Thursday, March 22, 2007

Just Read: Adios, Scheherazade by Donald E. Westlake

I finished reading this on Tuesday, and this post has been growing ever since. But I think I'm done now, so I'll just set it free.

There are (as far as I know) two important novels about writing sex books in the '60s; this is one, and the other is Lawrence Block's Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, which I read a few years back when it came back into print briefly. The two books have vast differences in tone: Ronald Rabbit is a joyful book with a lot of actual sex in the narrative, while Adios is a sad, melancholy novel where all the sex is imagined or remembered. Both books do feature manic one-more-damn-thing plotting, in homage to those crappy sex novels (all hacked out at speed in pure first draft, from all accounts).

I'm glad that I finally found and read Adios (it has that inimitable Westlake energy and voice, and there's only a few of the books he wrote under his own name that I haven't read yet), but Ronald Rabbit is a much more exciting (in several senses of the word) book, and the one I liked better. (I guess I should also mention Hal Dresner's The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books, but I didn't think it was all that good.)

The $64,000 question about Adios is how autobiographical it is; some details match up to Westlake's own life (as far as I know them), but some don't. According to an article in an electronic fanzine ("Nobody Can Write This Shit Forever" by Earl Kemp), Westlake himself wrote twenty-eight "sex books" as by Alan Marshall (a house name), and the narrator of Adios also wrote twenty-eight books (and is horribly blocked on writing the twenty-ninth). Westlake attended a small college in upstate New York, like the protagonist of Adios. Westlake was married three times (most recently in 1979); Adios's hero is married with one child as the book opens in 1967. I suspect the two other writer characters are veiled versions of other real-world writers Westlake knew; one of them may even be a version of Block.

On the other hand, Adios's Ed Topliss is a complete failure at every other kind of writing but sex books, while Westlake had, in 1967, already started the Parker novels (as Richard Stark), written a number of pseudonymous thrillers, started the "Mitch Tobin" series as Tucker Coe, and begun the humorous crime novels for which he's now best known. (But that could be one part dramatic license and one part how Westlake felt about churning out all of those bad formulaic soft-porn books.)

The real question, though, is whether it was psychologically meant as a kind of autobiographic catharsis. And it certainly feels that way; there's real emotional force behind Ed Topliss's plight. (It reminds me a bit of Barry Malzberg's mid-'70s meta-science fiction novels like Galaxies, as a portrait of a writer trapped by his work and yearning to break free of himself.)

The other question is why Adios is so rare and has never been reprinted -- it had hardcover and one mass-market paperback editions in 1970 and 1971 (US and UK), and a couple of foreign publications, and then nothing at all for the last 35 years. Westlake's books of the same era under his own name tend to be a bit more common (and cheaper), and all of those have also been reprinted recently (mostly by Warner in the '90s). The "Parker" novel, as by Richard Stark, are pretty expensive, too -- especially the ones that haven't been reprinted, which is too many of them. (I really like those books, but I'm not a collector, so I don't want to spend thirty or so a pop to read a bunch of forty-year-old paperbacks, no matter how much I'll like the books themselves.) Either Westlake hasn't wanted it to be reprinted (which I can certainly see) or no publisher has particularly wanted to reprint it (which I can also see). It's probably some combination of the two.

Adios itself is what Ed types as he's trying to write that twenty-ninth novel; most of it is him narrating his life at the time, as things get worse and worse. But, because it is the random typings of a blocked writer, there's a lot of digressions, mostly about the theory and practice of writing sex books. Should I talk about the plot? There really isn't a hell of a lot of plot; Ed tries to write a sex book, first getting nowhere at all and then spinning fantasies and his own life's events into pieces of plots, which then don't go much of anywhere, either. It's a short book (176 mass-market paperback pages in the edition I got), and most of the external action (no, not that kind of "action" -- get Ronald Rabbit for that) takes place in the last thirty pages. The events of the first half of the book are pretty much "Ed sits down to write each day for several days, and can't get a novel started." But it's a lot more interesting than I'm making it sound...

I suspect Westlake wrote this to purge himself of the sex-novel world and burn his bridges. (He's a bit of a bridge-burner, or was at the time: he wrote a semi-famous kiss-off letter to the SF fanzine Xero when he quit writing SF in the early '60s -- it's in the recent The Best of Xero.) And I wonder if he actually wrote Adios in 1967 (when it is set), possibly nearly as fast as Ed Topliss supposedly lived and typed it, but then couldn't get it published until 1970. (On the other hand, writing a book and having it published three years later isn't horribly delayed, for publishing...)

All in all, I'm not sure it was worth the thirty-two bucks and change I spent on it, but I can check one more book off the long Westlake list, and maybe I'll re-read it some day. (Or, as the pessimist in me insists, maybe it will be republished in about a year as a nice trade paperback.) And, if anyone out there is interested in the '50s and '60s sex-book business, this is one of major books on the subject.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it was worth the thirty-two bucks and change I spent on it

And you didn't even get the good cover, where the "o" in "Adios" has a nipple.

Steve said...

Gosh, I've not thought of that book in decades - we had it in our school library (this'd have been about 1975) in amongst his comic crime novels...

khatru1339 said...

Sorry you didn't like it as much as I did; I'd have found it worth $32. (I paid cover price for the paperback when it came out.)

I also paid cover price for Comfort Station which he wrote as by J. Morgan Cunningham, but alas my copy got away from me soon thereafter. The last copy I saw went for $100, and that was years ago.

That one was fun in a stupid way, but in no way worth $32 -- not that you could find it that cheaply any more.

Jeff Smith

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