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January 02, 2009

Donald Westlake R.I.P.

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I was very sorry to learn that the crime fiction writer Donald Westlake has died. He was 75, and until his sudden heart attack on Wednesday evening had been as busy and active as ever.

FWIW, Westlake was among my very favorite fiction writers ever -- and I do mean ever, as in "of all times." While the novels of his that I've read have ranged from fabulous to pretty-good, each and every one of them had a snazzy hook, a half a dozen fully-inhabited characters, a handful of fun plot twists, loads of satirical observations, and a big and mischievous spirit. Each and every one, in other words, delivered a generous heaping of talent and entertainment. And the man published more than a hundred different books!

Though I generally avoid arguing over greatness and comparing rankings and such, let me say this in anticipation of those who would protest "How can you say that Westlake was one of the greats? Which of his books would you set up against 'Ulysses'?"

  • I'm not saying that Westlake was one of the greats in any for-eternity, lit-crit way. I'm saying that as far as I'm concerned he was one of the greats.

  • As for the immortality stuff: Well, history will take care of it ... I won't be around to agree or disagree anyway ... And then history may, or may not, change its mind ... So explain to me why exactly I should care?

  • I will argue that Westlake was an awe-inspiring talent, that he was fantastically productive, and that he consistenly kept his output at a very high level. If we can't agree on this, then let's change the subject right now.

  • The point of comparison here shouldn't be "Ulysses" anyway. No disrespect meant to James Joyce -- but aren't there plenty of reasons to grant a lot of respect to Westlake as well? After all, in the time that it took Joyce to write "Ulysses," Westlake produced dozens of hooks, scads of inspired plot twists, and crowds of lively characters.

  • Let's get our terms straight. Westlake wasn't playing the literary set's sacrifice-it-all-for-one-masterpiece game. He was a hyper-gifted working-class writer who entertained everyday readers for a living. No, the point of comparison should be TV series. Can an episode of "The Sopranos" really be said to rival "Rules of the Game"? Obviously not. But perhaps it can be plausibly argued that "The Sopranos" as a series deserves the respect we accord the best movies and novels. My point: It's better to think of Westlake's work not as a rival to "Ulysses" but as something with a long run, something you tune into, something you can count on to deliver a lot -- something like "The Sopranos." Which maybe we can agree is plenty awe-inspiring in its own terms, and in its own right.

  • Another good comparison: P.G. Wodehouse. Both of them tremendous entertainers; both creators of huge bodies of high-quality work. Hey, isn't it one of the more pleasing developments of 20th century fiction-writing, the way that Wodehouse has proved to be one of the era's most enduring creators? So much so in fact that critics and even a few profs have taken note. (Not that you'll yet find Wodehouse on many intros-to-lit college reading lists. And why not?) How long will we have to wait 'till the higher-brow set wakes up to what a treasure we had in Westlake?

Semi-related: I've praised Donald Westlake regularly on this blog. Here's my most lengthy posting about him. Recently The Wife and I read Westlake's script for "The Stepfather." Now there's one flawless, trenchant, funny, and intense piece of storytelling. Between you and me? Genius. Buy a copy where you normally buy screenplays. Read interviews with Westlake here and here. If you enjoy them, then the chances are that you'll enjoy Westlake's fiction too. Here's my lament upon the death of another one of my favorite artist-entertainers, the filmmaker Robert Altman. Finally even the giants must fall. In this posting I wondered about what's likely to become of the reputation of "Ulysses."



posted by Michael at January 2, 2009


Much sadness here too at the passing of the Master. I haven't laughed so hard in public as I did when I read the back cover of one of his books that featured the character Harry K*** (wonder what the last name is? Well, think of Peter's fave thingy, and you've got the right three letters to follow the K. Oh, but remember to add an umlaut over the first *...Harry insists.) Westlake was a mad genius.

Minor quibble about immortality: "History will take care of it." I think there are probably hundreds of really worthwhile writers who are forgotten today and will remain so, and of whom, therefore, history did not take care. Immortality is as much a matter of luck as anything else, and going unread by anybody except critics and academics, or by students assigned the reading in class, is a type of oblivion as real as being out of print, unsold, unstocked in libraries, and never talked about by anybody at all.

Time devours us all. To appreciate Westlake, as you pointed out Michael, it's carpe diem all the way. It's like that with everything actually, now that I think about it. Ah well, he was the Master, he was mad, utterly mad, and he will be missed.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 8:05 AM

In a way, comparing a guy like Westlake to Joyce is sort of like saying that Michael Jordan wasn't as good as Bobby Fischer. The comparison is pretty meaningless, because they were playing different games, which for obscure reasons we insist in lumping together under the name "literature". Westlake played his game as well or better than anyone, and that's enough for me. R.I.P.

Posted by: Tschafer on January 2, 2009 11:10 AM

PatrickH -- Co-sign entirely. Let's keep it to ourselves, but I don't think that people a hundred years from now are going to be worrying themselves overmuch about the question, "Who was the greatest writer of 2008." They'll be too busy with their own lives, and too busy enjoying whatever they've got in the way of Facebook.

Tschafer -- That's a great comparison.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 2, 2009 12:17 PM

a hundred years from now...too busy enjoying whatever they've got in the way of Facebook.

A hundred years from now, "friending" somebody on their version of Facebook will involve a complete merging of consciousnesses into the ever-growing Teilhardian Noosphere. And everybody will have ten billion "friends". Twitter messages will be confined to 140 qubits long, and will therefore be able to express more thoughts in a single message than have been thought in all of history up till then.

Email in-baskets will still be full of spam, however.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 2, 2009 12:30 PM

Most of the sites I go to have commemorated Westlake with high praise, and some of these sites would never speak to one another.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 2, 2009 7:39 PM

He got a good obit in The Telegraph.

Posted by: dearieme on January 5, 2009 8:54 PM

Maybe colleges should offer a Reading for Pleasure course where students would have to read short selections introducing them to a bunch of highly different masters of enjoyable prose like P.G. Wodehouse and Hunter S. Thompson, so they can find out what they like. It would be kind of like how a good gym class tries to introduce you to some sports you would never try on your own.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 6, 2009 5:55 AM

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