Tag Archives: Anna Karina

Review: The Jugger

jugger_original_1jean-luc-godard-made-in-usa-2

There were more numbers on this second sheet, but they weren’t what caught Parker’s eye.  Besides the numbers there was a list of names, scattered down the right side of the paper.  Loomis, McKay, Parker, Littlefield, Clinger…a long, long list of thirty or more names, all of them men Joe Sheer had worked with at one time or another.

But not in Joe’s handwriting.  The list of names, and the figures over on the other side of the page, were all done in the same handwriting as the total on the first sheet.

Younger looked up, smiling his smug smile, tapping a finger against the list of names.  “See that there?  It wouldn’t surprise me none if your name’s down there.  Don’t think I ever bought that Willis name.”

Parker looked at him, seeing him definitely for the first time as a dead man.  “Let’s get on with it,” he said.

Among the 24 Parker novels Donald Westlake wrote, The Jugger may qualify as the oddest of odd ducks.   It isn’t about Parker planning and executing a heist, nor is it about Parker seeking bloody restitution after somebody swindled him out of his rightful share of a heist, dealing with the aftermath of a failed heist, or fighting off some interloper trying to muscle in on a heist; nor is it about Parker battling the mob (which pretty much always has something to do with a heist).    That list covers every Parker novel ever written–except The Jugger.    Which is about a murder mystery–that isn’t really a murder or a mystery–that Parker solves–only he doesn’t.   Mainly because he doesn’t give a damn whodunnit.

Reaction to the book from the growing readership for Parker novels was probably a bit mixed at the time it came out, precisely because it was so different from what people expected, but over the years, it’s become recognized as one of the best books in the series–it’s very rare to find a bad review of it now.   But the worst review ever came from Westlake himself, many years later–

I spoiled a book by having him do something he wouldn’t do. The sixth book in the series is called The Jugger, and that book is one of the worst failures I’ve ever had. The problem with it is, in the beginning of the book this guy calls him and says “I’m in trouble out here and these guys are leaning on me and I need help,” and Parker goes to help him. I mean, he wouldn’t do that, and in fact, the guy wouldn’t even think to call him! (laughs)

It’s worth pointing out that ‘the guy’ not only doesn’t call Parker, he tells Parker in a letter “Whatever you do for God’s sake don’t call me on the telephone.”  And in the version we have, as many a puzzled reader has pointed out before me,  Parker is decidedly not going there to help this guy–he’s going to find out if he has to kill him to keep his mouth shut.   So Westlake’s memory of what happens in the book was spotty at best after all that time, and that’s probably because he’d deliberately avoided re-reading it, and perhaps had blocked it out almost entirely, because he’d seen it as such a stinging personal failure.

I think a different interview conducted around the same time (1997–this link is to a 2013 article utilizing excerpts), gives us a bit more of the answer to this mystery–

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, ‘Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at: http://www.pbpulse.com/news/entertainment/a-stark-appealwill-palm-beach-movie-capture-the-ro/nTzPD/#sthash.Qytl0Fwq.dpuf

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at: http://www.pbpulse.com/news/entertainment/a-stark-appealwill-palm-beach-movie-capture-the-ro/nTzPD/#sthash.rNVDPY4Z.dpuf

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at: http://www.pbpulse.com/news/entertainment/a-stark-appealwill-palm-beach-movie-capture-the-ro/nTzPD/#sthash.rNVDPY4Z.dpuf

“I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

“Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

“But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.”

– See more at: http://www.pbpulse.com/news/entertainment/a-stark-appealwill-palm-beach-movie-capture-the-ro/nTzPD/#sthash.Qytl0Fwq.dpuf

I did one entire novel where I went completely wrong. It was the sixth Parker novel, called ‘The Jugger.’ The first five had gone well, and I was happy. And I did this and I knew something was wrong, but I got through it. And my editor called me and said, `Come in and we’ll try to save it.’

Neither of us could figure it out. We changed it and changed it. Maybe 18 pages of the original manuscript was left when we finally gave up and published it. It was about an old guy that Parker used to know who calls Parker about people leaning on him for money. ‘I need your help,’ he says. Parker goes, and the old guy’s dead and we’re off.

But I’d made a terrible mistake. It was simple: Parker wouldn’t go to help anybody. He’s not Spenser. It threw the entire book completely off.

