Despite being Donald Westlake’s last novel and published by Hard Case Crime this is not a mystery or a crime story. It’s just one incredibly good book.
Paul Cole is an actor from New York crossing the Midwest as part of a traveling theater company. When he hooks up with a married woman the husband catches them in the act, and Paul gets his skull bashed in before he can get his pants on. The injury does serious damage to his memory so that Paul has trouble recalling elements of his life and people from his past, and he can easily lose track of what’s going on. The police quickly push him out of town to avoid a local scandal, but Paul doesn’t have enough money to make it back to New York, and he can’t remember anyone he can call for help.
The book becomes a heartbreaking story of Paul’s struggle to remember while keeping a roof over his head and food on the table. He’s desperate to go back to being the man he used to be, but he doesn’t even know who that is. Relying on notes and spotty recollections to manage his life, he learns that its very hard to get by when you’re constantly losing the context of what’s going on.
Westlake wrote this back in the ‘60s, but couldn’t get it published because he was a genre writer at the beginning of his career. He put it in a drawer and never had it published, even after he became successful. Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block read it shortly after it was written, and always thought it was a great book. After Westlake’s death, Block asked his widow to look for a copy. She found it, and Block helped get it published.
Some may be disappointed that this isn’t Westlake doing his serious or humorous crime thing, but I think this is some of his best writing. I’m very glad it didn’t stay hidden away.