Tag Archives: Breakout

Review: Breakout, Part 2

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The three of us were together now in Q and I knew from old experience that anyone in Q would sell his old mother for a pack of cigarettes.  But all the same, I was puzzled and depressed.  Puzzled because I couldn’t clarify what I had really meant to say when I got up to speak at the meeting, depressed because if there was no liberty which I could define then equally there was no escape.  I remained awake for hours that night thinking of it.  Beyond the restless searchlights which stole in through every window and swept the hut till it was bright as day I could feel the wide fields of Ireland around me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not wide enough.  Choice was an illusion.  Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one with the largest possible array of modern amenities.

From the short story Freedom, by Frank O’Connor

“Tile,” Parker said.  “It’s a tile wall.”

Mackey reached in to pull a strip of the Sheetrock away.  He held it in both hands and they looked at the face of it, which was pale green  “It’s waterproofed,” Mackey said.  “We found a bathroom.”

Williams said “We won’t know if there’s a mirror on it until we break it.”

“A mirror in a bathroom,” Mackey decided, “this far to the back of the building, isn’t gonna wake anybody up.  If it comes down to it, I’ll volunteer for the bad luck.”

“We’ve got all the bad luck already,” Williams told him.  “Parker and me, we already broke out once, and here we are again.”

Picking up a hammer and screwdriver, Parker said “We’re running out of time,” and went back to work.

Parker makes a good point.  I spent all of Part 1 of this review on Part One of this novel.  Part 2 has to cover Parts Two, Three, and Four.  Let’s get back to work.

Westlake started writing this book with the idea that it would be about Parker going to prison, escaping, and then doing a quick heist near the prison before heading back to New Jersey.  Now just that bare bones concept suggests a daunting array of technical challenges–how to get Parker out of prison, how to execute the heist, how to get him through the police dragnet.

But then came an even more daunting challenge, in the form of Lyme Disease, perhaps picked up while walking near his rural upstate New York home.  Westlake managed to keep typing until he’d gotten Parker out, and then went to the hospital for four days; couldn’t work for six weeks after he got out of the hospital.  Westlake was almost 70, and it’s reasonable to assume he hadn’t fully recovered by the time he started writing again.  If he ever did.

But as he said later, it was when he reviewed what he’d already written that he realized escape was the overriding theme of the entire book, not just the section dealing with the prison.  There are all kinds of prisons in this world that we may have to try and get out of–hospitals, for example.  Physical afflictions.   Prisons within prisons within prisons (to repurpose Thomas Merton).

So Parker and his ‘friends’ (maybe not quite the right word, and that’s another theme in the book–personal and professional reciprocity, the pros and cons of it, no pun intended but there it is anyway) will have to break out again and again, before they win free of this morass, and live to heist another day.

We pick up in Part Two, right after Parker, Brandon Williams, and Tom Marcantoni, have  escaped the previously escape-proof Stoneveldt Prison, with the help of Ed Mackey, and some of Marcantoni’s criminal colleagues.  They drive to an isolated area by a lake to change clothes, and take stock.  Parker and Williams gave Marcantoni their promise they’d help him and his buddies out with a heist in the nearby midwestern city Williams and Marcantoni both hail from.

This is the multi-POV part of the book, where we get to know some of the players other than Parker.  We start off with Williams, who enjoys the distinction of being the first African American POV character to appear in a Parker novel (not the first black POV character by a long shot; see The Black Ice Score).  He’s reacting about the way you’d expect a black man to react when surrounded by strange white men, all of whom are capable of violence and not much for PC. He’s wondering if he’s going to be alive much longer.

He’s also noticing that the man he knew as Kasper is being referred to as Parker. Even though he’s been a heistman for much of his adult life, he’s still the fish out of water here, but there are reasons Parker, one of the best talent scouts in his field, picked him for the escape crew, and we learn a bit about how he came to be the man he is.