Okay, I must ask–without any real hope of an answer–was this Bucklin Moon?   The same editor at Pocket Books who had originally suggested Parker become a series character, and had been a highly regarded author in his own right before the McCarthy witch hunts ruined his career?   Whether it was Moon or someone else,  for Westlake to have sailed through the first five books with an increasing sense of confidence in his Stark writing persona–and then basically get called in to do a near-total rewrite by somebody at the publishing house–hardly something that would make him feel fondly inclined towards the book in question.    An unwelcome reminder that for all his hard-earned success, he was still a long way from the top of his profession.

There was probably nothing Westlake liked more about being Richard Stark than the relative simplicity of that guise–just hammer out another neat little crime novel in a hurry, send it in, cash the check, wait for the fan mail, repeat.   Not this time.

And of course, there was the other thing–the French thing.   The first full-length feature film ever adapted from anything he’d written–by quite possibly the last filmmaker on earth any sane author would want to be adapted by.   The enfant terrible to end all enfant terribles–Jean Luc Godard.   Who as even his greatest admirers would admit, never gave a damn about trifles like fidelity to his source–or story–or characterization–or basic narrative coherence.  Not his thing.   But neither was intentional theft–it just worked out that way.

During a period when he was making disjointed deconstructionist Nouvelle Vague films almost as fast as Westlake was writing sharply plotted crime novels, Godard went to a producer named Georges de Beauregard to ask if he had the rights to a suitable story for him to have his way with.   De Beauregard gave him the rights to The Jugger, failing to mention that he had not half-finished paying for them–he still owed $10k, having paid $6k.

Westlake later told Patrick McGilligan (whose interview I am paraphrasing to beat the band) that he believed de Beauregard meant to pay eventually.   But he never actually did.   Mainly because once he saw the film, he figured there was maybe one minute’s worth of material that came directly from the book, so what was he paying for?   De Beauregard was no lightweight–he was in on the making of some truly great films.   Sadly, this wouldn’t be one of them.

Shooting several movies at the the same time with the same equipment, all of them starring the insanely beautiful Anna Karina (who thus ended up being the first actor to ever play Parker in a movie because hey, why not?), Godard guilelessly mentioned to Sight & Sound that he was making a film of a Richard Stark serie noire thriller.  Word got around.  In this area of the law, it’s less about how directly you copy something than it is about whether the writer who was copied can prove you copied him, so Godard should have kept his mouth shut, but that was definitely never his thing.

Westlake sued for copyright infringement, and eventually won.   It took years.   International lawsuits are no fun for anyone but international lawyers–like lawsuits in general, but in multiple languages.   He ended up with the U.S. distribution rights–the alternative being to destroy all prints and negatives, which even as a non-fan of Godard strikes me as extreme (though having seen it, I have to wonder if the film’s reputation might not have benefited from its destruction).   By that point in time, the American rights to a minor arthouse flick weren’t worth much, but he did eventually get paid for them–it opened officially in the U.S. the week after Westlake died.  Hopefully the check cleared earlier than that.

So to sum up–he felt troubled and uneasy about this book while writing it, having had no such trouble with the previous five–his editor then called him in to rewrite it almost from scratch.   A crazed auteur then turned his story into a weird abstract political diatribe dressed up in noir clothing, that seems to have something to do with the Vietnam War (that somehow the French keep forgetting they started–love you guys, but I’m just saying), and features a drop-dead Danish dame playing the roughest of all rough-hewn American tough guys.

Westlake not only didn’t get paid what had been agreed to for this, but he had to drag the the producers into court, and then settle for the U.S. rights to a movie he hated, that only diehard Godard buffs would ever pay money to see, and he didn’t see a franc until just before he kicked (if then).

Nope, can’t see any reason at all for him not liking this book.   Just irrational prejudice, is all.

Have I left anything out?   Anything else that might have colored Westlake’s view of this novel?  Maybe just one more thing but I’ll save it for later.   Time to synopsize.

The Jugger opens with Parker in a small Nebraska town, investigating the death of his old heisting partner (and perhaps mentor?), Joe Sheer.   They had worked a number of heists together, mainly bank jobs, Joe being one of the best safecrackers in the business, as well as a good planner in his own right.   Then Joe, having amassed a decent retirement nest egg, suddenly started getting Social Security checks–for his carefully crafted alias of Joseph Shardin.   Enjoying the irony of the situation, and starting to feel his age, he retired to Nebraska under that same alias, and bought a nice little house in a podunk burg where nobody would ever think of looking for an old jugger like him.   Or so he thought.

