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Maria When She Loses

The Many Lives of Donald Westlake

On the man who created Parker and the quest for the perfect character

1. When I first came across the fictional antihero known as Parker, he was in a hotel room, torturing a man who had tried to murder him in his sleep. I was browsing a specialty bookstore in Greenwich Village that, like most specialty bookstores, no longer exists; I had, by pure chance, picked up a skinny little volume called The Outfit, which doesn’t so much begin as get straight to the goddamned point. It is no secret that the man who wrote the Parker novels deliberately started many of them1 with the word “when,” thereby ensuring the rising action would not be muddied up with dull things like exposition; I contend that one of the most direct first sentences in the modern history of the novel details a telephone ringing when Parker is in the garage, murdering a man.

The Outfit is 213 pages, which is actually somewhat long by the standards of the early Parker novels. There are 24 Parker titles in all, and most of the early ones are tight little symphonies of spare and rigid prose, split into four distinct movements; they somehow manage to adhere to a rough formula and still blow your hair back every time. Their tone is brutal and unsentimental, and their themes are Nietzschean to the extreme: People act, without adverbial accompaniment, and the whys and wherefores are utterly beside the point. The protagonist is a career criminal, a sociopathic utilitarian who despises small talk. When someone asks him if he had a good flight to his destination, he thinks, This wasn’t a sensible question. He is concerned entirely with the successful execution of crimes and with his own self-preservation amid this process. One memorable chapter ends with the line, “He buried him in the cellar in the hole the kid had dug himself.”

We never learn much about Parker’s past, or his childhood; hell, we never even learn his first name. He has a female companion for the second half of the series, but their relationship is oblique and unnatural and you’re never fully sure what it means to either of them. He doesn’t relish gratuitous violence, but he does not fear it, either. It is, I think, a beautiful series about a professional at work in an ugly and seamy world, and it is all credited to an author named Richard Stark, who wrote nearly 100 books under this and many other pseudonyms, as well as his given name, which was Donald E. Westlake.

2. I bring up Westlake now because this Friday, a filmic version of a Parker novel called Flashfire will be released to theaters. It is not the first iteration of Parker on celluloid, and it will not be the last, though it is the first to bear the actual name of the character, since the producers have secured options on several of the books. In the past, Parker has been called Porter and Walker and Stone and Macklin,2 and he has been played by Lee Marvin3 and Jim Brown4 and Robert Duvall5 and Peter Coyote6 and Mel Gibson7 and a French actress named Anna Karina.8 In this version, he is played by Jason Statham and directed by Taylor Hackford, and while I have not seen it, I have heard — both from Westlake’s widow, Abby Adams, and his close friend, the writer Lawrence Block — that it stays relatively true to the Parker character as Westlake conceived him.9 But still, it is an action film starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez, and I don’t have to tell you what that conjures, and I imagine there will be unavoidable compromises to a mass audience, and I imagine that even if it is good it will not be a box office smash, and I imagine it will be quietly placed into the hyper-adrenalized stratum of Hollywood film that Jason Statham tends to populate. And I imagine that anything involving Jason Statham will not force a thorough literary reassessment of the oeuvre of Donald Westlake, even though, at this point, I think he clearly deserves it.

In his nearly five-decade career, Westlake, who died in 2008, created a diverse and surprising catalogue that encompasses crime — from both sides of the law — and science fiction and satire and adventure and enjoyable little oddities that don’t really fit into any category. He was astoundingly prolific and eminently readable; he had a loyal fan base and respect among his peers but never made a New York Times best-seller list; and he is known by many not for Parker, but for his comic novels, the most popular of which featured a curmudgeonly literary cousin of Parker named Dortmunder. “Comic literature of any kind is the hardest thing to write,” says Otto Penzler, Westlake’s friend, sometime editor, and the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. “It’s also very subjective.”

All of which may explain why Westlake is not more famous outside of crime-writing circles, and why it’s sometimes easy to overlook that Westlake was, at the very least, one of the smoothest and most versatile American writers of the 20th century. And the more I work my way through his catalogue, the more I think he deserves to be canonized for inspiring a genre all his own, for pioneering an ironic and unsentimental and countercultural Westlakeian sensibility that permeates the culture more than Donald Westlake himself could ever have realized.