Brandon Williams had grown used to this level of tension, never knowing exactly how to react to the people around him, who and what to watch out for, where it was safe to put a foot.  Part of it was skin color, but the rest was the life he’d lived, usually on the bent.  He’d had square jobs, but they’d never lasted.  He’d always known the jobs were beneath him, that he was the smartest man on the job site or the factory floor, but that it didn’t matter how smart he was, or how much he knew, or the different things he’d read.  The knowledge would make him arrogant and angry, and sooner or later there’d be a fight, or he’d be fired.

The people he mostly got along with were, like him, on the wrong side of the law.  If wasn’t that they were smart, most of them, but that they kept to themselves.  He got along with people who kept to themselves; that way, he could keep to himself, too.

I’d say Williams is a somewhat overdue homage to all the black men who’d written fan letters to Westlake (as Stark) after the Parker novels started coming out–not all of them necessarily felons, but all of them feeling alienated from society, at odds with it, and liking Parker so much because they knew he’d understand their problems, if not necessarily give a damn about them.  Not reacting to Parker as a white man, but just as somebody who knew the score, and cared about as much about color as blood type.  And we all bleed red.

So Williams doesn’t trust any of these people, but he needs them, and as long as they need him too, it’s all cool.  He doesn’t like having to pull a job right out of the joint any more than Parker does, but that was Marcantoni’s price for coming in with them.  Macontoni’s crew do have a good base of operations, at an abandoned building that used to be a beer distributor.

Next chapter is Marcantoni’s, and it’s where we learn about what the heist is–a jewelry wholesaler.  But in a most unusual location.  Back around the Mid-19th century, a huge brick armory was constructed in the town, of the type Americans are well familiar with. Municipalities all over the country are still looking for something to do with these white elephants, built like fortresses because that’s what they were, now that most of them are no longer needed for their original purpose.  Williams remembers when they used this one for track and field, but that didn’t last.

(Up top, you can see a picture of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, an exceptionally fine example of the general architectural form; built in 1910, and New York is still looking for something useful to do with it.)

The city finally gave up on the place, sold it to developers, who turned the upper levels into expensive condos.  But the ground floor was a problem, because it really had been built to repel invaders (‘like if the Indians had tanks’ Marcantoni snarkily observes).  Very thick walls, very narrow windows.  Who wants a place like that?  Somebody with something valuable to protect, but no need to bring in customers off the street.

Marcantoni, needing a job after his parole, got hired to work on the reconstruction project.  And he found out something really neat (seriously, if I found this, I’d want to pull a heist too).  The original builders put in a secret tunnel in case the defenders, (perhaps under siege from Lakota warriors armed with medieval trebuchets) needed to escape.  Not in the official plans, completely forgotten about.   And the other end of the tunnel is in the old library building across the street.

Williams, smartest man in the room as usual (with one possible exception), has some concerns about the structural stability of a 150 year old tunnel, but here’s the problem.  Marcantoni is in love with this job.  He can’t see past it. He’s waited a long time to pull it (so nobody would remember he was on the reconstruction crew).  It’s the main reason he escaped.  He knows he needs a big crew to deal with the logistical problems, and he doesn’t mind splitting the very substantial proceeds six ways.  He will take it very personally if Parker and his friends don’t live up to their end of the agreement.  It’s agreed they’ll do it Sunday.  Nobody much feels like waiting around.

Chapter 3 is from the perspective of Goody, a lowlife Williams has the misfortune to be acquainted with.  He’s heard about the escape.  He knows Williams’ sister, about the only person on earth Williams is close to.   He goes to see her, and says if her brother gets in touch, let him know, maybe he could help. Help himself to a nice fat reward, is what he’s thinking.  Like so many a minor Stark POV character, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and before long his plans come to naught, but he will figure into the plot later, so worth mentioning.