We already know Joe from previous books–he’s been Parker’s contact, his ‘mailbox’–the guy you call if you have a job you think Parker might be interested in, and Joe then refers your message to Parker, and if he’s interested, he’ll get back to you.   This indicates a very high level of trust between the two men.   In The Man With the Getaway Face, we see Parker send a small portion of his proceeds from that book’s heist to Joe–not to pay any debt, we’re told, but simply as a gesture of respect.   Joe was the one who arranged for Parker to get plastic surgery in that novel.   There is probably nobody Parker trusts more.   And nobody who could be more dangerous to Parker if he suddenly got talkative with the wrong people.

The first few chapters, we’re pretty much in the dark as to what’s going on–there’s all these people interested in Joe Sheer, and consequently, in Parker, since Parker is making inquiries about Joe around town–having found out when he got there that Joe just passed away.   One of these kibbitzers is a two-bit crook named Tiftus, who Parker knows but never worked with.    He keeps acting like he and Parker are there for the same reason–money–but Parker can’t make out what he’s talking about.

He roughs Tiftus up to make him bug off, and in the process meets Rhonda Samuels, an actress (in burlesque, one imagines) who Tiftus brought along with him.   She’s naked and pissed off when he first sees her, and the physical description runs thusly–

She was yellow above, black below, and she’d been out in the sun for a tan while wearing a two-piece bathing suit.  She was built heavy but not fat; firm flesh well padded over a big-boned frame.   Her face would have been beautiful except she had the eyes of a pickpocket and the mouth of a whore.

No one will ever compose an ode to her charms, but she’s sexy enough to interest Parker–when he actually becomes interested in sex.   Which he isn’t now, because even though he’s not planning a heist, what he’s doing there feels like a job.  And he’s still got Jean, his woman from The Score, back in Miami.   Though that relationship has probably not been going great guns of late, since Parker’s cyclical sex drive would be at a low ebb several months after his last score, and Jean is probably wondering what’s up with that.

But now he’s on a job, so no sex drive at all–only what is the job, exactly?    What’s he doing there?   Parker isn’t quite sure himself.  He talks to the funeral home director, he talks to a doctor who (falsely) claims to have been treating Joe, and he keeps running into the chief of police–a fat blowhard in a cowboy hat named Abner L. Younger, who is taking a decidedly unhealthy interest in Parker’s activities–but not the way a cop would normally be interested.   As we learn later, Younger’s only been a cop for a very short time, after a long uneventful life spent as a sergeant in the U.S. army who never actually served in combat.   He’s the chief because of politics, not professionalism.  He’s the amateur in the piece (one of them, anyway).   But he thinks he’s a consummate pro.

Parker checks out Joe’s house–which has clearly been searched repeatedly, from basement to rafters.  Joe’s stash of emergency getaway cash is gone from the flour bin.   Parker decides to check out the cellar–at which point somebody wearing a sack on his head clobbers him with a shovel.   When he comes to, Younger is standing over him, demanding answers.   This is the third and I believe final time in the first 16 novels that we see Parker caught offguard and temporarily incapacitated–the previous two instances were in The Hunter and The Mourner.   You’d think he’d learn to stay away from books with two-word/three-syllable titles ending in ‘er’.

And now comes the rewind, and we find out what Parker is doing there–and as Westlake would bitterly lament later on, it is a bit tricky to explain.   Joe Sheer had written to Parker twice–the first time to say he was having some problems, and Parker better not contact him for a while.   The second letter is what really raises Parker’s hackles–Joe is clearly scared out of his wits now, though not going into any detail about what’s scaring him–and he’s asking Parker to come help him out.

This is not something one guy on the bend asks of another, as Parker sees it.   And Joe knows this as well as Parker does, but he’s still asking.  Which means the Joe Sheer Parker knew is gone–but his body is still walking and (even worse) talking.  To who?  About what?

When he finally made up his mind it was really Joe Sheer who had written that letter, Parker pulled out a suitcase and started packing.  It wasn’t for Joe Sheer that he packed, or that he called the airport and made a reservation on the next plane for Omaha.  As far as he was concerned, Joe could drop dead right now and that would be fine with Parker.  In fact, that would be better; it would save him a trip.

He was going for himself.  He was going because in Joe’s letter he saw a danger to himself much more obvious and lethal than any danger Joe had been trying to describe.  What he saw was the shaky penmanship and shaky personality of an old man.  Joe was going senile.  At seventy, he’d lost every trace of the code of ethics he’d lived by all his adult life.

