The office men drove by, clutching their steering wheels, and hardly noticed him. Just a bum walking on the bridge. Didn’t even own a car. A few of them saw him and remembered themselves before they’d made it, when they didn’t have a car. They thought they were empathizing with him. They thought it was the same thing.
Parker put the gun down and picked up the phone. “All right,” he said. “He’s dead. I’ve got your name and phone number. In five minutes, I’ll have your address. In twenty-four hours, I’ll have you in my hands. Yes or no.”
“In twenty-four hours you’ll be dead! No lone man can buck the organization.”
“I’ll be seeing you,” Parker said.
Bucklin Moon, editor at Pocket Books, was having a bad day. Maybe more like a bad year. Hell, make it a bad decade. Once a promising young novelist and anthologist; a white man who wrote from the perspective of working class blacks, championed equality and world peace, as well as an editor of the first rank who had helped introduce some of the most legendary names in African American literature to the world, he’d been fired from Colliers Magazine in 1953 over accusations from a superior that he was a ‘fellow traveler’ (well hey, aren’t we all?), and had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges that–among other things–he’d been centrally involved in a peace conference run by the Communist Party. He denied all the charges vehemently, and there was no real evidence against him except that of association. Moon was basically an FDR Liberal, perhaps guilty of naivete on certain subjects, roughly as subversive as Pope Francis, but when he refused to ‘name names’, that, as they say, was that. For years afterwards, publishers treated him like he was poison.
By the time McCarthy was done and the heat was off (and Mr. Moon had attempted suicide during a bout of depression), he was yesterday’s news, and he couldn’t get his writing career going again. He’d put together a fairly prestigious (now forgotten) anthology for Doubleday that came out in 1962, but it was just excerpts of other people’s work, most of it easily available elsewhere (and, I note in passing, absolutely nothing in it that could remotely be called crime fiction). It didn’t make up for what he’d lost, and now here he was, slaving away in the slush piles of a publisher of tiny cheap paperbacks that catered at times to rather lowbrow tastes–I don’t know for a fact that this bothered him, but think about it–wouldn’t it bother you?
But a thoroughgoing professional he always had been, and this he remained, so he resolutely worked his way through one lamentable manuscript after another, making helpful suggestions as to how each might be improved–and then one day he got something–different. From a young writer name of Westlake, only he was submitting this under the name Richard Stark. Crime fiction, in the raucous no-holds-barred contemporary style, and nothing like anything Moon’s name had previously been linked to. Bucklin Moon had never been a genre guy, even though he was a key figure in the rise of Chester Himes–see, when Moon was editing Himes, the future master of Harlem Noir was still doing respectable novels of social realism and the plight of the black man–he didn’t start writing his irreverent tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones until about ten years later, after he moved to Paris. I’m not even sure Moon approved of Himes making the switch to crime fiction. It’s not like I can ask him what he thought about that. I guarantee you Himes never did.
Moon once wrote an essay about his experiences with book editing, saying that he usually only needed to get through the first few pages to know if a book was any good or not, though even if he knew it was rotten he still had to force himself to read every last painful page, fighting ennui all the way.
In the first few pages of this crime novel he was tasked with reading, written rather sparely in the third person and entitled The Hunter, a guy walks across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, commits a series of petty crimes and frauds to get a bankroll and a false ID, looks up the wife who shot him (but still loves him), knocks her down, goads her to suicide, mutilates her corpse so she won’t be identified right away, waits until a messenger who happens to be gay (that isn’t the word the novel uses) shows up with money for her, then beats the location of the money’s source out of him. So I think we can safely conclude Mr. Moon was not bored.
As the story continues, this guy relentlessly and methodically goes from one link in the chain to the next, and his goals are very simple–he wants some money he thinks of as his, even though he stole it. And he wants the former associate who stole it from him to die gasping between his two huge vein-covered hands. In that order of priority. And anybody, no matter how powerful or ruthless or well-connected, who tries to impede him in achieving these goals is going to end up regretting it. Though probably not for very long.
At no time does this bruiser show the slightest remorse over his violent behavior–nor does he take any sadistic pleasure from it. It’s just what he does. It’s just who he is. He’s a thief, a professional ‘heavy’ (meaning armed) heister. If someone threatens him, or gets in his way, or excessively complicates his plans, then and only then does he become a killer as well. He thinks in terms of patterns–his old pattern, we’re told, has been disrupted by a double-cross, and now he has to find a new pattern, to try and get back to the old pattern–to do a big robbery, then live for a year or more off the proceeds, whiling away his time at some warm-weather resort, usually in Florida.
His pattern has one other odd twist to it–he is keenly interested in the opposite sex (who invariably find him dangerously attractive), but only right after he’s finished a job. For a month or two afterwards, he’s insatiable, then his sex drive gradually drops off, and completely disappears once he’s back to planning a new job. He doesn’t think there’s anything strange about this, and he never worries about it. He is perfectly aware that he’s not like anyone else, but he never wonders why. He never questions his nature. He’s content to be as he is. He can’t imagine being any other way. He wouldn’t understand anyone who did. He has rarely experienced the emotion of hatred (perhaps only towards the wife who betrayed him, who he basically stops thinking of after her death), and never once has he felt a pang of envy. Towards anybody. He is, in short, a minority of one.
The last half of the book is about his struggle with a crime syndicate that calls itself The Outfit, to which his former associate Mal Resnick paid the money our ‘hero’ thinks of as his to settle a debt, and buy a comfortable living as a lower-level boss, though he intends to keep working his way up. Mal is a weakling and a coward, whose only real asset is a sort of low cunning, and who has no higher aspiration than to be a cog in that criminal machine. Our man dispatches him easily, but now he has to get his money from The Outfit itself.
