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Memory Lane (Closed Until Further Notice)


Some months ago, my heart lifted when I walked into my local independent bookstore (Spectator Books in Oakland) to find Memory (Hard Case Crime; $7.99) by the late Donald Westlake piled high among the new arrivals. I had liked his final novel, Get Real, not too terribly much, so I was grateful for this surprise last call to what would be a fine finish to a great career. (You can read my tribute to Westlake here).

Westlake wrote Memory in the 1960s. It was his first—and seemingly only—attempt at a mainstream literary novel, and while it really is a work apart from Westlake’s comic novels, it echoes the same tough bleak vision that informed most of the Richard Stark novels and The Ax, but with a difference that belies the lurid ‘50s-style cover.

It's truly like nothing else Westlake ever wrote. Here, the only real crime between these pages takes place when young up-and-coming New York actor Paul Cole, on a nationwide tour with a play entitled (ironically) My Soul to Keep, is beaten senseless after he’s caught in flagrante with the wife of another man.

The crimes that follow are the more banal, human ones and they’re all committed against Paul, who awakens later in the hospital to learn that his role in the show has been filled and the production has abandoned him in a small Midwest town. This being the 1960s, adultery is still considered a crime in itself and so Paul’s assailant goes unpunished while local law enforcement curtly informs Paul he’s not welcome around anymore either.

Even worse, as becomes clear to both Paul and the reader, the assault has seriously damaged his long-term memory.  Indeed, his soul is no longer his to keep. He becomes a stranger to everyone, most of all to himself. As time moves on, his old identity is rapidly forgotten, and with it, his very sense of self. And so he becomes an orphan. Try as he might to unearth his old self, Paul will spend the rest of the novel—and his maybe his life—trapped in a frail bubble of dim awareness, floating through unfathomable darkness and eternal frustration.

As in Memento, the slick and icy 2000 film thriller about a man in a similar situation, Paul resorts to handwritten notes and other eccentric markers to remind himself of the simplest tasks, even to go to the menial job he briefly takes at a tannery in another small town. He eventually gropes his way back to his home in New York in the hope that seeing old haunts and old friends will reignite both his memory and his old life. But everything remains damp coals.

For all its ingenuity, the film Memento uses memory loss as a plot device for clever thriller gamesmanship. Memory the novel has no conventional thriller plot at all. The suspense arises because we can only see things as Paul sees them, and that’s not much at all. The reader gropes alongside in the dark cave of a new and unwanted life, not knowing will happen to Paul from one moment to the next, as everything that once gave his life meaning has been rendered meaningless and threatening, leaving him sunk in the perpetual grip of gnawing dread and ever-lurking depression. Paul Cole’s chronic uncertainty and anxiety becomes the readers’.

The way other characters pop up gives the book the feel of a Kafkaesque terror tale (even Paul’s assailant reappears in the oddest way; pay attention, or you’ll miss him). I read Memory with increasing unease, deepening sadness and even a sense of  “there but for the grace of God.” Who would any of us be if we lost our ability to remember?

Memory is an unusually heavy but worthwhile reading experience.

Though admired by those to whom Westlake first showed the manuscript of Memory, his agent during the 1960s rejected it as, apparently, too “literary” and out of character for its author, already known for his comic crime capers and supremely razor-sharp, hard-boiled fiction. Even though Westlake was writing under a profusion of pseudonyms, there  seemed to be no nom de plume for this one.  And so this unique novel all but disappeared into its own memory hole for over 40 years, until, thanks to the efforts of Westlake friend and colleague Lawrence Block and Westlake’s widow Abby, Memory can now be remembered again, as it deserves to be.    The novel's posthumous roots may explain why the prose feels bumpy in places.  Maybe because the mansucript didn’t make it past its author’s agent on the first try, it never received the final gleam that Westlake is celebrated for. However, it could be said that this very roughness helps convey Paul Cole’s lonely bumpy ride to nowhere. (Photo by author)
  Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is scheduled to be released this fall by Ambler House. His comic screenplay Whackers can be found at Smashwords.com. More of his essays can be found at The Red Room Web site for Writers and he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter, where he doesn't refer to himself in the third person either. (Re-edited 7/14/10)