Clearly this was written after Westlake and his editor at Pocket got together–probably no such explanation of Parker’s trip to Nebraska existed in the first draft.  Westlake was explaining Parker’s behavior after the fact–and he still felt like he hadn’t gotten it right.   Normally, writing in the Stark voice, he could at least partly penetrate the murkier reaches of Parker’s mind, but this time he felt he’d fallen short.   And he was right.

First of all–‘code of ethics’?   From the moment he typed that, Westlake must have known it was wrong, though of course it’s Stark saying it, and it’s referring to Joe.   It’s still meant as an interpretation of Parker’s thought processes, and Parker doesn’t give a damn about ethics–or codes.   Only code he responds to is genetic.    I know some very dedicated readers of these books use that word to refer to Parker sometimes, and I am here in all hubris to tell you–Parker has no code.   Never did.

Instinct.  If Parker is nothing else, he’s a predator.   I’d say a wolf, but you don’t have to be that specific about it.   He’s a hunter, as we’ve known from the very first.  A predatory animal is one part aggression to one part caution to one part curiosity.  It’s curiosity that’s got Parker heading down there–he’s heard a fellow wolf (as he perceives it) howling fearfully in the distance–he needs to know what about.  His strengths are all bound up in his weaknesses–that curiosity may tell him things he desperately needs to know–or it may put him in the sights of a long-range rifle.   Many a pelt nailed to a cabin wall can attest to the risks engendered by curiosity.  But he’s got to know.

The safest smartest thing for Parker to do would be to assume Joe is going to somehow blow his ‘straight’ identity wide open, and start taking steps to protect himself, leaving Joe to whatever fate awaits him.   But if he does that, he’ll never learn what happened (and the book will be really dull).   He tells himself he’s going down there to find out if he has to kill Joe, and no doubt whatsoever he would do that, without the slightest qualm, if there was no other alternative–but he’s creating the very danger he’s trying to avoid by showing his face in a small town where he can’t help but be noticed, asking questions that can’t help but lead to more questions being directed at him.

Creating a new identity would be a hassle, but he’s done it before.   So why make things more complicated than they need to be, when simplicity is always Parker’s primary ideal, and the only law he respects is Murphy’s?  My reading is that even though he hasn’t worked directly with Joe in a while, something in the letter did touch him on some primal level.   It isn’t compassion.   It’s something that existed a very long time before compassion.   And we’ve seen this nameless emotion in Parker before.   And we’ll see it again.

In his effort to explain away Parker’s behavior, Westlake makes what I think may be an outright blunder–he has Parker sourly musing on Joe’s offer to pay his travel expenses–he thinks this isn’t how it’s supposed to work–you go in together for shares–you don’t offer to pay another heister out of your own pocket for his trouble–but Parker offered to do exactly that with Handy McKay, in The Outfit, less than a year earlier.   Handy refused the offer, partly because he genuinely wanted to help Parker out, and partly because it’s weird for Parker to be offering to pay him.   Parker seems oblivious to the contradiction in his reasoning.   Perhaps Westlake, caught up in trying to fix a book on a short deadline, never even noticed it.

Now ask yourself–if Handy McKay, who also worked with Joe Sheer, had gotten that letter, what would he have done?   He’d have gone down there to help Joe, out of loyalty.   We’ve seen him take pity on people he’d barely met, which twice ended up costing him and Parker dearly.   And Handy is as tough and capable as they come in the heisting world.   So Parker is once again wrongly assuming all his fellow heisters are like him.   There are aspects of the human mind he can never really grasp–we’re as much of a mystery to him as he is to us.

The Joe Sheer he thought he knew would never break like this, so in his mind, the Joe Sheer he knew is dead.   What killed him?   And is it a threat to Parker in some way?  That’s the mystery he’s out to solve.   Made all the more urgent by the fact that Parker checked into the local hotel under his cover name of Charles Willis, which can be traced back to Florida, and the life he’s set up for himself there.

And now Tiftus has turned up dead in his hotel room–and the state police, who are a damn sight more professional than Younger, consider ‘Charles Willis’ a suspect, though Younger can give him an alibi (for his own reasons).   The mysteries are starting to multiply.   The trap is starting to close on Parker.   He’s got to figure all this out, and fast.

And I’ve got to make this a two-parter, like I did with The Hunter.   Too much more to say about this one–it’s not the kind of book you skim through.   I’ll post the rest of it sometime this week.  You’d think I’d learn to stay away from Parker novels with two word/three syllable titles ending in ‘er’.   But they’re all so bloody interesting.   Contradictions and all.

25 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels