Truth In Fiction: Remembering Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

Writer Donald Westlake, seen n 2002, died New Year's Eve. Scott Gries/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Gries/Getty Images

Happy New Year to you all.

I'd planned on my first entry of the new year being something light and easy. More Crappy iPhone Pix of Cool Stuff. But I would be very, very remiss in not noting the passing of writer Donald Westlake.

The very first interview I did for NPR, in fact before I was even working for NPR in any official capacity, was with Westlake. One of the nuggets he imparted on me was that he always "regretted" calling his seminal anti-hero Parker. It precluded him from including in any of the Parker novels the simple sentence "Parker parked the car."

Of course, nothing kept Westlake — or Richard Stark, his most famous of several nom de plumes — from being one of America's best authors of hard-boiled fiction. What made Westlake's writing so compelling was his devotion to the consistency of human nature. That is, he was more concerned with his characters ultimately being true to themselves than being likeable. ("Likeability" is one of the most overused reductions of editors and executives in entertainment.)

What made Westlake great was his ability to mine the emotions of his characters as they performed hard acts.

One of my favorite Westlake books is The Ax. It's the story of Burke Devore, a middle-aged, middle-class husband and father who gets "the ax" from his job, and the lengths he will go to to get a new one. Few writers could make the reprehensible actions of a protagonist so emotionally resonant. But Devore's story is an allegory for the fears of every family man. As such, whether we like his actions or not, we understand them and are with Devore every step of the way. And Westlake took Devore all the way.

But Westlake knew that he could deliver on a story without having to sell out his character in the end. That gave his writing a palpable confidence — a literary muscularity that to me is missing from much of modern American literature.

All the more so with the passing of Mr. Westlake.

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