Sunday, January 24, 2010

Memory by Donald E. Westlake

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.


Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, the book sounds great. And if it's got you questioning whether it's Westlake's best after books like The Ax and The Hunter, then it has really got to be something special. I'll be looking forward to it.

Deb said...

Dave beat me to it, but I was going to say that I've never read this book but it would have to be something truly extraordinary to be better than The Ax.

Dan_Luft said...

Westlake had the skill to write anything he wanted and I sometimes wondered why he'd never written a "literary" crime novel (like "The Red Right Hand" or "They Shoot Horses Don't They" or Willeford's "Pick Up.") I've been anxious to read this since Hard Case announced it.

Matt Howl said...

Nice one, Ed. You got me even more excited than I was already.

Good timing, too, as I just finished my final Richard Stark. After Blackbird and Plunder Squad, I ended bittersweet with Butcher's Moon.

Makes me want to start all over again from the beginning. But if this one carries with it a lil' P. K. Dick, I'll just have to wait for the right madness of Westlake's Memory.

Thomas Kaufman said...

Thanks for writing this, Ed. Westlake was a gifted writer and a giant. Every book he wrote teaches so much. I can't wait to read this one.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Hey Ed: Indeed, I still feel his loss. And yucky you, you got to read "Memory" before I did . . . but I did manage to post a review of my own at:


Thomas Burchfield

Dan Walter said...

An excellent piece of work.