Friday, June 17, 2011

Westlake on Westlake, sorta

In my continuing mission to read all of Donald Westlake's novels, this week found me reading The Hook (2000), a non-series, non-comic novel that Ethan Iverson calls "a companion to The Ax which is almsot as good." If there's anyone to trust on the subject of Westlake, it's Ethan, but I think he's overstating the case here a bit: The Ax, as I've written before, is a flat-out masterpiece, a truly harrowing book whose hopelessness is so intense that reading it is almost painful. The Hook, on the other hand, while dealing with some of the same themes--a man turns to murder because his legitimate skills are no longer in demand--is, well, odd, and distinctly lesser.

The Hook tels the story of Wayne, a writer of thrillers who has seen his career destroyed by a slight, but steady, decline in sales--and by the way that those sales, recorded by the book chains' computers, set him on a path of downwardly spiraling expectations, advances, and sales. By chance, he meets an old friend, Bryce, who's a very successful writer but is blocked, unable to write because he's wrapped up in a terrible divorce. Bryce offers Wayne a deal: let Bryce publish Wayne's latest manuscript under his name, with no public acknowledgment, and he'll split the advance. Oh, and also Wayne has to kill Bryce's ex-wife.

It's a great set-up, worthy of Westlake at his best. But the resulting novel is a little too long, a little awkward, and a little slow. It's got neither Westlake's comedy nor the claustrophobic, trapped feeling that his serious novels burn with at their best. At the same time, however, it's interesting simply for the fact that, for all its failings, it feels so much like a Westlake novel: from the Invisible Library titles it contains (Double in Diamonds, The Shadowed Other, The Pollux Perspective, The Second Woman, Two Faces) to the unpredictably meandering nature of the plot, you can feel Westlake the playful magician at work, having fun working out every last inevitable detail of the plot he's set in motion.

What's perhaps of more interest to long-time Westlake fans, however, is a sketch of a novel idea that Bryce offers late in the book, when it's clear that he's lost his ability to come up with thriller plots. It comes right after Wayne criticizes an earlier idea as lacking action:
"It's all interior," Bryce said. "It's all inside him."

"Joe would want some action, I think," Wayne said. "And readers, too, they expect something else from you."
Bryce's next idea is even more interior:
"And what happens is, the book opens, he's coming to in the hospital. At first, he doesn't even know who he is."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"What happened was," Bryce said, "somebody beat him up, almost killed him, they got him into the hospital just in the nick of time."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"His memory comes back," Bryce said, "except for that. The beating. He doesn't remember anything about that."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"That's common, you know," Bryce said. "A traumatic experience, and people block it from their memory."

"Yeah, I know," Wayne said.

"So he doesn't know who did it, and he doesn't know why," Bryce said, "and he doesn't know if they're waiting out there to finish the job."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

"So when he gets out of the hospital," Bryce said, "he starts searching back, trying to get to that moment of the beating, understand it."

"Uh huh," Wayne said.

Bryce looked at him. He didn't say anything.

Wayne said, "And?"

"That's all," Bryce said. "I mean, that's all I have so far."
At the time The Hook was published, there was no reason a Westlake fan would take any real note of that description--but then last year Hard Case Crime published Memory, a novel Westlake wrote in the 1960s but couldn't get published, largely because, as Charles Ardai explained, it's not a crime novel but
serious, ambitious, philosophical literary fiction. . . . that grapples with the themes of existentialism.
The plot? A man gets beaten up on the first page, loses his memory, and spends the entire book trying to reconstruct--and hold on to--the very concept of a continuing self. In other words, too interior--if all you're looking for is a crime novel. But if you're willing to shift your expectations, it's a fascinating book, with moments as tense and freighted with anxiety as any crime novel, and finding its trace unexpectedly in The Hook, along with an acknowledgment of its fate, was quite a surprise.

1 comment:

  1. The Hook is a good (not great) book ... it's nice to see someone out there like me, who is a Westlake devotee.

    A great joy in my life is introducing his work to people who've never heard of him before. They almost always become fans.