Tag Archives: Upstate New York

Review: Ask The Parrot

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Robert Frost

Thiemann looked out the windshield, not saying anything more, but thinking it over. He was suspicious of something, but he didn’t know what.  He had sensed the otherness in Parker, but he didn’t know what it meant.

An older Cadillac convertible, bright red, top down, big as a speedboat, came the other way, suddenly honking madly.  The three guys in it, middle-aged, in their bright orange or red hunting caps, waved hands with beer cans in them at Lindahl, who honked and waved back but didn’t stop.  Neither did the Cadillac, which went on by, the three guys all grinning and shouting things, now at Parker and Thiemann. They were very happy. Parker nodded, but didn’t honk.

“That’s part of our group,” Thiemann said.

“I know.”

“They shouldn’t be drinking.  That’s the worst thing you can do.”  Then Thiemann turned away with a grimace.  “Almost the worst thing.”

Ahead, Lindahl signaled for a left, and Parker did too.  “How much farther?”

“A couple miles.” Thiemann turned toward him again.  “You don’t think much of us, do you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Not just those guys with the beer,” Thiemann said.  “All of us, running around, being man hunters.  You could see in those troopers’ eyes, they thought we were all just a joke.  Useless and a joke.  And I could see it in your eyes too.  You think the same thing.”

Parker followed Lindahl around the turn.  Thiemann’s sense of Parker’s otherness, which had led him toward suspicion, had now led him to embarrassment instead. Parker wasn’t an alien from outside them, unknown and untrusted, he was a judge from above them, finding them wanting. Good; that moved Thiemann away from a direction that might have caused trouble.

Richard Stark

When Westlake conceived and wrote The Jugger, it seems to me that he had a very specific purpose in mind.  A bottle story, as it’s sometimes called.   Isolate Parker in a small midwestern town, where he would be cut off from the world he knows, his fellow professionals.

Not planning a job, because he just had a very satisfactory one, in Copper Canyon. Not knowing the terrain, the people he interacts with, the rules of the game he’s playing, or its stakes.  Trying to blend into the crowd, as he always does, finding it harder than usual, because any stranger draws attention in such a hick burg.  Fish out of water story would be another applicable term. But Parker is no fish.

He can’t leave until he knows what happened to his mentor Joe Sheer, and why–to see if it represents a threat to him.  Which it does.  There’s a lot of violence and evil beneath the innocent facade of that town, along with some genuine innocence.  Well, that’s pretty much true wherever humans live.  Parker has known that a long time.  He has never for one moment considered himself human.  Because he’s not.  What does he consider himself to be?  Unknown.

No doubt there’s a bit of Bad Day at Honda in it.  That short story by Howard Breslin that got turned into Bad Day at Black Rock.  I’ve read the story, seen the movie, and they’re both good–not a patch on The Jugger.  The Jugger, to me, is one of the finest short novels ever produced in any genre.  A minor masterpiece.  (The Godard film loosely adapted from it stinks on ice, which is nobody’s fault but Godard’s. Auteur theory cuts both ways.)

Westlake would not have agreed.  He repeatedly called The Jugger the worst failure he ever had.  Because he felt like he hadn’t come up with a strong enough motivation for Parker to come to this town in the first place, expose himself to so much risk with no potential reward.  Spencer Tracy comes to Black Rock because he’s a decent man trying to find out what happened to a friend.  Parker is neither decent nor a man, and in his mind, he doesn’t have friends.

And that kind of failure, real or perceived (and art is all about perceptions anyway, right?) tended to eat at Westlake, make him look for a way to get it right.  I think that’s part of what led him to write this book.  A do-over.  Parker’s motivation is impeccably contrived this time.  Fleeing the law after a heist gone wrong, he’s forced to take shelter in a slow-dying upstate NY hamlet, not far from where his creator grew up.  He makes a run for it too soon, the hounds will get him. Tarries too long, same deal.

Instead of trying to solve the mystery of a colleague’s death, he’s trying to stay out of prison, avoid the tightening dragnet.  He looks to blend in with his rustic surroundings, does his human impression once more, and once more learns it’s a harder act to pull off in the provinces.

The thing that really sticks out about The Jugger, probably hurt its sales when it first came out–that it’s got no heist in it–not an issue here.  The heist comes to Parker, via a most unexpected finger, with a story of his own to tell.  Parker has a secondary motivation to stick around.  A big stash of poorly guarded cash.

So maybe that chronic itch in the back of Westlake’s head was finally eased.  A very fine and oddly revealing late entry in the Parker series resulted.  I still think The Jugger is better as a standalone story, simpler anyway, but this center panel of the final Starkian Triptych has murky depths of its own to plumb. We’ll toss a line in, see how far down it goes.

Ask the Parrot picks up minutes after the end of Nobody Runs Forever, with Parker still climbing a steep wooded slope.  He can’t see down to the bottom anymore, but he knows the state troopers and their tracking dogs will be coming up after him.  He looks up, and sees a man holding a hunting rifle.  Figuring better the devil you don’t know, he finishes the climb.

At some point in that climb, he crossed into New York state from northwest Massachusetts.  My guess is Rensselaer County.  Not far from Albany,  The part of the world where Donald Westlake’s first conscious memories would have occurred.

This hunter’s name is Tom Lindahl.  He saw news coverage of the robbery and the subsequent manhunt.  They’re just a short drive from his house.  He ostensibly went out to plink a few rabbits, but really he was hoping to run into a genuine bank robber.  Someone with the guts to pull that kind of job.  “Those guys aren’t afraid of their own shadow, they go out and do what has to be done.”   Thinks he can use a man like that.

But he’s no fool.  He knows Parker would happily jump him, take his gun and his Ford SUV, make a dash for it.  Lindahl makes it very clear the searchers are up here as well, roadblocks all over the place, and Parker wouldn’t get very far.  But they aren’t going to search his home. A fugitive could find respite there.  He’s speaking in terms Parker can  understand–mutual need.

But what is it Lindahl needs from him?  What has he stumbled into here, in a ‘town’ called Pooley, that is not much more these days than a stoplight, a gas station, a few shuttered businesses, and a handful of people waiting to die?  And why does Lindahl have a green parrot (who doesn’t talk) in a cage on top of his TV set?  We never learn the answer to the last question (the bird’s not talking), but the others are easy enough.

“I’m a whistle-blower,” Lindahl said, as though he’d been planning some much longer way to day it.  “My wife told me not to do it, she said I’d lose everything including her, and she was right.  But I’m bullheaded.”

“Where did you blow this whistle?”

“I worked for twenty-two years at a racetrack down toward Syracuse,” Lindahl said, “named Gro-More.  It was named afer a farm feed company that went bankrupt forty years ago.  They never changed the name.”

“You blew a whistle.”

“I was a manager, I was in charge of infrastructure, the upkeep of the buildings, the stands, the track.  Hired people, contracted out.  I was nothing to do with money.”

“So whatever this is,” Parker said, “you shouldn’t have known about it.”

“I didn’t have to know about it.” Lindahl shook his head, explaining himself.  “What we had was a clean track,” he said. “The people working there, we were all happy to be at a clean track.  There’s a thousand ways for a track to be dirty, but there’s only one way to be clean, so when I found out what they were doing with the money, it just hurt me.  It was like doing something dirty to a member of my own family.”

The strain of getting his point across was deepening the lines in his face.  He broke off, made erasing gestures, and said, “I need a beer. I can’t tell this without a beer.” Rising, he said, “You want one?”

“No, but you go ahead.”

What he found out was that the people who owned the track were using it to launder money given to state politicians running for reelection. It’s not a mob-run track, they always did everything straight there, but one supposes the owners had other concerns, and this was a convenient way to address them.

Tom went to the state police.  He wore a wire (still with the wires).  But the people this scandal would have touched had too much suction.  So in the end, the only one who lost his job (and his wife) was the whistle-blower.  And ever since, he’s lived by himself, stewing in his own juices, with only a parrot for company. (I guess maybe the answer there is that they don’t eat much, you don’t have to walk them, and good bet a parrot will outlive a bitter lonely middle-aged man.)

He wants his own back, on several different levels, and that’s why he wants to rob Gro-More.  He knows the track inside-out.  He’s got keys to everything.  He still goes in there some nights, just walks around, never gets caught, and if he sees a new lock, he finds the key and copies it. You get the feeling he still considers it to be his, somehow.

Nobody’s ever tried to rob it, so security is a joke; two bored guards nearing retirement, watching TV screens at night.  It has to be done during one of the two twenty-four day meets held during the year, and there’s one going on right now.  At an absolute minimum, there’d be a hundred grand in untraceable cash–usually quite a bit more.  But he hasn’t got the experience to spot potential pitfalls.  Nor does he have the guts do to it alone. He needs an expert. He needs a secret sharer.

Parker finds the set-up at the track interesting, from a professional standpoint, but he’s just done a heist, he needs to get  back to Claire, and he’s had his fill of pissed-off amateurs for the time being. He’ll just humor Lindahl, wait for a good moment to scram.

Then the TV under the parrot’s cage shows him a confederate’s face–Nick Dalesia.  They caught him (comes out later that the cash from the bank was new, and extremely traceable). The first thing you expect a pro in that position to do is give up the location of the money for a lighter sentence.  Meaning Parker is back to square one, and now that track is starting to look good to him.  Back to the races.

Parker says they’ll go take a look at it tonight–he needs to see for himself if it’s as good as Tom says.  But before they have a chance to discuss it further, a car parks outside the converted garage Tom lives in now.  Tom wants to know if Parker is there or not.

When there’s no place to hide, stand where you are.  Parker said, “I’m Ed Smith, I used to work with you years ago at the track, I moved to Chicago, I’m back for a visit.”

“Smith?”

“There are people named Smith,” Parker said as a heavyset man in maroon  windbreaker got out of the car.  “Who’s he?”

Name’s Fred (there are also people named Fred, quite a few in Westlake novels). Tom can’t place the last name.  Used to know him from the Rod and Gun Club.  Which he’s still technically a member of, though he hasn’t paid dues in years.

(Before we go any further, I think I detect a final homage to Peter Rabe in Parker’s alias, and his matter-of-fact justification for it–from Anatomy of a Killer.

When the policeman turned him over, he found one driver’s license which said Smith and another one which said Jordan.

“Must be Jordan,” he said. “There aren’t any Smiths.”

Sure there are.  So many that when the law tries to look for an Ed Smith in their fancy databases, later in the book, they get an overload of useless data.  Parker laying down a false trail for the hounds. But the downside is that people will naturally assume it’s an alias, even though there are actual Smiths. Can’t say I know a single one.  Even though my workplace directory has sixteen of them.  Half as many Joneses.  They’re keeping up and then some.

So anyway Fred is all hepped up over the manhunt for the bank robbers.  The state police have requested that groups like the American Legion, VFW, and sportsman’s clubs (the linking element being guns and spare time) volunteer to help cover the area. Fred wants Tom to pitch in and do his bit.

Tom, wanting no part of the search (because he’s already won that game), looks at ‘Ed.’  Who says says the safest place to be is with the posse.  Which Fred interprets as ‘Ed’ wanting safety in numbers from these violent fugitives, but Tom knows what Parker really means–the best protective coloration he can take on at present is blaze orange–that or a red and black checked hunting jacket, which is what he borrows from Tom, along with a good pair of boots and a rifle. Blend into the herd. Tom is nervous about giving Parker a gun. Parker’s not the one he should worry about.

They go to a community center to get their marching orders–which means now a lot of people have seen Tom’s guest, including two brothers, younger than most of the posse, local troublemakers–one with an eyepatch. Three eyes giving Parker a look he doesn’t like one bit, nor should he.  More on them later.

All the troopers overseeing the search make it clear they think this posse thing is a dumb-ass idea, but whoever had it outranks them, and at least this heads off any freelance vigilante crap.  They do their best to send the deputies to very isolated places where the robbers are least likely to be found. With luck, they’ll only shoot at each other. But in a Parker novel, that kind of luck is thin on the ground.

The three of them get through all the roadblocks just fine, nobody asks to see Parker’s ID, just as well, since he doesn’t have any.  They get assigned to search Wolf Peak (hmmmm), the site of an old abandoned railroad station, from the days when there was still a lumber industry there.  The roof of the station has fallen in, there are trees growing up out of it.

There’s a bedroll by one of the crumbling walls.  There are signs its owner heard them coming, forced his way through the bramble to escape. Fred’s excitement is palpable. Never mind they were told to only defend themselves if attacked, report back if they saw anything suspicious–he’s getting away!

They hear somebody running through the brush, give pursuit.  Tom yells at Fred not to do it.  He does anyway.  And then they’re all looking at the body of a ragged scabrous old derelict, his life’s blood oozing from a bullet wound in his back.  Fred, the light in his eyes dimming, asks why he was running.  “Men with guns chased him,” Parker responds.  Fred’s idea of himself collapses like the roof of that station.  Though as we’ll learn, the foundations were already compromised.

