Donald E. Westlake was no stranger to pseudonyms. His career began with several, as he made his way through the adult markets. Then came Richard Stark, of course. Tucker Coe, of course. But his final release for 1970 appeared under a one-off name. It’s a political novel—not really a thriller per se—and it hit stands under the name Timothy J. Culver, and for good reason. EX OFFICIO is a novel that falls well outside Westlake’s typical area of interests as a writer. This is true in terms of subject, theme, and execution.
EX OFFICIO is a sprawling novel, about three times the size of Westlake’s typical output for the time. It is not a crime novel, the pacing is sometimes languid and sometimes full speed ahead, and the moods catapult from deadly earnestness about ludicrous things to narratively poking fun at its own seriousness. The book feels like an overt attempt to write a bestseller. It’s a big book, a family saga a bit ahead of its time, since THE THORN BIRDS was not due to claim the American fascination for another seven or so years. Unlike the Australian sheep farm-set bestseller, EX OFFICIO is a story wherein a family of politicians of different stripes place the central roles. Here we chart the Lockridge family’s rises and falls, its triumphs and tragedies.
Ostensibly it pays a lion’s share of attention to Bradford Lockridge, a former Ex-President who undergoes a medical wake-up call that propels him out of his torpid state as a winding down statesman who makes speeches where invited, including grocery store openings (!), to someone who wants to rekindle public investment through his ability to talk with China, to a man who wants to make his mark by running for Congress (maybe) . . . Bradford is a man who was once important and now refuses to be considered impotent as he makes his way toward the grave.
Bradford’s granddaughter Evelyn also gets plenty of page time. Her story turns out to be the more interesting from a general perspective, since she starts the book as a proud woman who needs to learn how to be humble in the face of life, love, and destiny. Her character arc goes from one stressed out extreme to another.
Speaking of THE THORN BIRDS. I recall that this was a big television epic in the early eighties. Second in popularity only to Alex Haley’s ROOTS, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Throughout that decade, whenever I would end up at garage sales with my family, I would see copies of that book on sale for a nickel or a quarter or maybe fifty cents. The big novel seemed ubiquitous, and yet it was a book I never actually saw or heard referenced as more than a shelfspace warmer . . . I suppose that made it the preeminent bestseller: A book that sold by the crateful but which nobody actually read.
In addition to Bradford and Evelyn, there are more Lockridges taking up pages with conversations scheming and whatnot. Brothers and spouses and more relations, family and friends and rivals (oh my!). Most of them well-to-do but not terribly exciting people. The book is one of those novels that pretends to offer a peek into how the Other Side lives, and when the book is firing on all cylinders it is jabbing at those folks, hoisting them by their petards. Their danders get raised about stuff they take to be life or death, but which seldom made me say, “Wow, that’s important!” Stephen King famously wrote that most people are interested in what other folks do for a living, and this is the book that proves this wrong. These ex-presidents, shady landowners, disturbed university leaders and whatnot are folks it is difficult for me to like or even muster a terrible amount of interest in.
This may have something to do with the book’s own political slant. EX OFFICIO is not necessarily a conservative work, but it’s chock full of conservative characters. Even the more “liberal-minded” folks exhibit some conservative viewpoints (save for the caricature of a drop out student who is trying to do an unspecified something against unspecified taskmasters). In fact, the book is a fascinating right-leaning book. In these pages, liberals take a lot of flak for their extremism and inability to govern properly. It’s entertaining to a point, to see how the dogmatically conservative straw men (and women) interact, but the perspective seems rather artificial. There’s a fakeness to it, which flies in the face of the sorts of books Westlake was writing before and would return to after. Westlake’s interests are usually about workmen doing work, but those sorts of characters are all but absent from this. Here we have hack academics publishing incendiary essays with clickbait titles like “The Fuehrer from the Left” or multi-volume memoirs that get middling reviews (which are perceived as hatchet jobs), which can be summed up as follows:
“The essay says that no liberal government can survive without becoming authoritarian and therefore tyrannical. That when extremism enters the political picture from either end of the spectrum, it must either win or be imitated by the elements that do win. And that extremism, meaning assassinations, repression, and so on, are now a part of our political picture. What the essay doesn’t say, but what is the inescapable conclusion whether it says so or not, is that there’s no longer hope for democracy, a dictatorship is coming from either the left or the right, it can’t be avoided, the only thing to do is fold our hands and wait for it.” (location 4045)
This is a book where we have China portrayed as the most paranoid nation on earth and playing a central role in either the fall of western civilization or world peace (of course, EX OFFICIO hit bookstands two years before Nixon famously broke the barrier and made a historic trip to China, but that’s neither here nor there). These elements are odd. They don’t sit nicely with Westlake’s more independent perspective in books like THE SPY IN THE OINTMENT. He does his best to write convincingly, but the narrative seems a bit strained at points and characters often come across as shills for political philosophizing.
That said, there are some nice zingers that show up, which are pure Westlake.
It sounded more like a Reader’s Digest condensation as remembered ten years later by a feebleminded optimist. (location 3945)
Or how about this:
No President could ever accomplish any act, any feat, any dream that would be hailed and rewarded and commended as his failure to survive his term of office. The mass of people preferred sentiment to accomplishment any day. (location 384)
Those show Westlake’s more skeptical side in a book that both seems to present one strong political perspective and may also be lampooning that perspective. The execution is a bit muddled that way. Are the straw men and straw women actually straw people or are they presented as honest approximations of real personalities? It is difficult to tell, and the book may well be taking both stands.
Actually, EX OFFICIO is at its best when it evokes aspects of Westlake’s other works as stage decoration. Coe-Stark is a television production company. And in a local dive bar, there’s this:
Inside, there was a three-sided bar forming a square in the center of the room, with an interior wall on the fourth side. On the left and right walls were booths, while to the front were games; shuffleboard bowling machine to the left, pinball machines to the right. The rest rooms, with canine identifications, were at the rear. Pointers at the extreme left and Setters at the extreme right. Four men in work clothing, three of them wearing hats, sat at the bar around on the left side, discussing with the bartender a local bowling league. (location 3138)
By my count, this makes three different fictional universes where this particular location and these particular restroom doors show up. Famously located in the Dortmunder series, the same bar also showed up in one of the Parker books. Now it’s in EX OFFICIO. Stephen King has the Dark Tower, and Donald E. Westlake has the OJ. There are more tidbits of Westlakiana in this doorstop novel. Finding the Easter Eggs is the most fun I had. However, one of the unintentional Easter Eggs would not come to fruition until the century after this book was written, when Hard Case Crime released one of Westlake’s unpublished manuscripts following his death in 2007.
In some ways, EX OFFICIO reads like a warm up for MEMORY, a novel Westlake wrote somewhere in this early time period but which never got to market until after his death. That book has the pacing of one of Westlake’s crime stories, but it is firmly rooted in a character study of a man whose identity has come undone due to head trauma sustained from a violent encounter with the husband of a woman he was screwing. EX OFFICIO’s main Lockridge male Bradford is a man whose identity is coming under attack following a medical issue (stroke) that leaves him feeling restless. Bradford Lockridge is as close to the walking dead as Westlake ever wrote about, featuring a man who has lost both his family and his purpose and is now looking to achieve The Final Glory before he cashes his ticket.
Where MEMORY is tragic and yet compelling and focused on one man’s attempts to figure out his past life, EX OFFICIO is a book that could have been more interesting with that same focus. MEMORY might not have the same tension as one of the Richard Stark pseudonym’s Parker novels, but there is a sense of frustration and suspense between the covers.
EX OFFICIO shares none of that tension. It’s a multi-generational family character study, it’s drenched in politics, and while it offers occasional fun little jabs at the political system circa 1970, ultimately the novel is little more than a curiosity in the author’s catalog. It’s not a terrible book, and it’s not a gripping one either. Some more traditional Westlake thriller writer excitement shows up after the midway point, but even that feels off somehow. EX OFFICIO is an odd little experiment of a book, which targeted (and I assume failed) to land a spot on the bestseller lists. It received a decent write-up in Kirkus but I don’t know if it made any kind of splash at the time. The pseudonym may have been used for reviews or work-for-hire articles or whatnot subsequently, but it would never grace a novel’s cover again. I expect this was more due to sales of EX OFFICIO killing the name than Westlake choosing to retire it (despite a pleasant self-interview between Westlake and his various pseudonyms wherein Stark kills Culver).
Ah well. With such a wide catalog of works, not all of them can be wonderful. For every THE FUGITIVE PIGEON or THE HUNTER or THE HOT ROCK, a WHO STOLE SASSI MANOON? or EX OFFICIO must fall . . .
Readers curious to try EX OFFICIO for themselves can find eBook editions available. No print copies exist short of eBay or used book shops.
My earlier assumptions aside, it looks like someone is reading THE THORN BIRDS. The book is still in print. Paperback and eBook copies are available, believe it or not. If you have read this book, drop me a note in the comments. I am skeptical that people actually crack the covers.
Next up, we will be skipping out on the Considering Westlake series to take in the winner of the survey we posted last week. After tallying the votes, it looks like David J. Schow’s ROCK BREAKS SCISSORS CUT is the winner so that will kickoff our October reviews. It is currently available an eBook edition. However, the old Subterranean Press hardcover might be available in secondary sellers as well.
Culver, Timothy J. EX OFFICIO. New York: Evans. 1970.