3. That’s the thing with Westlake — once you start looking, you start to recognize the diversity and scope of his influence. Quentin Tarantino has cited the Parker novels — particularly, I imagine, their jump cuts and shifts in perspective — as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. I cannot imagine that Tarantino and the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol agree on much related to popular culture, but they are both Westlake fans (Kristol, who adored Westlake’s comic sensibility, once suggested that he should be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature). The highbrow Irish novelist John Banville — who moonlights in the noir genre — declared Westlake one of the great novelists of the 20th century; sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison considered Westlake a hero. You cannot even begin to consider the literary impact of Elmore Leonard’s comic noir, or George Pelecanos’s urban grit, or Dennis Lehane’s psychological puzzles, without noting Westlake’s influence on them. I don’t know if Vince Gilligan is a Westlake fan, but the train robbery episode of Breaking Bad last season felt decidedly Westlakeian in its execution (especially when you realize that Westlake had written a novel about a train robbery 30 years earlier). Stephen King — who modeled the author in The Dark Half after Richard Stark, and reportedly devised the pen name Richard Bachman because he was reading a Stark novel and listening to Bachman-Turner Overdrive — has dedicated a pulp novel he’ll release later this year to Westlake. A young crime writer named Duane Swierczynski actually named his son Parker.

“I remember reading a copy of The Hunter [the first in the Parker series], and thinking, ‘This thing is so brutal and so efficient,'” says Trent Reynolds, who runs a fan site called The Violent World of Parker. “I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.”

A large percentage of his site’s most ardent fans are writers, Reynolds tells me, which makes sense, because if ever there was a writer who lived up to Brian Eno’s proclamation about the Velvet Underground inspiring more bands than fans, it is Westlake. His prose is sharp and glinting; he can create a complete a sketch of a doomed character in a single page with about as much deftness as any writer I’ve ever seen; and he had an ability to shift tones, dramatic to comedic, from book to book — and even from page to page — that many others, both in and out of the genre, just don’t possess. His writing feels so effortless that it makes you wonder, as a writer, if you’re working at it hard enough.

4. He was born in Brooklyn, in 1933, but spent most of his childhood in Albany; as a kid, he delivered the newspaper — he recalled dropping the Times Union on his neighbors’ doorsteps the day Franklin Roosevelt died — and he worked as an usher at a local movie theater, where he used to think up his own endings to the Lassie films. His father wanted him to be an architect, but he never wanted anything else but to be a writer — he tried Westerns, he says, which didn’t quite work when you lived in upstate New York — and his goal was to publish his first book while still in his teens. He didn’t quite make it: His first story, a science fiction tale, was printed in a magazine called Universe of Science Fiction. He was 20 years old, and he made $20.

He attended multiple colleges but never graduated, and at 21 he joined the Air Force. When he got out two and a half years later, he moved with his first wife (of three) to New York City to work for a literary agent named Scott Meredith. This was the tail end of the pulp era, and there were glossy magazines and paperback publishers in search of copy, and Westlake and author Lawrence Block (who also worked for Meredith) both volunteered to write whatever they could. They collaborated on a series of soft-core pornographic paperback originals, and Westlake wrote several on his own, as well, under the name Alan Marshall: All the Girls Were Willing, A Girl Called Honey, So Willing, Man Hungry (tagline: “The Absoring Tale of an Incredibly Depraved Woman Who Knew No Bounds In Her Search For Thrills …”).

“It was a wonderfully forgiving market for a young writer,” Block tells me. “If you could write English, and there was some sort of sexual content that would manifest itself once a chapter, you were otherwise free to do what you wanted. It was a great space in which to learn by doing.”

A whole generation of them learned by doing: Among them were Block and Westlake and Evan Hunter, who wrote his crime novels under the pen name Ed McBain. They were prodigious and hungry, and they emerged just as the idea of the pulp magazine was beginning to fade; they were the ones who followed Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, and they aspired to advance the genre in new directions.

