books like these could well be unbearable. But, to me, Stark makes Parker bearable by surrounding him with a delightful and often sorrowful array of picaresque characters: fellow thieves and those foolish or unlucky enough to cross their paths. Their fear and bafflement give Parker’s impassive manner—what one admirer recently called his “Parkerness”—a deadpan humorous quality (something all the movies adapted from the novels have missed.)

“You know what your problem is, Parker?” one character nags him after enduring hours of Parker’s habitual stony silence. “You talk too much.”

Butcher’s Moon was the sixteenth and last Parker novel that Stark published in 1974 before Parker fled into the underworld for over twenty years.

The master thief returned in smashing fashion in 1997’s Comeback. From that point on, every Stark novel found its way to me as it soon as it appeared on the bookshelves. I would become a little like Parker: door locked, phone off the hook, a bare-tooth growl for anyone who dared interrupt me as I read.

Donald Westlake once stated that he counted Vladimir Nabokov, Dashiell Hammett and Peter Rabe (whose work I don’t know) as his three favorite writers. He took his writing as seriously as the lofty Russian (who disdained mystery fiction) took his own. He admired those three especially because, as he puts it on own website, “[they] could do something I very much envied, which was to make you feel the emotion in a scene without ever referring to it directly. It all roils below the surface while the surface remains apparently calm.”

He fully believed, as I do, that genre fiction could scale the literature’s demanding heights. The this-happened, then-that-happened way of story-telling, can, with right touch from the right hands, lead readers into new and startling worlds; can hide while revealing; that the discursive digressions of often-passive characters beloved by higher-brow critics, by themselves, were no guarantee of quality (a point he makes well in his excellent introduction to an anthology of crime stories by non-genre writers that he co-edited, Once Against the Law).

One more self-indulgent note: Westlake’s passing meant more to me than no more Richard Stark novels to look forward to. I was finishing my first novel, Dragon's Ark, and, like all writers, I entertain childlike hopes that my work will be read by the writers I admire most and return to them some the same pleasure they have given me over the years.

Whatever mask he wore, Donald Westlake stood at the top of that list. If I could mail my novel into the afterlife, I would.

(Re-edited 2/2/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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