Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book: Memory, by Donald E. Westlake (2010)

Disquieting is not a word likely to turn up in blurbs. But it’s an appropriate one to describe Memory, in all probability the final novel from Donald E. Westlake and the first book I’ve read in eons that literally haunted my dreams.

The story behind Memory is fascinating; Westlake wrote it in the early 1960s but because it was, in the words of his friend Lawrence Block, “a lengthy serious existential novel by an unknown writer,” it failed to find a publisher. Block, one of the only people to have read the manuscript, recalled it in the wake of Westlake’s death in December 2008 and brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime. Its appearance in print only burnishes Westlake’s reputation.

Actor Paul Cole is on the road with a play and sleeping with another man’s wife when the other man attacks him. As a result, Cole’s memory is damaged. His mind becomes a sieve, with bits and pieces of his self catching briefly before sluicing through.

Westlake’s crisply efficient writing is in evidence. X-rays of Cole’s skull are “photographs of the city in which he used to live and at the gates of which he was now camped.” Even more effective is the book’s demonically circular structure. Cole learns things only to forget them. Each toehold he finds on the long slope down only makes the next fall that much more painful. Westlake blindsides you at the start of one chapter with the blunt revelation that Cole has lost a critical item. As I read Cole’s emotions became my own: panic, despair, fatalistic acceptance.

Far more disturbing is what Memory suggests about life. Are we the sum of our experiences – or simply the product of our routines? The advice Cole receives from one man about the cumulative effect of one’s decisions has the feel of a secret never meant to be uttered.

Few novels conjure up such a state of pervasive dread, or bring a character to a place where he seems so hopelessly doomed. All without a shot being fired, without anyone being killed. This is the noir nightmare, plain and simple. I read it in a white heat for two reasons: to find out what happened next, and to put myself out of my misery.

For the record, that was intended as an endorsement.