Westlake admired Hammett’s laconic ability to tell a story without delving into sentimentality; he never liked Chandler and some of the others much at all, and while he published some private-eye novels under a pseudonym, he also recognized the shortcomings of the form. In 1960, he wrote his first novel under his own name, The Mercenaries. He was young and voracious, and he produced so much that he required multiple pen names to keep up with his output: In 1961 alone, he published nine books under three different names.10 And then one day around that time, Westlake went to visit a friend in New Jersey and took the wrong bus home and wound up on the wrong side of the George Washington Bridge. He trudged across the bridge, and the wind and the tension of the bridge inspired in him the idea of a character whose “speed and solidity and tension matched that of the bridge” itself. He thought of a man who looked a little like Jack Palance, a man seething with anger, a man who, when offered a ride by a Samaritan while walking across the bridge, tells him — “for reasons none of us have been able to figure out,” Block says — to go to hell. This was the catalyst, and this became the opening scene of the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

One evening Block traveled to Westlake’s apartment in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn and read the first chapter. Block asked if he knew where it was going; Westlake assured him he’d figure it out. It was how he worked on most everything: He called it the “narrative-push” method, in which one chapter leads to the inspiration for the next, and nothing is outlined. In his first draft of The Hunter, Westlake landed Parker in prison at the end, because, in the early 1960s, that seemed the natural denouement for such a remorseless persona; his paperback editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, found it compelling enough that he asked Westlake if he could devise a way to more easily position Parker for a follow-up. Westlake obliged. The Hunter was published in 1962, and the following year, Westlake published three more Parker books. In the sequel, The Man With the Getaway Face, Parker visits a plastic surgeon who alters his appearance, and then he robs an armored car; in The Outfit, Parker schemes against the mafia; in The Mourner, Parker attempts to abscond with a 15th-century statue and slugs an asthmatic hoodlum in the process; in The Score, Parker and a band of professionals manage to rob an entire small town over the course of an evening.11

More than anything, Westlake once said, these are books about a man at work. Parker is strangely puritanical, in that he does not permit himself to even think about sex until a job is complete. During a holdup, he learns the first names of the people he’s holding at gunpoint, in order to soothe their egos. Parker and his catalogue of partners carry their twisted Protestant work ethic from job to job: It is fascinating how much of the text focuses on the process of criminality, on scenes of men sitting around a table in front of blueprints, on the notion of preparing for the worst and then accepting that things might go off in unexpected directions regardless of how much you plan for them. There are double-crosses and betrayals and outright failures, and the world is indifferent to all of this suffering, but Parker soldiers onward. And I imagine all of this has at least a little to do with the way the author felt when he sat down at his typewriter every morning.

Donald Westlake
5. There is a rough arc to the original 16 Parker books, published from 1962 to 1974, and while social politics seem almost irrelevant to the main character’s aims and objectives, you can see the fears and paranoia of the era reflected in them. The Hunter was published in 1962, the same year Bob Dylan released his first album; as the series delves deeper into the decade, Parker crosses paths with hippies and weirdos, and while he stands entirely apart from politics, the books still feel like a statement of mood. In 1971’s Deadly Edge — written in the wake of the tragedies at Altamont and Kent State, though of course events like these are never, ever mentioned — Parker and his cohorts rob a rock concert while his girlfriend is menaced by a pair of Manson-esque lunatics.

“What resonates for me is the absence of a moral center,” says Charles Ardai, a mystery author and the publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint. “There’s this realization that the world doesn’t care about us, and that any edifice of justice or morality is a fiction. It pulls the mask off the world and shows us what’s underneath it.”

I don’t know much about Westlake’s politics, and I’m not sure it even matters; I know he joked to an interviewer, when asked where his tendency toward amorality came from, that he once saw a T-shirt that said, “Question Authority,” and immediately thought to himself, Who says?

It is not surprising, then, that Westlake often got fan letters from prisoners about the Parker books. In the ’60s, he also got letters from African Americans, despite a relative lack of black characters in the early Parker novels. “[A]t that time, they were guys who felt very excluded from society, and they had been rejected by the greater American world,” Westlake told the A.V. Club. “And here was a guy who had rejected this society, and I think they liked to read him for that.”

By the time Westlake published the 16th Parker novel, Butcher’s Moon, he’d succeeded in crafting a twisted universe in which Parker and his coworkers reach into a corrupt society from the outside. Not once do we learn what Parker does with his money, or what compels him to keep at this, or even if he enjoys his vocation. Not once does he ask himself why; it is simply all he knows, and it is beside the point. It is a job like any other blue-collar job, and most of the people he victimizes — mobsters and sniveling sycophants and the like — come across as lower on the moral totem pole than Parker himself.

