I spent four nights and five days in that jail, and hated it, even more than you might expect. Every instant was intolerable. I hate being here now; I hate being here now; I hate being here now.
Years later, when I was writing novels about criminals, and when at least some of the criminals were still literate, I’d occasionally get a fan letter from somebody doing time, and in a few instances, when I replied, I gave an edited version of my own jail time so I could ask the question: How can you live in an intolerable state for years? I couldn’t stand one single second of it for a mere five days; how do you do it year after year?
The answer I got was always the same, with minor variations. Yes, what I described was what they, too, had gone through, the absolute unbearable horror, but I’d quit the experience too early. Some time in the second week, they told me, your brain flips over and this becomes the reality. This becomes where you live now. And how, I wonder, do you come back from that damage?
From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car.
The first week is the hardest. The change from outside, from freedom to confinement, from spreading your arms wide to holding them in close to your body, is so abrupt and extreme that the mind refuses to believe it. Second by second, it keeps on being a rotten surprise, the worst joke in the world. You keep thinking, I can’t stand this, I’m going to lose my mind, I’m going to wig out or off myself, I can’t stand this now and now and now.
Then, sometime in the second week, the mind’s defenses kick in, the brain just flips over, and this place, this impossible miserable place, just becomes the place where you happen to live. These people are the people you live among, these rules are the rules you live within. This is your world now, and it’s the other one that isn’t real any more.
Parker wondered if he’d be here that long.
Marcantoni said, “How come you trust Kasper, that’s what I don’t get. He’s a white guy.”
“He looks like a door to me,” Williams said. “I never did care what color a door was.”
You ever wonder why stories about prison breaks are so perennially popular? I don’t means someone imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, like that famously vengeful count, or Steve McQueen escaping the Nazis, or Jean Gabin escaping what came before the Nazis, and a meaningless bloody war along with it–that doesn’t need explanation. Good vs. evil, freedom vs. confinement, is all that is. (Granted, the prison comandante in Grand Illusion wasn’t so bad, but the system he worked for was, and so was the system Jean Gabin’s character worked for, and that’s the story of pretty nearly every war ever fought, kids.)
I’m talking about the prison break stories where there’s no question the escapees are guilty of the crimes they were imprisoned for, that society had legitimate reasons for locking them up, and short of some Shawshank silliness (put me with those who say that film is wildly overrated), there’s not much chance of them going straight once they do break out. They’re not breaking out to make a new life. They’re breaking out because they can’t do anything else; a reflex action, as unavoidable and automatic as jerking your hand from a hot stove.
And we root for them to escape their escape-proof cells in fiction, even though if the same exact guys escaped in reality (and they do, frequently), we’d be screaming at the law to round them up and throw them back in the hole they just crawled out of. It seems that we identify with them more behind bars than when they’re out in the world with us. What are we seeing in these stories?
It’s a sub-genre better known from the movies than from prose fiction (though many of those movies were based on prose fiction). Let me run down a few of my personal favorites. Cool Hand Luke. Escape From Alcatraz. Le Trou. But I think maybe the king of them all is Jules Dassin’s Brute Force–from 1947, back when Law&Order always won, and boy do they ever (with casualties on both sides). If that movie doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one.
You’ll see an image from the opening of that film I posted up top–I had to do the screen capture myself, from YouTube, and I’m not any kind of wiz at that, so if your screen isn’t hi-res enough for you to make out the words beneath that grim watchtower, they read Westgate Penitentiary. Yeah. You want to bet Westlake didn’t notice that? Any takers? No? Smart.
This type of prison break story is almost always tragic, of course. Just like heist stories are mainly tragic. Yes, we want to see these prisoners escape, just like we want to see daring robbers steal things, but something has to go wrong. They have to fail in the end, go down bloody, or be dragged back into chains, perhaps after winning some symbolic moral victory. You know what Richard Stark had to say to that? Nothing terribly polite.
Yes, realistically speaking, violent death or renewed imprisonment is the likely fate of anyone who breaks prison and/or robs a bank. One or the other. Sooner or later. But what would make it later, as opposed to sooner? Next time, instead of this time?
Parker was partly a reaction to Dillinger, who robbed banks and broke prison, and the law sure wasn’t taking any chances with regards to him doing it again. Why didn’t Dillinger last longer? Because he liked publicity too much. Because he was too flashy. Because he made himself a walking target for the equally publicity-hungry G-Men, his face on every post office wall, his name making headlines everywhere he went. Because he was apparently out to prove something.
And Parker goes out of his way not to do that–part of the point of these books is Westlake trying to solve the problem of how to be like Dillinger without ending up like Dillinger. Parker couldn’t care less about being famous. Parker isn’t fighting the system. He’s subverting it, avoiding it, confusing it, blending into it, defeating it. He slips through the cracks and he’s gone. He won’t be writing any letters to the editor about it afterwards.
Parker is a wolf, not a man. Wolves don’t have existentialist crises. Wolves just want to make another kill, get back to the den, live to hunt another day. Like any wolf, he needs a pack to make that work. So he looks around him for the rare individuals in his line of work who share at least part of this lupine ethos with him. The professionals. But those are rare in any field of endeavor, and sometimes he has to settle for the half-wit hare-brained helots that probably do belong in prison. That’s where this story begins.
An alarm goes off in a warehouse somewhere in the flat dry midwest. Parker and his string had been stealing pharmaceuticals to be sold offshore, but the local boy they had to recruit got greedy, went into the office to see if there was something extra he could take. Their lockman hadn’t disarmed that one. The cops are coming. The screw-up, named Bruhl, panics and takes their truck (then crashes it). There’s nowhere to hide in the desolate industrial park at night (no amusement park this time). Parker runs, knowing it’s futile. A squad car fixes its searchlight on him. He gives up. The law finally got him.
The second time we know of that Parker has been arrested–first time he’s been arrested for a felony. The other time was for vagrancy, after Lynn shot him, in The Hunter. He gave them the alias Ronald Kasper (I feel pretty sure Parker wasn’t referring to Kaspar Hauser, but not so sure about Stark).
They got his fingerprints, and stuck him in a prison camp in California. He only had to wait out his short sentence and he’d be free. He escaped, killing a guard on his way out, made his way east to deal with Lynn, Mal, and The Outfit. So very long ago, but fingerprints don’t age. Parker knew that from the start. Now he’s being confronted by an investigator from the state police, who knows too much about him. And unlike that hick police chief in The Jugger, this one’s honest, and smart, and Parker can’t just kill him.
“The system makes mistakes,” Parker said.
Turley’s grin turned down, not finding anything funny here. “So do individuals, my friend,” he said. Looking into his dossier again, he said, “There is no Ronald Kasper, not before, not since. In the prison camp, out, left behind these prints, one guard dead. Do you want to know his name?”
Parker shook his head. “Wouldn’t mean anything to me.”
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t. We have some other names for you.”
Edward Johnson. Charles Willis. Edward Lynch. Even ‘Parker, no first name’ (how does Turley know it isn’t a first name?). They have that one too. They have him on Murder One, in California, and California wants to extradite.
Turley makes some mention of game theory–aka The Prisoner’s Dilemma. They have all of Parker’s colleagues locked up. Bruhl is badly hurt, but he may live. The others are in the same temporary holding facility Parker is on, but on different levels, so he can’t talk to them. Turkey suggests that whichever one of them spills the beans first about who their buyer for the drugs was is going to get a better deal with regards to future incarceration. Parker says he’s heard of game theory. But that was never his game. And he’s more about praxis.
(If I go into detail about all the connections between this book and Put A Lid On It, I’ll use up too much space. Game theory, a temporary holding facility for prisoners awaiting trial, having to do a job right after getting out of the joint–Westlake sometimes treated his research and the basic framework of a plot like a theater set where many different dramas–and comedies–could be enacted before he tore it down and built a new one. Part of how he was able to put on so many lively productions.)
Parker is assigned a public defender, a black man, who is clearly going to do no more than the bare minimum, because that’s all he’s got the time and energy for (and his client is clearly guilty of all charges). He advises Parker to cooperate. Parker sizes him up as somebody who can’t do the job that needs doing–delay the extradition, give him time to plan–but can be trusted to keep his clients’ confidences. Parker gives him a letter to mail to Claire. Claire will get him a criminal attorney. Parker isn’t part of the public, and he can defend himself. He will need the help of a very different black man, though.
The new lawyer hired by Claire is named Jonathan Li, and he knows the score. He gets paid very well for doing whatever his clients ask of him, as long it’s (somewhat) within the law. He will delay the extradition, throw grit into the wheels of justice, slow everything down. He doesn’t argue with Parker about the futility of his requests. The customer is always right. He also informs Parker that his former brother-in-law wants to see him. Parker has no in-laws, past or present. But does he say that? No, he just waits to find out who it is–Ed Mackey. Claire’s been busy.
Parker is once again baffled by the way some of his criminal associates will go to bat for him in ways that he finds excessive. One of the identity puzzles of this book is trying to figure out Parker’s rationale for when you help somebody and when you don’t. In this case Ed is going to try and spring Parker because of what happened with George Liss in Comeback, the first of this five-book series of interlocking titles, of which Breakout is the last.
Parker stopped Liss from killing them both, then finished Liss off later on, and Ed feels like he owes Parker one. Parker isn’t in a position to complain about what he sees as illogical behavior, so he says nothing about it. He asks Ed to check up on four guys in the same cellblock as him, see if any of them can be trusted–or not. Williams. Jelinek. Clayton (bit of a nod to The Mercenaries?). Marcantoni.
And on Ed’s return visit, three full decades after Plunder Squad, we finally find out why he’s still alive–and why he always has his wife Brenda with him when he’s working.
Some years ago, Brenda had trailed Mackey and Parker, though she hadn’t been asked to, when they went to deliver some stolen paintings in a deal that then went very bad. At the end, Parker left a lumberyard’s burning main building, with the paintings destroyed, and he’d believed Mackey was dead, shot by one of the people who’d been waiting in there. Brenda, seeing Parker take off alone, went into the building, found Mackey on the concrete floor, and dragged him out and into her car before the fire engines arrived.
“Fortunately,” Mackey said, “life is usually quieter than that.”
Unfortunately, Jelinek is a prison rat, who sells information about his fellow inmates to the bulls (another overlapping detail from Put A Lid On It, much more significant to the story here). Clayton is serving a short stretch, escaping makes no sense for him, don’t even bring it up. Williams and Marcantoni are smart solid pros heading for long sentences, just like Parker. Bingo. He knows what he’s got to work with in terms of putting a crew together–now he just has to get them to join up. Ed can reach out to them through mutual acquaintances on the outside. But they still have to trust Parker–and each other. Williams, a black man, is one of Parker’s cellmates–him first.
“You’re facing twenty-five to life,” Parker told him.
Williams turned his head to look at Parker’s profile. “Your friend Ed got this on the outside.”
“Nobody gets anything in here.”
Williams shrugged. “And so what?”
Parker said, “I’m not good at prison.”
Williams laughed. “Who is?”
“Some are,” Parker said.
Williams sobered, looking away again at the scene below. “And that’s true.” He sounded as though he didn’t like the thought.
“I don’t think you are,” Parker said.
Williams shook his head. “I can feel myself getting smaller every day. You fight it, but there it is.” He turned his head to study Parker’s face. “You aren’t thinking of breaking out of here.”
“This is not an easy place.”
Parker thinks Stoneveldt could actually be easier to escape than a regular penitentiary. (That name, by the way, is a definite nod to Stonevelt, the penitentiary from Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Westlake’s only novel set entirely in a prison–well, not exactly true–read the review, or better still, the book).
What makes it hard to escape is that there’s no time for short-term inmates to get to know each other, form connections, team up. The gangs, white and black, that exist in long-term lock-ups aren’t here, because there’s no point to them. It’s just a bunch of individuals, waiting to find out if they go free sooner, later, or never. Many lack the brains, others lack the ambition (since they don’t know yet how long they’re in for), and all of them lack the organization, because it’s a place that encourages that every man for himself attitude.
For this reason, perhaps, there’s not enough guards for the overcrowded facility. Security isn’t nearly as tight as some places. A small gang of motivated pros could beat this joint. They just need one more. But self-evidently a guy named Marcantoni is white. And just because there’s no race gangs in this joint doesn’t mean race isn’t on everybody’s mind there. Like it is everywhere else, whether we admit it or not. Marcantoni’s not one for mincing words. Though he avoids the obvious one, to his credit.
Marcantoni made a sour face and shook his head. “You want to work with a black guy?”
“Group loyalty,” Marcantoni said. “One of the first things I learned in life, stick with the group where there’s a chance for loyalty. There’s never a guarantee, but a chance. A black guy doesn’t feel loyalty for you and me. He’d trade us for chewing gum, and we’d do the same for him.”
As we saw in The Black Ice Score, Parker doesn’t give a damn about this tribal crap. Wolves don’t see color, because color doesn’t tell them anything they need to know. He needs people he can work with, there’s damned few available, and no time to wait around for a color-coordinated crew to appear. If Marcantoni doesn’t like it, he can stick around, serve his time, and Parker will find somebody else. Marcantoni decides the one color he can’t stand is prison gray.
They have to be careful about where they talk. Even though there’s no gangs, blacks and whites don’t mingle, unless they’re in the same cell, like Parker and Williams. The three of them confer while using the weights to work out. Williams and Marcantoni size each other up, and find they have plenty in common. Most of all a desire to get out of this place.
There is a catch, though–Marcantoni has had this heist all planned out for a while now–he was getting ready to pull it when the cops grabbed him for something else. He’s pretty fixated on it. It’s in the nearby city–his hometown, Williams’ as well (they never met before, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining). He needs a large string to pull this one off, and he wants Parker and Williams to join–which means sticking around a while after they break prison. That’s his price for taking a chance on escaping with two strangers–a show of good faith, you might say. Neither of them likes it–Parker least of all–but they need a third man. They agree.
Jelinek, the rat, doesn’t miss much in the world he’s chosen for himself. He’s one of those people who are good at prison.
Walter Jelinek was a man, but he looked like a car, the kind of old junker car that had been in some bad accidents so that now the frame is bent, the wheels don’t line up any more, the whole vehicle sags to one side and pulls to that side, and the brakes are oatmeal. Half the original body is gone, the paint job is some amateur brushwork, and there’s duct tape over the taillights. That was Walter Jelinek, who Mackey had told Parker not to talk to, since he had a reputation for carrying tales to teacher, but now Jelinek on his own wanted to talk to Parker.
He’s been seeing these three mismatched men keeping company, over by the weightlifting area–he tells Parker he knows they’re planning a break, and he wants to join. Parker knows he’s lying–he wants to sell them to the authorities. But Jelinek has to be handled gently–until it’s time to leave. Then he’ll be handled a bit more roughly.
Parker got some information about the prison layout from Mackey, and he knows their only way out is through the library–there’s a locked door there that leads into a hallway that ultimately leads to a fenced-in parking lot for personnel. It’s not enough information, but he gets more when Turley calls him in for another meeting, and Parker get marched down that very hallway–this time he’s memorizing every twist and turn.
As in past encounters, he gets more out of Turley than Turley gets out of him (one thing to talk a good game about game theory, another to know when you’re the one being played)–he realizes that Jelinek has already made some vague noises about him and the others–but nothing specific, not enough to act on, because he wants to get something out of the bosses (a softer prison to retire to)–and the bosses, through Turley, are trying to see if they can get it themselves, so Jelinek gets nothing (nobody likes a rat). Turley really tips his hand when he tells Parker nobody’s ever escaped from Stoneveldt.
All this means to Parker is that he and his crew have very little time now–in a few days, they’ll be moved to different floors, and the whole thing’s off. It also means, as Marcantoni helpfully points out, that Jelinek needs to die. Parker didn’t need to be told that.
Parker gives the word–Thursday at 5:00pm. Prisoners on their tier can use the library from 2:15 to 4:45 (nobody is let in after 4:15). To pass the time, or pretend to themselves they’re coming up with some brilliant legal defense, whatever works for them.
Jelinek is reading a magazine in the game room, all by himself. Parker acts as if he’s ready to talk about the escape. Well, it’s a kind of escape. He chokes Jelinek slowly, with one hand, while Williams and Marcantoni provide cover. But he doesn’t want an obvious strangulation. So once he’s got Jelinek subdued, he breaks his neck. They cover him with a few blankets and head for the library. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Parker kill somebody with one of those hands of his. One weapon that can’t be confiscated at the gate.
They get into the library just before the cut-off time, each entering separately. The state provides legal volunteers there, law students mainly, to work with the prisoners on their cases. Pro Bono, you know? And as soon as the moment is right, Marcantoni grabs the one remaining volunteer by his necktie, and headbutts him, hard.
What follows is a tutorial in psychological intimidation that any interrogation expert on the other side of the law would be forced to grudgingly admire. Williams plays good cop, telling Jim, the volunteer (never volunteer) that he doesn’t want anybody hurt, but damn, these two other guys he’s with, you just do not want to irritate them, Jim. He’s going to do whatever they say, and he hopes Jim will do the same. Jim is all ears.
What they need Jim to do is very simple. He calls in some guards to help carry out some heavy law books. They’ll do everything else. Nobody will have a gun. Nobody will get killed. Williams tells Jim he saw the organ donor card in his wallet. That’s an admirable thing to do, man. But you don’t want to do it sooner than you have to. Jim decides he’s not ready to be an organ donor yet.
Chance favors the prepared felon. The two guards that come in are both races. Armed with blunt objects scavenged from their surroundings, Parker’s crew renders them both equally unconscious. Parker will dress in Jim’s clothes–much too tight, and the guard uniforms won’t fit Marcantoni and Williams perfectly either, but the sheer tedium of routine will render the other guards unobservant of such minor details.
