Mr. Stark and The Triptych

Beckmann;+The+Departure

When I sent Ask The Parrot, the previous Parker novel in the series, to Stephen Moore, my west coast agent, he said, “Oh, does that mean it’s going to be a trilogy?” “No, no,” I said, “This is just the next book in the series.” But his question stuck in my mind. Although Ask The Parrot had nothing to do with the book before that, Nobody Runs Forever, except that it starts one second after the previous book ends, and although Ask The Parrot does close out its own story and characters pretty satisfactorily, it was true there were some messy strings hanging out of Nobody Runs Forever and some cash up there in New England that Parker and his associates thought they had a right to. So, thanks to Stephen Moore, Dirty Money started to grow in my mind. Maybe it’s more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else. At any rate, it closes out the triplet, tercet, triangle, and the job is done. And no, it won’t be a tetralogy.

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

“For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.”

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

It’s been about three and a half years since I reviewed The Hunter (with a Starkian brevity I can only glance back upon in wonder now–and I thought I was being so bold and undisciplined, making that review a two-parter).

And here I sit, twenty four reviews later (counting the Grofields), prepared to look at the last three Richard Stark novels we’ll ever have.

Not the best of them, by any means.  Not the worst either (that’s still Flashfire).   But having subjected the saga to such intense scrutiny over that much time, I feel entitled to say that I don’t know of a more riveting, intriguing, or satisfying multi-book journey in all of literature, nor one that closes itself out with such integrity, if not finality.  And if we’re talking about a series based around one character that proceeded over the course of a score or more novels and close to five decades–well, I can’t say I’ve encountered its equal.

The runner up for me would be the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian (I know, two characters, but I think of them as one), which I devoured back in the 90’s.  And they were still coming out at the time, so I kept reading, and came to wish I hadn’t.  After The Commodore, the story was complete, even if Bonaparte was still at large.  The Yellow Admiral was a pleasant enough coda to the dance.  Then the masts toppled.  Would I had not read a word of the remaining two and a half books.  An unpleasant surprise (still better than the movie with Russell Crowe).  O’Brian was having his troubles towards the end, but who isn’t?

Series fiction is harder than most people think.  And more important than most critics will allow.  Oh, they’ll acknowledge there are ‘serious’ writers who have dabbled in it. (Dabbled?  More than half John Updike’s novels are series fiction.)  But there is always the suspicion that by writing one book after another about the same set of well-liked creations, a writer is merely playing to the pit, repeating him or herself, to ever-diminishing effect.

And that’s usually the case, if not right away, then eventually.  Did we need most of the latter run of Sherlock Holmes stories?  Conan Doyle clearly didn’t think so.  (I sometimes think he was getting revenge on the public for rejecting his knightly romances about Sir Nigel and the Hundred Years War.)

Any idea, any character, can be exhausted through repetition for repetition’s sake.  Even Wodehouse, perhaps the ultimate master of series fiction, was flagging at the end.  As was Westlake, just a bit, in his last few Dortmunder novels, which have much of Wodehouse in them.

Stark never did.  Past his prime, perhaps.  His potency?  Not hardly.  Some people say he got a bit softer.  I say he got even starker.   This Triptych begins with Parker strangling a man with a necktie, at a card game.  Towards the end, he strangles another man with one hand.  But that’s not really what I mean by starker.

There was always a certain romantic element to the series, from the start. Westlake said himself that Stark was a romantic. By which he meant an idealist; Parker representing that perfect Platonic form, that everything else in creation is aspiring to, and never quite attaining.  He’s real, but he’s not real.  He’s a man on the outside, but he’s the furthest possible thing from a man.  He’s a wolf on the inside, but you can’t be a true wolf without others of your kind around you, and he’s alone.  He’s evil, he’s honorable, he’s beyond category.  An insoluble mystery, which is why he belongs in this genre.

And in the earlier run of novels, written mostly for the crime paperback market, Stark indulged our desire for larger than life adventure.  Parker goes to war with organized crime.  Parker steals a forgotten art treasure.  Parker loots an entire town.  Parker sacks an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Parker steals rare coins and finds an even rarer woman into the bargain. Parker steals the payroll from a military base.  Parker steals the box office for a rock concert, and then defends it from a pair of drug-crazed longhairs.  Parker fights an army of mobsters in an amusement park, then comes back later to decimate that mob, decapitate it.

Well, there’s none of that here.  He robs a tiny rural bank and a minor upstate racetrack.  Positively mundane.

And there were the vendettas–the most impractical thing about him, therefore the most romantic.  His need to finish things with those who violated his sense of order, who transgressed against unwritten laws.  Well, there’s none of that here either.  No Mal Resnicks, no George Uhls, no treacherous gang lords (well there’s one, but if he’s plotting a cross, it’s coming later, and there was no later).

There are people he needs to kill, and he does, but it never has that personal feeling to it.  It all makes sense, from his standpoint.  He’s calmed down a lot since the first book.  I guess you could say calmer means softer.  Parker never would.  To him, a well-ordered mind is the deadliest weapon you can wield.

So while I think most of the best writing in the series had already been done years before, in spite of my undying love for the grand gory guns-a-blazing scenarios that have played out in past decades, I can still appreciate what’s being done here–how everything is scaled back, made more real, less fanciful, so that you could almost drive through Northern Massachusetts, or upstate New York, and imagine you see him, at a gas station, or a crossroads.  It’s all taking place at the northeastern tip of America.  Westlake country.  The Stark Lands.

Westlake began this process with Comeback, but there was still much of the old romance there.  There’s none by the end.  Because really, what room is there for romance in this world we live in now?  Because old men see the world differently than young men.  And Westlake was old now.  So was Stark.  But he’s aging better, because what he has to do is simpler.

Westlake was the more sophisticated writer (so there were more things that could go wrong).  The farceur, the satirist, the social commentator.  Indignant and irreverent at the same time.  Dry, whimsical, witty, compassionate, urbane.  Stark just had to be dry.  Until things got wet.

The saga had begun without any plan for it to be one.  The Hunter was supposed to be a one shot, that ended with the random death of its random anti-hero protagonist.  And just as randomly, Bucklin Moon, who I will always believe saw in Parker’s story some funhouse mirror image of his own, demanded a rewrite. Parker would live. Parker would win.  Parker would go on being Parker.  (And Moon ended up retiring to the Florida Keys, where Parker was thinking about going at the end of the book.)

So Westlake followed up with a book that followed right on the heels of the previous one, but somehow skirted away from that storyline.  Parker is hiding behind a new face, planning an unrelated job, and it goes off pretty well, with a few complications, but the way it ends, he’s realizing he’s going to have to confront unfinished business from the earlier book.  So that’s what he does in the third book.

And whether Westlake knew it or not, that was the first Starkian Triptych.  And it just went on from there, until there were twenty-eight novels, about Parker and his thespian sideman, Grofield.  Three more than he wrote about Dortmunder, Tobin, Holt, and Joslyn, combined.  Not that numbers tell the whole story, by any means.

Westlake probably never got over this quirk of fate, that gave him his second (and more lucrative) steady contract with a publisher, got him out of having to write crap he didn’t believe in.  Now he was writing crap he did believe in–makes a difference.

Now having strong relationships with two first-rate editors, Lee Wright at Random House and Moon at Pocket, he could perfect his craft,  really figure out what this writing gig was about, while supporting his family.  Breathing space. Parker got him out of a tight spot, and he never forgot it.  He’d sell the novels to Hollywood (or Paris), but never the character.  Parker would remain Parker, and his cinematic counterparts, well or poorly executed by committee, would be something else, something less.

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

And this sense of fatalism permeates the second unplanned Triptych, beginning with the title of the first panel, which had an ending so stark as to make readers who’d been there from the beginning ask if the man with the getaway face had made his last getaway.

He hadn’t, but that brings us to the second and major panel, which takes Parker out of the underworld he normally inhabits, into our world–and guess what?  It’s not that different.  He just sits there most of the time, watching us go through our paces, fine civilized people that we are.  And wonders what the fuss is all about.  Some people didn’t get it.  Thought it was too quiet, too uneventful, too rustic.  Some people never do get the point of anything. You know what Max Beckmann would say about that?

At some point, he must have realized he was unconsciously echoing the first Triptych (the word, incidentally, occurred quite independently to me, before I ever read that quote I put up top).  It was time to get back to the themes of the first panel, finish that story.  But to leave some things unfinished, in case he had a little more room to run afterwards.  As matters worked out, he didn’t.  Mexico beckoned in the distance.  Oh well.  You know what they say.

Autumn is here.  Winter is coming.  I had to get that in there somehow.

