Memory

By Donald E. Westlake

Hard Case Crime. 336 pp. $7.99 paperback

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Reviewed by Edward Champion


The celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson famously derided the detective story as a form that existed only "to see the problem worked out." The French critic Roland Barthes was slightly less derisive, seeing a mystery as a facile narrative paradox with "a truth to be deciphered."

These reductionist takes presumptuously assumed that mysteries served only as plot-oriented puzzles, and that thematic truths and behavioral insight were taking a busman's holiday within an allegedly inferior form.

But a magnificent novel from mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, collecting dust in a drawer for four decades until an unexpected excavation just after his death on Dec. 31, 2008, demonstrates that his talent clearly extended into the literary.

Memory, which tells the tale of a solitary outcast ensnared by hostile societal forces, aligns itself with Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground with its taut and fatalistic narrative.

The protagonist, Paul Cole, is a traveling actor felled by an amnesia-inducing blow in a small Midwestern town, the violence emerging after Cole has slept with another man's wife.

Most of Cole's meager earnings are handed over to the hospital and he is soon forced to leave town. But his plans to go back to New York, where he hopes the return of his identity awaits him, are hindered by his increasing failure to remember details and by his financial limitations, which confine him to a small town.

Westlake is careful to note Cole's sketchy grasp of this reality. He describes one section of the town as looking "like part of the construction around a model train layout." Later, the topographical area that Cole recognizes is "a B-movie he had once sat through fifteen years earlier."

When Cole gets a job at a tannery, hoping to save up enough cash for a one-way ticket back home, Westlake inserts a map with specific instructions. Cole increasingly becomes a working-class organization man, finding a generic yet somewhat idyllic life renting a room from a family, whose paterfamilias informs Cole that "he'd still be pretty much where I am and who I am," no matter whom he ended up marrying.

This moribund irony of settling for something smaller, emerging while Cole continues his efforts to move back to New York, is further complicated by his inability to get help from the Catholic Church, the police, and his lascivious manager.

Cole's former occupation as an actor is particularly fitting, considering that his sad adventures have him adopting new roles. That Cole is victimized by harsh bureaucratic forces (various unemployment offices fail to sympathize with his deteriorating condition and refuse to front him the money he needs to survive) suggests that his struggle won't be redeemed by the very framework designed to protect him.

And because Cole's memory loss is related to his adulterous sin, the reader is constantly considering whether this "punishment" suits the "crime." When Cole starts laboring at the tannery, a small-time loan shark advances him money on his future paychecks, but exacts high interest. And Cole can't quite remember the details of the arrangement.

So, if Cole has no real memory of the "crime," does he deserve to be exploited like this?

Later in the book, Cole is asked to participate in an improvisational theater exercise, where a con man of an altogether different kind attempts to gauge what remains of Cole's thespian talent. In this brutal moment, Cole is asked to "perform" in an illusory jail cell, expected to "feel the character" of a condemned man.

The reader not only sympathizes with Cole's humiliation (Cole can, of course, feel the tangible condemnation quite well), but is forced to contend with invisible barriers staving off the human need to confront hard realities.

These serious thematic concerns transform Memory into an unexpected masterpiece emerging from a pulp framework. And it suggests a question: If Westlake had the chops to write this well, then are the "problems worked out" within his mysteries worth revisiting?

Indeed, they are. Westlake's 1997 novel, The Ax, married a desperate homicidal impulse to a downsized man trapped in a fruitless job search. In this book, Westlake was equally careful to note "transitional technology," described as "the cumbersome old way people used to do things before they got to the easy sensible way they do things now."

Memory isn't just a tour de force that shows a master at the top of his game. It is an invitation to reconsider an "inferior" genre, beckoning us to find unexpected truths within the seemingly conventional.

It's also very good pulp.

Edward Champion (ed@edrants.com) is a writer in New York and the proprietor of the Bat Segundo Show (www.batsegundo.com), a cultural podcast.