I wrote an absolutely brilliant review of The Hunter: A Parker Novel last night. Trust me, it really was. Then it simply vanished. The laptop hiccuped and all those wonderful words went off to where good words go to die.
Richard Stark was a guy I had never heard of until I joined goodreads group Pulp Fiction. Donald E Westlake, I had heard of. I was in Junior High School when I read Fugitive Pigeon. It was a stitch, although it was probably a good thing the Mum didn't monitor my reading that closely.
Now comes another confession. I find myself doing that a lot these days. I (shhhhhh....) have a Nook. I'm basically a cheapskate about some things. That way I can save up and by signed first editions.
About being a cheapskate, I chose Nook over Kindle because I can take that little Nook to a brick and mortar B&N and read a book for free for an hour at a time per day. Yes. FREE. Of course, I buy a cup of coffee, sip on that, and check out the scenery passing by. Tuscaloosa is a college town. The University of Alabama typically supplies a bounty of beauty to Playboy's "The Girls of the SEC." I only know that from what I read in the news. I stopped reading Playboy for the interviews a few decades back. Of course, I say that with a completely straight face.
We are in a false spring. It has been unusually warm for January. The daffodils are popping as are the paper whites, snow bells and the like. The Saucer Magnolias and the Mock Orange bushes are completely confused.
Yesterday was the perfect afternoon to head over to B&N, have a coffee and finish off Parker in The Hunter. Finishing off Parker isn't the proper terminology. The series extended over 45 years, the last Parker, Dirty Money, appearing in 2008, the year that Westlake/Stark died. The University of Chicago Press began reprinting the Parker series that same year, and Westlake gave a helluva interview regarding his writing, with some particular points on his creation of Parker.
The Hunter came out as a Pocket Book in December, 1962. Christopher Lehman Haupt, an astute reviewer for the New York Times picked up that something special was going on when he reviewed it in January 1963. He waxed eloquently on the virtues of the novel and said that this debut novelist was no new voice. This novel had to be the work of a seasoned crime writer. Of course, he was right. It was Donald Westlake, the seasoned writer, hiding behind the pseudonym of Richard Stark because he was already under contract with two other publishers under different names.
" When Bucklyn Moon of Pocket Books said he wanted to publish The Hunter, if I’d help Parker escape the law at the end so I could write more books about him, I was at first very surprised. He was the bad guy in the book.
More than that, I’d done nothing to make him easy for the reader; no smalltalk, no quirks, no pets. I told myself the only way I could do it is if I held onto what Buck seemed to like, the very fact that he was a compendium of what your lead character should not be. I must never soften him, never make him user-friendly, and I’ve tried to hold to that."
How did Westlake make it hard for the reader? Merely calling Parker the bad guy in the book is an understatement. Parker is completely amoral. He is a heist man. And he will kill you to keep what he steals. He is relentless, ruthless, and remorseless.
To simply call Parker a thief doesn't encompass the degree of violence the man can inflict. If your idea of a heist caper is Topkapi and you like your thieves smooth, suave, and svelte cat burglars as Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, or urbane and witty as David Niven, in the original Pink Panther, Richard Stark is not your kind of author and Parker is not your kind of thief.
Hold the champagne and caviar. A cold beer and a bloody burger is more appropriate fare when reading Richard Stark.
Yes, Parker's debut is a heist caper. We meet him as he's entering New York City in search of his wife Lynne and a man named Mal Resnick. Why? They took something of his and he wants it back.
Westlake/Stark plays with plot in the manner of Quentin Tarentino in Pulp Fiction. The plot line jumps from present to past and back again before the full why is revealed. And The Hunter is a quick brutal read. A few coffees and a few hours here and there at B&N , you're done. It's not even like Chinese food that leaves you hungry in a few hours. The end of The Hunter draws you immediately to the next, again, all yours for free with your trusty Nook and a few hours to spare. You will feel that you're as guilty of under tipping as Parker consistently does with every meal he takes. I'm not worried about it.
What is it that has fascinated so many readers about Parker? He is the anti-hero. Some critics have defined him simply as the perfect non-hero. It's a question of degree. Evil is relative. Parker is a hardworking professional stiff. Mal, his cohort in crime is a Syndicate man. The Syndicate is an insidious network of goombahs holding one another up for the greater good of the chiefs up the line who prefer to call themselves "The Organization." It's rather like cheering for Rudolph Hess to cut a separate peace with England and kick Hitler's legs out from beneath him.
Then there's Parker's prep, method, logic, and thoroughness in carrying out any plan he makes. He's careful. And this time, he has the element of surprise on his side. Everyone involved in the heist where Parker was set up by Mal is either dead or believes Parker is dead.
Parker will stop at nothing to get what belongs to him. He'll even take on the whole Syndicate, the Outfit, as the mob's soldiers call it.
Women? Oh, they notice him. It's the hands they notice first. The face that appears to have been chiseled out of concrete. The veins that bulge and ripple beneath his huge hands, women instinctively know are made for slapping. But they're also indicative of something else bulging with rippling veins beneath his slacks that sends a shiver up their skirts. As Westlake says, Parker is a man who will fall on a woman like a tree. Sexist? Yes. Chauvinistic? Yes. Shamelessly so. But face it, I've known many women who were attracted to the Parkers out there. After all, I did direct a domestic violence shelter. And this behavior is another aspect of what makes Parker the unlikeable character he is.
The 2008 Westlake interview provides further insight into the fascination for Parker's violence.
"Question: Most of the characters who get hurt in these novels are tastelessly dressed, arrogant, dim, lazy or fussy; they whine about their wives, and they definitely don’t appreciate hard work. Parker may not abide by most moral codes, but whenever a character behaves like a complete jerk, his or her life expectancy goes down. Why is this?
Westlake: I hadn’t looked at it that way, but I suppose it must relate to Hemingway’s judgment on people, that the competent guy does it on his own and the incompetents lean on each other.
And Parker knows how to lean on the incompetents.
It's coming on mid-afternoon. The wind's down, rain's gone, and the temperature is rising into the 70s. It's about time for a cup of coffee. Think I'll have it over at Barnes & Noble. I've got a bad case of early spring fever.
Some of my more erudite compadres have been pondering weighty literary matters from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Me? I think I'll hang around down here on the low road for a while. After that coffee, I think I'll head over to a classic 1940s road house called the Oasis. The neon cactus is pretty at night. The juke box is loaded. The waitress calls me "Hon." The beer is cold and the burgers are bloody. Yeah. I got friends.(less)