And then we’re at an exercise class inside the armory, and who should we see but Brenda Mackey, attending an exercise class.  She doesn’t need to get in shape, her shape is delightful as always, but she knows her husband Ed is going to rob this place, and she knows sometimes he needs help out of a jam (like that time in New York when he almost died), so she’s there to scout the place out in case she’s needed again.  Ed didn’t tell her to do this, but then again, he didn’t tell her not to do it.

(Later, we have another nice raunchy sex scene between the two, just before the heist–reminiscent of the one in Plunder Squad, and Brenda doesn’t seem to speak ersatz Chinese during coitus anymore, but she’s still quite vocal.)

It all goes fine, except Brenda catches the eye of Darlene Johnson-Ross, the woman who owns the studio, and this woman seems bothered by Brenda.   In the chapter after that, we find out this woman is having an affair with Henry Freedman, he whose jewelry wholesaler is about to get broken into, and she’s very worried this very attractive fit young woman taking a class much too easy for her is some kind of detective, or IRS agent, or something.  And all Henry is worried about is his wife finding out about Darlene.

Next we meet CID Detective Jason Rembek, who has been charged with recapturing the three escapees from Stoneveldt.  He knows most guys who break prison have no plan for what to do once they’re out, so are easily rounded up again.  He’s wondering if these three will be more of a challenge.  ‘Kasper’ is the one that attracts the most attention from him.

Rembek studied the few pictures he had of Kasper.  A hard face, bony, like outcroppings of stone.  Hard eyes; if they were the windows of the soul, the shades were drawn.

So.  The heist.  As happens surprisingly often in this book, it’s very cleverly written, takes up just one chapter, and is, shall we say, not 100% successful. They go in through the library, as planned. They get into the tunnel, as planned. They shore up the tunnel with folding tables, as planned. They get the jewels as planned. The ancient tunnel, in long-standing disrepair, compromised by street work above, collapses on Marcantoni and his two friends, Angioni and Kolaski, on their way out, very nearly smothering Williams too, except Parker pulls him out by the legs.  Not quite exactly as planned.

So they have a fortune in gems and watches.  Nobody knows they’re there, no alarms were tripped.  But the way the place is set up, and with the tunnel now permanently closed off, there’s no obvious way of exiting this part of the building without alerting security, who will alert the law, and it’s back to prison for all three of them (including Mackey, who wasn’t even in prison–he was just doing Parker a favor here–no good deed, huh?).

Williams wants to thank Parker for pulling him out of that hole, and Parker won’t let him.  He didn’t do it for Williams.  He did it because once again, he needs a crew to break out of a prison.  And this one they walked right into of their own free will.  He knew it was a mistake.  But he did it anyway.  End of Part Two, which is the only part of the book that isn’t about escaping from somewhere.

Part Three is the shortest of the four sections (Part One is the longest).  44 pages of Parker, Mackey, and Williams trying to get out of that armory without getting caught.  First thing they have to do is drop the loot.  It’s only going to slow them down, and they don’t have a fence for it–that was Marcantoni’s side of things, and the contact info died with him.

I like this part of the book a lot, the desolate desperate lonely feel of it, but there’s not much point in carefully synopsizing it.  It’s purely about three guys expert in breaking into places they’re not supposed to be trying to figure out a way to break out of a place they’re not supposed to be before morning, when none of them, of necessity, has ever been in there before, or done any advance scouting (Brenda did, but she isn’t there).  That quote up top tells you how it’s going to go.  Finding tools, breaking through walls, trying to avoid making too much noise, or setting off any alarms.  There are a lot of people living in this place.

They finally get out to where they could make it to the street, but not without passing the doorman for the apartments.  They need a distraction for him.  Mackey has a brainstorm.  They’re in an office.  There’s a yellow pages.  There’s a phone.  He finds an all-night pizza place.  He orders a pie.  Pepperoni, if you’re curious.  The guard goes to let the delivery guy in.  They get to the stairwell–but the stairs only go up.  Not down to the parking garage, where they wanted to go. An interesting exchange follows.

