Friday 4 May 2012

Westlake Score: I Gave At the Office by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972); Review; Friday Forgotten Book

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Much as I suspected I might, and in spite of only sporadic internet access, I've decided to dive into another series of posts, which will all be on books of a journalistic or media-related bent. I can't promise when or how often these posts will appear, but I imagine they'll take the best part of a fortnight to get through, so bear with me if there is, as there is almost certain to be, the odd gap here and there. And we'll begin with a Violent World of Parker cross-post, and a Westlake Score...

This is the 1972 Hodder & Stoughton British first edition hardback of Donald E. Westlake's I Gave At the Office – with what looks like a creased photo of DEW himself on the front of the (design uncredited) dustjacket – originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1971. I found this copy in the fine secondhand book emporium Tindley & Chapman on London's Cecil Court, hidden away in the labyrinthine basement, and was quite excited to come across it: the Westlake novels that Hodder published in hardback in the UK in the early 1970s – the Dortmunders novels The Hot Rock, Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid, plus some standalones – are pretty scarce, and this, along with the similarly uncommon Jimmy the Kid, is one of the scarcest: there's currently only one copy on AbeBooks.

I Gave At the Office is one of a handful of Westlake novels which deal in some way with the media – see also Trust Me on This (1988) and that book's sequel, Baby, Would I Lie? (1994) – but it also centres on an abiding Westlake preoccupation: island nations or small states which are threatened by revolution. The narrator is Jay Fisher, a self-confessed "radio man" at the Network, a New York-based media outlet. Jay gets mixed up with two ne'er-do-wells named Bob Grantham and Arnold Kuklyn, who have an idea for a TV documentary about gun-running to the Caribbean nation of Ilha Pombo, but once the show gets the green light Jay finds himself shuttling about the country to largely fruitless assignations with supposed gun-runners while Bob and Arnold run up a tab at the Network's expense.

It's not what you'd call prime Westlake – Jay is unconvincingly idiotic, and the plot, with its intentional cul-de-sacs, is frustratingly elliptical – but it is interesting for its experimental approach: the narrative takes the form of transcripts of Jay's taped confession, interspersed with interviews with the various players. Each chapter ends mid-sentence, as Jay tries – and fails – to work out when the tape will end, a conceit which, in truth, starts off cute, but becomes a bit annoying by the end – a summation which in turn probably neatly encapsulates the book as a whole. That said, there's a certain amount of fun to be had here, especially in the shape of Bob, who's forever necking Jay's booze ("Mind if I build myself another?"), and Linda, Jay's increasingly odd girlfriend, whom Jay spends much of the book attempting – and once again failing – to bed, and who harbours a not terribly well disguised ulterior motive.

I'm hoping to return to Westlake later in this run of media posts, but next, a collection of columns by a British journalist famed, like the fictional Bob Grantham, for his epic boozing...

Patti Nase Abbott has her regular round-up of this week's Friday Forgotten Books here.


  1. You can't go wrong with Westlake. Some of his best work was published in the Seventies.

  2. Quite agree, George, although I personally prefer the Parker novels from that period. But I like a lot of the own-brand Westlakes from the '70s too, even though I wasn't overly knocked out by I Gave At the Office.

  3. First of all congrats om finding a copy of this book! I am especially envious as I was book-hunting near Leicester Square but a few weeks ago - if only ... Terrific review, you really make it sound like a worthwhile read even if not prime Westlake.

  4. Westlake produced some amazing early novels (under his name and Stark's). Better in many ways than some of his later work, but not as good as the best of it, and that's pretty easy to understand. He was never one of those writers who could afford to rest on his laurels, waiting for the next genius idea to come along.

    His mastery of his craft increased, but there's only so many stories a writer has to tell, and most extremely prolific writers can't help but end up spending a good bit of their time rewriting earlier stories.

    So the best of the early Westlakes are the result of youthful energy and enthusiasm, and his comingfor the very first time to ideas that would serve him well for decades. The best of the later ones, I think you can chalk up to his talent maturing--and perhaps he had a bit of personal maturing to do as well. Don't we all?

    Query--what was the last unquestionably great novel written by Westlake under any name? "The Ax"? Later?

  5. Most reviews/discussions etc on genres or authors that I've enjoyed previously have me heading for and scrabbling around the net for a copy of the book in question.

    Not so this time, my experience of Westlake has in the main been limited to his Stark/Parker persona, and a tentative start getting into the Dortmunder books with the first one read so far.

    I can vaguely recall reading Pity Him Afterwards about 20-odd years ago, which I'll need to revisit, along with a few others on my TBR mountain - Spy in the Ointment, The Ax, Sacred Monster.

    This one just doesn't grab me though.

  6. Sergio: it's worth a read, so long as you don't go in expecting too much. But yes: a really nice find! And it was only a tenner.

    Chris: I've yet to read The Ax, but lots of folk say it's up there with Westlake's best.

    Col: I wouldn't go out of your way to acquire I Gave At the Office; there are better Westlakes to read ahead of it, some of which you name.

  7. At this point, I'm working my way through the novels I haven't already read more or less chronologically. Having finished the Parkers first, then the Tobins. I was so blown aay by 361, I had to find out if there were more early gems like that. Honestly, it was a fair few years before he published anything that good under his own name.

    But Killing Time was fascinating--his attempt to create his own version of the Continental Op, then put him in an entirely different situation from Hammett's character, and end the story in a radically different way. Most struggling writers in this genre would have tried to turn Tim Smith into a franchise. Westlake turned him into a cautionary tale.

    Killy I thought was great--expanding the canvas a bit. Pity Him Afterwards was fascinating at points, but a bit disjointed--first novel Westlake wrote that doesn't have a clear protagonist. Might have been better to just write it all from the madman's POV. I almost suspect the young actor was used as a prototype for Grofield, but hard to say--The Score was published around the same time.

    Reading The Fugitive Pigeon now, and enjoying it, but having read The Hot Rock, I see how hard he had to work to perfect his comic style. This very early effort in a comic vein is engaging, but not really that funny. He doesn't know how to build gag upon gag yet. Well you know what they say--dying is easy, comedy is hard.

    And "Memory" was devastating. Yeesh.