Riff Raff: It’s astounding…
Time is fleeting…
Madness takes its toll…
Riff Raff: But listen closely…
Magenta: Not for very much longer…
Riff Raff: I’ve got to keep control….
AC: Why and how did Stark come back?
DW: I tried three or four times over the years, from ’73 up to maybe 1980. Then in 1988 I started to do the screenplay for The Grifters and the Writers Guild went on strike. I was writing a Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes, and when I finished it the strike was still going on, and I had a little idea for what might have been a Parker novel and I started it then. But then the strike ended and I did The Grifters. So then a year later I went back and looked at those two chapters and I thought, geez, maybe I can, and I did half a book and then it just stopped. Then about a year and a half ago, I finished something, I forget what, and I said to my wife, usually I know what I’m gonna do next, usually by the time I finish a book I’ve got an idea for something, or I’ve been hired to write a screenplay or something, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do next and it feels weird. She said why not take a look at that Richard Stark book you never finished. I went back and looked at the first half that existed I said, I see the next three chapters. And it just flowed and it went so easily then that I’ve done another one since. He’d gone away and then he’d come back. There’s no telling why. Maybe it was me or something in the world around me…
AC: Maybe it was hanging out with those grifters.
DW: Yeah, that could be it.
Jesse Sublett, interviewing Donald E. Westlake for the Austin Chronicle, 1997.
Maybe it was working on The Grifters with Stephen Frears, who kept pushing him to write more like Richard Stark.
Maybe it was getting into Tom Jimson’s head, while writing Drowned Hopes.
Maybe it was his increasingly sinister yet practical and results-oriented contributions to The Perfect Murder, where he was clearly writing as Richard Stark, even though he was still signing his mock-correspondence as Donald Westlake.
Maybe it was realizing that he was now older than his father Albert had been when he died.
And maybe it was the process he went through writing the darkest of all his books, the one I just finished reviewing. Was The Ax that thing he said he finished, and he didn’t know what to write afterwards? How could he have forgotten that? He wasn’t writing that many novels by then, and it had only been a year and a half. Maybe it was some article or short story (maybe it was the book that’s finally getting published next year, though I’m not sure the dates match up).
It was probably a lot of things that got him in Stark Mode again; a cumulative process, that took him back to where his career as a writer got started in deadly earnest.
But no question at all, The Ax and Comeback have a shared genesis. They came out of the same period in Westlake’s life, and were published and reviewed in the same year. I don’t know for sure if The Ax made Comeback possible, or vice versa–maybe Westlake wouldn’t know either. But neither book could have been completed before Westlake came to that particular stretch of the road.
Comeback, to be sure, was begun much earlier, in the late 80’s, and Westlake attributes that abortive beginning to being assigned the unenviable task of adapting a Jim Thompson novel (he’s still the only one who ever got Thompson even half-right). Different as they were from each other, as he wrote for the New York Times, Thompson and Stark still had much more in common than Thompson and Westlake.
At that point in time, he’d been unable to write as Stark for about a decade and a half.
But then, in 1974, Richard Stark just up and disappeared. He did a fade. Periodically, in the ensuing years, I tried to summon that persona, to write like him, to be him for just a while, but every single time I failed. What appeared on the paper was stiff, full of lumps, a poor imitation, a pastiche. Though successful, though well liked and well paid, Richard Stark had simply downed tools. For, I thought, ever.
It seems strange to say that for those years I could no longer write like myself, since Richard Stark had always been, naturally, me. But he was gone, and when I say he was gone, I mean his voice was gone, erased clean out of my head.
Westlake’s writing through most of the 70’s and 80’s (he presumably finished writing Butcher’s Moon no later than ’73, and that interview quote up top makes it clear he was trying to do another Parker in ’73) is happy writing. It’s upbeat. It has its dark melancholy moments, sure, but it’s mainly the work of an optimist, somebody who wants to see the best in people (even when he’s writing about Idi Amin’s Uganda). Not eliminate the negative, but definitely accentuate the positive.