Parker said, “It’s the goddam security in this place.  They don’t want anybody in or out except past that doorman.”

“Well,” Mackey said, “that’s what people want nowadays, that sense of safety.”

Williams said, “Bullshit.  There’s no such thing as safety.”

“You’re right,” Mackey told him.  “But they don’t know that.”

We still don’t.

So they finally get to where they can get out to the street, but now they have a new problem.  Donald Westlake was a born problem solver, and this is the kind of problem he can truly relate to.  The physical challenges, but also the strategic ones.  They need more than just a means of egress–they need a means of escape, transportation, so they’re not trapped on  the empty streets outside, just waiting around for the law to scoop them up.

Mackey figures they can call Brenda–she can come pick them up.  Except none of them has a cellphone.  They have to go back into the trap, break into another office, use the phone there.  And then it turns out Brenda’s motel room phone is set not to receive calls until tomorrow morning.  And she doesn’t have a cellphone either.  They need somebody to come get them.  Williams has a really dangerous idea.

Goody.  Williams knows, for a stone fact, that Goody wants to sell him to the law. But he also knows Goody is stupid and greedy enough to come get him.  He and Parker work it out–set up a meet at a camera store across the street.  He’ll say he wants Goody to drop him in a little town nearby, where some relatives live, and he can hide out with them.  Goody will figure he can bring him there, then call the law on him–low risk, high reward, except Goody doesn’t know about Parker and Mackey.  They’ll just take the car and go.

(All three are heeled.  Parker has his usual go-to, the five shot Smith & Wesson Terrier .32 snubnose.  Now I’ll quibble, very briefly.  We’re told back in Part Two that Mackey has a Beretta Jaguar .22–we’re told he equipped Parker and Williams similarly.  Then we’re told in Part Three that Parker has a Terrier.  Let’s do a side-by-side comparison, shall we?

Okay, they’re both small handguns.  Other than that, not terribly similar.  And this is easily explained by Mackey knowing Parker’s tastes in armament.  And it still bothers me.  And this is why authors of crime fiction should think twice about getting specific about guns.)

Now what I left out of the Part Two synopsis is that Goody, who is a smalltime drug dealer, ran into problems with his supplier, who is a bit less small-time, and who had his men do things to Goody until he told them about the reward money he planned to get for Williams.  They’re going to come along and make sure they get their share.

So things get a bit confusing once they run out there to Goody’s black Mercury, and all of a sudden there’s a Land Rover pulling up, and three men with guns jump out.  Parker quickly figures the guy in the back of the Land Rover as the boss, drops him, and the other two are nothing without their brain.  Williams gives his old pal in the Merc a proper thank you for his loyalty.  So they end up driving away in the Land Rover, Williams at the wheel, the four interlopers left behind with bullet holes in them, and that’s the end of that subplot.  Goody.

Except a lot of gunfire in the street was never the ideal version of their plan. There’s jumpy security-obsessed rich people calling the police in those fancy apartments up above.  They figure on ditching the Land Rover for a carMackey has stashed nearby.  There’s a lot of maneuvering through a parking garage they take refuge in, and let’s just skip over that part.  “All I want,” Williams said, “is to be in a place I’m not trying to get out of.”  You said a mouthful, brother.

They get to where Mackey stashed a Honda, and it’s still too soon to contact Brenda–who has a car of her own.  So they offer Williams the Honda so he can get over the state line, start over.  He’s touched.  He gets the hell out of there before they can change their minds.  Strange strange white people.  They get some sleep, but then Mackey wakes Parker up.  Brenda has been arrested.  They have to break her out of jail.

Hey, maybe now would be the time for a little musical interlude, what do you say?  I posted an image of a watchtower in Part 1.  Here’s the song to go with it.

(I could have gone with Dylan, but you know, The Experience was two ofays and a brother as well.  Though this power trio we’re looking at is maybe a bit more even in the talent department.)

