Well, that was certainly depressing.
I finished reading MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake this morning. I know this sounds strange coming from someone who loves film noir and hard boiled crime and mystery fiction, but this may be one of the most relentlessly grim books I've ever read. The story centers around Paul Cole, a young actor appearing in a roadshow production in a small mid-western town. Cole makes the mistake of sleeping with a married woman after a performance. He's attacked by the woman's husband (a tableau depicted on the cover of the book). Paul is struck in the head with a chair and wakes up later in a hospital with his memory severely impaired.The touring company has left town leaving Cole behind. He's soon forced to leave town by a hard nosed detective and thus begins his odyssey to find himself and his previous life.
Cole knows he has an apartment in New York City but before he can return there, he needs money. He finds work in a tannery in a small town. He takes a room with a kindly older couple. He dates a mousy young woman named Edna. Things are going fairly well for him but he's determined to save enough money to return to New York. When he does, he leaves town only to find that things in New York are even worse.
His old acquaintances know him but his memories of them are dim. He returns to his apartment and begins to live a hermetic existence. His agent tries to seduce him (to no avail) and even sends him on an acting job where he's has one line in a courtroom scene on a television soap opera. Cole fails as an actor and takes work as a furniture mover. He finally decides to return to the small town where he was happy with Edna. The trouble is, he can't remember the name of the town. He eventually returns to the town where his troubles all began but of course, it's not the town he wants.
Throughout the book, Cole is constantly writing notes to himself to help him remember the things he's supposed to do, where's he 's supposed to go and when. He follows some of these reminders while others go unheeded. You want him to succeed but his struggle is so immense, so overwhelming that for every one step forward he takes, he moves two or three back.
Westlake relates Paul's ordeal in granular detail. He painstakingly shows us how Paul's memory works (or doesn't). As a character study, MEMORY is first rate. But it's not a true mystery/crime novel. Sure, a crime (assault) launches the narrative and there is a mystery of sorts (just what does the square shiny plate of metal mean?) but Westlake's concern here is examining the broken memory of a man who is desperately trying to reclaim a life that is totally alien to him.
MEMORY was originally written in 1963 but never published. The manuscript was found in Westlake's possessions after he died in 2008. Hard Case Crime (my favorite publisher), published the work for the first time in 2010. It's an utterly compelling story with an extremely well drawn main character facing an insurmountable obstacle. MEMORY is definitely a change of pace from Westlake's other work but it's worth reading to see what this future MWA Grandmaster was capable of producing early in his career.
But reader beware. It's dark. Really dark.