Tuesday, November 14, 2017

51. Memory by Donald E. Westlake

This book set up expectations that I was worried were not going to be fulfilled but then when they weren't, Westlake had taken it into such an unexpected direction that I found profound and though not narratively satisfying, totally enriching.

It starts off right away with a dude in bed with another man's wife and the husband barging in.  The husband swings a chair at the dude and then the dude is in a hospital bed.  Once again, I am glad that I had zero knowledge other than the front cover (which is literally the action that takes place not just in the first page but the second paragraph, so definitely no spoilers).  Somehow the blow has damaged the memory of the protagonist, Paul Cole.  He has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember who he was but also has trouble continuing to remember new things.  We learn from the cop who found him that he was an actor with a touring stage play.  The tour paid his wages and went on without him (the show must go on). The cop has a strong moral position on fidelity and rousts Cole out of town. Cole has barely any money after the hospital bill, can't remember who he was beyond the ID in his wallet and has only some instinct urging him to go to New York, which has the address on his driver's license. He takes a bus as far as he can afford and ends up in some small, poor town called Jeffords.  Here it becomes a question of survival for this guy, who has a few dollars and no memory. 

I will stop at the storyline here, except to say that it begins with a lot of classic elements of Westlake's early works.  It takes place in the early 60s.  There is an expertly depicted small town.  Some menacing characters, including a very low-level loan shark at a tannery and a very nasty police detective.  Because of these elements (well crafted as usual with Westlake, god he is good), I thought we were going in one place.  That place being a crime thriller with the dude's memory as the suspense.  It doesn't go there, but instead explores in a pretty interesting way ideas of identity as well as subtly critiquing the cosmpolitan smugness towards what we know today as flyover states.  It's pretty sad and dark but also so interesting and compelling (and as always written so straightforwardly) that you keep turning the pages. It was copywrite 2010 but I wonder when Westlake actually wrote it.  The theme and sophistication made me think that it was indeed one of his later books.

This isn't the book that Hard Case Crime sells you on the cover and blurb, but it is a pretty damn good book. 

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