Part Four is less focused, more freewheeling.  Lots of ground to cover.  Parker comes downstairs, and finds Mackey and Williams sitting at the table.  He was supposed to be headed for the border, but just when he thought he was out, he pulls himself back in.  He heard about Brenda’s arrest on the radio, figured Parker and Mackey might need a hand. This is the first thing he’s done in the book to lower Parker’s opinion of him.

The radio provided Williams with a lot of information.  The cops found Marcantoni and the others in the rubble, dead of course.  They figure Parker and Williams were involved too.  Brenda got arrested by doing what she always does–hanging around nearby when Mackey is doing a job, in case he needs her to rescue him.  Like she did that time in New York, which is how Mackey is still alive, but without cellphones, there was no practical way she could help out, and that woman from the dance studio saw her hanging around and called the police. They figure she’s the brains of the outfit.  Which might be true if it was just her and Ed.

They have her in a city lock-up.  Williams knows the place.  Not as tough as Stoneveldt, but tough.  Ed’s all for going in.  Williams is dubious, but game.

Parker wants no part of this.  It’s long past time for him to get out of this hick town, like he should have done to start with.  Ed senses his reluctance, is angered by it.  Please remember, not only did Brenda save Ed’s life once–she’s the one who made Ed stick around and wait for Parker after that heist they pulled in Comeback.  Ed helped him break prison just now, stood by him on a heist that clearly wasn’t planned out properly, just out of loyalty.  If Parker owes anybody in this world, he owes Brenda and Ed Mackey. But in his mind, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.  Parker didn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off; is what the narrator tersely informs us.

Excuse me?   Mr. Stark?  Have you forgotten every previous book in this series?  ‘Debts accumulated and paid off ‘is basically all Parker lives by, starting with the debts he collected from his wife, and his former partner, and an entire criminal syndicate, in the very first of those books.  Debts Accumulated And Paid Off might as well be the epitaph on his tombstone, assuming he gets one.  Parker has risked himself far more seriously than this to pay off a blood debt to somebody who wronged him.  He’s also risked himself several times to help criminal associates like Handy McKay and Alan Grofield, though there were other factors involved besides loyalty each time.

You can, if you want, explain this away.  Parker comes after people who wrong him in some way because their treachery triggered a response he has no control over, and he needs to kill them to restore his mental equilibrium.  He helps fellow heisters he’s working a job with because that’s part of his professional ethic, and because he might need to work with them again someday–in this case, the job was over as soon as they got out of the armory.

He tells himself he’ll have to help Ed and Brenda now, because otherwise if he and Ed work together again someday, Ed won’t trust him anymore–but seeing as we never see him work with Ed again in the series, and he’s got a lot of other names stored away in his head, that doesn’t seem like enough of a reason.

It’s a much bigger motivational problem than the one in The Jugger, that bothered Westlake so much, and Westlake should have seen that.  If Parker isn’t helping the Mackeys out of professional solidarity, or out of a sense of obligation for what they’ve done for him–as Williams, a near-stranger is willing to do, just because Ed let him have the Honda–why the hell is he doing it?

Because Stark can’t let him do anything else.  Stark can’t ever let Parker appear ignoble.  But neither can Stark allow his pragmatic anti-hero any virtuous motives.  And usually that works out fine.  And this time, it feels a mite forced. As if Westlake, still hollowed out by his recent illness, couldn’t fully access that part of himself that could interpret Parker’s thoughts for us.  I had only read two previous Parker novels when I first got to this one.  I already knew it was wrong to say Parker doesn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off.  But how else would you say it?

But in critiquing the way Stark does it here, I still appreciate what an important question is being asked.  No matter how independent you are, you are still going to need help sometimes.  In order to reliably receive help, you will need to offer it in return.  Was Brenda right when she pulled Ed out of that burning lumberyard, but wrong when she was waiting around outside the armory to see if he needed her again?  How could she ever know for sure?  How can you know when you’ve crossed the line between legitimate obligations and sucker bets?  And isn’t there anything in this world besides debts accumulated and paid off?