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4 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Mr. Stark and The Triptych

  1. We’ve discussed this before, but since we’ve finally arrived at this point in his bibliography, I’ll talk about it again, at the risk of repeating myself. When it was released, it seemed extremely important to Westlake that Nobody Runs Forever should not be considered the final Parker novel, though that ending would have been a fine, fitting (dare I say stark?) capper to the series. When the book came out, Westlake went out of his way to assure readers that this wasn’t the end for Parker. He said as much again and again, on his own site and in interviews. There weren’t a lot of interviews; he wasn’t doing Letterman or anything, but wherever he got the chance, the message was the same: Parker will return.

    And he would, but not for two more years, with a Dortmunder (one we’ve already discussed) in between. I’d venture that most authors in his position would have allowed the ambiguity of NRF’s ending to stand unremarked upon, would have let their fans stew in that uncertainty. But Westlake was smart enough to know that there was an event coming (sooner rather than later) that would bring about a definitive end to the Parker series. So I have to believe that he had Ask the Parrot basically finished and ready to go before NRF hit bookstores. It was Westlake’s fuck-you-I’m-not-done directed at the eternal footman snickering in the wings.

    • Given that he often wrote these books in pairs, quite likely. Maybe he had a good bit of ATP done, and it just needed some polish.

      He’s really leaning hard on the push method here. Get Parker into an impossible situation at the end of one book, make it clear that many of Parker’s old assumptions regarding getaways don’t hold true anymore–then use that to justify Parker getting himself into a situation he normally would avoid in the second book. The third panel is the weakest, but only relative to the previous two, and that was true of The Outfit as well. Honestly, I think it’s true of the Beckmann Triptych. Everybody’s an art critic.

      I don’t know that he could have written a death scene for Parker (and if all that happened was that Parker went away to prison for life, that would be death and damnation both). And self-evidently not for Dortmunder either, because they were him, and he was them. He sort of half-killed Tobin, Grofield, and Holt. Less perfect expressions of his inner truths, though I personally would disagree about Tobin, at least until that last book.

      I mean, you can’t really kill an idea, and that’s what fictional characters are. I’ve no idea what we are, so my feelings about the afterlife remain ambiguous. 😐

  2. I re-read the series every 2-3 years (and have since I first became aware of the books about 20 years ago). It’s striking to me the symmetry of the opening and concluding triptych. That surely wasn’t planned, but it’s striking nonetheless, their structures so clearly mirroring one another, though (as you note) the romance is stripped away by the end.

    It seems fitting that the last book in the series does not center around a heist at all, but rather on tying up a seemingly endless series of loose ends. (“Sooner or later,” Parker says in Breakout, “you get to them all.”) But a few loose ends remain, neglected either by Parker or by Stark himself. I’ll discuss those in detail after you post the next review.

    I also like the symmetry and contrast of Parker obtaining a fake ID in both the first book and the last book in the series. In the first book, Parker fakes an ID at the Motor Vehicle Bureau and the post office, using only driver’s license form and a ball-point pen. In the final book, a fake ID costs him two hundred thousand dollars.

    The world changes in leaps and bounds. All Parker can do is adapt.

    • I wonder how many people who read these books ever notice all the extra work Westlake put into them? Much more than he ever had to. I have to be honest here, I don’t see it in most crime writers. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t there (crime lit is an endless Sargasso Sea), but I think very few in this genre ever lavished so much effort on details that no critic would ever deign to mention, no awards committee would consider, and the average reader would consider an unimportant aside to the the sexy violence he’d laid down his fifty cents for.

      Himes, yes, but only after he’d been feted as the Next Big Thing (only to learn that America can only afford one or two Great Black Writers at a time, and he had to go to France and write brilliant trash for a living). Highsmith only had to go to the low-rent paperbacks to write about her own confused sexuality (which she did beautifully). Goodis had the potential, rarely lived up to it, self-destructive personality. Thompson, as Westlake pointed out, tended to write too fast, just slap it down and mail it out, and there’s no kind of consistent arc there, if there’s any arc at all–just writing to stay alive, basically. Which has its own kind of nightmarish disassociative power, but don’t look for calm coherence there.

      Willeford. Only one I can think of. He started at the bottom, and he stayed there most of his career, and he worked just as hard at it as Westlake did, knowing most of his audience wouldn’t give a damn. But he did.

      And we do. Which is why we’re here, talking about it.

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