And for Parker this is a problem, because if the police learn about the shooting, they’re going to question all three of them–he’s a witness to accidental manslaughter, at the very least.  Not blending into the herd anymore, and he won’t have the right answers to their questions.  He’s got to talk Fred into staying quiet. Tom as well.

He tries to make it sound like he’s concerned for all three of them, which is true if you subtract two.  Good chance Fred serves a short prison sentence.  He and Tom will be implicated.  The old hobo was killing himself, just more slowly and painfully.  It was a mistake, why beat yourself up about it?  Why be a martyr?  You know, it’s not as if he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Ground’s too hard to dig a grave.  He asks about carnivorous wildlife in the area, who could dispose of the remains–they tell him there’s coyotes, bobcats, hosts of Turkey Vultures.  Corpse picked clean, bones carried off to gnaw on.  They don’t mention timber wolves.  Been a long time since there were any of those at Wolf Peak.

Fred wants to make a clean breast, purge himself, but he’s terrified of prison–and of the world knowing what he’s become.  He’s suspicious of ‘Ed’s motives for counseling silence, but that doesn’t make the arguments any less persuasive.  He’s in shock, clay that can be easily molded–but which might rebel against the sculptor later on.

Tom is torn both ways–if it comes out who his guest really is, he’s in more trouble than Fred.  But he still knows what Parker is doing here, doesn’t like it. Parker doesn’t care what Tom likes.  If need be, he’ll shoot both of them, take his chances in Tom’s car, with Tom’s other rifle, that hasn’t been fired yet.  But there’s no need for any of that if they’re both going to be reasonable.  Not being human, he only kills when he has to.  A moral in there somewhere, I’m sure.

For all their doubts, they both agree to stay silent–once they’ve reported back to the state troopers and not mentioned the shooting, they’ve already committed a crime.  As they take the shellshocked Fred back home (they’re hanging onto Fred’s rifle for the time being), Parker tells Fred he should talk to his wife about it, don’t keep it locked up inside, where it can fester.  He tries to sound sympathetic, compassionate. Not really his strong suit.

He really has been watching us a long time now, knows more than he used to about how our minds work, how to manipulate us. There are, however, still significant gaps in his understanding of our mental make-up.  Well, that would be true of anyone, right?

(For those who have read Ripley Underground; I see the parallels, and so did Stark.  He wrote this type of scene almost as well as Highsmith  There are other types of scene she wrote almost as well as him.  And still other types sui generis to each.)

And as Lindahl drives Parker back to the house, he gets the rest of the story.  Fred’s son was on active duty in Iraq when he was caught looting.  He saw the locals doing it, the ones referred to as Hawasim, an Arabic slang term relating to something Saddam said about the war (there’s a story about how that word ended up in this book, we’ll get to that).  He went a little too native; now he’s serving a stretch in Attica.  Hit Fred very hard. Made him think about prison a lot.  And maybe want to take his anger out on the same general type of person who corrupted his son.

Parker wishes he’d known all this before.  Now he understands better why Fred did what he did–and why talking to his wife about it may not be enough to keep him in one piece, mentally.  And if he goes all to pieces….well, hopefully Parker will be gone by then.  Fred will be somebody else’s problem then.

The immediate problem is the racetrack.  And now Tom, who was getting cold feet before Fred showed up, is telling Parker he definitely wants to do it.  The encounter with Fred has reminded him how everyone there sees him–as a crazy old hermit, on his way to being like that guy dead by the railroad station.  He can never get past that–he’s got to escape this life, this world, if he wants to be anyone else.  Parker says they’ll drive out that night to look it over.

While Tom goes out to get food, Parker goes over to the boarded-up house by Tom’s converted garage.  He rigs the door so that it still looks boarded up, but he can get in and out easily (the old gag with the sawed-off nails that goes back to Jimmy the Kid).

Tom comes back with pizza, and as they eat, it comes out that there’s a machine at the track used to make employee ID’s.  Tom bought the machine, knows how to use it, could run off a new driver’s license for Parker, out of the burned fake license he has now under the name John. B. Allen.  Give him a new identity, that would hold up to a cursory glance, nothing more.

So Parker sends Tom to the track by himself–more than an hour’s drive, each way.  He’ll make the new license, and come back with it.  Then they’ll drive out together that same night.  This way, Parker doesn’t have to risk hitting a road block with no ID.  Each man is a bit antsy about letting the other out of his sight that long, but if you gotta you gotta.

