Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008
I've been remiss. Various end-of-2008, beginning-of-2009 things kept me away from blogging for the last couple weeks, not to mention Dec. 31's long goodbye at The Star-Ledger.
I did miss out on the chance to post about Donald E. Westlake, who died New Year's Eve and whom readers of this blog know as a writer I admired greatly, particularly in his incarnation as "Richard Stark," creator of the single-named - and single-minded - professional thief known as Parker. I've written a lot about Westlake/Stark in the past, and last year chose his 1967 novel THE RARE COIN SCORE as my pick for one of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays. I also used a passage from his BUTCHER'S MOON as a Random Readings selection, and had some related thoughts about PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP, the much-improved director's cut of the Mel Gibson film adapted from the first Stark novel, 1962's THE HUNTER.
There have been plenty of Westlake tributes since his death, almost all of them mentioning what a gracious and charming guy he was, in addition to being a phenomenally talented and prolific (more than 100 books) writer. I certainly found that be true when I interviewed him by phone in 1986 for The Asbury Park Press, on the release of his novel GOOD BEHAVIOR, the sixth in his comic series about bumbling crook John Dortmunder. For me, the interview was especially memorable in that, after spending an entertaining hour and a half on the phone with Westlake, I discovered that, just the day before, the paper had upgraded to a computerized phone system that blocked standard recording methods. What I actually had on tape was 90 minutes of electronic buzz. In a panic, I called him back the next day - he'd given me his home number - and he very generously submitted to another session, to fill in the gaps of what I couldn't remember.
GOOD BEHAVIOR began with the cryptic dedication "In Memoriam: P., 1961-73." In the interview, Westlake told me the "P" stood for Parker, and that since the novel used an idea he'd once planned for a Stark book, he was acknowledging there weren't going to be any more. "The character just kind of died for me," he told me.
Of course, Parker did return, in 1997's COMEBACK, and kept coming back, most recently in last year's DIRTY MONEY. He was a marginally kinder, gentler Parker by then, but still at heart the same relentless, remorseless professional. Of those later books, I think 2002's BREAKOUT and 2006's ASK THE PARROT both stand out as among the best in the series.
I met Westlake in person only once, at an ABA convention in Las Vegas in 1990 with James Ellroy, and I certainly can't claim to have known him. But his work - the majority of which I consumed in my most impressionable years - will be with me forever. For a brief period in the late '90s, he and I shared the same agent, the legendary Knox Burger, who, while an editor at Fawcett Gold Medal in the 1960s, had worked on the Parker books. While reading a draft of my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, Burger called me out of the blue to criticize my tendency to write overly terse, in a manner he found inappropriate for the story. "You're trying to write like Richard Stark," he told me. "Don't!"
But who could, even if they wanted to? Westlake and Stark were one of a kind. We'll never see their like again.