Butcher’s Moon is a 300-pager, kind of a Parker double-issue, in which many of his old cohorts are swept into a plan to victimize the mobsters and corrupt cops who absconded with the money that Parker himself stole from an armored car. It ends with the siege of a mobster’s house on a moonless night, and there is a fantastic scene in which one of Parker’s cohorts, Stan Devers, scales a utility pole to cut the electricity to the house, then makes his way back down.

He had no sense of height in this blackness, and it soon seemed to him it was taking too long to get down the pole. Leg down, hand down, leg down, hand down; surely he should have reached the ground by now. A stupid panic tried to rise up in his chest, and he felt the idiotic urge to just jump out from the pole into the black, drop the rest of the distance, however long it was, get this damn thing over with. And still he kept inching and inching his way down the rough wood surface; and when his foot did finally thud against the ground, it came as a surprise.

Butcher’s Moon was published in 1974, amid the final months of the Vietnam War, and when it was complete, Richard Stark also faded into blackness. It would take Westlake 23 years to conjure another Parker novel, and while the later titles are quite good, they inevitably felt like they were coming from a different place.

6. “I believe my subject is bewilderment,” Westlake once said, in a quote that now adorns the front page of the personal website maintained by his son Paul. “But I could be wrong.”

7. In the late 1960s, Westlake was working on a Parker novel in which his character would be forced to steal the same object over and over again. The problem was that it kept coming out funny, and Parker was anything but funny. But Westlake? Westlake was quick-witted and jovial. Sometimes when he told stories, he broke into laughter before he could get to the punchline.12 The people who knew him best miss the man as much as they miss the writer.13

The comic state, most of his friends agree, is the closest to Westlake’s default sensibility, and I suppose this is why he lent his real name to his comic novels: The first, The Fugitive Pigeon, about a ne’er-do-well nephew of a mobster, was published in 1965; his 1967 novel God Save the Mark, about a dupe who inherits a fortune, won him an Edgar Award. He never veered too far into pure shtick; his humor was often so subtle that it crept up and blindsided you. He made the absurd seem naturalistic. “He’s the only writer who’s made me laugh uncontrollably, and he’s done it three times,” Penzler tells me. “Once I was reading him on the subway, and it was jammed and I was huddled against a pole, and I started to laugh and I couldn’t stop it. I totally lost it. In a short time, I started to notice I had plenty of room around me.”

And so, facing a crisis, Westlake rewrote that failing Parker novel with a new brand of antihero, a put-upon thief named Dortmunder. He called it The Hot Rock, and it was made into a (very good) movie, scripted by William Goldman and starring Robert Redford. For the remainder of Westlake’s career, Dortmunder became the flip side of Parker, a man who can’t seem to catch a break, a man whose very human — whose very Westlakeian — neuroses set him back time and again.14 The natural connection between Dortmunder and Parker is that they are both men at work, and they are both at the mercy of forces they cannot control; the natural connection, I think, is that Dortmunder and Parker represent the two sides of the writer’s life, both the whimsy and the grind.

8. He wrote on the same model of Smith Corona typewriter he’d been using since graduating from high school. He never upgraded to an electric — “I don’t want something buzzing at me,” he told Penzler — and when his typewriter model was discontinued, he bought up all the spare parts and extras he could find so he’d never need to upgrade. In the early 1970s, at a cocktail party thrown by author Ira Levin, he met Abby Adams, a writer and magazine editor; they married in 1979 and bought a townhouse on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Westlake wrote on the third floor, surrounded by shelves and shelves of his own books arranged in chronological order, a library of his career. Sometime after breakfast, he’d head up to his desk. When he got stuck, he’d play solitaire, and Abby would hear the shuffling of the cards; when he got on a roll, Abby told me, it sounded like machine guns were going off in the house. Late in his career, they bought a house in upstate New York, and Westlake wrote a dark novel called The Ax, about a paper company employee who fights off downsizing by becoming a serial killer. It was the only time Abby saw his mood turn dark throughout the process of writing a book. “While he was writing that, he was somewhere else,” she says. “He did not come down at the end of the day and be the jolly, funny man.” He finished it in three weeks; some consider it his best book.

In the summers they’d go to Fire Island and Westlake would write in the little shack outside the house they’d bought in the town of Fair Harbor. Once, Penzler says, Westlake excused himself from the Fire Island house, and within seconds you could hear the clacking of the typewriter. Half an hour later, his work was done. Most of the time he did not need to warm himself up, to work his way into the task. “He wasn’t a guy who wrote 10 to 12 hours a day,” Penzler says. “He was a pretty facile writer.”

He did not do a great deal of research, except when he needed to. His characters were usually drawn with such keen insight that they became eminently believable on the page. But there was one notable exception: In the early ’80s, a film producer friend suggested he write a story based on a news item about the theft of a coffee train in Uganda by a band of white mercenaries. He traveled to Africa, and he read extensive histories of the African railroad, and he produced a novel called Kahawa. The violence is graphic, and the sex is uncharacteristically explicit (it’s also quite realistic, a credit to his soft-core origins, I suppose); the most compelling character is a fictionalized version of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator. There is a dark scene in which one of the main characters is imprisoned in horrific conditions with Amin’s political prisoners, and there is a harrowing moment when a group of natives involved in the theft play a game of chicken atop a railcar that’s being pushed off a cliff. It is angry and funny and crazy; it is, Penzler tells me, the novel that Westlake was proudest of, and it received a rave review from John Leonard in the New York Times, who called it “a book that is amazingly persuasive as it enters so many different minds inside so many different pigments of skin.”

It was a fascinating testament to Westlake’s literary range, and, not surprisingly for a nearly 500-page novel about an African republic, it didn’t sell at all. Like much of Westlake’s non-series catalogue, it has largely been forgotten.

9. In 1990, Westlake wrote the script for a film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters; he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (As with everyone else that year, he lost out to Dances With Wolves.) He had his dalliances with Hollywood, both before and after — he wrote a version of a James Bond film that was never used — and he made a good deal of money off the more than 20 books that were adapted to film. But mostly, he kept pecking away at his Smith Corona until he died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve in 2008, at age 75.

It is difficult to say, at this moment, exactly what Westlake’s legacy will be. He was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993; the entire Parker series is steadily being reprinted in trade paperback by the University of Chicago Press, which is how I found them in the first place, and Hard Case Crime has printed a couple of Westlake’s unpublished works.15 But as with his contemporaries — Block, McBain, John D. MacDonald — I don’t get a good sense of how Westlake’s work will be framed by critics, or how much of it might be lost to history, or whether he might be taken as someone more than just a guy who wrote books about criminals. “To my mind, there are a handful of writers who came into their own in the ’60s and ’70s, and who will be praised in some way,” Charles Ardai says. “Westlake and Block and Ed McBain were much more workmanlike, but they were doing work that was just as important and as revolutionary as what came before them.”

“I’d like to see him get one of those Library of America editions,” Abby Westlake says, but when I ask how something like that might come about, we both confess that we have no real idea.

10. Of course, the very idea of the workmanlike fiction writer — let alone one who dabbles in varied voices and tones — is now more romantic than realistic; for that reason alone, Westlake’s career is worth preserving. He was among the last of the great professionals. He was truthful and he was reliable: In his vast catalogue, there are few duds.

“If it’s Parker, it’s all right,” a criminal colleague says, when sizing up an invitation to participate in a job in Butcher’s Moon, and to that end, I asked Abby Westlake, Donald Westlake’s widow, if she ever saw any of Parker in her husband. I’m always a little uncomfortable asking these types of questions of writers and those who know them; I also figured she’d been asked this a thousand times before by obsessives like me, and I figured she’d say no.

Instead, she told me a story about being in Amsterdam, and searching for an American Express office so they could cash traveler’s checks. They walked and walked and walked, with their children in tow, straight through the red-light district, and when they finally found it, Abby said, “That was really something, walking past all those windows with naked women in them.”

And her husband, who had been on a single-minded search for the American Express office, and who had blocked out everything else that did not pertain to his current objective, and who had apparently abided by Parker’s fastidious proscription of not even thinking about sex while on the job, replied, “What are you talking about?”

Filed Under: Movies, Ted

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