It was, I believe, the happiest time in his life, having settled at last into a marriage that would not fall apart, and he spent time with his kids, with his wife’s kids, with friends, explored more of the world around him. Having achieved so much in the 60’s, established himself in his profession, he could afford to relax a little. Stick to the sunny side of the street a while. You may still get mugged there, but the muggers are more polite. Some things you see more clearly in sunlight (and some in shadow).
Your 40’s and early 50’s are, after all, the prime of life. You still have a decently functioning body (fortune permitting), and your mind, you start to realize, is functioning better than it ever has before, working the way it was always supposed to. (Shaw said youth is wasted on the young, because the youthful mind is chaotic and incomplete, working in fits and starts, still trying to understand itself). But then you reach A Certain Age, and how did Ira Gershwin put it? The winds grow colder. Suddenly you’re older. And the man or woman who got away is you, dammit.
So even though he was stimulated to start writing a new Parker novel around ’88, it took him almost ten years to finish it. Parker came out of a pretty bad time in his life–stimulating, exciting, but difficult. That’s self-evident. You look at the books he wrote around that time, ’60-65, you see the darkness, the anger, the discontent, the betrayal, the frustration–and nowhere do you see it more than in The Hunter. He didn’t have to be miserable to write as Stark. But it sure didn’t hurt.
Well, let me put it a different way–when he wrote as Stark, he could make it stop hurting so much. He could channel the pain, the anger, into something productive, cathartic. Cast a cold eye, on Life, on Death–Horseman, pass by! Stark knew how to keep the emotions beneath the surface–not suppressed, but controlled. Focused. Aimed. Like a weapon.
If he wanted to wear his heart on his sleeve, wallow in his pain, he’d write as Tucker Coe. If he wanted to laugh his troubles away, he’d write as Westlake. Sure, there were exceptions to the rule–Adios, Scheherazade–works that drew on old sorrows, that did not fit Stark or Coe’s M.O., so they got published under his own name–they’d be funny too, just with a lot more pathos thrown into the mix. Under any name, the scars are there, throbbing away.
But the scars healed over, life got better, success was very sweet indeed, as was Wife #3, and what do you know–no more Coe. No more Stark. I’m sure many a practicing psychiatrist would have something to say about that. And Westlake would perhaps have something not too polite to say in response.
And then he got old, and perhaps a bit creatively frustrated, bored with being The Funny Man all the time, even though his humor was the very coping mechanism that had allowed him to get this far. He’d opted to stay up north. To stick out at least some of those woeful winters. And as the cold seeped into his aging bones, Stark seeped back in with it. Well, maybe that’s just me projecting, as another northern winter looms, and the polar vortex drifts down from a dangerously warmer Arctic Circle (Andy Kelp’s optimism regarding the end of winter was premature, to say the least). My most frequent choice of armor these days is a heavy wool hunting jacket (Made in USA). Stark’s in my bones, for sure.
Hanging out with Thompson’s grifters got him started, sure, but there was still a process he had to go through before he could make it work again. He couldn’t write as Stark unless he could become Stark. If he wasn’t feeling it, he wouldn’t publish it–and of course he could have done. Established series, famous character, multiple film adaptations. He could have just faked it. Cashed a few easy paychecks. Lots of people would have bought it.
Case in point: the first Jack Reacher novel came out in 1997 too. Those are popular well-reviewed entertaining books, whose author works damn hard at getting them right. Getting them to just about the level of Westlake pretending to be Richard Stark, I’d imagine–not quite as well written, not quite as observant, but roughly the same level. That’s not remotely a diss. Westlake pretending to be Stark would be very entertaining–might actually sell better than the real Parker novels have (a lot more fist fights and sex scenes, probably). It just wouldn’t be Richard Stark. As Jack Reacher will never be Parker. Because he’s trying too hard to convince us of something. And Parker doesn’t give a damn if we’re convinced or not.
I can’t remember where I read this, but I recall an interview where Westlake said he showed Comeback to somebody whose opinion he trusted, just to make sure–is this Stark? Is he really back? Yes, and yes. The Final Eight are not just retreads, though they do revisit some ideas from the First Sixteen. They are not filler. They are sure as hell not nostalgia. They are not the old boy trying to prove he can still cut it. They are the genuine article. Which isn’t to say they’re as good as the First Sixteen. That’s a separate question. And answering it has a lot to do with the passage of time. And the warping of it.
Last week, I had a very interesting phone discussion with a predecessor of mine, who goes by the rather distinguished-sounding name of D. Kingsley Hahn. Back in the early 80’s, he did five issues of something called The ParkerPhile. A fanzine devoted exclusively to all things Westlake, but most of all to Stark.
Westlake read it–a letter expressing his bemused gratitude appears in the second issue. He and Hahn corresponded off and on, and while much of what Hahn told me I already knew, there was one stunning little revelation, relating to Parker. Shall I tell you what it is? Maybe if you beg.
He was a little suspicious of me at first (highly appropriate, given the subject at hand), but once we got past that, we had a nice talk, and he graciously gave me permission to put up an article from the second issue, which will be my next post here. That article constitutes the only serious attempt I’ve come across to work out the timeline of the first sixteen Parker novels (as well as the four Grofields), and it really should be available to a wider readership. However, if you want to read any further articles–he’s still got some copies available.
And as you might expect, Westlake didn’t really care if the timeline worked out perfectly or not–and it doesn’t. Many of his references to dates, to the passage of time in Parker’s life, don’t match up all that well with other references, though clearly he was making some effort to make it jibe. Westlake wanted to make us believe Parker existed in time, to produce the verisimilitude of continuity, without being chained to a rigid chronology that would get in the way of good storytelling (and take up too much of his own limited time).
Hahn does a valiant job trying to make the calendar balance out, and he does manage to establish pretty convincingly that the events ranging from the start of The Hunter to the end of Butcher’s Moon comprise just about exactly ten years–1962 to 1972. And no further novels appeared until long after The ParkerPhile expired, due not to financial considerations (nobody in his right mind expects to make money from a fanzine), but personal time-oriented ones. I try to envision how much work would go into something like this, without Google, without Amazon, without eBay, without user-friendly blogs, without email, and the room starts spinning around me.
But Mr. Hahn’s difficulties rationalizing the Parkerian timeline in 1983 would be magnified tenfold were he to try now to factor in the eight novels that appeared between 1997 and 2008.
Donald Westlake didn’t like to write period pieces. The only unequivocal example of him doing this is the western novel he did with Brian Garfield–which to him was justifiable, since as he said, there’s no point writing period unless the story is about that period. Westlake wrote about people, not eras. People don’t really change. True, he wrote about the future when he did science fiction, but that’s inherent to the genre, and he was usually extremely vague about when exactly his futuristic stories took place (a wise precaution, given how many futuristic stories have been rendered retroactively obsolescent by their writers setting them a few decades in the future).
So when you’re reading a Parker novel from the 60’s or 70’s, you only have to look at the original date of publication to have a pretty good idea when it’s taking place. A system that works quite well up until Comeback. A book that appeared with the World Wide Web in full flower (Google had debuted the year before); with handheld cellphones a commonplace fact of life, frequently used as a plot point on television shows–the world had changed quite a lot since Westlake had begun the book in the late 80’s. And in this instance, Westlake (or Stark) chose not to acknowledge that.
When is this book taking place? It’s deliberately kept vague. There’s a reference to ‘money floating around in cyberspace’ and clearly Parker knows he’s living in a different world (he notices any social change that makes his professional life more difficult), but he’s not using any cellphones, and I doubt anything could ever induce him to go online. In any event, the term cyberspace first appeared in 1982, in a short story by William Gibson.
The most obvious answer is that the book takes place around the time Westlake started work on it, 1988, or shortly afterwards. That also ties in to references to televangelists going to jail–Jim Bakker went to prison for fraud in 1989. That presumably was one of the stories that inspired the choice of targets for the heist in this book. (Jimmy Swaggart had to step down from his ministry for a while at around the same time, due to sex scandals–they both had subsequent comebacks of their own.)
But most of the book was written much later. The security chief in the novel is pretty clearly a variation on similar characters used in What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (Though now I think on it, they are more likely to be variations on the character in Comeback.)And how much the characters have aged since last we saw them–well, that’s the real kicker isn’t it?
