Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: The Outfit

outfit_original_1outfit_2

“Hold on.”   Bronson held up his own hand, fingers splayed like a traffic cop’s.  “What do you mean, they don’t think they’re crooks?”

“They work for a living.  They have an employer; they pay income tax; they come under Social Security; they own their own homes and cars; they work in local industry.  They know the corporation they work for engages in illegal activities, but they think what-the-hell, every corporation these days does, from tax-dodging through price-fixing to government bribing.”

“What’s that got to do with anything, Quill?”  There was an undertone of warning in Bronson’s voice.  He thought of himself exactly as Quill had described it.  He wasn’t a crook.   Bastards like Parker were crooks.  Bronson thought of himself as a businessman.  All right, he was a criminal, but everybody was more or less dishonest, particularly in business.

The Parker novels were fairly serialized, particularly in the beginning (and towards the end), and writing in his new Stark modality, Westlake developed a neat little trick to keep readers on the hook–he’d finish a particular story arc in one book, then start a new one in that same book, to pull you into the next one.   He’d done that with The Hunter, finishing Mal’s story two thirds of the way through, then getting Parker started on his war with the syndicate, which was just heating up by the end.   He took a temporary break from that war in his second outing, then finished it in his third–but by then, a new complication had cropped up, requiring Parker to move immediately to another job in book four.

The fifth novel was the first true standalone–ie, the first that didn’t either end on some kind of unresolved note or resolve something from an earlier book–but there was still this sense of a continuing story–as if all the books were just chapters in one long sprawling epic (that never truly ended).  Later, when the novels weren’t being published so close together, there would be more of a pause between jobs, and less need to refer to earlier novels via brief footnotes, but in the early days, Westlake had to justify Parker being active all the time, even though we were told in The Hunter that he only pulled one heist a year.   That may have been the ideal, but it didn’t always work out that way.

Parker gets called an ageless character, but I don’t think he ever was.   The books have an odd sense of time, but they do exist within it.   In The Outfit, we find out Parker served in WWII from 1942-44 (and was given a bad conduct discharge for black-marketeering), which would make him remarkably young when he joined up, but not impossibly so.   Calvin Graham joined the navy at 12, and it took the brass a long time to find him out.  Some folks just mature faster than others.   And maybe some were never really kids to start with.

Someday I’ll work up my own Parker timeline (that should be fun), but for now, let’s concentrate on the book at hand, which is one of the most pivotal in the series–and probably not anyone’s personal favorite (somebody wants to tell me I’m wrong there, pipe up).   But still one of only four Parker novels to get turned into a movie; which I’m less impressed with than some, and which I’ll review eventually, but not now.   Synopsis follows–spoilers abound.

For the first time in a Parker novel, we join the proceedings right in the middle of a scene of violence.  The Outfit has sent a hitman after Parker in Florida, just a few weeks after the events of the last book came to a close.   Parker is just in the process of working out his usual post-heist horniness on a tall toothsome blonde name of Bett Harrow when the guy takes a shot at him.  The hireling misses his mark, and Parker takes him out with his gun–not by shooting, which would risk bringing in the law, but by throwing it at the guy’s head, giving him a concussion that ultimately proves fatal.

Before the ill-starred trigger man dies, Parker finds out what local Outfit stooge fingered him, by threatening to have Bett torture him (which she’s a bit too eager to do, but we’ll see a lot more of Ms. Harrow in the next book, so she’ll keep).   The hitman is terrified of women, as Parker suspected he would be, and spills all he knows.

Parker manages to get his would-be killer out of the hotel room before he collapses, but when he returns he finds out Bett took his gun–with his fingerprints on it–so now she’s got leverage over him.   Leverage for what?   No time to worry about that now, so  Parker writes her a brief note saying he’s got business to attend to, and whatever she wants can wait–if he’s not back in a month, she can give the gun to the cops.  Because if he’s not back in a month, he’s probably dead.

Parker tracks down the local who fingered him at a poker game, finds out the hit came from New York, kills the fink on general principle, and then sets about outfitting himself for war with The Outfit.    As he goes from place to place, getting the needed equipment, he’s writing letters to fellow heist men (as he’d threatened he would do in The Hunter), telling them The Outfit has been giving him a hard time, and he’d consider it a favor if they knocked over any Outfit operations they might have had their eye on.    His reasoning being that many of them had only been looking for an excuse to do exactly this.

It’s interesting to watch him compose a letter–he’s literate enough, checks his spelling if he thinks he got a word wrong, but it’s almost like he’s using a second language, even though English is the only language he knows–it isn’t natural to him, communicating this way.   It’s a skill he acquired because he had to, but he’s not comfortable with it.   Words are a necessary evil to Parker.

Then comes a scene that makes it hard to be a Parker fan and a dog-lover at the same time.   He heads down to Georgia to get himself a mace (a vehicle with seemingly legitimate registration that won’t bring unwanted attention from the cops when driving across multiple state lines).   He looks up his old friend Chemy, a redneck genius mechanic, whose specialty is souped-up getaway cars.

Chemy’s brother has a very unappealing wife who offers herself to Parker (as all women apparently must, sooner or later), and even if she looked like, I dunno, Sheree North, Parker wouldn’t be interested, because he’s working.  When he turns her down, she cries rape, gets her husband to make an ill-advised attempt to avenge her honor, and that failing, sics the dog on him (Chemy, to his credit, tells her to leave the dog out of it).

When the lean black and tan cur, loyal to a fault, leaps at him, Parker smashes the poor brave mutt’s head in with a shotgun butt.  Oh, and he threatens to kill the wife, the brother, and Chemy, just to make sure he doesn’t have some southern-fried vendetta to worry about, but that’s perfectly understandable.

Parker gets in his mace and drives away, irritated, but otherwise unaffected, and certainly not the least bit guilty about the dog.  And this is why there’s never going to be a fully faithful film adaptation of The Outfit, folks.   In the movie that was made, the character standing in for Parker doesn’t kill any dogs–in fact, we see him pat a completely different dog on the head for trying to protect his brother (yeah, he’s got a brother in the movie) from hitmen.

Westlake is resisting on all four cylinders the temptation to humanize this character.   It’s too easy an out to say the big bad heister has a soft spot for animals.   Same thing goes for kids.   Like him or don’t, but either way, you’re going to have to take him on his own terms, because those are the only terms on offer (except in the movies).

Parker hits an Outfit joint in New York, then looks up Fairfax, who we saw in the first novel (still looking and acting like a roadshow Louis Calhern).    Through Fairfax, he gets in touch with Walter Karns, Arthur Bronson’s primary rival for control of The Outfit, and makes a deal–if Parker gets Bronson, who put out the contract on Parker, Karns will cancel the contract, and leave Parker alone.   Fairfax, seeing which way the wind is blowing, coughs up Bronson’s home address in Albany, where he’s currently holed up.

Parker meets Handy McKay at a motel run by retired hooker Madge, a relic of the 20’s;  a sort of heister groupie who frequently offers members of Parker’s profession a safe haven when they’re planning a job or laying low (she’s also one of the most enjoyable characters in the entire series, but we’ll see more of her later).  Parker lays out the plan, and it’s pretty simple–go to Albany, whack Bronson, and Handy can have whatever cash and valuables they find at his place, plus all the money Parker has already taken from The Outfit.

Handy is confused, maybe a bit offended–he’d go with Parker just because it’s Parker–they can split whatever they find at Bronson’s, and if there’s nothing to split, he won’t kick about it.   Why offer him money from jobs he wasn’t in on?    Usually they’re on very similar wavelengths, but Handy doesn’t understand Parker’s thinking here–that this is his personal war, not a regular job, and Handy shouldn’t come in just out of loyalty.    They find a working compromise,  and as Handy leaves to chat with Madge, we get a glimpse into Parker’s mind–

It was a bad sign when a man like Handy McKay started owning things and started thinking he could afford friendships.   Possessions tie a man down and friendships blind him.  Parker owned nothing, the men he knew were just that, the men he knew, not his friends, and they owned nothing.  Sure, under the name Charles Willis he had pieces of a few businesses here and there, but that was for tax reasons.  He stayed away from those places, had nothing to do with them, didn’t try to get a nickel out of them.  What Handy was doing was something else again–buying things to have them.   And working with a man, not for a profit, but because he liked him.

Parker is assuming too much about his fellow heisters.   We briefly meet Salsa in this book,  one of Parker’s most formidable sidemen, and we’re told he owns a house and a car–many if not most of the heisters we meet in these novels will be shown to be men of property, and sometimes even loyalty.   This is not Westlake being inconsistent–this is Parker projecting his own wolfish weltanschauung onto his colleagues.

But wolves feel deep loyalty to their pack, which is to say, their family.   Parker, the lone wolf, born into the wrong species, has no pack, no family, no friends–just temporary work partners, and to him, loyalty outside the boundaries of the workplace is a luxury he can’t afford in the treacherous human world–the only exception had been his wife Lynn, and seeing how that turned out, you can understand his thinking, without necessarily sharing it.   It’s a desolate alienating moment in the book–who wouldn’t gladly trade anything they own for  a friend like Handy McKay?   But then again, if you don’t own anything……

At this point in the book, we cut over to Albany to see how Bronson is doing, and he’s in a bad mood–worse than usual, I mean.   The reports keep coming in–turns out Parker’s letters were a huge hit with the heisting community, and they’ve been hitting Outfit operations with gusto, taking over a million bucks, and meeting token opposition at best from the Outfit personnel they’re ripping off.

Several short chapters are devoted to detailing several of these operations, including one that introduces Salsa to us (we’ll be seeing him again, book after next).   The point of this detour in the plot is to show us that ‘organized crime’ is mainly just organized illegal business dealings–numbers rackets, money laundering, gambling, offtrack betting, etc–things people enjoy doing that the law frowns upon.   In the movies it’s all guns and glamour, but the realities are far more mundane.

The people staffing these operations mainly aren’t what you’d call tough, and because they’ve got The Outfit behind them, they’re not prepared for Parker’s very professional colleagues to show up armed and organized–as Parker warned Bronson, most of them have had these jobs cased out for years, and were just waiting for a reason to pull them.

This is when Bronson has his little business discussion with Quill, an Outfit numbers man–I began this review with a snippet from their discussion.   Quill is trying to explain to Bronson (who came up during Prohibition) that people working for The Outfit now aren’t equipped for anything heavy, except for the ones that specialize in violence–they know that technically, what they’re doing is illegal, but they still see themselves as decent citizens, who own homes, and have families, and they aren’t going to risk all that to protect money that isn’t even theirs.   The Outfit is just a corporation that breaks the law–like most ‘legitimate’ corporations do, just in a different way.

It’s not hard to discern what we’re being told here–it goes back to what Parker was thinking about Handy–you have to know which side of the fence you’re on.   You can’t be crooked and straight, and do both equally well.   Bronson, the old school hood, is disgusted by the softness in his organization that Quill describes to him, but we’ve seen enough of his personal life in Albany to know he’s gotten soft himself.   He owns things, he’s got a wife (who he tries desperately to please, even though he’d much rather be with a high-priced call girl)–he’s become a rather bourgeois sort of gangster.   His personal life mirrors the identity confusion we see in The Outfit as a whole.

In the process of protecting himself from the law, playing the upright citizen, blending into high society,  he’s become a part of it, in spite of himself, and that’s made him just as vulnerable as the businesses Parker’s friends are knocking over.  He’s trying to get this straight in his mind, looking out the window of his big impressive old stone house on a once-fashionable now increasingly plebeian street, a house he only bought because his wife wanted it, so she could forget she used to be a showgirl–when he feels a prickling in his spine, and he looks behind him–guess who’s here?

Then the book rewinds, and we see how Parker made his way to Albany with Handy (stopping in Syracuse to pick up firearms), and turns out he was listening to Quill’s little lecture in the other room, waiting his chance.   Prior to entering the mansion, he and Handy had made sure the chauffeur was neutralized, and we get a soupcon of racial politics–he’s a black man, and they find him with a white woman–he’s terrified at first.   He’s of a generation that remembers what used to happen to black guys in this situation not so very long ago (and since the woman keeps insisting he was raping her, obviously she remembers those times as well).

