“Passion, plus craft”: Donald E. Westlake, The Getaway Car

getawaycarI’m glad I didn’t take Levi Stahl’s advice. If I had, I would have walked away from The Getaway Car, which is “the first book by Donald E. Westlake [I’ve] ever held in [my] hands.” Not that it seems like bad advice to get my hands on some of Westlake’s actual novels — indeed, reading The Getaway Car has made me quite enthusiastic about doing that! But a book in the hand is worth many dozens in the store (even if, as turns out not to be the case, my local bookstores had any Westlake on their shelves) or at the library (especially since my local branch is currently closed). So I blithely disregarded the advice to “stop right here” and read on.

And what a lot of fun I had! The Getaway Car is an anthology of Westlake’s miscellaneous nonfiction, and it is indeed miscellaneous: autobiographical fragments, letters, reviews, introductions (he wrote a lot of those). To me, as someone without his novels as a frame of reference or a set of touchstones, what struck me most was what a likable guy he seems to have been: even in what is the longest and probably the most conspicuously “expert” piece in the collection, his essay on “The Hardboiled Dicks” (originally a lecture at the Smithsonian), there’s not the slightest hint of pretension. Westlake’s letter to Howard Gotlieb of the Boston University Libraries, in response to a request to donate his papers, struck me as exemplary of his no-nonsense perspective on his own work. In the letter he expresses his “astonishment” that anyone would want to collect his papers, because he sees himself as a “writer,” not an “author”:

A writer, in my personal lexicon, is a commercial wordsmith, an active professional, a (if the word can be stripped of overtones) hack. An author, on the other hand, is an institution, a brand name, a reputation. John D. MacDonald is a writer. Saul Bellow began as a writer but has become an institution, an author. Arthur Miller has never been anything but an author. John Steinbeck, having resisted authordom, is a writer with an honorary author’s membership card.

 As for himself,

I’m a writer, with only the teeniest and most secret and ephemeral urgings towards authorhood. . . . all of the book-length writing I’ve done under my own name has been exclusively in a category of strictly entertainment writing, in which higher aspirations, even if they existed, are irrelevant.

There’s a cheerful pragmatism in this that’s refreshing in this era of heated (if largely manufactured) debates about “literary vs. genre fiction” — which is not to say that his comfortable assumption that there really are two kinds of writing, or at least two ways of approaching your writing, isn’t in its own way a potentially provocative contribution to just these debates.

Being a “hack” on his terms, though, certainly doesn’t mean being sloppy or careless. “In my opinion,” he says (or, at any rate, one of his personae says, in an entertaining “roundtable discussion” among them that he wrote up for Murder Ink) “the best writers are always people who don’t care about anything except telling you what’s in their heads, without boring you. Passion, plus craft.” A letter to David Ramus about the manuscript of that author’s first novel shows passion about craft:

Now I also think you need to do a little tweaking of story procedure, how you unfold it for us. Page 52 was way too late to introduce a flashback and then let the flashback wander. You say you’re going to tell us about the first time Ben met Dana, and then you tell us a bunch of other stuff for eight pages. I am very impatient during all of this. I don’t mind leaving prison to go to court, but if I’m leaving court, by this point in the story I want to get back to prison. . . .

Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no. He just happens to be standing here when somebody over there says the stuff he needed to know. No. But if Ben wanted to know what was going on, and felt it was important, he could put himself at risk to deliberately eavesdrop. Almost get caught.

Don’t you feel you can trust a writer who has such a clear grasp of how the elements of fiction actually work? And then there’s his very endearing defense of the semicolon (my pet punctuation mark too):

I do want to rise to say a word or two for the semicolon. . . . My own rhythms tend to be long ones [mine too!], and I grant you that as a result I tend to over-use the semicolon, but some of them are right, and in most instances (in this book and others) the copyeditor’s alternative is less correct. . . .Why does everybody hate the poor semicolon? It’s nice; it’s useful; it’s even rather pretty.

 Equally endearing in its own way is that he has just the same tone when discussing the afterlife as when discussing plot points or punctuation:

Therefore, if I am to assume life after death, and if I am to further assume that the me over there would still be recognizably me, then I would like to meet O. Henry, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett, sit down with a bottle of beer — I won’t be on a diet then — and talk shop for a century or two.

The Getaway Car itself is full of “shop talk,” all of it brisk and opinionated without being overbearing. I took a special interest in the overview of the genre in his introduction to the anthology Murderous Schemes, because I’m always testing and refining the introductory framing lectures for my detective fiction course. (I think I got an exam copy of Murderous Schemes once, in fact, and ended up rejecting it as a course text because its taxonomy was a bit too different from the one I have settled on, though our generalizations converge easily enough.) And I paid special attention to his essay on hard-boiled detection, which I found useful as well as entertaining — and also thought-provoking. Talking about ways in which a genre can become exhausted if its form doesn’t undergo some kind of renewal, for instance, he holds out the ‘gothic romance’ as an example:

Several years ago [his essay is from 1982] there was a paperback fad for gothic romance, and an editor in the field told me one day about a book he was publishing — one of the four gothics from his house that month — that he was truly excited about because it was a bold breakthrough. “The girl isn’t a governess,” he said. “She’s the cook!”

There was no strength in those gothic romances beyond the ritual, so they soon withered and died. The Western had strength, and survived, and endured, and from time to time the very ritual itself leads to art.

Westlake comes across as a bit of a man’s man in these pieces (his final word on the afterlife is that, shop talk done, he’d “go off with Robert Benchley and look for girls”); if he ran with a different crowd, I wonder if he’d be so quick to see gothic romance as a form that had withered and died. Similarly, he ends the piece reflecting that the private eye novel has itself withered:

The brevity of the early Black Mask days is long gone. The relevance of those days is gone. The vitality of novelty is gone. The reflection of an underlying truth is gone. I’m not really sure what’s left.

Except the books and stories that started it all. Hammett reads as smoothly and honestly as he ever did. His contemporaries are just as lively, and not very much dated. Chandler retains his strength and his complexity. . . .

“The private eye novel may have become very strait-jacketed by ritual, but it’s certainly not dead,” he concludes. I wonder if he looked around and noticed that it was getting new life at that very moment from women writers like Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. They brought a new vitality to the form because their perspective on it was novel, their underlying truth a somewhat different one. If Westlake were still around, I can imagine that it would be fun to sit down with a bottle of beer and talk this over with him.

Besides making me think Westlake is a guy I’d like to have met, The Getaway Car definitely made me think I’d like to read at least some of his books (he wrote an awful lot of them!) — I’m open to suggestions about where I should start. It also reminded me that I have yet to read any Ross Macdonald or any Rex Stout. I hadn’t heard of Peter Rabe before reading Westlake’s essay, but he made me curious (“Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of”). His “Ten Most Wanted” list is mostly books I haven’t read or hadn’t heard of, in fact, which is a bit discouraging considering how much time I spend reading, reading about, or talking about crime fiction. Also, why have I never read Thurber’s “The Man Who Knew Too Little”? I start my class every year now with “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” but a little more Thurber can only be a good thing.

Just what I needed: more books to read! I’m glad I already read The Getaway Car, though, even if by some lights I should have deferred it. Many thanks to its editor Levi Stahl for my copy of it: congratulations on turning your obvious enthusiasm into something tangible that you can share with the rest of us.