About the time I reached the middle of Donald Westlake's novel Memory (to be published in March by Hard Case Crime) I started wondering what his career would have been like if this extraordinary novel had been published in its time (1963) and won the recognition and acclaim it deserved.
The man we follow through the labyrinthine twists of this dark journey has no real idea of who he was. It's amnesia but of a special kind. Memories come at him like attacks. He fears them. Is he running from something? He wonders not only who he was but what kind of man he was. Though these tropes are familiar to readers of crime fiction Westlake makes them fresh and horrifying.
A good deal of the novel is a journey. Our man needs to get to New York City but he has no money. Westlake then gives us a work novel. The man, now called Cole, takes a factory job. The details of the job and the relationship are rendered not in genre terms but in the way mainstream writers would handle them. Living in a small room. Trying to save money for the bus ticket he needs. Getting caught up in the sad social life of the factory workers. There's a particularly affecting love story in the center of this section. There is also a cat-and-mouse with a police chief that shows how a familiar genre staple can become a perfect work of art.
Not even when Cole finally reaches New York and is able to find his old apartment there is no peace for him. He has lost his identity. He can get all the union cards, driver's licenses, bank statements bearing his name he wants but he knows the truth. These are only symbols to appease a society that demands identity. His erratic and sometimes dangerous behavior frightens and baffles him him as much as it does his old friends.
There is a Philip K. Dickian madness to everything here. It is our world and yet not our world and only Cole understands this. He is Cole and he is not Cole. And this allows him to see beyond the falsity of most social interactions. His particular kind of madness is a terrible kind of sanity.
I don't know if this is Westlake's finest novel. Certainly it's his most serious one. It demonstrates clearly that he had the skills and range and soul to become a major mainstream novelist. Woulda shoulda coulda. Who knows. But this is a magnificent piece of work and makes the reader feel the loss of the man all the more.