Handy just thinks it’s funny, and makes a little joke about how there’s no problem as long as they’re not going to school and learning geometry together–because of school desegregation in the south,  get it?   Handy has a much livelier sense of humor than Parker (well really, who doesn’t?).    At any rate, the chauffeur is relieved to learn they’re only there to kill his boss.   Bronson, we gather, is not a fun guy to work for.

So back to the study–Bronson is looking down the barrel of Parker’s gun, and he knows his number is up.    Does he beg, offer money, hide under the desk?   Nope.  Deep down inside, the gangster is still there–he looks Parker dead  in the eye and yells for his bodyguards, knowing Parker’s going to kill him anyway, but damned if he’s going to give him the satisfaction of going down like a punk.   Not that Parker gives a damn about Bronson’s identity crisis, but he helps resolve it, all the same.    Once a hood, always a hood.    Well, not literally always, of course.

Parker and Handy deal with the bodyguards, and case the house for cash.   It’s a pretty good haul– 24k in a safe, and maybe 6k in jewelry.    Quill, who is no hood, calmly agrees to take Parker’s message to Karns–the robberies won’t stop right away, but they’ll stop.

The war is over.   The king is dead.    Long live Walter Karns (and he does).  Parker is ready to go back to Florida and find out what Bett Harrow wants from him in exchange for that gun.    He asks Handy if he wants to go along–doesn’t he have a diner in Maine to get to?   Handy says the hell with his diner in Maine.

Was it all too easy?   I think that’s the main critique one could level at The Outfit, that and a somewhat disjointed narrative structure, because of all the different elements being introduced, some of which will figure heavily in later books. When they made the movie, they threw in all kinds of added complications to the final act, probably for that very reason–it just seems too simple.   This is a major criminal operation, bristling with expensive hired muscle, and Parker brings it to its knees in a matter of weeks.   Unrealistic, right?   Well, who said realism was ever the point here?

The point is actually not about how tough Parker is–that’s a given, always–the point is that with any organization,  size itself can become a weakness–success makes you stupid.   You get fat and complacent, and sooner or later somebody comes along to knock you off your high horse.   We’ve seen that drama play itself out in the business section of the paper, many times, and in the history books.

But Parker is no rival syndicate–he’s got zero interest in taking over The Outfit’s territory.    He could never become a Bronson, a Karns, or even a Fairfax–he’s got no taste for it.    He’ll always be a loner, albeit a loner who knows how to network like nobody’s business.

Parker is something a man like Bronson can’t understand (even though Bronson thinks he and his friends from the 1920’s were the Parkers of that time), and you can’t fight an enemy you don’t understand.    Parker keeps running rings around the Outfit boys, because he’s got nothing to defend except his life.   He seeks the weak spots in their defenses, and zeroes in on them.

Think about all these enormous dot.coms out there now–and all it takes is a few nerds armed with cheap little computers to paralyze them, steal priceless data, and there’s damned little they can do to hit back.   Parker’s doing the same thing, only in three dimensions (he could never understand the point of cybercrime).   The more you own, the more you have to defend.    And the less you own, the faster you can move, and the harder you are to find.

I would argue The Outfit is rather prophetic in this way–and while the odds of one man surviving an all-out war with organized crime are pretty poor, there are some real-life analogues–ever hear of Danny Greene?   If he’d made himself a bit harder to find, he might still be alive today.   Unlike Parker, he actually thought he could take over the whole shooting match.  The Irish can be very pigheaded (and I oughta know)–but he still took his enemies down with him, like a mobbed-up Samson in the temple of vice.

So no.   It’s not impossible.   It’s just very unlikely it would happen this fast.   Parker does have a knack for finding the shortest distance between two points. Richard Stark likes to get to the point.   And perhaps I should emulate him now, and get to my own.

My final point is that this is a really weird way to tell a story–to use the first book to set up a mob war, then call an intermission to that war in the second book, then resolve it rather abruptly in the third–and the fourth and final book in what is essentially a self-contained cycle within the overall Parker saga is going in a different direction entirely, with a different type of enemy entirely.   One you would think would be far less formidable than the late Arthur Bronson.   But in fact, he turns out to be quite possibly the most dangerous opponent Parker ever faces.    And the most–piquant?   I think that would be the word.    Not the word Parker would use.   But to him, all words are necessary evils, at best.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Man With the Getaway Face

man_w_t_getaway_face_original_1humphrey-bogart-dark9

When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.   He nodded to the stranger and looked beyond at the reflection of Dr. Adler.

Richard Stark, The Man With the Getaway Face

Then he realized there was a mirror in front of him, level with his face.  And he looked up

And he saw his new face.

He frowned.

It was very difficult to believe that he was actually looking at himself.  This was not himself.

David Goodis, Dark Passage

This is a book that comes second in many respects to the book it is a direct sequel to, The Hunter.   It’s the second Parker novel, the second Richard Stark novel, the second novel that begins with the type of opening sentence these novels became known for (“When such and such happened, Parker did something.”), the second to feature the trademark Stark Rewind (where the novel would suddenly roll time backwards and show us the same general sequence of events from a different character’s POV), and the second to feature cover art by Harry Bennett, emphasizing Parker’s monstrous hands.

It is first in two respects, however–it’s Westlake’s first novel with a truly long title–six words, eight syllables.   He never topped that, though he did equal it with the second and third of the Samuel Holt novels (seven words, eight syllables).   It sticks out from the rest of the Parkers in this regard.  [edit: I was wrong, he topped it with Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.] It’s an interesting title, and an atypical one.   When I see a Westlake book title that sticks out like that, I tend to look for some hidden meaning in it.   Can’t help myself.

More significantly, it is Donald Westlake’s first true series novel.   The Hunter had been written as a one-off, and was only slightly tweaked at the request of Bucklin Moon, to make it possible for Parker to appear in three novels a year for Pocket Books–it worked out to four Parker novels released in 1963, and what a time that must have been for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction–I would have been feverishly scouring the bookstands for them myself had I not been a toddler at the time.

Westlake had done series characters before.   He wrote at least three pseudonymous novels featuring the amorous exploits of Phil Crawford (an actor, I believe–I’ll come back to those books sometime), between 1959 and 1963.   He also had written several short stories about the mortality-obsessed police detective Abraham Levine, also starting in ’59.   But nobody was buying books to see Phil Crawford strut his stuff, and Levine never got a novel.   Now, for the very first time, Donald Westlake had a character worth writing a lot of books about.  He’d end up writing 24 of them, not a record for the crime genre, but name another crime (not detective) series based around a single protagonist that has that many books–all of them still in print.

But he wasn’t going to be writing any of those 24 books as Donald Westlake.   He was putting on a new face for these, creating a new identity.   Richard Stark was going to become the most enduring and infamous of his other selves–to the point where Steven King would get half of his own pen name of Richard Bachman from him, and name the murderous alter-ego George Stark from The Dark Half after him (the Wikipedia article says otherwise, but the Wikipedia article is wrong).    To the point, in fact, where by the late 60’s/early 70’s, Stark was selling more books than Westlake, and had gotten two major film adaptations before Westlake got one.   To this day, many prefer Stark to Westlake.   Westlake was always wryly aware of this.

But as we’ve seen, Westlake had already published several books under his own name that were as dark as anything he ever wrote as Stark, and maybe darker (certainly more fatalistic).   The much-touted dichotomy between the whimsically long-winded Westlake and the succinctly sinister Stark had not been established yet, and was never much more than a deeply misleading critical trope at any time.   Nonetheless, Westlake must have been aware that he was not merely creating a means whereby he could publish more books a year–he was creating a new persona.   A distinctly different storyteller, who viewed the world both more cynically and more romantically than Westlake did.   Well, that kind of tracks–a cynic is just a wounded romantic, right?

Parker was wounded in the first novel–figuratively and literally–by his wife Lynn.   Emotionless as he seems, Parker does feel some things very deeply, and we learn more about this side of him in Face.

He’d felt for her what he’d never felt for anybody else, or anything else, not even himself, not even money.  She had tried her level best to kill him, and even that hadn’t changed anything, the way he felt about her or his helplessness with her.  He didn’t want that again, ever,  to feel about anybody that way, to let his feelings get stronger than  his judgment.  Oddly enough he missed her, and wished she were still alive and still with him, even though he knew that sooner or later she would have found herself in the same kind of bind again and done the same thing.

The wolf needs a mate.   But where in this faithless human world will he ever find one he can truly depend on, as she always could on him?   And how was the marital situation when you were writing this, Mr. Westlake?

Anyway, this marks the very first time Westlake sat down to write a book knowing that he was going to be writing a lot more books about the same character in the very near future.   Meaning he couldn’t kill the protagonist off, and in a short time, he wouldn’t be able to make any but the most credulous of his readers believe there was any real chance of that ever happening, so the suspense factor had to come from elsewhere.   It also meant he needed to use each book to hook readers into the one coming after it, and hopefully make them look for the ones that came before it, if they were just showing up for the party.   But he also had to make each book stand up on its own.

The Man With the Getaway Face picks up a few months after the events of The Hunter–last we saw of Parker, he had just ripped off The Outfit (again), and was headed west to Nebraska to get plastic surgery, after which he intends to resume his old pattern of doing a job every year or so, then spending the rest of his time relaxing in Florida.   There’s just enough exposition about the events of the previous book to whet your appetite, if you hadn’t read it already–or to give you a sense of smug in-the-know satisfaction if you have.

Parker looks at his radically altered visage, and his only reaction is “The new face went with the rest of him as well as the old one had.”  There’s not even half a second of readjustment, or disorientation.   He doesn’t ask himself “Who am I now?”   He knows who he is.  He’s always known.  The face never had anything to do with it.   He’s satisfied that he still looks like somebody to reckon with, because that’s a useful attribute for a man in his line of work.  He wouldn’t care if you made him look like Boris Karloff.  Or even Raymond Massey.  Did anybody catch the Arsenic and Old Lace ref?   Well, never mind.   He presumably no longer looks a little like Jack Palance, as Westlake originally envisioned him, but his effect on the opposite sex clearly remains undiminished, and women he passes in the street continue to feel ‘vibrations above their nylons’, as we were told in The Hunter.   That was never about his face either.    You got it or you don’t.

Parker’s reaction to his new face, as you can see up above, is quite distinctly different from the reaction of Vincent Parry, the protagonist of David Goodis’ second novel, Dark Passage.   I read it for the first time this week, just to see how it compared–the story and outlook are radically different, and I have to say, with predictable Westlake-centrism, that the book is not as well written as Face–Goodis had a weakness for run-on paragraphs at this point in his career, it seems–that and staggeringly improbable coincidences.   But it’s a strangely powerful and original piece of writing, all the same.  And forever overshadowed by the early film noir classic San Francisco native Delmer Daves made out of it.   Goodis’ best work was still ahead of him, even though his professional peak in terms of earning power was probably behind him after the 25k he got from Warner Brothers for the rights before it was even published (and right then is when his marriage fell apart, wouldn’t you know).

Vincent Parry isn’t a bad guy by nature or by choice, but he’s been framed for murdering his wife–a murder he did not commit, though it sure sounds like he had cause.   On the run from the law, doomed to be picked up and taken back to prison forever before long, he just happens to hail a cab driven by one of those supremely sympathetic, chatty, and knowledgeable hacks that only exist in genre fiction–not saying talkative taxi drivers don’t exist–I’ve met a few.  And so have you.  But I’ve yet to ever get good advice from any of them.   Your mileage may differ.

