Hash Fave’s: Some Westlake Stuff

2 Sep

“Hash’s Faves” generally are musical but this one is literary.

The late Donald E. Westlake is my all-time favorite author. If I can write at all it’s by following his example.

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Donald Westlake

Although I don’t recall seeing any specifics in any biographies of him, I’m guessing that he has some sort of musical background, as there are many small but telling tidbits, descriptions of musicians, musician characters, etc., in much of his writing. I also guess that he has some sort of connection to Illinois (I do know that he ghost-wrote a lot of soft-porn potboilers for a publisher in Evanston in the early 60’s) as there are frequent mentions of cities in Illinois. And I’m guessing he has a theatrical background, as many of his main characters are actors.

Within the last weeks I’ve read his penultimate book, Memory, and one of his earliest, The Cutie. It’s been interesting. Just to give some context, Westlake’s earliest works were kind of all over the place – science fiction, hard-boiled detective and crime stuff, and humor. He was prolific, utilizing more than a dozen pseudonyms, and at one point churning out a book every couple of days. One of his most famous inventions was a character named Parker, a nihilistic criminal mastermind – pitiless, brutal, vicious and brilliant.   Westlake wrote a series of Parker novels under the name Richard Stark, and over the years they have become cult classics, and have been the inspiration for some movies and graphic novels. But at some point Westlake discovered an undercurrent of wild humor emerging in his writing, almost beyond his control, a voice that didn’t fit Parker’s character at all, so he started a new series of books featuring another criminal mastermind named John Archibald Dortmunder. Dortmunder was far from brutal, and the books are very funny.

Westlake wrote in this humorous vein for many years, and a lot of his funny books were made into movies, with varying degrees of success, but his last couple of books got pretty dark. Memory is about an actor who loses his memory, and is a melancholy exploration of what the “self” is. At one point the protagonist, Paul Cole, visits his first acting teacher in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge of his self. The teacher’s reaction to seeing Cole, in his present confused state, is extremely dark, but I thought this monologue was germane not only to those in the theatrical profession but to any artist:

“Every once in a while,” he called, walking around and around, “through that door over there comes an actor. Every once in a while, every once in a great great while. Not one of these pale idiots who wants to be an actor, can you think of anything more foolish? It’s like wanting to fly, isn’t it, you can or you can’t and that’s an end to it, wanting has nothing to do with it. You can even want not to fly, but if you’ve got the wings you’ll fly, one way or another, and wanting has nothing to do with that.”

He stopped again. He was now very near the door, standing facing it with his hands on his hips in a belligerent way. He talked now at the door, but loudly enough for Cole to hear him, with a slight echo in the words. “These young fools come in here with their feeble desires and chip away at my life! Like woodpeckers. What sort of a useless stupid appendix of the emotions is desire, what has desire ever done for anybody but turn him into an embarrassing fool? How can you want to be an actor? You are or you aren’t, and ninety-nine percent of them coming through the door are not. But then there’s the one who is.”

Kirk’s voice had lowered on the last sentence, so that Cole could barely hear him, and now he turned back and came walking straight toward the platform, looking directly at Cole now as he spoke: “That’s what I live for, Paul, that’s the reason for my existence. I sit here and wait and wait and wait, and every once in a while an actor comes through that door back there, a boy or a girl who’s been an actor from the minute he was born, whether he knew it or not. They come to me, and I give them the rudiments, I give them the terms for what they already know how to do, and I give them freely from my own poor store of contacts in the theatrical world, and I watch them discover themselves, discover their own powers and the gulf that yawns between them and the poor fools sitting around them in class…

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the bleakness of this assessment, but I do agree with the essence of it, that some people just aren’t cut out to be whatever– musicians, painters, poets, actors, photographers, sculptors or writers. One may desire to be, and I would certainly encourage anyone who has such a desire to pursue it, if only for one’s own fulfillment. But very few people can become Charlie Parkers or Marlon Brandos or Picassos. With hard work and dedication, though, one can become proficient enough as a craftsman to produce work that he (or she) can be proud of, and can work in their chosen field. That, I guess, is what I am. I ain’t Jaco Pastorious or Herb Lubalin or Westlake; I wish I was, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got. That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied, by any means, but neither am I ashamed.

As a sidenote, I’ve always been fascinated with the way that Westlake inserts sly little cross-references from previous works into his books, so I was absolutely thrilled to see that he used an address on Grove Street in Greenwich Village in Memory (I read that one first), and an address on Grove Street also pops up in “The Cutie.” Fifty years separated the writing of those books.

The book that introduced me to Westlake, by the way, and that got me hooked is called Dancing Aztecs; it’s not one of his Dortmunder books but it is very funny, and it is a caper book. Lise Dirks turned me on to the book and I will forever be indebted to her.

 

Dancing_Aztecs

Steve Hashimoto

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

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Steve Hashimoto

 

 

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