Review

Memory

by Donald E. Westlake

MEMORY is one of the best books of 2010, despite the fact that
it was first written almost half a century ago and has never been
published before. It is the final book by the late great Donald E.
Westlake, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2008. And as sad
as that last sentence is for those of us who loved his work, MEMORY
might just stand among the best novels of his brilliant career. It
is pure noir writing at its best. Nobody knows exactly when
Westlake wrote it, but it lay almost forgotten among his papers for
decades.

Lawrence Block, Westlake’s friend and fellow mystery
author, picks up the tale: “Don's agent tried his damnedest
to sell it back in the day. But it was a long serious novel by a
young unknown, and no end of publishers thought the world of it but
felt they couldn't publish it successfully. Then some years later
--- early 80's, maybe --- the agent in question said he probably
could sell MEMORY now, and Don decided its time had passed, that it
was too dated. I thought of it when I was writing a memorial piece
for Mystery Writers of America and [Westlake’s wife] Abby,
who'd never heard of it, came across a battered carbon copy shortly
thereafter.” Block brought the manuscript to Charles Ardai,
founder and editor of Hard Case Crime Books, and MEMORY had finally
found its home. “I'd like to think Don would be glad it's
finally getting into print,” Block says, “but for all I
know he'd hate the idea.”

MEMORY is a masterpiece, a book that grabs you on the first page
and does not let go. Westlake is remembered for the comic caper
novels involving the hapless burglar John Dortmunder. But he could
write hard-boiled noir with the all-time greats of that genre, as
he proved in books like THE AX or the great series of novels
involving the immoral Parker, which he wrote under the pseudonym
Richard Stark. MEMORY reaches beyond noir, if possible, to the
existential work of writers like Kafka. It asks the questions: What
if you lost who you are almost completely? What if you lost not
just your memory, but every part of the life you once held dear?
Even worse, we all operate under the comforting assumption that we
have a safety net of family, friends and associates to love and
protect us always. But do we? What if that is nothing more than an
illusion?

The novel begins solemnly: “After the show, they went back
to the hotel room, and to bed, for the seventeenth time in three
weeks.” The "they" in question is Paul Cole, a 26-year-old
actor in a road company show, and although we never learn his
partner’s name, he does inform us that she is married. In the
second paragraph, their interlude is interrupted by the
woman’s husband, who proceeds to hit Cole over the head with
a chair. He wakes up 56 hours later in a hospital. A nurse tells
him, “And now you are awake again, and just as fine as
new.”

Not quite. Cole’s descent into the darkness has just
begun. In noir, once the descent begins, the protagonist, no matter
how innocent or guilty, is trapped and his destiny sealed. All we
the audience can do is watch him twist and struggle against his
fate. Cole keeps trying to remember what happened before the attack
to no avail: “The fog was too persistent, it was more like
syrup poured into his head, sticking to everything, obscuring all
the outlines, like the paint muffling the lines of the moldings in
the room, but more softly and cloyingly.”

He gets, for lack of a better term, the bum’s rush out of
the hospital after just 13 days. And this is clearly not a medical
community that believes in socialized medicine since the
not-so-kindly doctor relieves him of all but $16.84 of his last
acting check to pay for his hospital bill, his troupe having long
since moved on to the next town. What’s worse, a local cop
has it in for him and treats him like he committed the crime of the
century. The cop deposits him at the bus station, despite the fact
that Cole does not have enough money for a ticket home to New York
City. He is alone to face his destiny.

So he ends up in a nearby town, working in a tannery, trying to
remember and save enough money to get home. Thirty years before it
was done in the 2000 movie Memento, Westlake has Cole
obsessively writing notes to himself and plastering them on the
walls of his room to remember the simplest things, like when to go
to work. Westlake writes, “When he looked at his wrist, after
putting the pen and pad away, he had a sudden feeling of dread,
because his watch was gone. It was dread for more than the loss of
a watch; he could lose everything, be reduced to nothingness, and
he was helpless.” That is noir.

But he keeps fighting, trying to recover and remember.
Eventually, he gets back to New York, but rather than salvation, it
brings him to an entirely new circle of hell. He gets glimpses from
friends and acquaintances of his old life, and still his memory
won’t clear. He plays his old records but doesn’t even
like the music and wonders about the man who once did. People he
once knew and loved look at him with “pity, impatience and
disgust.” A former teacher tells him, “You were sure of
yourself, proud of yourself.” He tries to act again but
can’t. He is haunted at night by strange dreams and in the
day by a black depression. His girlfriend rejects him and his agent
dumps him. Westlake writes, “It was all going, all crumbling
away like an island being swallowed by the sea, eroding like the
river banks in the spring flood.”

MEMORY builds and builds and keeps us guessing until the final
page. We come to like Paul Cole and root for him as we follow him
down. This is not just a great thriller; it’s a great novel.
Those of us who have loved Westlake’s books over the years
owe a debt of gratitude to Lawrence Block for remembering this work
and Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime for publishing it. Hard Case
proves yet again why it is the most invaluable and creative
publishing house in the United States today. America’s rich
literary history needs books like this one to be in print.

MEMORY is an unforgettable final gift from one of
America’s greatest writers. Enjoy it. And wonder perhaps
about the darkness that lurks just outside the self-imagined halo
of our everyday lives.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 7, 2011

Memory
by Donald E. Westlake

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Mass Market Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Leisure Books
  • ISBN-10: 0843963751
  • ISBN-13: 9780843963755