The cabbie tells him he knows a doc who can fix up his face so his own mother wouldn’t know him–for the bargain rate of 200 dollars (Parker’s new mug costs 18k–yeesh, inflation!).   Vincent takes the gamble, and it pays off.  He’s been a loser all his life, and it’s been all downhill since his wife’s body was discovered, but once he gets the new face, it’s like he’s become a new man–more decisive, more capable, and maybe Lady Luck just likes the new mug more, because in spite of a few expectedly unexpected twists and turns, things start going his way–by the end, he’s headed down to Peru, where if his new luck holds, he’ll end up living out his days with his soul mate, a ‘deeper than pretty’ blonde who shares his passion for gin and Count Basie records–and damned if I didn’t keep hearing Bogey & Bacall in every exchange those two have–it’s as if the book was written for them to appear in the movie of it, and it wasn’t, but that’s how these things go sometimes.

It’s not so much that Vincent’s luck has changed, though–it’s still lousy, by and large, the blonde excepted–but he’s changed.   He’s not a victim of circumstance anymore.   By shedding his old face, he’s shed the worst elements of his old self, his passivity and his self-pity–that’s what always held him back.   But once he sees the new face in the mirror, he starts acting like a new man.  By Goodis standards, it’s a pretty upbeat piece, dependent on deus ex machina though it be.   Goodis’ literary arc was different from Westlake’s–he started out fairly hopeful, and then got darker and darker, as his personal and professional life unraveled.   Still, even at the start he was, you might say, a very early adopter of existentialism.   You can see why Truffaut made the other best film adaptation of his work.    But I digress.

I see a lot of Goodis in Stark (particularly The Burglar), and I’ve no doubt Westlake had read Dark Passage, though I bet he saw the movie first.   There’s the same sense of detached immediacy in both books.  Goodis approaches the terseness and hardness of Stark at points, but Goodis’ protagonist is torn by doubts and confusion and regret and identity crisis–and Parker, self-evidently, is not feeling any of that.  To him, the new face is just a new face.   You make your own luck.   He doesn’t need helpful cab drivers or jazz buff blondes, to get out of the various fixes he finds himself in.

Dr. Adler, the surgeon who who gives Parker his new face, isn’t some philanthropist with a scalpel trying to help out an innocent man, ala Dark Passage, but a former left wing activist, who charges heavily for his services, and knows all his patients are living outside the law (and finds them fascinating for that very reason).  The cover of The Man With the Getaway Face is going to make anybody with two cents worth of knowledge of the crime genre think of Dark Passage, but this is Stark Passage.   We’re going a very different way with it.

There are two main storylines in Face, one of which is a heist.   Another first, you might say–the first true heist novel Westlake wrote, because even though The Hunter shows us two different robberies,  the primary emphasis is on retribution, not remuneration.  Here, Parker comes in on an armored car hold-up that’s already been partly mapped out, and he basically takes over–we get to see him be a planner, sizing up the job–and the people he’s doing it with.  The ‘finger’ (the person who pointed out the opportunity) is a surly New Jersey waitress named Alma, and, it seems, one of the few women alive who is immune to Parker’s surly sexual charisma, not that he’s bothered by this in the least.   She’s gotten a small-timer named Skimm to be her patsy, and find her a few other suckers to do the heavy lifting, at which point she intends to take the entire boodle for herself and scram.   She clearly doesn’t know what kind of book she’s in.

I love this part of the novel so much, I get chills every time I read it (three times, thus far).   Thing is, I grew up in New Jersey, a short drive from where the heist takes place, in Monmouth County, right next to Middlessex–the place names resonate for me; Freehold, Old Bridge, the Amboys (Perth and South).   My earliest memories are of this very terrain, just a few years after the events of this book would have happened, if they’d happened.   I can feel it.  I can smell it.   It doesn’t always smell very nice, but it smells like home.   I lived in nice middle class suburban colonials, but that grittier blue collar world was never very far away.   We even took a class trip to Perth Amboy once, by train.   And if you ever saw Perth Amboy, you’d wonder what the hell the point of that was (“study hard or you’ll end up here”?).

More than half the book takes place between Freehold and Newark, and makes use of the geography very well–what makes the heist so sweet is that where they take the money, near Perth Amboy, they can get to Staten Island very quickly, crossing the state line into New York–which as Stark correctly points out, gets along so poorly with New Jersey that they can make their getaway before the authorities in both states are on the same page (still true, by the way–see “Bridgegate”).  So this is the most Jersey of all Parker novels, and for that alone I love it.   But there’s plenty more.

Most of all, there’s Handy McKay.   Parker had a number of sidekicks throughout the series, but Handy was always the best, because he liked being a sidekick.  He was never going to get his own series, like Grofield did, and he was perfectly okay with that.   Rarely if ever do we see anything from his POV–he’s there as a point of reference for Parker, somebody has known him a while, who understands him as well as anyone can, who comes as close as anyone we ever meet to sharing Parker’s outlook, but somehow he’s just a more affable get-along kind of guy–and the kind of friend and ally we all wish we had, and so rarely ever find in this world.

Not that Parker would call him a friend, of course.   But he shows a level of trust in Handy that we’ve never seen before now, meaning Parker knows, on a cellular level–this is a stand-up guy.   This is a real professional.   This is the prototype for all Parker’s future associates we meet who do their jobs right, stick to the plan, and don’t get greedy.  This is, almost, a fellow wolf–but with a few little human weaknesses Parker kind of inwardly rolls his eyes at.

Handy  wants to retire from heisting and buy a diner in Maine–Parker doesn’t think he’ll ever do it, which just goes to show Parker isn’t always right.   Handy is maybe a bit too loyal for his own good–Parker sees this as a flaw, even though Handy’s chief loyalty is to Parker himself.   He’s got a streak of kindliness that causes problems sometimes (in this very book, in fact).   But he’s still a cold customer if you cross him.   He’ll take you out hard, and sleep like a baby afterwards.    Handy is the shit, pardon my French.    But he’s so uncomplicated, with so few moving parts to his mental makeup, that Westlake opted to only make significant use of him in four of the Parker books.  Just not enough to work with there.   Not much of a puzzle at all to his identity.  Still a lot of fun to watch him work.

With Handy there, Parker deals with the doublecross from Alma very easily.   She thought she was somebody who could get away with something like that, and that’s the last mistake she ever makes.   Skimm’s mistake was to forget he’s not the kind of man a woman like Alma would want for any reason other than money.  An unstated irony of this storyline is that Parker figures Skimm has over a hundred thousand bucks stashed away all over the place, since he clearly never spends any of his share of the many jobs he’s been involved with on himself–if she’d only realized this, Alma could have skimmed Skimm without ever getting involved in a heist.  But maybe the money wasn’t all there was to it–she feels so angry at the lousy world she was born into, she wants to plan the means of her own escape from it, as a sort of final fuck you to everything.    She escapes all right, but not the way she planned.

And now comes the B plot–earlier in the book, Parker was braced by Dr. Adler’s chauffeur, Stubbs–a punch-drunk slow-witted former union organizer for the CPUSA.   He fell in with Adler back then, and Adler gave him a home and a job after it all fell apart–he’s remained deathlessly loyal to him ever since–even after Adler is murdered, shortly after Parker leaves his clinic.  He figures it’s one of the last few patients Adler gave new faces to, getting rid of the last person who can link him to his old identity.   Stubbs is satisfied with Parker’s alibi, but there’s a catch–if he finds the killer and gets killed himself, the doctor’s cook May (who comes across like an ill-tempered addlepated version of the May from the Dortmunder books–Westlake does love to recycle) will blow the whistle on all these guys, including Parker, and she knows how to contact The Outfit to clue them in to Parker’s new face.

Stubbs is the most important POV character in the book after Parker, and we spend quite a bit of time with him, inside his slow-moving brain, which is compared to that of an animal, and it’s not meant as a compliment this time.  He escapes the cellar Parker & Co. lock him in until after the heist is done, and he’s off to find the doc’s killer.    The chapter where he spends several days at a cheap hotel, recovering from the ordeal of his confinement, sounds inspired by  a story Westlake told in an interview about his traveling salesman dad, who once felt a heart attack coming on while he was out on the road.  Instead of checking into a hospital (which would cost too much),  he checked into a fleabag hotel, drank cheap liquor, and waited it out.    The good old days, huh?

Stubbs’ single-minded pursuit of what he feels must be done is oddly reminiscent of Parker–but he’s not doing it for himself.   He’s just doing it mechanically, blindly, out of habit as much as loyalty–his brain has been so scrambled by company scabs wielding two-by-fours, he can’t stop and ask himself what he’s doing.   He’s almost a caricature of Parker–a lower class of hunter, and a much less able one, but you still admire his sheer doggedness, his implacable sense of resolve, as we admired it in Parker in the previous book.    And  again, the difference is that he’s doing it for somebody else, somebody who’s dead and won’t ever know about it–he’s long since forgotten what he wants, if he ever wanted anything other than to be a part of something bigger.  If Parker is a wolf, Stubbs is a bulldog–who just can’t let go.   Like Paul Cole in Memory, brain damage has made him a stranger to himself.   He remembers the past, but only vaguely.   He used to believe in the party, in the union, in Marxian dialectic–he remembers that–but he can’t remember why.

Stubbs finds the killer after a lot of starkly humorous trial and error, making his way haltingly from address to address,  including an apartment on Grove Street, in Greenwich Village.–same street Paul Cole lived on–a little self-referential wink to Memory that nobody else would have caught at the time, since the book hadn’t been published.  Then finally realizing his quarry is on Long Island, he makes his way to an old stone house there–and ends up being the quarry himself (this is partly Parker’s fault, not that Parker cares).    But at the last moment, he sees terror  appear in the face of the man who killed him, as he looks beyond at something Stubbs can’t quite see.   Stubbs failed, but justice is still coming–in a most unexpected form.   And Stubbs brought it there–so he didn’t fail completely.   He got what he wanted.   He just didn’t get to know it.

Then the story doubles back to Parker, covering a lot of ground, stowing his share of the loot, temporarily sating his post-heist sex drive with a few anonymous hookers (Westlake keeps reminding us throughout the series that Parker only wants sex for a limited period of time after a job is done),  then we see him follow the same cold trail Stubbs did, only with a lot less trial and error, because his much sharper mind can skip past obvious dead ends.    The point of all this, I’d guess, is to say it’s not enough to have a one-track mind–you also need a good one.   Stupid is stupid, no matter how determined you are.   Parker wins with brains, not just brute force.

A bit earlier in the book  we took a brief detour into the past of Charles F. Wells (real name C. Frederick Wallerbaugh), former Wall Street stockbroker.  And here we get a little bit of trenchant social commentary that tells us Richard Stark has as much quiet contempt for the ‘One Percent’ as Donald Westlake ever did.   But somehow it’s phrased in a more neutral manner–there’s no moral judgment here.    He’s just a different kind of crook.   Takes all kinds to make this world what it is.

There was this man named Wallerbaugh, C. Frederick Wallerbaugh, and he made a very good living for a number of years by doing the sort of things with stocks that no one is supposed to do.  He had a Seat, and his racket was its own respectable front, and no one bothered him.   The men at the top ignore the Wallerbaughs for the same reason that a police force retires a graft taker rather than prosecuting him–exposure of dirtiness in a part of the system reflects on the rest of the system.   So Wallerbaugh did well, and the only men who could have stopped him ignored him,   But in 1946, money at the top was tight, and Wallerbaugh, as usual, had overextended himself.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.   But anyway, Wallerbaugh realized that thanks to the G.I. Bill (which you’ll recall Westlake had also mentioned in Killing Time), there was plenty of money in distribution down at the bottom of the social ladder, and he got a nice big chunk of it selling worthless Florida real estate to gullible veterans.   Then he got found out, and since this time he was stealing Federal money, he had to hightail it to Argentina.   After a while he missed the states, came back and got his new face and identity, and then he decided to kill Dr. Adler to tie up that last little loose end, and then live high as a wealthy respectable American citizen the rest of his life.   He decided murder was the answer to everything.   Parker could have told him how stupid that is.