While Tom is gone, Parker has visitors.  The two brothers from earlier that day.  Still giving him funny looks, like they know something.  Like they want something.

They figure he’s the bank robber, which he is.  They figure they can get some of that money, which they can’t, but the one with the patch, Cal, no point telling him that.  He was pretty wild before he lost his eye.  He’s still got scars.  He wants plastic surgery and a glass eye.  He wants to look like Cory again, the calmer smarter brother–his twin.  He wants that money.

Parker manages to intimidate both of them into leaving (now there’s a psychological technique he has few peers at), but it’s clear they haven’t given up.  Cory, the brains, figures it’s time for a strategic withdrawal.  As they go, Parker tells Cal (the opposite of brains) to make sure nothing happens to his other eye.  Frightened, ashamed, and enraged at Parker for making him feel that way, Cal asks him what about the eye he lost?  “Ask the parrot,” Parker responds.  I believe that constitutes the only instance where the title of a Stark novel is derived from a line of dialogue.  Or vice-versa.  Ask the author.

Still plenty of time before Tom gets back.  Parker goes for a walk in town.  Pooley only runs a few blocks either way, and pedestrians are as rare as they would be in Los Angeles. A woman in her thirties (very young for this burg) pulls up, asks if he needs help.  Not suspicious.  Just being neighborly.  He tells her he’s staying with Tom Lindahl.  She’s amazed.  Everybody knows Tom is a wacky old recluse.

He needs a gun. Pistol, not hunting rifle.  He figures he can find one in the home of one of these elderly shut-ins.  He figures right.  Sees an old man watching TV in his living room.  Breaks in the back way with a credit card.

There were two places people usually kept a handgun inside a house, both in the bedroom: either in a locked box atop a dresser or in a locked drawer in a bedside table.  There was no box on top of the dresser in here, only coins, socks, magazines, and a very thin wallet, but the lower of two drawers in the bedside table was locked.

Parker opened the drawer above that one, felt in the near-darkness through a jumble of medicines, flashlight, eyeglasses, and a deck of playing cards, and found the key.  He closed that drawer, unlocked the other, and took out a Smith & Wesson Ranger in .22 caliber, a stubby blue-black revolver with a two-inch barrel, moderately accurate across an average room, not much good beyond that.  But it would do.

I don’t believe Smith & Wesson ever made a gun called the Ranger.  I don’t know if Westlake made a mistake, or he just wanted to call it that for some reason. Pretty sure this is the gun Parker found, though (with a box of ammo, citizens can be so helpful).

2-in-Mod-34-300x223

Model 317 Kit Gun.  So called because in all its variations, it’s compact and light-weight, and you can carry it around with your camping gear, or in your fishing satchel, or whatever.  Just what an old man in the country would have.  And put in his locked night table drawer, because robbers.  But what does he have that a robber would want?  He never thought it that far out.  Parker did.

Parker walks back, goes into the boarded up house through his secret entrance, with his new pistol and a flashlight.  He waits in the attic, watching for Tom to get back.  Just in case Tom had a change of heart, called the cops.  When he’s sure Tom came back alone, he goes back down.  Sees his new ID.  It’s really nice.  This guy can be useful.  Pity if he has to kill him.  End of Part One.

I think I’m going to leave it there for now.  Been over a week since I posted, and I’m thinking this will be another three-parter after all.  I’ve got all the cover images I need for that.  Lots of parrots next time.  Nary a one of them green.  Go figure.

But before I sign off until next time, let me get this out of the way.  There are three words in this book that Westlake put in there as his answer to a spirited challenge from ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, in a segment she did (does?) for NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Both segments aired in 2004, the year Nobody Runs Forever came out, and Westlake mentions having finished the previous book a year ago, and the next one would be out in about a year and a half.  So much for my supposition he wrote them back to back.)

Hawasim was one word–the only one that changed the book in a significant way–perhaps it never occurred to Westlake to make Fred’s son a soldier in Iraq before he got this assignment from Ms. McKean.

Blat (referring to a smalltime local paper of dubious quality) was another–Parker’s reading one of those to get an idea of his surroundings, just before Tom tells him about the whistle-blower thing.  The version you hear on the NPR segment is a lot more involved than what he finally settled on.  Probably because it wouldn’t make sense that a local blat could have the news about Dalesia’s capture so soon, complete with photo.

The third and strangest word we’ll get to next time, as I pootle along in my own fashion.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark