Saturday, March 07, 2009

Book: Adios, Scheherazade, by Donald E. Westlake (1970)

I’ve wanted to read Adios, Scheherazade by the late, great Donald E. Westlake for years. I also assumed I never would; Scheherazade is no longer in print, and the few paperbacks in circulation can get pricey.

Then, a shadowy benefactor from the east made a copy available to me. And thus does my bucket list grow one entry shorter. (Thanks, Duane! Someday, somehow, I will return the favor.)

Ed Topliss ghostwrites sex novels for his friend Rod Cox. (Only Westlake would create dirty book writers named Topliss and Rod Cox – and force them to use a pseudonym.) Every month Ed grinds out a yarn with a title like Beachcomber Sin or Passion’s Prisoner. He’s done twenty-eight so far. Only twenty-nine ain’t coming so easy.

Scheherazade is what Ed writes while trying to make his deadline. Notes, false starts, complaints. Pages of self-loathing autobiography, which he then cannibalizes and tries to turn into titillating sleaze. Westlake not only explains how such books were produced during the pulp era – ten chapters, five thousand words each, a sex scene in every one – he actually writes one hewing to the very formula he deconstructs. On top of that, it’s hysterical. Sparkling turns of phrase cheek-by-jowl* with deliberately bad writing. Hell, even the page numbering is funny.

Then Westlake surprises once more by making the damn thing moving. As Ed spills his life onto paper, it soon becomes clear that writer’s block is not his biggest problem. He’s a young man trapped by important decisions made in haste, with no thought for the consequences. And he’s only now realizing he can’t write the ending he desperately wants.

It’s brilliant stuff, hilarious, sexy, gripping. One of the best I’ve read from a favorite author. This has been such a success that I’m extending this offer: if you have any rare books you’d like to send my way, you know where to reach me.

* I initially typed cheek-by-howl. A little too Gene Shalit, so I took it out. No need to thank me.