The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

March 8, 2010

MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake

Forty years before Memento made moviegoers aware of the problematic condition of short-term memory loss, Donald E. Westlake wrote an amazing novel called Memory in which he explored the links between memory and identity, and what happens when those links are broken.

Written in 1960 and being published for the first time this April by Hard Case Crime, Memory is almost certain to have literary stylists bemoaning what further profundities Westlake might have written had he not spent so much of his time on more commercial fare. This book may even leave a few of his Parker and Dortmunder fans wishing the author had forever stuck to the kind of books they most enjoy. Me, I fall in the middle. I would love to have seen what Westlake could do if freed from the pressures of sales and marketing and the need to make a living, because there is no doubt about the brilliant talent on display in this book. On the other hand, I would never surrender one minute of the immense pleasure I continue to derive from his more commercial endeavors in exchange for anything he might have written.

Memory is the story of Paul Cole, an actor, whose memory is damaged when he is badly beaten by a man whose wife Paul has been sharing. Hospitalized and unable to continue with the touring company who employed him, Paul finds himself in a strange town without funds or friends or a memory capable of helping him locate either. His few clues to his home and work are the contents of his wallet. When he takes a job as an unskilled laborer in order to earn money for a bus ticket to New York City -- and the address on his driver's license -- Paul encounters indifference, cruelty, suspicion, fraud, and above all, a lonely isolation. There is a kind of Pac-Man inside Paul's brain, eating up the dots of his memory faster than he can produce them. Every time he discovers a dot has been eaten, the fear and panic nearly consume him as he fights to find his reality again, a reality that is ever changing, ever disposable, ever obsolete. He is man who cannot counter accusations because he cannot remember his actions, does not know his own character.

Equally sad and horrified, the reader watches helplessly as Paul fumbles at living, sometimes remembering a  face or name only to have that remembrance disappear into the ether within hours, his world spiraling down and down into a self-contained singularity that can never be more than the here and now, for whatever here and now are worth without any theres and thens to lend structure and context to his life.

Westlake nails the harsh indifference of social systems -- including or even especially those social service systems that have little or no use for people who cannot help themselves but depend almost entirely on those services. With no money, no place to stay, no job skills that he is aware of, Paul is one of the walking wounded, looking as healthy and normal as everyone else but damaged in ways no one, not even he, can fathom. It all begs a re-working of the old 'if a tree fell in a forest' question: If a man can no longer remember his life or identity, is he dead? And if he is, what is he supposed to do with the body that's still walking around? What is a man in our culture, when his identity, his entire being can be reduced to a driver's license, a couple of union cards, and a Social Security Number? Without those identifiers, can he even be human? Can his existence be tolerated?

A story without graphic violence, sex, or profanity, Memory yet isn't light reading and is never less than compelling.  There is a tinge of irony in the fact that this unforgettable story is being published posthumously, right when those Siamese twins, the memory and identity of Donald E. Westlake, are beginning a slow fade into history.

Here is an excerpt from Memory, in which Paul Cole, alone in a cheap hotel room in a town whose name he can't remember, has just written down as many memories as he can, in the belief that they will eventually trigger other memories.
He spent a long while sitting on the bed, occasionally writing something else down on the paper, and when he was finished he had a list seven lines long, and on all of the lines at least two names with an arrow between.

When he looked at his wrist, after putting the pen and pad away, he had a sudden feeling of dread, because his watch was gone. It was a dread for more than the loss of the watch; he could lose everything, be reduced to nothingness, and he was helpless.

But then the memory of Artie Bellman came back, and he remembered that Bellman had the watch, and he felt so relieved he had to sit down on the bed again for a while. He sat there with his head bowed and his hands dangling between his knees, and after a while he shook his head. Speaking aloud, he said, "What a sad war. What a slow sad war."

Donald E. Westlake
April 2010

Hard Case Crime
ISBN: 0-8439-6375-1
Cover art by Glen Orbik

Other reviews:
Ed Gorman 
Publishers Weekly


  1. I purchase all Hard Case Crime I can get my hands on. And Westlake? No brainer. I'm looking forward to it.

  2. Good review of this Naomi. What a story. Thanks for this.