Ed doesn’t care if he owes Brenda or not, because he loves her (he never says it, and he doesn’t need to).  If he walked away from her now, he’d be nothing. (Parker would never walk away from Claire either, of course, because she’s a part of him).  Williams just wants to respect himself in the morning–to feel like the man he was born to be, that society wouldn’t let him be in any other walk of life. Parker and Mackey see that man when they look at him, and that’s why he came back.

Parker feels none of this, for any of them.  But he’s caught in a web of conflicting obligations (my Celtic ancestors used to call them geasa and they’ve killed no end of tough guys). Another kind of prison.  Ed’s sense of obligation to him was a necessary factor in his escape from the actual prison he ended up in because of a confederate who acted as if his only obligation was to himself.  There’s no solution to this equation.  You just have to decide what feels right to you, and accept the consequences.  And never know if you’ve chosen correctly until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Ultimately the only answer to this conundrum is that Stark is a romantic, and Parker isn’t.  Let’s get back to the synopsis.

As romantic as it unquestionably would be to shoot their way into the jail, like the 1920’s heisters, or the Old West outlaws, Parker has a less sanguinary plan. He still has the card for the criminal attorney Claire got him.  A very capable shyster, Mr. Jonathan Li.  And if they can just get Brenda released on her own recognizance, the charges against her dropped, she can go on living  in the straight world, instead of being a fugitive like Parker and Ed.

Li knows he is now dealing with fugitives from the law, and as long as they don’t implicate him, and the check doesn’t bounce (or hell, just send cash), he’s got zero problems with helping them.  The problem lies with Darlene Johnson-Ross. She’s the one who spotted Brenda waiting in the car, recognized her blonde hair, called the law.  (I don’t accept Brenda is a blonde, it’s never been mentioned before now, but we can talk about that in the comments section.)

If this woman dropped her complaint, they’d have nothing to hold Brenda on, and Li could do the rest in his sleep.  But she has to drop it.  She can’t just disappear, conveniently and forever, or Brenda will be held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder.  Li knows who he’s talking to here, never doubt it.

What follows is probably my least favorite part of the book, that involves finding Johnson-Ross at her house, with her lover (the guy they almost robbed), and using a variety of threats (none of them terribly veiled) to convince her to go tell the police she made a mistake, and this is definitely not the same dame.  If she doesn’t, then they’ll kill her boyfriend.  It’s a bit hard to understand why she cares, given that he’s possibly more terrified of his wife finding out about them than he is of these three desperate criminals with guns, but who can explain it, who can tell you why, fools give you reasons, Freedman doesn’t die.  Turns out he makes really nice sandwiches, and Ed figures you don’t shoot a guy who feeds you.

This is the last prison they find themselves in, unable to leave her house until they know Brenda is out, wondering if the police will come by and check, which they do, but not seriously.  Williams makes his exit (in Freedman’s Infiniti) before they find out what happens, because seriously, he’s done his share and then some.  They never would have even found the house without somebody who knows the area.

(It’s a bit too cute, this part.  Too Dortmunder-esque, except you know that these guys actually can kill people.  Mackey is his usual jocular self, even helps Darlene with the dishes.  Freedman gets Stockholm Syndrome, starts identifying with his captors.  I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it’s just a bit much that we spend more time on this hostage caper than on the robbery.  Well, anything for Brenda.)

Endgame.  Brenda’s been released, Li worked his magic.  She’s taking a cab to the airport.  Ed will rendezvous with her there–the cops don’t know his face. They’ll get the car they have in long-term parking, and drive out of state.  Of course the law is tailing her.  Parker can’t go with them.  He’s going to need another ride.

