Friday, January 2, 2009

So Long, Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe, and...)

The New York Times reports Donald E. Westlake died on New Year's Eve.

Westlake was best known for two major series, the Dortmunder books (which began with the well-known novel The Hot Rock), and the Parker novels written under the pen name Richard Stark. The Dortmunder and Parker series couldn't be more unalike: the Dortmunder books are comic caper novels with a light touch and hilarious characters, while the Parker stories feature some of the most stripped-down prose in the history of noir. (In fact, the first Parker novel, Point Blank--also known as The Hunter or Payback--is reviewed on Tim Stretton's Why Should I Read? list, and for good reason; there is plenty to learn from Westlake/Stark's craft in the Parker books. Critical regard for the Parker novels has been rising in recent years, and Westlake recently announced that the University of Chicago Press would be reissuing the entire Parker series in new editions; some with come with forewords, and John Banville has been tapped to write at least three of those.)

Two equally successful series in such different flavors is an unlikely achievement--though Lawrence Block has done it in his Matt Scudder (dead serious) and Bernie Rhodenbarr (dead silly) series. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Westlake and Block were good friends.)

Westlake also wrote a huge number of standlone novels, some of which are brilliant, and in 1997 he published what I think is his best novel, The Ax. In The Ax, his two writerly personas finally merge; the novel is at once a crime novel, but also a dark commentary on the individual in the modern capitalist system. It's a satire, but you aren't conscious of that as you read it. The book is by turns cold-blooded, sympathetic, and, yes, even funny in a utterly appalling fashion.

Although The Ax was praised by critics and enjoyed by most Westlake fans, drop through Amazon and check out the handful of one-star reviews: "...One of the most disturbing books I've ever read. What this society does not need is a primer on murder, how to do it, and how to rationalize it..." or "I love Westlake books. I collect Westlake books...But The Ax really disturbed me. The storyline is creepy. I felt uneasy reading it..." Disturbing? Creepy? Uneasy? You betcha, which shows exactly what a master of craft Westlake was.

On New Year's Ever, at 75, Westlake was still going strong, and I expected at least another dozen novels from him. I'm not only sad at the news of his death, but also, quite selfishly, feel a little cheated.

In a review many years ago, the Washington Post remarked "If there were a different set of values at work in our glum society, Westlake would have won National Book Awards and Pulitzers...there would be statues of him in every municipal park." Too late for the Nat Book Award or Pulitzers, but I'd be willing to chip in for the statues.

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n.b. I'd be remiss to my own instincts if I didn't mention Westlake's novel The Hook, which I view as a sort of companion to The Ax. Although The Hook isn't the tour-de-force The Ax was, it shares the same darker-than-black, unsettling comedy; and, germane to the purported point of this blog, it's about a pair of novelists.

10 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

This is sad news. Westlake was one of my favourite writers.

Jake Jesson said...

Urgh. You know, I'd just read The Ax a few months ago, the first book by Westlake I'd got my hands on.

Dying on New Year's Eve, too. How unfortunately poetic.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

And since we've lost both Westlake and Stark, it's as if we've lost two very different writers on the same day.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jake--

Yeah. It took the NY Times a couple pf days to get around to reporting it.

But you still have "The Hook" to look forward to...

Jake Jesson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jake Jesson said...

Very sad. But I'll still put "The Hook" on my reading list.

Y'know, I started writing a review of The Ax on my blog, but never finished it... perhaps I ought to go and do that, in a commemorative fashion.

David Thayer said...

Somewhere in the blogosphere are John Banville's thoughts on Westlake which I found to be pretty cool.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

Go thou and do so.

David Isaak said...

Hi, David--

I went and searched on the two names together, and you were right--a whole wealth of interesting stuff about Westlake (actually, mostly about Stark) from Banville. Thanks!

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