Review: Memory by Donald E Westlake (2011 novel)

The late Donald Westlake is best known as a writer of crime fiction, some serious and hard-boiled (including a series he wrote under the name Richard Stark) and others very funny, notably those starring John Dortmunder, a professional thief with perpetually bad luck. Back in 1964 Westlake wrote this novel, very different from anything else he’d done, and which his agent convinced him was too literary. It sat in a drawer until friend and fellow writer Lawrence Block read it and urged Westlake to publish it. It finally made it into print this past year, unfortunately after the author’s death.

As the novel opens, the protagonist, a handsome young actor with a touring company, suffers a terrible beating at the hands of a jealous husband, leaving him with a concussion and memory problems that are something like a moderate case of Alzheimer’s. By the time he leaves the hospital his acting troupe has long since moved on, and he doesn’t have money for busfare back home to New York, where he’s anxious to go partly in the hope that familiar surroundings will help him recover his memory. He finds an unskilled job at a tannery and a place to stay and after a while even a girlfriend. For a couple of months he’s reasonably content, though his memory is getting progressively worse. Finally he heads home to New York and tries to get back into his old life, but  it turns out that he can barely remember his friends, and they start drifting away from him when they find his personality changed and his presence distressing.

The book was published under a mystery imprint, and there’s a sort of mystery subplot, but it’s really a mainstream novel, a remarkably well-written one, one of Westlake’s best and most memorable works. But it’s also very sad, and while the ending isn’t entirely tragic, I should warn you that it isn’t at all upbeat. Not a book to read if you’re in a melancholy mood!

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