I GOT AN E-MAIL IN EARLY MAY. "Dear Mr. Pollack," it went, way too formally, as though the editor were informing me that I'd been late in making my credit card payment. Then I read the pitch: "Would you be willing to review or write something on the occasion of U. of Chicago's reprints of Richard Stark's Parker novels?"
This "occasion" had slipped my purview, as had, I'll admit, Richard Stark's Parker novels themselves. I was only barely aware, if aware at all, of their existence and probably wouldn't have been able to say for sure that Stark was a pseudonym of the legendary crime writer Donald Westlake. This isn't something I'm proud to announce, particularly since I've spent many years trumpeting myself as a lover of all things "noir." But hey, there are lots of writers in the world, and I've got a kid to feed and TV to watch. Still, this email offered me something I couldn't refuse. Free books, in a genre I like. I would come to the Parker novels with fresh, innocent eyes, like a newborn fawn staring at the world for the first time, or at a pair of headlights.
A couple of weeks later, a big box arrived from Chicago. It contained 10 nifty, sleek paperbacks, with appropriately muted coloring and silhouettes of snubnosed guns on their covers. Some of them also featured backlit dames or guys with hats, and, depending on the book, a truck, a serrated knife, or a carnival midway. I'd entered noir country. That night, I flossed and put in my night guard and started some easy reading about a very tough character.
The first book in the series, The Hunter, begins circa 1960 with a guy walking over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan at 8 a.m. He's not in a good mood, as we quickly learn from the book's iconic opening line: "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell." Parker himself is anything but fresh-faced. He's the archetype of hard-boiled experience, "big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders and arms too long in sleeves too short ... 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 face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx." For reasons I'll explain in a bit, that's one of the last descriptions we ever get of Parker's face. Regardless, he's apparently what the East Coast ladies want in a man. "Office women in passing cars looked at him," Westlake writes, "and felt vibrations above their nylons."
Parker is a master criminal, almost tragically amoral. No "syndicate boy" and definitely not a "solid citizen," he works on his own or in conjunction with other independent-minded crooks. "We're just a guy here and a guy there that know each other," he says.
He conducts himself how you'd want to, if you had the guts and the sinew, keeping "his money in hotel safes, and [living] his life in resort hotels — Miami, Las Vegas, and Palm Springs — taking on another job only when his cash on hand dropped below five thousand dollars. He had never been tagged for any of his jobs, nor was there a police file on him anywhere in the world." All transactions and job requests come to him by way of a "jugger," or a retired crook living somewhere in America, transmitted through a rigorous series of protocols more intricate than the hobo code.
In a world ruled by weak bureaucrats and populated by scared alcoholics who eat at cheap diners, Parker is an existential anti-hero, an underground man almost wholly driven by self-interest who hates hippies and mobsters equally. He kills without mercy, though never without reason, and he seems to live almost entirely in the moment. "He was impersonal, not cruel," Westlake writes. Westlake has called his Parker novels portraits of a "man at work," and it's true that Parker is better at his job than you'd ever hope to be at yours. Things often go to shit, but it's never his fault.
The Hunter starts bleak, since Parker's wife, along with one of Parker's accomplices, has betrayed him, stealing the loot from a job and leaving him for dead. Parker finds the wife in Manhattan within the first 10 pages, she kills herself within the first 20, and then Parker spends a good chunk of the book hunting down the accomplice, who's now a mid-level mob functionary living the sweet life in a secret hotel. He ends up getting the accomplice, and then goes after the syndicate as well, coming away with a suitcase holding $45,000. Then, in a twist that I don't understand even though I read it three times, the NYC narcotics squad ends up getting the suitcase and Parker barely catches a train out of Grand Central Station alive. But that's the best thing about books like this. Even if the plots don't make sense, and they often don't because they're written quickly for small amounts of money, the character and the mood can carry you a long way.
And what a mood. In The Hunter's coda, Parker goes on a job and gets enough money to live comfortably for a year or two and to pay for a plastic surgery, so the mob won't recognize him. That nicely sets up the second book in the series, The Man with the Getaway Face, which is half sordid melodrama, Jim Thompson-style, about the inbred idiots who run a sleazy Nebraska plastic surgery clinic and half New Jersey armored-car rollover caper. It's a sleazy little book, but a lot of fun. And Parker has a different look. As the manager of the Miami hotel he calls home says, "Like Mark Twain, reports of your death are greatly exaggerated. But at least Twain came back with his own face."
The third book in the series, The Outfit, is an elaborate revenge fantasy, largely set in Buffalo, as Parker rallies his independent crook troops to destroy the organized crime syndicate for giving him a hard time in the first place. Pity the man or men who cross Parker. It sets up the dynamic for the series to come.
Each book involves a caper, more elaborate than the last, and is populated by a series of Parker accomplices, some cool, competent, and reliable, others neurotic, or even psychotic, and destined to foul up the job. The former usually return for a later novel and another crime; Parker often ends up killing the latter. But that's not always the case. Westlake clearly favored a character named Grofield, a Shakespeare-quoting actor who takes on crimes to fund his Indiana summer-stock theater, and who often makes trouble because of his inability to stay away from the ladies. He liked him so much that he wrote four novels about Grofield alone. Parker contemplates killing Grofield over and over again, but never seems to get around to it. Like the reader, he can't help but like the eccentric crook. He's fun and harmless, like most of the heists that Westlake describes, at least in the early novels.
The first 10 or so Parker books paint a prosperous Cold War America with poorly defined rules of criminal engagement. The stakes seem low because there's plenty of skin to go around. Everyone whistles to the same cool jazz soundtrack, and there's an air of fun to the whole thing. After his plastic surgery, Parker's life doesn't change much. Then, sometime around 1967, Westlake ups the ante. The whole deal starts to seem a lot more serious.
