Book Review: Memory by Donald E. Westlake

Donald Westlake’s final novel, Memory, is nothing short of a revelation — and if you’re like me, it’s a vindication for one of the best (and most underrated) literary talents of the mid- to late-20th century.

It’s the story of up-and-coming young actor Paul Cole, who experiences an odd form of memory loss after being caught in flagrante delicto with another man’s wife. The ensuing fight leaves Cole with a memory like a sieve. Nothing sticks — at least not for long. Cole’s progression through the novel as he seeks the missing parts of his memory is fascinating. Expect no happy endings here. Westlake’s work is too real for that. The novel’s end isn’t happy, but it is fitting. I was more than satisfied.

The book was written in the 1960s, so bear that in mind when Westlake writes about rent in New York City’s Greenwich Village or the price of bus fare. It’s a little jarring to see Cole pay $17 a week for room and board at a boarding house, but that fits in with the time frame of the novel, which would have been contemporary fiction when Westlake wrote it.

The most incredible part of the book, to me, is seeing Westlake write straight fiction. Other than the assault that starts Paul Cole’s saga, there’s nary a crime in sight. This novel proves Westlake could write, period. I firmly believe this is a guy who could write in any genre. He could have made his living as a literary darling if he’d chosen. Thankfully for those of us who love crime fiction, Westlake turned his prodigious talent to the bent life.

My one nitpick with the book is with the publisher. Hard Case Crime‘s founder and editor Charles Ardai should be credited for bringing Westlake’s long-forgotten novel to the public. But he should have found a good line editor for the galleys. There are numerous mistakes in the novel that a good editor would have caught. Most of the editing errors are incorrect words (like “gong” instead of “going” in one instance). Small errors, yes, but there are probably more than a dozen of these types of errors throughout the book. It adds up over the course of more than 300 pages to give a shoddy effect. And Memory is too good a book to appear shoddy in any form.

Overall, I loved Memory. It’s the type of book that will make you think about it long after you’ve closed the cover. It brings a fitting end to the career of an American treasure. It’s funny — Westlake was always known for his humor, and the joke’s been on us all along. Westlake could have been one of the great “straight” novelists. And we never really knew that until after he was gone.

There’s one other book of Westlake’s that might compare, a novel set in Idi Amin’s Uganda — a caper story about the heist of a trainload of coffee beans. It’s called Kahawa. In the one interview I did with Westlake, he told me that Kahawa was probably the work of which he was most proud. I’m going to have to find a copy now to see how it stands up to Memory.

After I discovered Westlake, I always knew what I was getting when I found a novel written by him or one of his many psuedonyms: Westlake’s name on a novel meant quality. It meant a good story, whether he was playing it straight or using his infamous humor. I’ve never regretted a dime I spent on a Donald Westlake novel. I always got my money’s worth — and more.

I give Memory my highest recommendation. Paul Cole’s memory may be shot, but you’ll look back on this novel and remember it fondly.

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