Monday, September 7, 2009

Going Out a Winner: Donald E. Westlake

Comedy is the redheaded stepchild of literature and drama. From Shakespeare down to SG1 or Westlake, the humorless and pompous have downgraded the funny, the farcical, the merely genial. Vicarious self identification with characters turns into an unrewarding business in the bright light of comedy. It is no wonder that the "dark" is preferred for the furtive business of stroking the ego.

In Get Real, the last of the Dortmunder novels, Dortmunder and the usual suspects, Stan, Andy, Tiny and the kid, are approached to make a reality series about a heist. The reality series of course is as phony as possible, existing primarily as a way to avoid paying actors and writers prevailing wages. Dortmunder agrees to the scheme because it allows them to case the building where the bulk of the work would be done. The real heist would be covered by the reality heist. The situation allows, no, demands the typically acute Westlake commentary.

Befittingly, here, at the end, Dortmunder finally gets to keep the money. It is appropriate, not just because Dortmunder should go out a winner, but because reality TV is a victim that not even a comic novelist can let off the hook.

If you have not, by some bizarre mischance, read Westlake, do so. He also wrote straight thrillers, such as The Ax and The Hook. As Richard Stark he specialized in the dark and gritty before it became a fatuous cliche. He also wrote some science fiction, notably Smoke, about an invisible thief. (And at least one fantasy, Sacred Monster.) As a screenwriter, Westlake gave us The Stepfather and The Grifters.

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