And they just walk out the door leading to the parking lot. And right at that moment, as planned, Mackey is waiting with a van marked State Corrections ID. He doesn’t get all the way in the gate, but he doesn’t have to. The three escapees throw down the books and file boxes, and jump into the getaway car. In the confusion, whoever was on the gate started it closing–and by the time they get it open again, Parker and his associates are off in the wind. Free as a bird.
Well, no. It’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. This is just Part One of a four part novel. There’s still a heist to be pulled. Parker still needs to get out of this flat featureless state, back to New Jersey, back to Claire. And on his way back, he will find himself imprisoned again and again, forced to keep devising new ways to break out. Until it seems like every prison door simply leads to another kind of prison. It might have been simpler, and quite certainly safer, for him to serve his time–maybe make a deal, if that really was an option.
Why didn’t he? Because he couldn’t. Because imprisonment wasn’t a viable state of being for him. Not for him. You see the two longer passages up top. Westlake wrote them both around the same time, though only the one from this novel was published in his lifetime. Both times he was remembering that brief imprisonment he himself endured, the torment of it, the horror of it. And even after he learned from real convicts that you get used to it, that it becomes your normal everyday waking reality, he wondered–what would that mean? What would you have become, after making that mental adjustment? How could those scars ever heal? How could you ever be yourself again?
What would Parker be, after serving years in prison? Well, he might be John Dortmunder, as we met him at the beginning of The Hot Rock. That’s where Westlake chose to open that saga of an alternate universe version of Parker–a man broken down by long and repeated imprisonment, walking with a slouch, cowed, fatalistic, a sad sack, one of life’s losers. His spirit broken. Yes, he gets it back, now and again, defies the odds, defies authority, gets his own back with interest. But the damage done to him is permanent. He can rally, rise to a challenge, but he can never truly escape.
It would be permanent for Parker as well. Possibly much worse. Assuming Parker could go on living at all. Lobo didn’t. Some people can bear imprisonment–some can even rise above it, like Mandela–and some, like Walter Jelinek, seem almost born for it, not broken so much as trained, assimilated. But a wolf can’t recite Invictus to himself, find freedom in some sanctum of his self-captained soul. For some creatures in this world, there is only freedom or oblivion–nothing in-between.
But life is always looking for ways to take that from us. It can come in many different forms, imprisonment. As it came to Westlake, while he was working on this book.
Breakout came about when I realized that, in all these years, Parker had never been jailed except once before the first book. Get him arrested, and watch how he handled it. At the end of part one he’s out of jail, but not out of trouble, and at that point I came down with bad Lyme disease, in the hospital four days, unable to work for six weeks, and I kept saying, ”Well, at least he’s out of jail.“ We both hated the experience, and we both worked very hard to get him out of there. When I got back to the book, I realized the title meant the whole book so the entire thing is Parker clawing himself out of places he doesn’t want to be. They usually find their subject and their path that way, and if they don’t I simply give up writing, move to another city and use a different name.
I’ve never had Lyme disease, but I had pneumonia once. You know what that’s like? Like drowning inside your own body. Afterwards, I found out there’s a vaccine, that you only need to get twice in your life. I highly recommend it. But I still remember those days I struggled against my confinement, flailing endlessly for the surface, my lungs bursting, knowing that I’d either win free or die.
Lyme disease creeps up on you stealthily, like the bloodsucking bastards that carry it. Stands to reason Westlake was already sick for much if not all of the time he was writing Part One.
And here’s the suggestion I’ll leave you with, before we go to the break, and I get to work on Part 2. This is a solid Parker novel–it has some problems, a few false notes, a few minor mistakes, a few questions I don’t think it answers to my full satisfaction, and I wouldn’t rank it quite as highly as the best of the Final Eight, let alone the First Sixteen.
But Part One is as Stark as Stark gets. I can’t find anything wrong with it. I’d stack it against anything Westlake ever wrote under that name, or any other. And he wrote much of it while he was progressively struggling with a disease, an insidious spirochete that breaks you down, physically and mentally, as the pneumonia broke me.
And he’s writing as well as he ever wrote in his life while this is happening to him. For as long as he’s able to write at all. And what this says to me is that when a complex system begins to break down, it’s the most basic parts of it that are the last to fail. And Westlake was writing as Stark. And that tells me Stark is the core identity, the foundation on which everything else was built.
He couldn’t have written so well as Westlake in that condition, or any of his other personas. Beautiful as they are, truthful as they are, valuable as they are, they are still peripheral, ancillary. But when he felt the grip of the disease tightening around his throat–like one of Parker’s huge veiny hands–well, Dr. Johnson did say it concentrates the mind wonderfully. And the mind was Stark. So is Life, in case you hadn’t noticed. Until we break out.
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)