You hear a lot of talk about Parker being an ageless character. Timeless, certainly. In that he belongs to no time, no era, no culture. No more than any other wolf would belong in the human world. But real wolves are quite certainly impacted by changes in the human world, and so is Parker. All the more since he was born into a human body, a joke played by some celestial agency, or perhaps an experiment the results of which have yet to be fully assessed.
Parker isn’t ageless. He is getting older, as his creator gets older. He’s still physically powerful, vital, virile–but that’s how wolves age–they stay strong until the very end of their life cycles–a decrepit wolf is a dead wolf. He knows he is mortal, that his time will run out–nobody runs forever. But time functions differently for him than it does for us. For him, and for a few people he knows.
What Stark essentially did was bring him and some of the supporting characters through a time warp–not all the way to the present–not yet. It is not 1997 when Comeback starts. It may be 1989. But even that is ambiguous. Can 18 years really have gone by, and all these people are still where we left them?
Parker was in his early to mid 40’s when Butcher’s Moon ended, in 1972. He’d be well into his sixties by 1997. That doesn’t work. Neither does writing it as a period piece set in the 70’s or late 80’s–not for Westlake. The story isn’t about that period–it’s about the same thing all the Parker novels are about–a man who knows exactly who and what he is, rubbing up against a bunch of people who think they know themselves, and are often fatally wrong in that assumption. Comparative psychology. It’s about who you are, not when.
So taking the timeline literally is a mistake–the books aren’t meant to be taken literally. Stark is a romantic–but not the kind of romantic who just avoids reality–he filters it through his odd sensibilities, and he’s no mere fantasist His romanticism is hard, cynical, ruthless, bleak. He sees the changes in the world around him. He doesn’t think much of them, but he won’t deny them. That’s not how his particular kind of romanticism works.
He will, however, counterpose his ideal, Parker, against these changing times, and for that to happen, Parker has to be affected by time, but only so much. Not an ageless character, but one who is out of synch with his age, with time itself. Who marches to his own drummer, as do the people he works with, caught up in the time warp with him. None of them quite processing what’s happened. All of a sudden the world around them is different–and they are still the same. Criminal Rip Van Winkles.
To a great extent, Westlake did the same thing with Dortmunder & Co., but that was much less obvious, because there were no equivalently long gaps between the Dortmunder books. Those books are much more about changes in the world, in technology, in culture (all of which he hates, but nobody ever asks him). There’s no great leap forward with Dortmunder–just a lot of little incremental time-jumps. He’s also getting older, but not as quickly as the rest of us.
You can try to explain it away–Brenda Mackey, so important in two of the later books, was a mere kid in the early 70’s, when we first met her–so if it’s 1989, she could just be a really well-preserved 40, let’s say. She does mention leaving a whole lot of cosmetics in a motel room. But nobody reacts to her as if she’s that age–or to Claire, who would be in her late 40’s by then, years older by the time of the final trilogy. Nobody ages that well. (Okay, maybe Catherine Deneuve, but I heard she had a lot of work done.)
Physical descriptions of Parker and other characters from the earlier books are rare and increasingly vague in the later ones. Also contradictory at times–Claire has auburn hair in the penultimate book; then she’s ash-blonde in the last one. Westlake stops talking about Parker’s hair color (originally brown, later black) entirely–is there grey in his temples now? Westlake didn’t want to tell us they hadn’t changed at all. He just didn’t want to go there. He wants us to know these people have a lot more mileage on them–but something’s gone wrong with the odometer.
Nobody has to buy what I’m selling here. Don’t take me literally either. I think Westlake would probably just tell us not to worry about all this stuff. He more or less told D. Kingsley Hahn the same thing. But the thing about obsessives is, we obsess. And that’s fine, as long as you don’t let it get in the way of the story. If you want strict unbending reality, subject to the same implacable chronological rules that you are sadly subjected to–why are you reading fiction? A story only has to make sense on its own terms. If you want to enter that world, you have to live by its rules, until the story ends. It can be disorienting. Or reorienting. Depends on the storyteller. And one of the very best is just starting his comeback. Let’s have fun with it. I’ve got the time if you have.