Friday, January 02, 2009

RIP Parker and Dortmunder

Just two weeks ago, I wrote
the first sentence of "Firebreak" is, in my personal opinion, the best first sentence of a novel I've ever read: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." Such a mix of the banal and the horrific, such an economic use of words.... and it sucks you in and has you prepared for the rest of the ride, right there in the first twelve words. I think that's a better first sentence than the famous first sentence of "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Donald Westlake is the master, and I hope he lives forever.
Today I learned that on New Year's Eve, Donald Westlake died suddenly from a heart attack while getting dressed for dinner in Mexico, on vacation.

I'm absolutely crushed. Mr. Westlake was ninety years old, so it shouldn't have come out of the blue, but he was at the top of his game, publishing a couple of excellent novels a year. There will be one last book, due out from the publishers in April, and then no more. RIP Parker. RIP Dortmunder.

I first became a fan of Donald Westlake before I knew his name. When I saw "The Grifters", I marveled at it, such a dark and strange and witty film. Much later, after I became a fan of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, I realized Mr. Westlake wrote the script for "The Grifters", among various other films. Perhaps the most famous film made from one of his works is "Point Blank", starring Lee Marvin as the inimitable Parker.

For those of you who have not acquainted yourself with the work of the master, Parker is the ultimate noir character. Under the pen name of "Richard Stark", Donald Westlake wrote this series for thirty years (given his huge productivity, Mr. Westlake used several nommes de plume, such as "Tucker Coe" and "Richard Stark." Like Stephen King, Donald Westlake had the problem of just producing too much good work for one author to credibly publish). Parker is a killing machine, a severely disciplined and controlled sociopath whose adventures are entertaining beyond belief. I will miss him more than anything.

In a lighter vein, Mr. Westlake wrote a popular series about the adventures of Dortmunder, a stooped, overweight criminal mastermind with the worst luck, and his odd assortment of friends and enemies. These were funny and engaging books, and I loved them dearly. Some of these books were made into movies, at least one with spectacular miscasting. Mr. Westlake wrote once, "Imagine my surprise to find out that Dortmunder was Robert Redford."

Once when I was severely depressed, contemplating suicide and trying to get through just one day at a time, I discovered a new Dortmunder book had come out. It quite literally gave me a new reason to live and made me question my idiocy for having considered suicide to begin with.

On another day during that period, a terrible, sad and dark time, I was driving from Iris's elementary school to pick up Lola when I was delayed by a broken down Brinks truck in the road. One of the armored guards was out waving traffic around, looking deeply depressed himself. I burst into a smile. "It's Dortmunder. It's Dortmunder in the flesh." It would have been just like Dortmunder to successfully hijack a Brinks truck only to have it break down on one of the most busy city streets.

RIP, Donald Westlake. You gave me a reason to live, you gave me so much entertainment, happiness, and food for thought. I will miss you more than I can say. Only your death could have felled the indefatigable, indestructible Parker, only that could have outwitted the brilliant Dortmunder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once I was in a depressed frame of mind and was buoyed by the sudden discovery that the kids' Playmobil Noah's ark (minus the little hut) filled with a tiger, a biblical male figure, a gorilla and a zebra was just the right scale for a quick game of "Life of Pi". This pleased me so much, I suddenly felt like anything was possible.