I didn’t fully appreciate Donald Westlake’s career until adulthood. For as long as I can remember, my father was the guy on the other side of a closed door making a manual Smith-Corona sound like a machine gun with the hiccups. So I knew he was a professional writer, as additionally evidenced by the signed copy of his latest book that I received every Christmas, without fail. In fact, he had new books in hand so often that it just seemed ordinary to me. Dad wrote, books appeared. What’s for dinner?
Of course, getting published at all is anything but ordinary. Donald Westlake had at least one (but usually more than one) novel published almost every year for more than half a century, including three novels published after he suddenly and silently departed from our company. That’s more than just a successful career. That’s an accomplishment matched or exceeded by only a very small number of human beings in literary history. Matched by even fewer when one considers that very little of Don’s work was poor by any standard. Even in his early “euphemism” novels (as he put it), one can find evidence of a careful practitioner diligently working to deliver interesting characters and situations amid the carnal churn.
As readers will discover in this collection of Don’s non-fiction writing, what I saw as the ordinary — another year, another book (or two or three) in print — was not viewed as ordinary by the man himself. He had doubts, he had dry spells, he had bills, and kids, and more bills, and more kids. He had no backup plan. If he didn’t write, and get paid for writing, there was nothing else. The next line in that sequence is blank. His vocation was, and was always to be, writing. If the variety of his published works didn’t make that apparent, this book surely will.
The Getaway Car (Chicago University Press) is more than a collection of nonfiction articles, reviews and sundries, and it is that. The selection of pieces artistically assembled by editor Levi Stahl, promotions director for University of Chicago Press, reveals a man of letters — literally and figuratively — who took the time to discover and appreciate those who had come before and occasionally nourish those who would come after, and with a brutally honest self-awareness that was neither proud nor maudlin.
The book includes a wonderful foreword from longtime friend and co-conspirator, Lawrence Block, a fantastic essay on living with Don and his many pseudonymous selves from Abby Adams Westlake, admiring quotes on the back cover from editor/publisher Chalres Ardai (Hard Case Crime) and authors David Morell (First Blood) and Judith Flanders (The Invention of Murder), and another beautifully moody cover by artist Darwyn Cooke (Richard Stark’s Parker graphic novels).
Active champions of the Donald Westlake fan base are also evident. Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus & Do the Math) was in at the start, assisting Levi Stahl in the painstaking task of deciphering Don’s filing system to find the choice nuggets. Levi also acknowledges the indispensable assistance of Trent Reynolds, curator of the loving and comprehensive Violent World of Parker website, and Nick Jones of the wide-ranging love affair that is the Existential Ennui website. A preview of the book’s table of contents is cross-posted on both sites, here and here.
The Getaway Car is a good read for anyone who appreciates good writing, an important read for anyone who enjoys writers on writing, and a must read for Westlake fans eager to know more about the men within the man behind the curtain. Special thanks to Levi Stahl for a great idea, well thought and well executed.
The Getaway Car Links and Reviews:
Westlake Lives! Tasty morsels from the late master’s larder by Susan Vass (The Weekly Standard)
Assorted selections from a beloved crime writer (Kirkus Reviews)
Review by someone who goes by the name “Fred Fitch” (The Westlake Review)
Stark Truths by David Cairns (Shadowplay)