So Parker was what Wallerbaugh/Wells saw coming as Stubbs lay dying–not a brain damaged bulldog, but a fellow crook, only the kind who knows what side of the street he works on.   Wallerbaugh tries to have it both ways–to be criminal and respectable at the same time.   It backfires.   Badly.    He couldn’t leave well enough alone.   His kind never can.

So having done what Stubbs wanted done, in spite of not personally giving a damn whether Adler’s murder is avenged or not, Parker goes back to Nebraska to square things with May the Cook–only to find that she’s already blown the whistle, mainly out of spite for the way Parker talked to her.   He could easily kill her and the rest of Adler’s staff, but what’s the point now?   If you don’t need to kill, you don’t.  These sad sorry hangers-on will drift away like dead leaves now that Adler isn’t around to support them.   But he gives them one last parting gift–the face Adler gave Wallerbaugh/Wells.   With the head still attached to it.

And here we get to the real kicker–Parker realizes he was wrong all along to try and disappear, the way Wallerbaugh did.   The only way to deal with a group  like The Outfit is to come right at them, make them bleed until they sue for peace.   He is what he is, and there’s no point pretending otherwise–a false face can’t change his true nature.   It’s the people who earn his displeasure who should be  hiding.   And soon enough they will be.   The Man With the Getaway Face will be showing his real face to them, and they’ll end up wishing they’d left well enough alone.

And right after that, a little foreign intrigue, sex, double-dealing, and an art history lecture.   You just never know what’s coming next with Parker.   You only know you have to see it.   Hey Mr. Bookseller, is that new Richard Stark in yet?   Would you check, please?    Yeah, I’ll wait.

21 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Memory

cover_big

He had been on the very edge of losing his identity completely, of falling into the hole between the tick and the tock, of falling out of space and out of time and down into gray mindless emptiness, and not even knowing that anything had happened to him.

“That’s what a zombie is,” he told himself.   “That’s what a zombie is.”

My reviews, you may have noticed, are not reviews in the sense of “Hey, this book just came out, and here’s what I think of it, so you can decide whether to read it or not.”  I assume my readers are primarily dedicated Westlake readers as well.   Westlake’s books have all been heavily reviewed in the other sense of the word, so I’m gearing this blog towards people who have read the books, and are simply interested in reading a more detailed analysis, and seeing how their own reactions match up to mine.

Point is, I don’t want to have to run a disclaimer at the top of every single review saying “Be warned, spoilers below.”   And I want to discuss what happens in the books in a fair amount of detail (not every last detail), because it’s the story and the character development that interest me most–the stylistic aspects much less.   It’s what’s underneath that counts, much more than the surface gloss–the package, not the wrapping.    Well, of course the ability to use language well and express yourself in an original way matters greatly to a writer, but without a story worth telling, what’s the point?    Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And what I’m building up to here is that I’m about to review a book, and give away the ending (and much of what comes before), and if you haven’t read the book first, it’s going to affect your experience of it when you do.  Much more than the usual Westlake mystery/thriller/comic caper/etc.   Because this is a novel that doesn’t follow any formula, any genre, any established form I can think of.   It’s a rather unique piece of work for Westlake–so much so that it wasn’t published until after he had died, though it certainly could have seen print before then if he’d wanted it to.   Unique enough to be worth approaching with a mind relatively free of preconceptions and expectations.   You’ll get a lot more out of it if you don’t know where it’s going.

So as long as we’re clear about that.   You have been warned.   And one more warning–reading this book hurts.   Writing it must have hurt a lot more.

Memory was written sometime in 1963, perhaps the most fateful year in Westlake’s career.   Yes, more than 1960, when his contract with Random House began with The Mercenaries, more than 1962, when 361 and The Hunter established him as a noir fiction writer of the first rank–and the latter of the two provided him with his most important series character.   Because before 1963, Westlake’s career could still have gone in a lot of different ways.   He hadn’t completely decided yet what kind of writer he was going to be, and the proof of that is the book manuscript that was found among his papers after he died, that he had only shown to a handful of people, and which could quite easily have been lost forever.

Westlake had a lot of decisions to make in 1963–he had to decide whether to cut the umbilical cord between himself and the profitable but time-wasting and soul-killing erotic potboilers he’d been cranking out to make ends meet, the last of which came out that year–though for all I know they’d been written before then, and were just coming out in ’63.   He still had to decide once and for all not to write any more of them, which given his domestic situation, was a big decision.

He had already ended his long flirtation with science fiction the year before (or so he thought–that corpse went on twitching a long time), and was focusing more and more on the crime genre, and realizing more and more that he’d rather write from the perspective of the criminal than the cop.

But he had one other option open to him–he could be a ‘serious’ (ie, non-genre) writer.   He once compared two writers most people wouldn’t have connected–Dashiell Hammett and Vladimir Nabokov–the plot-driven scribbler of hard-boiled detective fiction for the pulps (based heavily on his own experiences as  a detective) who burned out after a short but seminal careerand the lauded yet controversial literary aesthete who was frequently accused of being all about style, and is mainly remembered for one book, featuring an unreliable narrator suffering from severe mental health issues.

Perhaps alone among his peers, Westlake saw parallels between the two men, particularly in the way they approached character development.   But they had obviously taken radically different directions, each of which had its advantages and drawbacks.   It’s easier to write for an established market (perhaps harder than most for Hammett, since he did more than anyone to establish that market), but you tend to be remembered longer if you break with formula and write something more sui generis–assuming you’re really good.   Only a handful of writers in a generation are that good (if any), and you need a great deal of luck, as well as talent–plus you may lead a fairly penurious existence if you’re discovered late in life–or posthumously.  Being discovered after you’re dead is probably not something any writer aspires to.   Yes, let’s have a brief moment of silence for John Kennedy Toole.

The “writer’s writer” is one term we hear–but those are mainly read by other writers.  Nabokov managed to become a best-selling and famous author, as well as a critically and professionally admired one, by profoundly shocking the public consciousness.   A neat trick, rarely pulled off.   Then again, Hammett more or less single-handedly created a new genre, and had an almost incalculable impact on popular culture.   He’s remembered for many stories, many characters.  And he’s loved by his readers, to this very day, in a way Nabokov probably never will be.    Nonetheless, the higher position in the echelon belongs to Nabokov, now and forever.   That’s just the way it works.   Genre gets less respect.   And there are some good reasons for that, as well as a lot of bad ones.

So Westlake had mainly taken the route of Hammett up to this point, writing for popular magazines, publishing novels and short stories dealing in sex and violence (though when you get right down to it, doesn’t Lolita deal in the same commodities?), but he still had to wonder–was it too late to turn the other way, chart a different course?   Or somehow combine the two?     Was there a via media?     Could I get any more ostentatiously pseudo-intellectual here?   Let’s find out.

To a great extent, Memory follows a pattern Westlake had already established in three of his four previous novels written for Random House’s mystery division.   It features a young male protagonist, raised in upstate New York, who had spent a few aimless years in the military during peacetime, and is now trying to find his place in the world.   These protagonists are all somewhat drawn from Westlake’s own life and experiences, as well as people he had met along the way, we may safely assume.

But there’s something else going on here–this protagonist is a professional actor.   Westlake had spent a short time working as an actor himself, though his description of himself as a ‘spear-carrier’ indicates he was never leading man material (which a look at the few surviving photos of him from this period would have told you just as well).   Some of those early erotic novels he wrote in the 50’s are set in that theatrical world, featuring randy young male thespians making their way through a sea of willing female flesh, and I really do need to read a few of those sometime, but copies of those books are not cheap.   This is the first ‘legitimate’ book he wrote featuring an actor as the protagonist.   The first of many.

Paul Cole is that rising young star, and the novel begins much the way we’d assume some of those steamy backstage novels did, with him having a purely sexual encounter with another man’s wife, in some dreary little town somewhere in the Midwest, where his touring company has been performing.   The cuckolded husband bursts in, and Paul can’t help but see this as a terrible dramatic cliche, but the guy is not acting here.   He picks up a chair and skulls Paul with it.   This is in the second paragraph of the first chapter–the third paragraph is Paul waking up in the hospital, and having no idea how he got there (yes, it’s quite reminiscent of what happens to Ray Kelly in 361).

Though he doesn’t find this out until close to the end of the novel, Paul has a concussion, which is not properly diagnosed and treated, because he’s got no money, and the cops want him out of town ASAP, and the doctor is a smalltown money-grubbing hack–or something that rhymes with hack.   There are large and growing gaps in Paul’s memory of life before the chair made contact with his head.   He is also having a hard time remembering things happening to him after the attack.   Meaning he has both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, but it’s of the progressive variety–it isn’t clear at first just how serious and quite possibly permanent the condition is.

He seems to be making memories, but is not able to directly access them for very long afterwards (and a memory you can’t access is no memory at all).  Exactly what caused the problem is never explained, but if it was, Paul wouldn’t remember the explanation for very long after he heard it.   Some memories hold on longer than others, but without constant reminders, via written notes and other devices, they will all eventually sink down into some Marianus Trench of the mind, where not even drugs or hypnotherapy will ever reach them again.

Hounded by one police detective in particular (who envies Paul’s amatory success, though he pretends it’s because he’s disgusted by it), Paul is pressured to get the next bus out of town, and having little money left after paying his hospital bills, he can’t get all the way back to New York City.   He is not thinking clearly at all–his lack of memory leads inevitably to a lack of good judgement, or he’d know he should be seeing a lawyer, as well as another doctor.   He simply buys a ticket for the town furthest away from this frightening policeman that he can afford to pay for–and that town is Jeffords, a small and smelly burg whose only real source of employment is the local tannery (hence the smell).

He fumbles his way around there, living in cheap hotels, burning through the few bucks he has left, unable to get in touch with anyone he knows (because he doesn’t know who he knows), and ends up working at the tannery–which is a union shop–clearly Westlake is drawing on his research for Killy here–or his own memories of working life after the military?   Probably both.

He just wants to make enough money to get back to his apartment in Greenwich Village–he has enough personal data in his wallet to know that’s where he lives.   He figures once he gets there, it will all come back to him.   But he has to borrow from a small time loan shark at the tannery, so that delays him a number of weeks.   He doesn’t trust anyone there enough to tell them what’s going on, but he doesn’t mind the work, and he makes some friends, including a colorful fellow named Black Jack Flynn (and his smaller more volatile friend, Little Jack Flynn), who he hangs out with sometimes at the local bar–Cole’s Tavern.   The coincidence is much remarked upon.

He finds a surrogate family with the people he’s renting a room from–and a girlfriend named Edna, a shy plain thin girl with little in the way of education or self-esteem, who thinks Paul might be The One–he comes very close to seducing her, but she’s not ready to go that far, and he feels enough of a sense of guilt to not want to pressure her–but he likes her, more than he is able to admit.   His feelings for her are not purely sexual, as they were for the woman he got his head bashed in for.  Perhaps he’s never had a relationship like this before.   Perhaps the only thing he’s ever been in love with is himself.   But he has no way of comparing what he has with Edna to what came before.   He’s going on sheer instinct, and instinct isn’t enough.

He keeps forgetting this isn’t really his home, his family, his girl, his life–and then he remembers, and feels a sense of horror that everything he was could be lost forever.   That he might have to accept this life of pleasant humdrum mediocrity.   He doesn’t really know who he was before, but he knows it was more than this.    He knows there must be more than this.   He watches soap operas with Mrs. Malloy, his landlady, and wonders if he was on some of them–and we later learn that he was, but she never recognizes him.   He’s just a nice young man who is taking the place of her son in the army.   The charisma he could once project on the stage or screen is gone.   Another trait of memory.

The man of the house, Mr. Malloy, works at the same tannery, is a devoted union man, and something of an amateur philosopher–when he learns Paul is going to leave (the locals assume he took advantage of Edna and is now making his escape), he takes him aside for a few words of advice–not knowing that Paul will be unable to remember them, or how sadly ironic they are–

“Every once in a while in a man’s life he comes to a crossroads, you might say, a place where he’s got to make a decision about his whole future life.   But like the fella says, all roads lead to Rome.  The scenery might be a bit different on each road, but after a while they all come back together again.  And then one day you say to yourself, it didn’t matter a damn bit of difference which way I picked back there.  You’ll look back at the different girls you went with back when you were young, and you’ll say to yourself , it didn’t matter a particle which one of them I married.”