And who should he spot in a remote area of the airport but Detective Turley–you know, the one who talked about game theory so much.  They’ll get to talk about that some more.  Parker commandeers Turley and his vehicle.  Turley’s a pro, and he knows by this time Parker is no less professional on his side of the law. He wants to live to type up his report.  So he gets them past security, and they get the hell out of Dodge.

Bit of driving to do now.  Might as well chat to pass the time.  Turley mentions that even though he’s a state cop, the car they’re in belongs to the local police.  A few years back, there was a proposal floated to the city government–equip all the squad cars with location devices–so that if a car went missing, they could find it.  You know what the city fathers said?  “You boys are local law enforcement, you know exactly where you are.”  Turley’s having a good chuckle about that now. Parker is less amused.  He’d probably have had to kill Turley and find another car if they’d shelled out for that tech.  Turley’s not done gabbing, and Parker knows why.

Just as Parker had known what Turley was doing underneath his words back in Stoneveldt, he understood now what this cosy chat was all about.  Turley was a good cop, but he was also mortal.  His second job, if he could do it, was to bring Parker in, but his first job was to keep himself alive.  Talk with a man, exchange confidences with him, he’s less likely to pull the trigger if and when the time comes.  Like Mackey deciding to do it the more difficult way because Henry had made him lunch.

This wouldn’t work on Parker, but he doesn’t need Turley dead.  There’s a railroad town coming up.  Also a major truck stop.  He leaves Turley by the roadside, in the middle of nowhere, throwing his gun into a cornfield where he’ll take some time finding it (but won’t be humiliated by Parker having taken it away from him).  Parker ditches the police Plymouth, and looks for his ride out of this goddam flat state.

He has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for, or rather, whom.   A couple in their 40’s or 50’s, who own and operate a big rig together.  More and more of those on the road now–must have been a fairly new trend back when this book was written.  (Parker, like his creator, never stops watching people–you never know what bit of information will come in handy).  They’ll invite him aboard just to have somebody to talk to, chat on the porch, so to speak.  A lone trucker wouldn’t want to risk it.  A couple seeks out company, to spice up their own relationship.

Then here they came.  He knew they were right the instant they walked out of the cafe.  Mid fifties, both overweight from sitting in the truck all the time, dressed alike in boots and jeans and windbreakers and black cowboy hats, they were obviously comfortable together, happy, telling each other stories. Parker rose and walked toward them, and they stopped, grinning at him, as though they’d expected him.

They had.  “I knew it,” the man said, and said to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Well, it was pretty obvious,” she said.

Parker said, “You know I want a lift.”

Marty and Gail.  Quite possibly the nicest people Parker’s ever met, which I suppose isn’t the highest praise that can be given, but they’re pretty darn nice. They can get him as far as Baltimore.  He says he could walk home from Baltimore.  They’ve got a Sterling Aero Bullet Plus.  Probably not unlike this one. Don’t really know much about trucks.  I do know the drivers matter more than the trucks do.   At least until it’s all done with computers and GPS.  Watch your backs, Martys & Gails of the world.  Google Trucks is coming for you.

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Parker has a good story to tell them about how he lost his car and his money in Vegas, and there was a woman involved.  He doesn’t get into detail much about it.  They can fill in the blanks themselves.  All they know is that he’s headed for New Jersey.  Well, that’s all they know officially, put it that way.  Marty in particular knows more than he’s saying.

There’s a police roadblock coming up.  Marty tells Parker he doesn’t feel like dealing with it, so he’s going to take the scenic route, on the side roads.  Get back on the highway once they’re past the cops.  And he’s got a little story of his own to tell Parker.  He did time once.  Attempted robbery.  Served four years, which was the minimum.

“Four  years is a long minimum,” Parker said.

“Oh, you know it.”  Marty concentrated on the road awhile, then said, “I know there’s fellas belong in there, I know there’s fellas I’d prefer was in there, but after being in there myself I could never put a man in a cage, personally.  Never.”

“I know the feeling,” Parker said.

“If a man wants to learn from his mistakes, fine,” Marty said.  “You look at me.  You see the job I gave myself.  Coast-to-coast hauling.  You can’t get much farther from a four-man cage inside a six-hundred-man cage inside a four-thousand-man cage.”

Prisons within prisons within prisons.  But there’s always a way out, if you look hard enough.  And there’s people who’ll help you, if you ask.  The decent people of this earth.  The sane ones.  They do exist.

But Parker, I’m just wondering–what if  things turned out so that you had to kill these good people, who are helping you for no reason at all other than that they feel like it?  What if that was the only way you could stay free? Would you do it? Could you? I’m asking you a question, Parker.  Answer me, damn it.  Silence. That figures.

They pass the roadblock, and Marty says the state troopers are just doing what they were told.  “They aren’t hunters.  They’re just boys doing a job.”   Maybe he knows what’s sitting next to him in the cab, while his wife sleeps peacefully in back.  Maybe not.  We don’t see Parker say goodbye to them.  Which means we don’t know if they were still alive when he left them–knowing what they do about him, where he came from, where he was headed.  We don’t even get that much of an answer to my question.  But Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to.  That I know.  He’s not one of us.

And Chapter 17 of Part Four is so short, I can type the whole damn thing.  Why not?

Claire rolled over when he walked into the room.  Her eyes gleamed in the darkness, but she didn’t say anything as she watched him move.  Out of his pocket and onto the dresser went the three Patek watches that were the only result of the jewel job.  He stripped and got into bed and then, folding into his arms, she said, “Gone a long time.”

“It felt like a long time.”

“I knew you’d be back,” she said.

“This time,” he said.

Just FYI, some Patek Phillipe & Co. watches sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars–some can even cost millions.  Probably a midwest wholesaler wouldn’t have the top of the line models, but Parker would have picked the best of the bunch available, and he can find a fence for three watches easily enough.  He really does not like to walk away empty-handed from a job.  Neither did Donald E. Westlake.

What I walk away from this book with is a sense that the walls are starting to close in on Parker, in a way we haven’t seen before.  Yes, he got away, but the law caught him, photographed his new face, connected it to his old fingerprints.  He’s got a few more killings to his official credit, not that he needed any more to go away for life.  He’s still having a harder and harder time finding jobs he can pull in this strange new world of electronic cash, electronic surveillance, ever-faster information sharing between far-flung police departments.

He still has to work with unreliable people sometimes, which creates points of vulnerability–and when he works with people he can trust, because they trust him, that creates other points of vulnerability, perhaps even more dangerous.

He’s free, but it’s not unqualified freedom, liberty without caveats.  I suppose there’s no such thing.  He’s certainly got a wider range of amenities in that house, with Claire (a fine amenity in herself).   But he has to keep paying for them.  He has to keep hunting, like any predator.  And sooner or later, every predator becomes the prey.  Nobody runs forever.  Yes, this is foreshadowing. Three more books left.  Which can, arguably, be seen as one long book.  Or one multi-faceted work of art.

The next Parker novel was published two years after this one, and by all rights, I should get to it in a few more weeks.  But I’m going to break with my usual habit of reviewing books in the order in which they were published.  Two rather unsatisfying standalone books are next, neither of them books Westlake will be remembered for, though both with things to recommend them.  Then a whole lot of Dortmunder: novels, novellas, short stories, workout routines.

And then we’ll get to the defacto conclusion of the Parker Saga, along with the very last Dortmunder, and the very last Westlake novel ever to be published.  The end, in fact, of the primary literary oeuvre of Donald E. Westlake, hard and painful as that is to believe.  And by extension, the end of my needing to publish an article here every week or so.  One prison I’m feeling rather ambiguous about breaking out of.  But there’s always another one waiting outside. Right?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Breakout

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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 LukeEscape From AlcatrazLe 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 Ed Liss, back 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.”

“Why not?”

“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 the 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 old 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?”

“Why not?”

“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)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark