Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

George-Washington-Bridge-from-Manhattan-1934

be90bd585537726d333085279af4663b

Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

George-Washington-Bridge-Plane-Crash-1-photo-Life-Magazine

Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

Parker 3

(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

71wqBuxv8JL

Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

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

6 responses to “Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

  1. Greg Tulonen

    As a decades-long consumer of pop culture and (especially) pop cultural criticism, it never ceases to amaze me how much the so-called “experts” get wrong. While it’s true that in recent years, most of the lapses I notice are committed by younger folks who haven’t lived through the same culture I have and thus approach historical ephemera (if they approach them at all) as outsiders, inevitably missing many of subtleties that are ingrained into my understanding. There’s an AV Club round-table discussion from a few years back wherein a gaggle of twentysomethings examined that dusty old artifact known as WKRP in Cincinnati (specifically, the “Turkeys Away” episode), discussing it with a level of privileged cluelessness that’s breathtaking to behold.

    But that’s not what happening here. What’s happening here someone so narrowly focused on one subject who fails to fully grasp something that’s even tangentially related. I wonder what he’d make of your critique of his critique.

    Furthermore, I wonder what he’d make of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (a movie I’ve come to believe is the Coens’ best), in which a boorish jazz musician (played by John Goodman) learns that the protagonist’s old singing partner killed himself by jumping off the George Washington, to which he remarks:

    Oh, pardon me for saying so, that’s pretty fucking stupid, isn’t it? George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that? What was he, a dumbbell?

    • I completely forgot that reference in the Coen film (which is unquestionably their most underrated flick, but not by me).

      And boy was that Goodman character wrong (as the Coens doubtless knew)–the GWB has more suicides than any American bridge other than the Golden Gate–which has twice as many, in spite of the jump being somewhat more survivable.

      Rockland says a friend of his told him that’s because Californians have higher expectations of life than New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Could be, but what struck me was that when the death count was approaching 500 over there, the San Francisco newspapers were treating it like a competitive event, and there were people lining up, trying to be the 500th jumper. One guy showed up wearing the number 500 pinned to his shirt, but it was a less ostentatious aspirant who actually scored the win.

      And I do award Rockland points there–when it comes to documenting human oddities, he’s pretty decent–he did not, for example, miss the all-time classic story of somebody trying to jump off the George–and the Port Authority cop, seeing the guy nerving himself up for the dive, yanks out his gun and yells “STOP OR I’LL SHOOT!!!” Worked!

      There was also the story of the Edgewater man who bet his friend he could jump and survive. Which he did–for about a week, then succumbed to internal injuries.

      So much material in the book that Westlake would have appreciated, far more than most. Then he’d have gotten to the literary references, and alas. (Rockland is a lousy critic, even by the usual standard). But he’d had so many fulltime reviewers fail to get him, he’d have shrugged it off. He was always his own toughest critic. (Somehow, I don’t get that feeling from Rockland).

      I emailed him, but no response. He’s got maybe a few years left–in his 80’s now. Never too late to learn. I’d happily send him a reading list.

  2. Ray Garraty

    One part of academia feeds on mass culture, another part dismisses it as trash. You can’t blame him for not being down on pulpy crime novels. Maybe the only thing he’s read outside work was Homer.

    What I’ve never imagined is that Parker walks in the traffic, not on the sidewalk. Now that scene’s corrected in my head.

    • There’s truth in that, but he mainly did the former in this book–he loves mass culture. He just didn’t like The Hunter. (And a professor of American Studies probably doesn’t deal with Homer that much, unless you mean Simpson.)

      This is not the kind of professor you’re used to dealing with. He wrote one book called Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike. Another was called Snowshoeing Through Sewers. Some of his earlier work is a bit more intellectual, but he pretty quickly seems to have turned into the kind of professor who writes for the masses (and the masses mainly don’t notice).

      Its tragic, really–he’s the same generation as Westlake, also did a brief stint in the military (the navy instead of the air force) during peacetime, but instead of becoming a writer, he became an academic–who writes, but it’s not quite the same thing, is it?

      He actually enjoyed another crime novel much more–this one has a lot more bridge in it. (Sounds okay, if cliched as hell, but how much you want to bet Mckinty put the bridge in there as an homage to Stark.)

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_I_Well_May_Be

      The problem isn’t that he doesnt like pulp fiction. The problem is that he considers himself superior to the material he’s writing about–even the books he likes he writes about with a touch of condescension. When Westlake was reviewing a novel he didn’t think was up to par, he still took it seriously, wanted it to live up to its potential, high or low. A writer only has to hit the target he/she is aiming it. He was a professional critiquing other professionals, being critiqued in turn. Rockland is just kibitzing. (Like I’m in a position to judge.)

      I don’t think you recognize the magnitude of New Jersey’s inferiority complex. I grew up there, and I do. No great city of its own. No great sports franchise of its own. Its symphony orchestra is pretty good, but nobody takes it seriously. It’s treated as a dumping ground by New York and Philly. Most people only know it by driving through the ugliest smelliest part of it. If you’re a stand-up comedian here, Jersey jokes are part of the repertoire. Westlake would have understood this very well, but Rockland never thought to ask.

      So I think it really all comes down to him reading that thing about ‘nobody going to New Jersey’ and his mind was made up. Sometimes it’s the people with the most similar experiences and backgrounds who end up understanding each other the least. But Westlake would have figured him out pretty easy.

      • Ray Garraty

        Doesn’t New jersey have a lot of prisons? I think the expression ‘got sent upstate’ has geographical roots. So while maybe nobody wants to go to NJ, some are forced to go, to get a rep on the streets later.

        You can’t expect everybody like Stark books and even can’t expect everybody give a fair shot at his books. Somebody somewhere always will be ignorant. If not that professor, then the next one.

        • “Sent upstate” refers to NY, not NJ. Most New York residents live downstate–upstate has lots of space, and not so many jobs, so that’s where most of the prisons go. Southern NJ is much more lightly populated than it is further north. NJ doesn’t have all that many prisons, relative to population. Much more densely populated.

          And I think I just detected a genuine Jersey Slur! So our reputation has traveled all the way to Moscow? (Oh right, you get The Sopranos there, don’t you? I told you I met the actor who played the scary Russian ex-commando in the Pine Barrens ep at a party, right? Nice guy. Very tall. He said he’d never dare go for a walk in L.A. Well, nobody does, apparently.)

          I expect him to at least do a bit of googling, prior to dismissing a legendary crime novel (that he apparently had never heard of before). “Googling” being a word he uses in the book. I think he thought he had a safe target, and didn’t realize that he was picking on somebody a lot bigger than him.

          He didn’t have to give his opinions of the books at all–he could just have listed literary references to the bridge–what do we care what he thinks about them? It’s not a book about popular fiction. His critical skills are pretty punk, but the thing about a professor of “American Studies” is, it’s pretty freeform, not exactly the highest academic standards, and you’re expected to opinionate a bit. In a sort of Studs Terkel vein, but not nearly so blue collar. He over-personalizes it, makes it too much about him.

          So the book isn’t going to age well, but I greatly enjoyed parts of it. The parts where he knows what he’s talking about. Or so I assume. When a writer screws up that badly in one area, unlikely he didn’t screw up elsewhere, and I just didn’t see it. Someone else did. Bet on that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s