“All decisions aren’t like that,” said Cole.

“No, they don’t look it,” Malloy told him, “not up close.   Like what you’re deciding now.   Whether you’re going to live in this town here or in New York City.  It looks like a hell of a difference in that one, don’t it?  But what is this town but a bunch of jobs and a bunch of neighborhoods and a bunch of people?  And what is New York City but a bigger bunch of jobs and a lot more neighborhoods and a great big bunch of people?  So twenty-five years from now you’ll take the subway to work instead of walking or driving, but how much difference is that?  Maybe you’ll live in an apartment house instead of a house like this, but on the inside it’s all the same.  And a job is a way to make money to pay the bills, so what difference does it make what the job is or where it is?  Twenty-five years from now you’ll live in a neighborhood and you’ll go to a job and your kids’ll be growing up, and that’s just the way of it.  The place you live might be here or New York City or San Francisco, but who you are and what you are and what you’ve got to look back on will be all the same thing”

Cole shook his head.  “I don’t think so”, he said.

Malloy is talking sense, up to a point, but he doesn’t know who he’s talking to.   He’s talking to two people–the Paul Cole that used to be, and the Paul Cole that is, who half-remembers what he used to be, and figures he has to try and get back to that.   Not all jobs are just to make money, but not all people are going to get that kind of job.  Not enough jobs like that to go around.  A  union man, a factory worker, believing in equality to his very core, isn’t going to get that there are other things that can drive a man’s ambitions besides money and family.

Still, what he’s saying is good advice, and contains genuine wisdom–for the person Paul Cole has become.   Except there’s no way this Paul Cole is ever going to be able to look back at his choices twenty-five years from that moment–or even twenty-five days.   And there’s no way the Paul Cole he’s talking to can be made to truly understand what he’s saying, because he has no memory of his past life by which he can assess the very limited choices open to him now.   Paul gets on the bus, and leaves Jeffords.   And although Malloy says he’s welcome to come back anytime if he regrets his choice, it never occurs to Paul to write down the information that would lead him back there.   In just a few weeks, Jeffords has become his home, but just like the Paul who left Troy NY to become an actor, he heads off for the big city–to become what he was before.   Or so he thinks.

Paul manages to find his Greenwich Village apartment, and miraculously he still has his keys  (though not his wallet), and after throwing out the slob he sublet it to,  he tries to settle back into his old life.   His tax forms remind him he’s an actor.   He’s got an address book full of phone numbers, including that of his agent.   He’s got books and records, but they don’t appeal to him at all, as hard as he tries to enjoy them the way he knows he must have done in the past.   Much of what we think of as our natural tastes are actually acquired tastes–Paul doesn’t even like the serious movies he used to go for, Italian Neo-realism and such–he’d rather go see a musical–which doesn’t require him to know anything.

This is not how amnesia is usually portrayed in fiction–usually the amnesiac is shown to have the same basic tastes and behaviors overall, but he doesn’t remember how he got them.   Here, Paul knows how he got them–he knows who he used to be–but he can’t be that person now, hard as he tries.   Personality IS memory.   They are, to a very great extent, the same thing.   Without the memory of past experiences, you simply can’t be the same person anymore.   Paul is a blank slate, that keeps getting wiped clean, over and over.   But he thinks that if he keeps forcing himself into the old mold, his memories will come back, and he’ll be who he was.

He goes to see a priest, somebody he can trust with his secret, and the priest is mainly tickled by what a strange theological conundrum Paul is–doesn’t know what religion he belongs to, if any–does he need to be baptized or confirmed all over again?   Can he confess to sins he doesn’t remember committing?   The old man is still geeking out over it as Paul leaves in confusion.  Paul should have probably gone to the Catholic Worker house on 3rd Street, but how’s he supposed to know that?

He meets his friends from the acting world, the artsy Village scene (which going by Westlake’s description, has not changed all that much in the last half-century or so, though the rents sure have), and they find out what’s happened to him–and at first they’re sympathetic, and try to include him in their activities.  But as it becomes clear that he really doesn’t remember them, except for the odd few fleeting impressions, they begin to cool towards him.  Then they just start to actively shun him.

It’s not that they’re bad people–really not so different from the people back in Jeffords, as Malloy said (which would probably horrify them to know, as much as it would many of the people in Jeffords).   But without his memory, Paul has nothing to contribute to their world anymore.   They resent him for reminding them how fragile life is, how easily everything can be taken away from you.   It’s one thing to see it in some Italian Neo-realist movie about a stolen bicycle, and another to see it happen to someone you know–someone who had talent, a future, cocky self-assurance, sex appeal.   And now he’s got none of that.   So what good is he?

Paul meets Rita, his New York girlfriend, and she’s a stunning black-haired bohemian bombshell, the kind of girl most men fantasize about–and they can’t connect.   Paul desires her, but he has no particular feeling for her, and she finds him upsetting, disturbing.   Even when he’s with her, he can’t stop thinking about Edna, and he can’t understand why.   It sounds very much like if the amnesia hadn’t happened, this relationship wasn’t going to last anyway.   Neither of them expected it to.   They were just marking time–though probably Rita had more feeling for Paul than Paul had for her–it was an affair, not a romance.

Paul, we realize more and more, had been living a restless self-centered existence–a pretty common though not universal way of life for actors, who can’t usually afford to get too rooted in one place, and who must constantly cultivate new relationships, take on new personas.  So he never formed the kind of relationships that would hold up under the strain of his current condition.   If one of his friends, or Rita herself, had developed the condition he has, he’d have dropped him or her like a rock just as quickly.   No hard feelings.  He just isn’t in the club anymore.  He can’t pay the membership dues–or his his actors union dues.

He goes to see his old acting coach, a strange mixture of perception and self-delusion, who tells him you either are an actor or you’re not–and Paul had been a born actor, one of the few–but now he isn’t anymore–something’s gone.   So Paul had chosen the right road for him–but then he got forced off it.   His teacher seems mainly depressed that Paul won’t be thanking him on television, while holding a statuette.

The most solid relationship he had was a business one, with his agent Helen.   She gets Paul to a doctor, has him over for dinner, fusses over him, but her motives are strictly selfish–she wants to protect her investment in somebody she’d pegged as a future star, and she figures in his current vulnerable state, she can finally get Paul into bed.   She figures wrong, both ways, and when Paul badly screws up a small TV job she gets for him, she drops him as a client.   She’s done her best, such as it is, but her doctor’s evaluation is grim–Paul could get his memory back, but he probably won’t.

He gives Paul ‘truth serum’, and asks a number of leading questions, but even with his unconscious mind laid open, Paul can remember very little of his past–he thinks he can remember something of a parent’s funeral, but he’s not sure which parent it was.   That’s how bad it is.  The only things that are still vivid for him are Edna and the Malloys.   His new family, in Jeffords.   The family he ran away from.   The doctor gently suggests he might be better off there with them, and he can’t accept it.

Because Paul refuses to accept his old life is gone, part of us refuses to accept it as well.   He is well aware his situation is desperate, but he hopes against all reason that he can find a way back–and we’ve been hoping along with him, because after all, don’t we all wish for a more exciting varied exceptional life? So it’s genuinely shocking when we realize, along with Paul, that he made the wrong choice.   That he should never have left Jeffords.  That the reason Edna hasn’t disappeared from his memory is because some part of him won’t allow her to.

He was thinking the thoughts now that had been trembling on the brink of consciousness for weeks, that he had been all unwittingly forcing down out of sight–because he’d been so mistaken about who and what and why he was–and which had finally become so strong that they had to force their way to the surface.

He needs to get back there, to the place where the new Paul Cole belongs.   But he doesn’t remember how.  He doesn’t even remember the name of the town–he gets the name of the last town he worked in as an actor from an annoyed and distant Helen, and buys a bus ticket there, thinking that must be where the tannery is, the town Edna and the Malloys and Black Jack Flynn live in–when in fact it’s the town he was run out of by the cops, just a few months earlier; the town where Paul Cole the actor was murdered by a jealous husband, and his corpse bought a ticket for Jeffords, where he was born again.

The bus station clerk remembers him–but doesn’t remember what town he bought a ticket for.   He gambles hopelessly, buying a ticket to a town that has a tannery in it–it’s the wrong town.   If he had his memory, he’d know he could go to a library, and research which towns within a certain radius have tanneries, and he could go to each of them–but then he’d remember where the town was.   Actually, if he had his memory back, would he even want to go back there?   Catch-22.

So within perhaps a hundred miles or less of his goal, he gives up.   He throws away the last few clues to his past existence.  He’s already accepted Paul Cole the actor is dead–now he accepts the Paul Cole who was born in Jeffords, had friends he met in a tavern with the same name as him, and loved a plain girl named Edna, is gone too, or will be soon.   He’ll just stay in this town, work in the plastics plant (since the tannery isn’t hiring), forget everything that happened to him before, everything he was before, and make a new self out of his experiences in this new town, “the way barnacles gradually build up on a keel.”   He’s accepted that his identity now is to have no fixed identity, no real home.  “I wouldn’t have been happy there anyway”, he thinks.   But he’s been wrong so many times before, we just don’t know whether to believe him or not.

Yeah.   It’s pretty dark.   Normally, when I’ve finished synopsizing a book here, I start to explain why this is a story about identity, but that’s hardly necessary in this case, is it?   It’s the most terrifying identity puzzle Westlake ever crafted, and it keeps you guessing all the way, but from very early on it’s plain as day that’s what this story is about (he’s not usually this obvious about it).   It’s not a crime novel, even though there’s a crime in it (two, if you count adultery).   It’s not a mystery, per se, though there is a mystery in it–or rather, a MacGuffin.   Back in Jeffords, Paul was pulled in by the local police, who are suspicious of this stranger–they’re just as vicious and caustic as the cops in Killy (I have to ask–what happened to Westlake to make him fear policemen as much as he clearly did–what memory did that spring from?).

Paul can’t tell them much of anything about himself, naturally, and they assume he’s holding out on them, so they bring in a shiny flat square piece of metal, and ask him to hold it, and tell them if he recognizes it.   All he sees is his own distorted reflection.  That’s the other thing he remembers most vividly, along with Edna.  He has nightmares about it.   He sees it everywhere, that piece of metal, with his face on it.  But in that last town he winds up in, he asks a policeman what it could have been, and turns out it was just a trick to get his fingerprints, so they could find out if he had a record without scaring him away.  They wanted to find out who he was.   He thinks that’s pretty funny, when he finds out.   But he’s not laughing.

So here’s the real mystery–why didn’t Westlake ever publish it?   Obviously it wasn’t a great fit for Random House’s mystery division–where Westlake was publishing his more serious hardcover stuff.   It was hardly going to work for Pocket, where he was publishing his Parker novels.   It isn’t a crime novel, and it isn’t science fiction either–though it shares some points in common with Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, that was made into a powerful film back in the 50’s.   In both books, the protagonist gradually fades away to nothing, but instead of ending with a defiant affirmation of existence as in Matheson’s book and screenplay, Memory closes with a dull moan of resignation.   Identity is a construct that can be broken like an egg by some cliche brandishing a chair.   All that’s left afterwards is the habit of living–though there is a certain courage, all the same, in the way Paul decides to go on living, no matter what.

Donald Westlake published over a hundred novels of many types in his life–and a few that are damned hard to type.   I have to believe if he’d really wanted to, he could have gotten this book into print.  He could always have published it under a pseudonym, as he did so many others–though somehow, this is a Westlake.   And once he became an established name, a beloved figure, with a devoted fanbase–then it would have been dead easy to find a buyer.   Once the manuscript was discovered, it took almost no time at all for it to find a home at Hard Case Crime, which was more than happy to make an exception to its normal fare for one of the supreme masters of noir–and honestly, if this isn’t noir, what IS noir?   Seriously, I’ve never been quite sure what the hell noir is.   But if Memento is noir, surely this is too.   Just a lot less romanticized–in fact, almost entirely de-romanticized.   The part of Westlake that was Richard Stark must have hated it.

So given that Westlake clearly didn’t want it published, why didn’t he want that?  And if he didn’t want it published, why did he keep the manuscript?   It would have been so easy for this Memory to be lost, forever.

As I said up above, Westlake had reached a point in his career where he had to start making some pretty critical choices of his own.   To decide who and what and why he was as a writer.  Memory, I think, was written as a way for him to decide if he could be another kind of writer–more along the lines of Nabokov, but still with a very large dose of Hammett–the thing he admired most in both men was their ability to tell you what’s going on in a character’s mind without coming out and saying it.

But in Memory, as we’ve seen, he was forced to come out and say, in third person omniscient narrator form, exactly what’s going on in Paul’s mind.   He couldn’t very well write it as a first person narrative, given Paul’s condition, even though the entire book is from Paul’s POV.   Paul would be an unreliable narrator, like Humbert Humbert, if he could be the narrator, but he can’t.   So that’s part of it, possibly–Westlake felt unsatisfied with the results.  He had failed to hit the goal he’d aimed for.   But he’d published other books he felt the same way about (Killing Time was one)–so there must be more to it than that.

It has occurred to me that maybe he’d put too much of himself into it–maybe there were some painful memories of his own youth in there, and some people he’d known and cared about, and he didn’t feel right about putting them out there in such a relatively undisguised form–much easier to cloak them in the raiments of the crime genre, so even if a few of them happened to see Westlake’s name on the cover and read the book, they’d no more recognize themselves than Mrs. Malloy recognizes Paul as a former actor on her favorite soap.

It’s worth noting that Paul’s middle name is Edwin, same as Westlake’s–and although before his misfortune, he had the acting talent, the looks (and the consequent success with women) that Westlake himself had only fantasized about.   Still, in choosing a creative path, rejecting the pull of the ordinary life, saying over and over in his work that life choices do matter a great deal (as the fatherly Mr. Malloy insisted they didn’t), Paul does seem to be Westlake’s contemplation of a life without talent–because after all, nobody could be a writer without memory either.

So is this book somewhat autobiographical at points, as Killy might have been?   Perhaps.  But again, there are other novels, like Killy, that he did publish that seem to be a bit more personal as well.   Could be there was a real Edna out there somewhere–or that her name refers to Westlake’s middle name as well.   Certainly a lot of Westlake’s friends (and enemies, and frenemies) from the Greenwich Village scene must be  in the book.   But again, not enough to explain him never publishing it, even towards the end of his life.

Here’s my idea, for what little it’s worth–I think he was ashamed of the way he’d treated Paul Cole–that’s why he didn’t publish the book, and that’s why he couldn’t destroy the manuscript either.   Okay, why would that be?   Hadn’t he basically killed off two protagonists already?   Aren’t his books one long succession of horrible things happening to people?  Yeah, but maybe they were not so real to him–in the crime genre, you have to expect a few casualties.  In ‘serious’ books too, of course, but you feel it more there.   In many ways, we read crime books to be less afraid of death and make the various hazards leading to it seem less frightening, more exciting.   There’s nothing glamorous about Paul Edwin Cole’s slow sad mental demise.

And here’s the thing–he’d given all his other protagonists, successful or otherwise, an out.  If they failed, they failed because they made the wrong choices–but they could have possibly made the right ones.   Because they had their memories to guide them.   If they failed to figure out who and what and why they were in time, that was on them–he listened to them, and let them speak through his fingers into the typewriter, and sometimes they chose wrong (though it must be said, most of his heroes eventually chose right).

But he’d deliberately taken away Paul’s ability to make the right choice.   He’d blinded him like Oedipus, left him to moan helplessly in the dark, because–well, because he wanted to see what that would be like.  He wanted to gaze into the abyss, and see the abyss gaze back at him, and say “I’m not afraid of you.”  But I think he was.   The book smells of fear.   That may be another reason he didn’t like it.

But in writing it, then putting it aside, he’d come to a decision.    He would be a writer who gave his protagonists a chance.   He’d tried this strange melding of elements–Dashiell Hammett meets Vladimir Nabokov meets Oliver Sacks meets Franz Kafka meets Jean Giraudoux–and it wasn’t who he wanted to be.  He wanted to write about people who had a chance–who could make the right choices if they chose to, overcome the odds, find out who they were (or in Parker’s case, just know it).   Maybe they wouldn’t all make it.   But it wouldn’t be because he hadn’t given them a fair shot.

He wasn’t going to write about the Humbert Humberts of the world, doomed before they start by self-delusion and inner weakness.  He was going to write about people who take their destinies in their hands, and meet the world on its own terms, and (more often than not) triumph, or at least survive.   That’s who and what and why he was as a writer.

But he didn’t abandon Paul entirely.   He left him there, in a drawer, waiting–for a time when we could look back and see the road not taken.   And Paul Cole could remind us more vividly than George Santayana ever did that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.   Only not the good parts.

Still, Paul’s condition does come with one positive trait–robbed of memory, he’s also robbed of preconceptions, and in many ways he sees people more clearly than he ever did before.  “–in every contact he made with others of his species there was always a wall of either indifference or self-concentration that couldn’t be surmounted.”   Yes, he learns a lot about us.  He just can’t remember it long enough to be of any use.

But as 1963, that most fateful year of all in Westlake’s career unfolded, he would publish not one, not two, not three, but four novels about a protagonist whose perceptions are just as unclouded–but whose memory is quite functional.   In fact, he doesn’t forget much of anything.  Unfortunately for some people.   And if he saw his face reflected in a piece of metal, he wouldn’t care what it looked like.   It’s what’s underneath that counts.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: Killy

IMG_1057

 “Let me tell you something,” he said.   “A good word.   You been going around like Batman, you know what I mean?  Catchin’ the crooks and avenging justice and all that.  But that ain’t the way to be.  You watch out for you, that’s what you do.   You take care of your own job and your own family and your own self,  and you just forget everything else.   That’s the way to be.”

“I suppose so,” I lied.

Killy was Donald Westlake’s fourth novel for Random House’s mystery division, published in 1963, and the last to feature his name emblazoned in a huge impressive font across the spine of the dust jacket–an apparent marketing ploy that must have been abandoned after this (“Let’s see if we can get people to think this is a major established mystery writer they’ve never heard of before.”)  They did this for everybody writing mystery books for them back then, best as I can tell.  It wasn’t just a Westlake thing.   Maybe it wasn’t just mysteries either.  If somebody knows, feel free to shout out.

Coming right on the heels of The Hunter, probably the most well-known book Westlake ever wrote (if only because two major motion pictures were later based on it), Killy has largely been ignored by posterity.   It seems to have only been reprinted once in the U.S., many years later (when Westlake had become a much bigger name).   It must have done notably better in the UK–I count three different British editions on the Official Westlake Site,  and elsewhere I saw one Alison & Busby omnibus edition that pairs it with 361.

And the only explanation for this disparity of reprints that I can think of is that the novel is about a national labor union going into a small upstate New York town to try and organize the shoe factory there, told from the POV of a young man doing a six month internship with the union–and therefore told from the perspective of the union, and more or less sympathetic to its goals, though not uncritically so.   In American mystery fiction, that’s certainly pretty damn unique–are there any other American mystery novels told from a labor union’s point of view?   I have no freakin’ idea.   I suspect British readers, with a stronger general interest in union politics (and a stronger sense of class consciousness), were curious to see how it played out.  Are there a lot of British mystery novels dealing with labor unions?   I have no bloody idea.

I would say it’s Westlake’s best-written book to that point in his career, and it certainly shows the good influence of Random House editor Lee Wright, who Westlake credited many times for the invaluable help she gave him.  Best-written doesn’t automatically mean best overall, of course.   It’s the story and characters that make or break a novel, and while Killy is strong in both these categories, there are good reasons it’s never been made into a major motion picture (though it would be much easier to adapt faithfully than The Hunter, a novel that Hollywood has never been able to take straight-up.)

The hero of Killy is Paul Standish, 23 years old, a student at good old Monequois University, which Westlake had already written about in some of his steamy sex books like Man Hungry (though it’s Monequois College in that one).   Monequois U. is clearly based on Westlake’s educational experiences at Harpur College in Binghamton NY, and the (now defunct) Champlain College of Plattsburgh NY, which Westlake’s Wikipedia article has apparently confused with the still extant university of the same name in Vermont (somebody should fix that).

The version of Monequois in Killy seems more based on Champlain, which attracted a lot of recently discharged military veterans, who mingled with a younger crowd of non-veterans, and Westlake (himself an Air Force vet) found that experience interesting enough to incorporate it into a number of his early works, including The Mercenaries, where Clay talks about how the non-vet students treated the vets differently.   This is in the 1950’s, you understand–long before Vietnam and the counter-culture.

I don’t know if this is true of Westlake’s own education, but in the book Paul comes to work with the American Alliance of Machinists and Skilled Trades (a fictional organization presumably based on this very real one) as part of a work/study program at Monequois where students spend six months at school and six months with some participating group.   He happens to end up with the union this time because of Walter Killy, former student and football star for Monequois, who is now an organizer for the Machinists.

Killy is, self-evidently, the title character–but the book isn’t about him.   Not exactly.   The narrator isn’t necessarily the main subject of a first-person narrative–look at The Great Gatsby–but he is here.  The book is about Paul Standish.   It’s a coming of age story.   And perhaps to a much greater extent than the earlier crime novels, a roman à clef .   This protagonist seems closer to being a self-portrait than any we’ve seen thus far from Westlake.   But he most decidedly takes a different path than his creator.

Walter Killy takes Paul along with him to check out a request to have the Machinists organize the McIntyre Shoe Company, in a one-factory town called Wittburg.  The workers there would have to vote to join the union, rejecting their company union, which was set up for them by the paternalistic deceased founder of the company.   The company is now run by a hired manager, who a lot of them don’t like or trust the way they did ‘The Old Man’.   It turns out Wittburg is a ‘sewn-up’ town, meaning that the company controls everything, including the police and the newspaper, and does not want the powerful Machinists Union anywhere near their workers.

When the worker who requested they come to organize the town is shot to death outside the factory, Walter and Paul are picked up by the police for ‘questioning’.   Meaning they both get the tar whaled out of them by corrupt brutal detectives–Westlake’s seemingly visceral dislike of certain types of authority is in full view here, as it is in many other books–both the police and the factory manager come off very badly.    Actually, nobody in the book ultimately comes off terribly well, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the only thing harder to find in a Westlake novel than an honest and effective police officer is a likable rich guy.

When Paul finally gets to talk to Walter in jail, they score a small victory over authority together, by using their superior college vocabularies to speak in a sort of code so the guard can’t follow what they’re saying–

Walter grinned at him, and said to me, “If we converse in polysyllables, he won’t comprehend.”

“Fine,” I said.

“Tell me the causation of the distress.”

“You don’t know?”

He shook his head.  “The inquisition has been unidirectional thus far.”

“Oh.  Well, our correspondent”, I told him, looking around for the right long words, “is a decedent.”

His eyebrows raised.  “Was he assisted on the journey?”

“Via a quatrain of metallic ovoids, rapidly propelled.”

They have a good working relationship–Paul immediately looks up to the 30-ish Killy as a role model, admiring his effortless charm, as well as his competence.   He notes the way Killy can seemingly change his outward personality in a heartbeat, while still somehow remaining the same man underneath.   Paul has a tendency to form snap evaluations of the people he meets during the story–which he has to keep revising, as new information about them comes to his attention.   We get what we think is a good picture of this or that person, then it turns out to be incomplete–a seemingly sympathetic character turns out to have a dark side, a seemingly antagonistic character turns out to have a more human side.   You know, the way it works in real life.

Paul is greener than grass, and utterly naive, but he’s also a remarkably quick study.   As the story goes on, the complications mount, and yet another dead body turns up, Paul has to keep reevaluating the situation, and the various players within it, including himself.   Walter is seemingly exonerated of the first murder by the second one committed while he was locked up, but now a whole group of organizers from the Machinists show up loaded for bear, and Paul has to find his place within the team.  But what he really wants to do is find out who killed these two people.   The second victim was a decent old man who tended to him after he got a brutal beating from the police, and he wants to make that right.

In the process of doing that, he somehow repeatedly falls into bed with the old man’s granddaughter, 27 year old Alice MacCann, a willowy Celtic beauty with long black hair (Westlake’s later predilection for blondes having yet to manifest itself) and a hair-trigger libido.   He knows there’s something wrong about the fact that Alice seduces him a few hours after she found her grandfather’s body, but he does what any healthy young straight man in that situation would do, and rationalizes it afterward as best he can.   It’s noir territory for sure, but it feels surprisingly realistic.   The mating dance is performed in the living room to 50’s jazz records–Glen Miller, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Ralph Flanagan, and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.  I’m a lifelong jazzhead, and I had to look some of these people up, so don’t feel badly.  But you will see some of these names again in other Westlake novels–he missed the first Rock&Roll generation by a few years.   This is his music.

While Paul is telling us about Killy and the others, he’s really telling us about himself–that he’s idealistic, but his ideals are just platitudes he learned in school; easily uprooted and destroyed when confronted with the hard realities of life.   He’s got a mean streak in him, and is strongly inclined to take revenge on those who have betrayed or used him.    Turns out he’s very good at that.   At times, it seems as though Westlake is taking revenge on people he met when he was young–the way Michelangelo put his enemies in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.   Some of the characters, and particularly the women, don’t come across as a collection of crime fiction cliches–they feel like repurposed memories.   Perhaps not entirely fair ones.   We can only guess.

The one most likable character is the least complex–George, a former sparring partner, now working as hired muscle for the Machinists–a huge powerful pug-ugly man, calm and good-natured, but only to a point.  Not an intellectual type, he’s still rather perceptive.  He seems to be an early prototype for Westlake’s various man-monsters, the greatest of whom would be ‘Tiny’ Bulcher of the Dortmunder novels.

George, Paul is increasingly aware, is most interested in the development of this new recruit, who he calls his ‘little friend’.   He says Paul is like Killy.   Paul doesn’t particularly like this observation, but can’t help but see the growing truth of it.  His identity is changing in response to the various stresses he’s been exposed to–violence, sex, intrigue, betrayal, disillusionment.  Paul is more and more aware that his choices in the jungle he’s found himself in come down to kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.   Metaphorically speaking, of course.   It’s not a Parker novel.  And yet I note with some interest that the French title for Killy was Un loup chasse l’autre, which translates to “A wolf hunting another.”   And the wolf Paul is increasingly on the hunt for is Walter Killy.   The role model has become the rival–professionally, personally, and sexually.   A wolf in that sense as well, it seems.

So in the end, as you’d expect in a book like this, the young hero (increasingly an anti-hero) wins out.   He solves the mystery, and he finds a way to get the Machinist’s Union securely ensconced in Wittburg, which one imagines is going to materially improve the lives of the factory workers, at least for the near future.   The organization the union in the book is probably based on still has hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S. in the present, but I doubt many (or any?) of them make shoes–nobody back then saw Capitalist China coming, so can’t fault Westlake for not seeing it either.   If Monequois was a real town located around the Adirondacks, its residents today would probably depend heavily on New York’s propensity for incarcerating large numbers of its citizens upstate.   I happen to wear excellent shoes made in the good old U.S.A., by union workers, but that factory is in New England.   And an extreme rarity these days.

It’s pretty easy to explain how Killy is a story about identity; so much so that you might wonder why I even bother.   Paul himself says it at the end–“I am Killy.”   He comes to Wittburg as a rather nice and wholly ineffectual young man, and by the end he’s become a wolf hunting other wolves.   He’s accepted George’s advice about thinking mainly of yourself and your job and your family, and not worrying about being Batman (the campy Adam West TV series is still about three years away so major pop cultural marks there, Mr. Westlake).

So since we don’t have to ask ourselves how the story is about identity–how easy it is to misunderstand other people, and how easy to misunderstand yourself–the only question that remains is how do we feel about all this?   We felt pretty bad about what happened to Clay in The Mercenaries and Tim Smith in Killing Time.   They’re almost certainly dead shortly after their respective novels end, so clearly that’s a negative lesson being imparted.   Ray Kelly in 361 loses his family and his previous understanding of who he was, but he gains real self-understanding, and kicks serious ass, so all things considered, we feel he turned out okay.

Parker–geez, do I even have to say it?   Parker is the ideal Westlake’s other characters merely strive towards–total self-understanding at the molecular level.   An identity that adapts, but can’t be fundamentally changed.   That’s why there’s 24 Parker novels–more than all Westlake’s other series characters combined (see, I told you in my first article here that I’d explain that eventually, and now I have).

But Paul Standish is no series character, and he’s no ideal, and he’s not all that likable by the end.   How should we feel about his transformation?   How did Westlake feel about it?   Well, one of his sons is named Paul, and that name was chosen well after this book came out, so you have to figure Paul’s father has some small regard for this flawed hero of his, who is, as already mentioned, something of a self-portrait–a road not taken.   He’s not somebody we’re supposed to dismiss as a failure in life.   He made a choice, and he made that choice work for him.   We may not entirely like the person he’s become, but maybe that’s the person who was there all along, and he was just pretending to be something else–as he puts it, somebody who just wants to be left alone.   Well who doesn’t, but if that’s not an option….

Here’s one reason why I react a bit more favorably to the change in Paul than some others might–I’m a union man myself.  Local 153 OPEIU (solidarity, comrades!).    So was Westlake, of course–the Writer’s Guild, and probably a few before that–he once explained to Stephen Frears, when he was writing the screenplay for The Grifters, that much as Frears wanted the script to be credited to Richard Stark, Stark was not a member of the Writer’s Guild, and Westlake was not going to let him scab.

Westlake’s opinion of unions was by no means starry-eyed–he was more than willing to point out how they could be corrupt and brutal (and worse, completely ineffective), and the Machinists seem to have their share of that brutish element, as George is there to remind us–they apparently evolved from the Wobblies, became pro-capitalist and staunchly American as they matured into a union of skilled tradesmen (labor aristocrats is the operative term), but in essence they are portrayed as a rival gang moving in on the McIntyre Shoe Factory’s turf.   And moving in effectively, at the desire of the workers there.   They don’t just mouth slogans and raise meaningless picket signs–they know how to mix it up behind the scenes.   They can get down and dirty when they have to.   And boy, do they have to.

So Paul has joined the Machinists by the end–meaning he’s joined a machine; that not at all being a coincidental choice of names.   That means he’ll never be in the first rank of Westlake protagonists, the rugged individualists, the independent operators, like Parker and Ray Kelly.  But he knows that’s what he’s doing, and he’s not kidding himself about it, so he’s not a self-deluded cog in a machine like Clay or Tim or Mal Resnick.   He’s going to be out for himself, but he’s also going to be a wily tenacious fighter for the working class, as well as himself–his own advancement depends on that.   He knows he’s not a superhero, but he still has villains to fight.  He’s found a niche.   He knows who he is.   He’s Killy.   As Killy should be, but isn’t.

See, that last line of the novel, “I am Killy,” can be interpreted two ways–he’s Killy in the sense that he’s become corrupted by the rat race, lost his soul–or he’s Killy in the sense that he’ll try to be the man he originally thought Walter Killy was–tough, effective, but still out to do his job, prevent the bosses from having it all their own way–because without strong unions, as America needs to relearn in a hurry, the bosses have it entirely their own way.    We’ve seen in the book that the Machinists are the way they are for a reason.   They’re a gang, but they’re OUR gang.  Cue Spanky & Stymie.

And cue our next book, featuring another protagonist named Paul–which was never published in Westlake’s lifetime, but I figure this is about the point where it would have been published if it had been.   Strange thing–I enjoyed Killy very much the first time I read it, and just as much the second time around, preparing to write this review.   But I had forgotten about half the plot twists.   Whereas the book I’m going to review next time, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed when I read it nearly two years back–but I can still remember it like I read it last week.   And that, to say the very least, is ironic.

24 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: The Hunter, Part 2.

point_blank_ver2_xlg

this_gun_for_hire_ver3

Penguin-1896-a Greene A Gun for Sale

It was simpler for the lead characters in the books.   They suffered, they involved themselves with tense and driven people, they handled sudden death like a commodity in a secondary market.  But when it was all finished, they were unchanged.  What they had walked through had left no mark at all on them.

It would be nice to believe that.  But the writers were blandly lying.  They weren’t using up their lead character, because they needed him to be in the next book in the series.

From 361, published 1962, by Donald Westlake

In some interviews I’ve seen, Donald Westlake talks about how a while after the Parker novels he wrote as Richard Stark started coming out, he started getting fan mail (presumably addressed to Stark) from urban working class black men, who loved the books, and identified strongly with Parker–even though the first book in the series refers twice to ‘colored boys’, which I’m pretty sure was not what urban working class black males liked to be called in the early 1960’s (and I’d hesitate to give any black friend The Hunter to read today, without at least a prefacing apology).   Clearly no offense was meant (and Westlake amended his terminology in his later books, many of which depicted black characters with considerable insight), but why was none taken?   Why, in a time when racial tensions were racheting upwards at an exponential rate, were they cheering this honky heister, who didn’t even work with a black man until 40 years after his first appearance, with the same enthusiasm they would later cheer Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song?

At the other end of the spectrum (in more ways than one), towards the end of his life, Westlake participated by phone in an NPR segment  featuring ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, who challenged Westlake to put three rarely-used words she’d dug up into a book–he read selections from the book he was working on at the time, which happened to be Ask the Parrot, in which he managed to employ all three more or less usefully, and while McKean was suitably pleased by this, she said she was much more excited about there being a new Parker novel coming out.    You really have to listen to her speaking voice to get why I find this bemusing (though in no way displeasing, or by this point, surprising).

Further down the same page you can listen to those segments on, you can find Terry Gross eulogizing Westlake (and Stark), with selections from two interviews she’d done with him on Fresh Air.   Ms. Gross, who stands about five foot nothing, and can’t possibly weigh more than 100 pounds, is often remembered for having conducted a rather tense interview with Bill O’Reilly, and having the notoriously antagonistic 6’4 Fox News pundit explode at her, then storm out in a rage.  She is a courteous and mild-mannered person at all times, but she didn’t back down from asking the questions she felt needed to be asked.   And I’m sure she only briefly and intermittently fantasized about strangling Mr. O’Reilly with huge veiny hands.

My point is that in one of the most testosterone-free environments in all of broadcasting, Parker has found adherents, just as he did in black inner city neighborhoods, and with all sorts of other people who could hardly be considered to be the original target audience–as Westlake often said, publishers at the time thought women read hardcover mysteries with more ‘sensitive’ character treatments and classy artwork on the dust jackets, and men read paperback crime novels with lurid covers where everything was rougher and tougher, but somehow it didn’t always work out that way at the book signings, and certainly not with Parker.   If there’s any common thread binding Parker fans together, it’s that they tend to see themselves as outsiders, at least some of the time.   But honestly, who doesn’t?

And the diverse nature of the Parker fanbase continues–as I was first reading the books, when I finished one, I’d hand it to my significant other, who is, as she will often remark, a very shy and private person–she would promptly devour it and request the next one.  When she’d finished the very last one, I had to tell her there were no more, and she got this thwarted look on her face, and has read little of Westlake since  (Dortmunder has never appealed to her much at all, an opinion I do not share).  More recently, she read The Mercenaries, since I had just reviewed it, and she handed it back to me with a bit of a grimace, saying “It’s very misogynist.”   I protested that she had read with enthusiasm novels about a guy much much worse than the protagonist of the book she’d just perused.  “That’s different.”

