Friday, January 22, 2010

Memory by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime)

When author Donald E. Westlake died at the end of 2008, he left only one unpublished novel, Memory, which he had written early in his career (sometime in the '60s), but which was rejected by his agent for being "too literary" (i.e., unsellable). So, it was put in his files and never saw the light of day.

With the assistance of Lawrence Block and Abby Adams (Mrs. Westlake), Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime has made Memory available now for all the Westlake fans who've been clamoring for one more book from the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster.

Paul Cole, a road company actor in a touring Broadway hit, stops off for some midnight fun after that night's show. While in flagrante delicto, her husband storms in and brains Paul with a chair, putting him in the hospital and knocking the sense right out of his head. He can't remember much for any significant length of time.

Cole struggles every day just to survive: to work and make money so he can get back to New York and try to find his old life again. But things like room and board, food, and a general inability because of regular expenses keep him stuck. He tries to make notes when he remember bits and pieces, but when he returns to the notes later, they don't seem to mean anything anymore. How can you buy a bus ticket if you don't remember why you were putting aside the money in the first place? And Paul is always fearful that he will forget something important, like to go to work, but daily events settle into a routine and they get a little bit easier for a while.

Then the police come for him....

Memory is a great book, and I write this without reservation. It outshines anything else Westlake has done and makes his intricately plotted Dortmunder and Parker novels seem like silly trifles. I'll even go so far as to say that from now on, every Westlake book will be compared to it, every fan defined by their appreciation of it. ("You like Westlake? Have you read Memory?") How ironic that such an early book could end his career on such a pinnacle of achievement.

The real beauty is how Westlake takes the reader along as if we are on the business end of a leash. Everything Paul feels, we feel (torpor, joy, happiness, confusion, fear), only with the extra knowledge of an outsider, adding suspense to the mix. Since Paul doesn't know what to expect, neither do we, though we desperately want to find out, so we watch with breathless anticipation as he continues on his path toward the rediscovery of Paul Cole. It's tragic to watch Memory unfold, as Cole takes a step forward only to fall behind again, but utterly compelling in a voyeuristic way.

It's almost a good thing that Memory was not published back when it was written, because given the author's reputation for short crime novels, it likely would not have seen print at its full 360-page length. And I imagine that one of the scenes that would have been cut — because it does little to further the plot and adds nothing to the character — is also one of my favorites. Showing Paul looking for work, with no documentable past, lets Westlake make a wry stab at employment offices who demand efficiency while making it difficult to accomplish due to their interest in doing things just so.

And maybe it's also a good thing because, if Memory had been published in the 1960s, Westlake's career might have gone in a different direction. We may have never met Dortmunder or Parker and would know the author instead for his increasingly weighty philosophical novels on the human condition, with crime novels merely something he did "in the early days" (and tried not to talk about too much). Or maybe he would have disappeared altogether. Who knows? What's important is that it is being published now. Forgive the pun, but Memory is unforgettable.


Ed Gorman said...

Dammit you stole my opening line. :) I was holding off blogging my own review till pub date grew closer. But you hit exactly what I was going to say. Imagine what Westlake's career might have been if this a) had been published in its time and b) appreciated for its brilliance. I wouldn't go quite as far as you do in saying that the rest of his work seems minor compared to this but I sure know what you're saying. I can't think of any other crime novelist who wrote a book half as original and devastating as Memory. This is world class literature. Great review btw. I'll see what I can crib of it to add to my own review. :)

Craig Clarke said...

Hi, Ed. Thanks for the compliment. Next time I read your mind, I'll try rooting around for a novel or two. :)

I wanted to wait till closer to the pub date, but I simply had to get out what I had to say. Memory is a book that inspires that kind of passion -- I want to tell everybody I see about it, even though I know half of them wouldn't know what the hell I'm talking about.

It is the kind of book you reread to see what makes it work so well. (Though in this case, I'm pretty sure great instincts had a lot to do with it.)

Brian Drake said...

Goodness, now I have to read this! I'm going to check the Hard Case website for the pub date. Thanks for the great reivew.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words. I was afraid I was so laudatory that people would be turned off -- that no one would believe it could possibly be that good.

Related Posts with Thumbnails