Monday, November 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #319: The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake

I've toyed with the idea of making a metric of the speed to non-fiction collection as an indicator of the importance of a novelist. But I've never been precisely sure what I'd be measuring there, which is a big sticking point. For instance, I can say that Terry Pratchett got a non-fiction collection this year (43 years after his first novel, but definitely pre-decease, which is a major indicator of importance) but that Jonathan Franzen got a collection in 2002, only fourteen years after his first novel. Now, does that say that literary novelists should be handicapped about thirty years compared to commercial novelists? Clearly, we need a lot more data points, and I eagerly await the foundation that will pay me a substantial stipend to really dig into this fascinating phenomenon.

 This is bubbling up in my brain, of course, because I just read The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake. It's a miscellaneous non-fiction collection, and it fits the type-pattern of the species very well: from a small/academic press (U. Chicago), published a few years after the author's death (six, in this case), and presenting itself as the cream of a slightly larger pile that will likely never be published in book form. Most reasonably popular novelists get a book like this -- edited by their widows, their biggest fan, their biggest fan with access to a publisher, the archivist at the place their papers reside, or just some guy who really wanted the book to exist. All of those folks are amateurs, generally: the miscellaneous posthumous non-fiction collection is nobody's job, just something that happens because one person really thinks it needs to.

In this case, that person is editor Levi Stahl, the promotions director of the University of Chicago Press -- placing him as Type Three -- who ran through Westlake's papers (held, not in Chicago, but at the Boston University Libraries) and pulled out a large sampling: not quite the Complete Nonfictional Westlake, but all of the good stuff as Stahl saw it. Somewhere along the way, Stahl convinced his employer this would be a good thing to do, and then convinced the Westlake estate of the same thing, so now we have a book.

The Getaway Car is a miscellany, collecting the bits of prose a working writer throws off during a fifty-year career: letters, introductions to new editions of his own work, introductions to anthologies of other work, appreciations of his favorite writers, appreciations of his friends, the odd speech or two, a couple of interviews, a round-robin with his pseudonyms, a recipe, one list, several finished-looking but unpublished essays, and a fragmentary autobiography. (I suspect every single writer of at least moderate fame tinkers with an autobio sometime in his seventies -- earlier, if he's particularly vain.)

Westlake was a thoughtful and amusing writer, with many moods and styles, so this is a varied and interesting collection -- the one thing that was consistent about all of Westlake's names and genres was a deep interest in people, their schemes, and how they could go wrong. It's obviously not of interest to anyone who isn't already a Westlake fan, but that's the same for any book like this. And Westlake is two of the best mystery writers of the twentieth century: as himself for comic crime thrillers like the Dortmunder books and God Save the Mark and as Richard Stark for the Parker novels. Maybe three, actually: there's also the darker, blackly humorous Westlake books like Kahawa and The Ax and Humans. Anyway, he's worth seeking out, if you haven't read him before -- see my Starktober series for his second self or pick up any Dortmunder book (I'm partial to Drowned Hopes, myself) for the first.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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