At the speed of pulp
Richard Stark created the character of Parker, a nerveless professional thief, all the way back in 1963, in “The Hunter” ( University of Chicago Press: 198 pp., $14 paper). Stark was, and is, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, then a young writer so inventive and wildly fecund that he had no option but to publish under other names. Bucklin Moon, the legendary editor at Pocket Books (Moon wrote novels himself, knew William Faulkner and was responsible for the bestselling success of “Peyton Place”), had commissioned “The Hunter” and loved the book. He asked Westlake for more. At first, Westlake didn’t get it. Parker was such a bad guy, he told Moon, an exact compendium of what a lead character should not be, with no quirks, no small talk, no friends, no pets.
“Exactly,” said Moon. “Don’t soften him at all.”
Westlake assumed the Stark mantle once more and went back to work. Two further novels “The Man With the Getaway Face” (University of Chicago Press: 216 pp., $14 paper) and “The Outfit” (University of Chicago Press: 214 pp., $14 paper) poured from the typewriter within months, in a single burst of energy. And by 1974 Stark had written no fewer than 16 Parkers. The character went into retirement, only to come smashing through the door again in 1998. Eight more Parkers have appeared since then, making 24 adventures in all for a character who has now proved irresistible to several generations of readers. Writing a couple of years ago in Bookforum, the Irish novelist and Man Booker Prize winner John Banville reckoned the Parker novels to be “among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time.”
That’s high praise from an impeccable source, and Banville is right to single out the technical excellence of these books. The Parkers read with the speed of pulp while unfolding with almost Nabokovian wit and flair. Stark loves to shift character points of view, not only to advance the story but to go back inside the action and examine it for further angles and riches. The result is noir that drives forward relentlessly while feeling kaleidoscopic and reflective.
“The Hunter,” for instance, is on the one hand a straightforward revenge novel. Yet the book glitters with seemingly effortless intricacy, being aimed at one episode -- a stunner, the kind of moment of fiction that really does have you leaping from your chair and exclaiming in surprise and glee -- around which Stark arranges a narrative that hops to and fro in time with the fluency and fun of Quentin Tarantino’s much later “Reservoir Dogs.”
At the same time, Stark takes pleasure in realism, in the basic stuff of Parker’s life. How does it work, being a robber of banks and a plotter of heists? How would a crook, down on his luck in the early 1960s, go about bankrolling himself and establishing another identity within a single day? In what multitudes of ways do plans work or, more likely, go wrong? Though good with his mind, Parker is far from perfect as a thinker. He’s human and makes mistakes. The key to his survival is his endless adaptivity. Whatever trouble he lands in, he knows he can get out of. It helps, of course, that he’s one tough s.o.b., a mean machine with his fists and feet, and nobody describes a fight better than Richard Stark.
“Blue was a yapping terrier of a man, short and wiry and ferocious, with a sandy mustache to match his sandy hair,” Stark writes in “The Man With the Getaway Face.” “He came in holding his hands like a man who’d taken a correspondence course in judo, so Parker stuck out his right hand for Blue to play games with. And while Blue was grabbing his arm and getting set for an over-the-shoulder toss Parker hit him with a left to the kidney and a left to the ear and a knee to the groin. Blue folded, letting go of Parker’s arm, and Parker used the right on his jaw.”
An influence here is Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled clarity. Stark gets the precision from Hammett, but he draws, too, from Ian Fleming. Parker, like James Bond, is a loner, not without feelings, but a man who knows that his emotions, if given play, will likely put him at risk. So he protects himself with a hard shell of indifference and almost existential professionalism. At the beginning of “The Hunter,” when Parker is pounding by foot across the George Washington Bridge in New York, hellbent on payback, Stark describes him thus:
“His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins. His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose. His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx. His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless. His suit fluttered behind him, and his eyes swung easily as he walked.”
Parker, like Bond, can seem robotic, a parody of a man, yet the reader is drawn into empathy with him. Whereas Bond works for a government agency, for an establishment, Parker is a natural contrarian, never seeing a system he doesn’t hate. The first three novels -- “The Hunter” (filmed as “Point Blank” with Lee Marvin and, later, less successfully, as “Payback” with Mel Gibson), “The Man With the Getaway Face” and “The Outfit” (reissued in handsome trade paperback editions by the University of Chicago Press; boy, have times changed in publishing) -- constitute a trilogy in which Parker first regroups, gets himself a new face and then takes on the organization, the Mob, which had supported his enemy, Mal Resnick, the guy who betrayed him.
Parker wants back the money that Resnick took from him and hatches a scheme to get it. Then he reckons he has to convince the powers of the Mob that they should forget him and let him go on about his business. To do this, he orchestrates a full-fledged war. What’s great about Parker is that he’s logical without being reasonable, and we love him for it.
Original editions of these books, and even later reprints, change hands for scores or hundreds of dollars on the Net, and it’s excellent to have them readily available again -- not so much masterpieces of genre, just masterpieces, period.
Richard Rayner’s “Paperback Writers” column appears monthly at www.latimes.com.
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