That it is.   It’s very very different.   It’s Parker.   And the difference is that while he is a person nobody in the real world could ever possibly become, when we read about him, we do become him, however briefly.   Although the books are written in the third person, and frequently spend a lot of time in the heads of other characters, who are far more identifiably human in their pursuits and preoccupations, and may for all intents and purposes be the active protagonists of the story, they are never the main attraction.   When we read a story about Parker, we don’t aspire to be human.  We aspire to be like him.   We want to know what it’s like to not give a damn.   Just for a little while.

But in The Hunter, for a little while there, Parker does actually seem to give a damn about some things.   He is, you might say, upset.   His wife has betrayed and shot him.   His associate has taken his share of the loot from a criminal venture.   He’s been picked up as a vagrant by the police, and sentenced to six months hard labor at a prison camp–and fingerprinted, which is going to come back to haunt him later on in his career.   Nothing like this, we gather, has ever happened to him before.   Parker has been organizing and perpetrating heists for a long time before we meet him, but it seems like they all went smoothly before now.   And because they went smoothly, they were not of any interest to Westlake/Stark.   Identity is revealed by crisis, and crisis then triggers adaptive changes in identity.  To paraphrase Tolstoy in a way I’m sure he would not approve “Happy robberies are all alike; unhappy robberies are  all unhappy in their own way.”   This is, of course, the story of the heist subgenre as a whole.  But it has its own unique application here.

Parker was always different from other people, we are told–he doesn’t seem to remember a time when his emotional reactions were what anyone (even other criminals) would call normal, and his sexual pattern in particular is absolutely unique and unaccountable.   But at the same time, he got married, and we’re told he was in love with his wife–presumably entirely faithful to her, and assuming she would always be the same way to him.   When his assumptions prove untrue, he becomes temporarily unbalanced; to the point where having learned where she and Mal are located, he breaks out of the prison camp, killing a guard in the process (meaning his fingerprints are now linked to a murder), when he’d be released in a few weeks anyway.   This is a deliberate choice by Westlake, to show us that Parker is not always fully in control of himself.  When motivated by certain situations–like someone he trusted to any extent betraying or cheating him–Parker can behave irrationally, even though most of the time he views people who let their emotions control their behavior with quiet contempt.

What makes The Hunter different from all the books that followed it is that it was written as a one-shot novel in which the protagonist dies at the end.   When Westlake altered the ending, at Bucklin Moon’s request, the rest of the book was not rewritten to match the new ending–as a result, the story is, effectively, using the character up, showing him do things we won’t see him do in later books, that justify his final comeuppance–we see him be bitterly sarcastic and spiteful with his wife and with others, kill an innocent person by accident (never happened again in the entire series–if you think you’ve got an exception, think again), and just generally act out in a way that to readers of the later books, may not seem entirely–Parkeresque.  And yet we recognize him–it’s Parker, but in embryonic form.

The first book is shocking as all hell, and most of all in the fact that Parker walks away, whole and sane and reasonably contented, at the end of it.  You’d have a hard time finding an analogous ending, anywhere in the crime genre, or in fiction as a whole.   The Name of the Game is Deathwhich slightly predates The Hunter by publication date (and probably didn’t influence it at all) leaves its sympathetically  psychotic criminal protagonist alive at the end, but he’s most decidedly not contented, or at large, and there wasn’t another book about him for around seven years.   The Talented Mr. Ripley, which substantially predates The Hunter, ends with its title character nervously looking around every corner for the law to come after him–which it never does, and he calms down, but by the next time we see Ripley, in 1970, Parker is already winding down his first cycle of adventures.  For a while there, it was just him out there on the frontier of noir morality–or lack thereof.

Westlake is figuring this new character out as he goes along, a process one might argue went on for the entire 24 book series, but is particularly pronounced in the first few installments.  That’s the real reason for the differences between this Parker and the one we know from later on.   You write a series character differently than a standalone character.   A series character can only develop so much, without becoming so different that the audience who used to follow that character may no longer want to do so.   A standalone character has to do all his developing, for good or bad, in a relatively short period of time.

But in the context of the story we’re being told, it plays out as something that was intended all along–Parker’s life is turned upside-down, and in response to that, he becomes even colder and more alien in his outlook by the end.    The whole story has been about him trying to regain the inner calm he felt before Mal and Lynn destroyed it, and he succeeds in restoring that psychic equilibrium–but he can never be quite what he was before.  He’s become something different, more dangerous, more unpredictable–capable of taking on an entire organized crime syndicate and walking away the winner.   He sees that it’s a new pattern for him, but typically, he doesn’t ask himself why he would respond that way–what’s the point?

The potential for that type of response was always there, but the events of the book have caused it to become fully realized.   Parker is no longer, in any real sense, a human being.    When I first got interested in the character, I asked myself what he was.   And for me, the answer that came back was that he’s a wolf in human form.   And to say the least, not everybody agrees with me about that.   Did Westlake?   I don’t know.   But as we go along through the other 23 novels, I may be able to present a few scattered bits of evidence that he did, at least sometimes, see Parker that way.

My first bit of evidence is, as I see it, a seminal influence on The Hunter.   Written by none other than Graham Greene–originally published as A Gun For Sale, it is better known to American book and movie audiences as This Gun For Hire.

Westlake’s most important influence, of course, was Dashiell Hammett–who taught him that you could write a character on a sort of emotional mute button, where he tells you little or nothing about what he’s feeling, but you can still sense the emotions raging down beneath (Hammett also used the name Parker once or twice, which is neither here nor there, far as I’m concerned–what’s in a name?).   Hammett is always there in everything Westlake ever wrote, but Westlake felt unhappy with his Red Harvest rewrite Killing Time, in part because it was too much of a Hammett homage/deconstruction–he wanted his own style, not just a new take on somebody else’s.

After Hammett in order of importance comes Peter Rabe, a less successful but much admired master of the paperback crime novel who Westlake learned from in a variety of ways, not all of them positive–in some cases, Westlake was avoiding traps he felt Rabe had gotten himself into.   Rabe typically wrote about out-of-control gangsters on self-destructive rampages, often trying to get or maintain power in a criminal organization (like The Outfit), usually involved in a torrid tortured relationship with a woman, and the deadly combo of those two factors–the protagonist’s relentless ambition and his emotional vulnerability to the woman in question–does him in, physically and/or psychologically.

Nearly all of Rabe’s one-shot characters are completely used up by the end–his one series character, Daniel Port, just sort of drifts from place to place, story to story, and never really changes or finds any reason to go on existing–Westlake didn’t care much for those books, and I think they were a negative influence on Parker, at most–how not to write a series character.   That’s the kind of thing Westlake was having Ray Kelly respond to by ripping up those crime books in 361.   You either have one-shot characters who blow up in some dramatic Warner Bros. fashion (“Made it Ma!  Top of the World!”), or series characters who just cruise along and never develop.   And to Westlake,  neither is completely satisfying.   I’m not saying these approaches have no merit–I’m saying they aren’t what Westlake wanted to do.

But in any event, I don’t think either Hammett or Rabe contributed much to the story of The Hunter.   I think the bare bones of a good portion of the plot are borrowed, in a form so utterly transfigured as to be barely discernible, from A Gun For Sale.   In that book, a scrawny waifish disfigured hired gun named Raven (who is nonetheless a very dangerous customer indeed) is paid to kill a European statesman by a wealthy industrialist, via an intermediary, for the purposes of provoking a profitable war.   To cover their tracks, they try to throw Raven to the law, and realizing their betrayal, he comes after them with the singleminded intent of killing both, even though he knows this will be literally the last thing he ever does.   Most of the book is him tracking them down–like a hunter.

If you read the books one after the other, you can see how Parker is to a very great extent an idealized version of Raven–described in one passage as looking like a mangy wolf in a cage–and Cholmondeley, the lecherous greedy hireling who paid him, and then betrayed him, is Mal Resnick.  The arrogant industrialist who pays Cholmondeley, who sees himself as invulnerable and above it all (unfortunately Jewish, as Greene was not above the odd bit of anti-semitism in this period) is Bronson, head of The Outfit.  Westlake, as we have seen, liked to draw parallels between organized crime and the corporate world, and this would be him doing that again, only without telling anybody that’s what he’s doing, probably because it takes a long time for book copyrights to expire–not that what he did was remotely plagiarism, but why expose oneself needlessly?

In particular, the parallels between Cholmondeley and Resnick are quite telling–in both cases, their hunger for sex with women they have to bribe in some way to sleep with them is linked to their impending deaths.   In both cases, we despise them, and yet are uncomfortably forced to recognize that in many ways we’re more like them than the ‘hero’ of the piece.   In both cases, they are there to make the criminal protagonist look better by comparison.

There is no overstating the differences between Graham Greene and Richard Stark–the former is morally unromantic, the latter romantically amoral.   Greene wants to show the ugliness of the world he despises for not living up to his Christian ideals, even though he still hopes it could change;  Stark looks at the same world and glamorizes it, jazzes it up–partly because that’s the genre he’s working in, the market he’s writing for–but also because he likes it that way.   And he wants to write about a character who is everything Raven dreams impotently of being.   As Westlake said of Stark, when he writes about Parker driving up to rob a bank, there’s always a parking space right outside.   The many difficulties he strews in Parker’s way make him look better, not worse.   Parker is allowed to fail sometimes, but he’s never allowed to look bad doing it.

You can only do one book about a Raven–you can do a whole lot of books about a Parker.   Because Parker doesn’t just look like a wolf–he is one.   Because Parker doesn’t work for anybody but Parker.   Because Parker is–let’s just say it–cool.  Raven, by contrast, is a British working class take on Nietzschean ressentiment (google it), a born loser who knows it and is mad as all hell about it.   He is possessed by rage and envy towards those more fortunate than him, and the most he can ever expect from the book’s lone female character of note is pity.   She betrays him at the end, for very good reasons, but not without a pang of regret, the way you’d feel sorry for a stray dog that got shot raiding a chicken house.   It’s like a funhouse mirror image of The Hunter–or rather, The Hunter is a prettied-up version of A Gun For Sale, transplanted to a different setting and genre, with the plot elements scrambled up.

And of course Greene’s book is better–my Westlake partisanship having some limits, though to be fair, neither man is in absolute top form here.   To Greene, this was one of his ‘entertainments’, and he didn’t take it very seriously at all.   To Westlake, his radically different take on the same basic plot Greene had earlier employed was a way out of the porn pits, and a chance to explore some ideas that had been percolating around inside of him.   But he probably didn’t think this character would come to heavily define his entire career, or that Richard Stark would actually be outselling Donald Westlake at certain points.

So Westlake, I say with some confidence but zero proof, was drawing on Greene and Rabe, both of whom tended to use up their  protagonists of this ilk, and that’s why he felt like he had to do the same thing–even though part of him rebelled against killing this character he liked so much, who he realized he would have no trouble finding stories for.  When Bucklin Moon offered him the chance to write multiple books about him, he jumped at it–but knowing now that he was going to be writing about him for the forseeable future, three times a year at the outset, he had to find ways to move the character forward without using him up.

Parker’s identity crisis, for the most part, is resolved–he’s reestablished his old pattern with a new twist–now how can Westlake play with Parker’s sense of self, when Parker knows exactly who he is, what he wants, where he’s going?   What’s next?   How to keep the character basically the same, but still show that he is affected by what happens to him, that he is evolving, however slowly and enigmatically?   How to keep asking questions about the nature of human identity, when your protagonist isn’t even human?

Unfortunately (or not), what’s next is another Westlake novel for Random House, but we’ll be seeing lots more of Mr. Parker and his vicious circle in the near future.   And don’t think for one minute I didn’t notice how many more hits I was getting after I started writing about him.   But we’re sticking to chronological order here.  You’ll just have to learn to cultivate patience.   Parker did.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized