MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake

Book Quote:

“It was almost as though nothing existed until he looked at it, the world had no existence before he saw it. And would it fade again out of existence behind him.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (MAR 29, 2010)

As a long-time fan of Donald Westlake, I was very sad to read of his sudden death from a heart attack on December 31st, 2008. So naturally I was surprised to hear that there was a previously unpublished Westlake due to be released by Hard Case Crime in March 2010. When I learned that this was a book that Westlake wrote in the 60s, well I was intrigued.

Memory has to be one of the bleakest, darkest novels written by Westlake in the course of his long, outstanding career. Interestingly, the violence of Westlake’s Richard Stark/Parker series and the humor of the Dortmunder novels are absent. Instead Westlake’s tale reminds me of the novels of Philip Dick. Memory is a bitter noir tale of one man’s disorienting attempts to connect with the person he used to be, and it leaves behind lingering questions regarding notions of identity.

The tale begins in a hotel room with an unidentified couple:

“After the show, they went back to the hotel room, and to bed, for the seventeenth time in three weeks. He had chosen her because, being on the road with him, she was handy; and additionally because she was married, had already clipped the wings of one male, and could therefore demand nothing more from him than he was willing to give. Why she had chosen him he neither knew nor cared.”

As the couple clench in sweaty, focused sex, the woman’s husband bursts through the door and an ugly scene takes place. The scene is never completed–we don’t know exactly what took place that night. It’s as though the story creates a scene, a window that grants us just a glimpse of what happened; the rest is up to our imagination. The unidentified male involved in the adulterous affair wakes up in hospital. He remembers only a sliver of that evening, and so he has just about as much information as the reader. His body gradually heals in hospital, but he appears to be suffering from amnesia. He’s told that he’s an actor from New York named Paul Cole. He also learns that the acting troupe has moved on without him, and that the local cops are running out him of town.

With just a few dollars in his pocket, Cole doesn’t have the fare to make it to New York, so he takes the bus to a town called Jeffords. With enough change to rent a run-down hotel room for the night, Cole knows he’s in a bad spot. He can’t remember any of the names of his friends, so there’s no one to ask for help. Trapped in an impossible situation, Cole manages to get a menial job at the local tannery. He rents a room at a boarding house, makes a few friends and even dates a local girl. Life is a struggle. He has difficulty remembering things (such as appointments or directions), and he uses notes as prompts to help him survive, but as time passes even the notes and the slivers of memories become meaningless. At one point, he becomes attracted to soap operas hoping to see a familiar face of an actor he perhaps once knew:

”The soap operas were his only contact with his former reality; he watched them as a prisoner in a dungeon watches the clouds crossing the rectangle of sky behind his one high window.”

But getting a new life isn’t enough, and just who he is still nags away at the edges of Cole’s mind. He calculates how much money he will need to return to New York, and while he reasons that his memory doesn’t seem to be getting any worse, it also isn’t getting any better. At the same time, it’s obvious that Cole is suffering from something much worse than amnesia. He thinks that if can just get back to his life in New York, things will begin slipping back into place….

It’s a stroke of brilliance that Westlake created this character as an actor. The book starts with Paul Cole’s mind as a blank slate, and so the reader is at square one–right along with the protagonist. We really have no idea what sort of person Cole was before the accident. But one thing we do know about Paul Cole is that he is or was an actor, and the one thing an actor must have is a good memory. Without the ability to memorize, an actor is forced to become … well, something else.

Ultimately this is a chilling noir tale that explores notions of memory and identity. Are we a sum total of what we remember? Yet we all forget things to one degree or another, and a lifetime of memories crystallize to a few salient moments. Are we also what we forget? Cole loses his memory, but when he finds his life again, it’s as though he missed the train, passed his station or perhaps he just died…. Through Cole, a man who becomes increasingly marginalized and diminished, we see that without our memories, we are really nothing. Memory here is portrayed rather like a suit of clothes, and we wear those memories that provide a perfect fit. Without memory, we don’t really know who we are or what we enjoy. Cole thinks that his problems will be solved when he retrieves his memory, but instead he ends up attaching himself to a bunch of belongings and people, and nothing seems to be him–the person he has become.

I find myself a tad sentimental at this moment–it’s almost as though by leaving this book behind, Westlake remembered all his fans in his will. And on a final note, if you go to the official Westlake website, you will see the following comment: “I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong.” Thank you, Donald Westlake and thank you Hard Case Crime.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Leisure Books; Original edition (March 30, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Donald Westlake
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Cutie

Somebody Owes Me Money

Money for Nothing

Put a Lid On It

Books in the Dortmunder series:

Get Real

Watch Your Back

The Road to Ruin

And Westlake writing as Richard Stark:

Dirty Money



Hard Case Crime reprints:

The John Dortmunder Series

March 29, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Grandmaster, Mystery/Suspense, Noir

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