“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.
“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed. “On the floor.”
“I’ll carry it now! I’ll make a phone call!”
Meany licked his lips. His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head. “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”
“What’s his name?”
Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice. “Joseph Albert.”
Parker looked at Arthur. “Do you know that name?”
From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.
“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.
Then I got it. “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.
“You look a lot more like her. I know. I see your father in the mirror every morning.”
I laughed at him. “You’re crazy, or you think we are. Or are you just wisecracking again?”
“It’s true,” he said.
Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”
From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.
I’ve written my last Stark review. (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery. I think we’d know by now.) Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot. There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.
But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong. I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.
Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses. Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.
Arthur Bronson. Walter Karns. Adolf Lozini. Louis Buenadella. The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’ Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.
To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him. He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group. His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed. In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.
The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.
But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert. We never see him, Parker only talks to him on speakerphone. We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded. He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s). A CEO of crime. If that’s not too redundant a term.
By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan. He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts, for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas. Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.
He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny. A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those). Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise. The biggest he’s ever made.
The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices. But he never flinches from those. Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer. But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.
Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him. In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany. And carrying out the contract in person, as usual. Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat. On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike. More of a Karns than a Bronson.
So what would have happened if there had been more novels? Would this arrangement have held? There are reasons to doubt it. Parker has effectively shared his score with them. Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists? Suppose they decide he really is their employee? Suppose they have little errands for him to run? How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown? He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).
You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown. Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars. But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top. And that’s not Meany. That’s Albert. Interesting name, that. Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle? You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.
I don’t know how I missed this for so long. Granted, when I started reading these books, I had almost no background info on their author. But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father. Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.
And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers. You know. People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things. Import/Export. A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.
So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke? I don’t think so. He’s telling us something. He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first). The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same. Mystery writers give you clues. It’s up to you to put the pieces together. To look underneath the surface of things. These books were never just about stealing and killing.
But what is this about? Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment? Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago. The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?
We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think). We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.
We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there. We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war. We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another. That’s it. He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that. He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”
His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old. Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery. So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker? Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison? Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all? Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature? Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.
The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name. (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.) It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss. The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father. Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father. Doesn’t go well.
Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young. The mobster tells him she was–different. She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him. Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly. Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways. He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner. Not an organization man. Independent to the core.
And he wants the truth, at all costs. He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity. He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form. And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us. Always holding back. A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.
It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family. The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return. As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change. Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship? Gratitude and guilt?
Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel. On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed. When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months. Because that’s what he thought a man does. Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.
Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it. What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob. He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path. His father never lived to see him succeed on that path. Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?
With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships. He came at them obliquely, for the most part. So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him. Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself. Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.
But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations? Literary agencies, publishers, film studios. Yes, freelance work. What’s the difference? It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones. He was more creative than his father, sure. More independent. Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him. As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.
What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph? Could be both. Not neither.
Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him? Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was? Would we at least find out who his mother was?
Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon? Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence. And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self. Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be. Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler. If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too. But would Stark allow that? Could he prevent it? The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.
I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers. But as matters worked out, we got none. Just a question that was never asked out loud. Who is Joseph Albert? And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?
Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it. I do that sometimes. But the mystery remains. Everyone in this world faces the same mystery. Who was my father? Who was my mother? That relationship can span most of our lives. We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them. Do we ever know them? And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.