The Outfit doesn’t want to pay, and none of its high-ranking members can bring themselves to comprehend that this unaffiliated nobody is telling them “My money or your lives.” But that is exactly what he’s telling them, and he is deadly serious. Against all odds, he keeps beating them, outmaneuvering them with startling ease, because he’s a free man, and they’re just cogs in a machine. They’ve forgotten how to think, how to stand on their own feet, how to fight their own battles. They’ve gotten so used to nobody standing up to them, they don’t know how to react when somebody does, and he exploits that confusion to the hilt. He gets what he wants out of them, killing a few in the process, and prepares to leave New York with his money, to resume his old pattern, begin a new life, with a new face, courtesy of a plastic surgeon.
Then the cops pick him up on (mistaken) suspicions of narcotics smuggling, and he makes a break for it and they gun him down. The End.
At this point, as I fondly imagine, Bucklin Moon must have blinked. He reads the last chapter over again, and he says to himself no–it will not do. He contacts the author, whose book has already been rejected by Gold Medal (the #1 outfit in paperback crime publishing at the time), and says Pocket would like to buy The Hunter–but only on condition that the protagonist gets away at the end, and that Westlake can give them three novels a year about him. Westlake, still making much of his living by writing quickie erotic novels for desultory houses like “Nightstand Books” accepts with overjoyed alacrity–turns out he never liked the ending either, but it was just what you’re supposed to do with a protagonist that bad, right? I mean, he accidentally causes the death of a completely innocent woman in the course of the book, somebody who never harmed him in any way, and his only reaction is one of bemused irritation that she had asthma and didn’t tell him before he knocked her out, tied, and gagged her, so he could use her place of business as a vantage point for surveillance. Best as we can tell, he never thinks about it afterwards. Spilled milk, right?
Not a nice guy. Not in any way shape or form. He doesn’t pet dogs in the street. He doesn’t toss coins to barefoot orphans. The closest thing he can muster to a compliment when talking to an old friend who happens to be a delectable little redhead with a major crush on him is “You look good”, and he’s only saying that because he needs a favor. He totally ruins her life in the space of three short chapters, and he doesn’t even say he’s sorry. He doesn’t have a kind word to say about anyone, even the few people who actually like him, though say this–if you’re 100% straight with him, he’ll be 100% straight with you, right down the line. In all other regards, he’s a bastard (perhaps literally as well as figuratively), and the book calls him exactly that in its sixth paragraph, though only in the context of telling us that passing women can’t look at him without thinking about sex, which kind of takes out the sting, if you know what I mean.
And this fictive monster’s life, for all intents and purposes, was saved and perpetuated over the course of what turned out to be well over four decades, by a lifelong pacifist and idealist, and quite certainly a gentleman towards the fair sex (he married several of them), who devoted himself wholeheartedly to helping the less privileged, and wouldn’t name names of people he barely knew to save himself from professional ruin. Weird.
Westlake returned the manuscript to Moon basically unchanged, except for a revised ending–best as I can tell, Moon did not make any further suggestions or emendations, though he said in that essay about editing that it was virtually unknown for a new author to get that treatment. The only real difference in the rewrite is that the main character escapes the cops–without his money, because that would make it too easy–and then has to plan a whole new robbery, where he sticks it to The Outfit yet again, and then heads off for his plastic surgery, figuring afterwards he’ll go back to Florida–maybe somewhere in the Keys.
And reading this in its final published form, probably the last book of any real note he could claim any significant credit for, though I doubt he or even Donald Westlake recognized it as such at the time, I just know that lifelong pacifist, gentleman, defender of the downtrodden, and all-around nice guy Bucklin Moon was smiling, like a kid on Christmas Day.
Paradoxical? Nope. That’s Parker.
If you’re getting the impression I am advancing the theory that Bucklin Moon gave Donald Westlake a contract to write three books a year about this dastardly dastard because he himself, Bucklin Moon, wanted to go on reading about him, well give yourself a gold star, Sherlock. As I see it, any book editor worth his or her onions, regardless of the tawdry commercial realities of the publishing industry, hungers and thirsts not to produce the latest bestselling piece of crap, but to try to the utmost of his or her ability to get books in print that he or she would want to read. That’s the difference between a professional and a hack, as I know Donald Westlake would agree. Parker certainly did turn out to be a paying proposition for Pocket, but the Gold Medal editor who rejected the very same manuscript would have presumably been better-versed in the demands of the crime genre market, and I’m not sure Moon even gave a damn about that genre. I honestly don’t know.
What I do know, or so I flatter myself, is human nature. And it is human nature to identify with those who do what you can’t do, go where you fear to go, fight those you were unable to fight, win the game of life on their own terms, and make you believe they can do all this. As Bucklin Moon had aspired to do, in a very different way, before some two-bit assholes (to put it politely) from a somewhat different kind of Outfit put him on ice. To live in this world is to get mad at the way it works. To get mad is to dream, however fleetingly and futilely, of somehow someway someday getting even. Of bucking the organization and getting away clean. Of being absolutely unequivocally free.
By the way, did I happen to mention Bucklin Moon eventually retired to Florida? He died in 1984, somewhere in the Keys. I am not making that up.
Okay, this is getting long, and have I even reviewed the book yet? Not really. Parenthetically, I don’t even think this is the best book Westlake published the year it came out. But it’s arguably the most important and influential novel he ever wrote, the keystone of his long productive career, and I think I’m going to put this to bed, feed my dog, get some dinner, do some laundry, and come back with Part 2 sometime in the coming week.
I’ll be seeing you.