The second phase of the Parker series begins with Parker and accomplices rolling the box-office of a Midwestern rock concert. This is Westlake's way of announcing that the sixties have rotted away, along with that patina of broad-shouldered hipness behind which America had hidden its dark, weird side. Parker, meanwhile, has jettisoned his hotel lifestyle in favor of a monogamous relationship with a sexy broad named Claire, whom he met in a previous novel, during a job in Indianapolis knocking over a coin-collector's convention. Claire is tough and fun, but not exactly a feminist icon. The former wife of an airline pilot who died in a crash, she stays with Parker because he keeps her in the creature comforts to which she's accustomed, splitting her time between swank Park Avenue hotels and a lakeside vacation cottage in upstate New York. Parker returns home to Claire between jobs, and she doesn't ask any questions.
Suddenly, the Parker we knew, the guy whom Westlake would occasionally depict roughing up hookers a little bit, who wouldn't have sex during a job but then would go on a rampage for a month after, becomes a de facto married guy. He never says he loves Claire, because the word "love" isn't in his vocabulary, but it's clear he does. Sometimes he calls home in the middle of a job. And he'll do anything to protect her.
This becomes clear in the second half of Deadly Edge, published in 1971. The book begins with the rock-concert heist and ends with chaos. During the back two-thirds, Claire gets menaced at the house by a pair of drug-crazed hippies looking for the heist loot, and Parker gradually kills them in as gruesome a way as possible. It's Westlake's brutal epitaph for the Age of Aquarius, in which Parker and Claire, while modern enough, represent the old order, and the hippies, Manny and Jessup, an America turned upside down.
Westlake, who died of a heart attack during a Mexican vacation in 2009, doesn't strike me as a square — the Parker books are way too stylish to have been written by a reactionary — but hewas an Army guy at one time and definitely not a counterculture type. Deadly Edge, for all its pulp sleaziness, reads like an artistic reaction to the tumult of the late sixties and early seventies. The first Parker books were dark, but they had a vaguely anti-establishment quality that took the seriousness down a notch. Suddenly, though, the rules of the societal game change. Parker adapts, and does so in an interesting way, because instead of a guy knocking over a bunch of banks and living large in Palm Springs, he's pulling a heist so he can get back to the wife and have a drink by the fire. The needs are different, and so are the threats.
The next book in the series has an amazing title, Slayground, and an even better premise. After a botched job (conducted with Grofield, but it's not Grofield's fault), Parker ends up trapped in an amusement park, hunted by the mob and a couple of corrupt cops. For much of the book, he's shivering alone and relatively hopeless. It's a tale of desperation and survival in an unforgiving man-made wilderness. Parker escapes with his life, no surprise, but he has to leave his loot behind and doesn't kill as many of his pursuers as you might expect. Even the amusement park's name, "Fun Island," is an ironic disappointment, a perfect reflection of how the party America was promised had turned into something grim and unprofitable.
Two books later, 1974's Butcher's Moon, Westlake unveils his ultimate tour de force, as Parker returns with Grofield (who, in characteristic style, spends two-thirds of the book in a coma, having the occasional finger amputated by a sadistic doctor) to claim what was "rightfully" his from the amusement-park heist. In order to exact his full revenge, Parker calls in his chits and assembles a motley crew of criminals, all of them familiar from earlier novels. They gather for a big job, where they essentially knock over an entire city, in a kind of Ocean's 11 for loners and losers. The mob Parker encounters is fat, leisure-suited, and presents relatively easy pickings. The country, once hard and lean, has turned corpulent, drunk, and politically confused. Parker began his shenanigans in John F. Kennedy's America, and now the world belongs to Gerald Ford. The book ends with Grofield waking up in an ambulance, driven by Parker into the dawn. The criminals are victorious and order is more or less restored.
With that, Westlake officially retired Parker. Until, that is, he revived him in 1997. He should have stayed retired.
Westlake wrote eight more Parker novels from 1997 until his death 10 years later. Eight! The guy just turned out those books at an unbelievable pace. The critics seemed to like the first new one, Comeback. "Brisker, faster, funnier," one said. Westlake's friend Lawrence Block said, "He hasn't lost a step." It's hard to argue when you read this hilariously satirical take on a big-tent evangelist from Comeback, probably the best single bit from any of the Parker novels:
He believed that his contributions to the social order, his civilizing influence on men and women who were in many ways still one small step from the apes, were practical and immense, and he firmly believed he was worth every penny he made out of it. His ministry had rescued drunkards, saved marriages, reformed petty thieves, struggled successfully at times against the scourge of drugs, cured workplace absenteeism and given a center and a weight and a sense of belonging to unnumbered empty, drifting, useless chowderheads. If, in his leisure time, he liked to ball a big-titted woman, so what?
Now that is some quality writing. But I disagree with the critics about the overall quality of the Parker series reboot. They only sent me two of the eight new books, but I get a sense. The books contain the same tight plotting, double-crosses, and bone-crunching action of the earlier volumes. Still, there's something off about them.
Parker hasn't aged or changed, at all. Claire is still waiting for him in the lake house. They don't email and they don't have cell phones. In another book, Firebreak, Westlake introduces a major character, a computer hacker named Larry Lloyd, who simply doesn't fit. His shenanigans don't create the same fun as the usual gang of con artists, musclemen, and safecrackers, and then when he turns murderous, it's just weird and perverse without really serving the story. Parker, meanwhile, gets involved in some odd side revenge-plot, and just basically sits around waiting for the hacker to break an alarm system so he can steal priceless art from an Internet billionaire's compound in Montana. It's like watching Lee Marvin become Jesse Eisenberg's sidekick.
Firebreak feels sad and out-of-touch, way off the zeitgeist. I'm not one to offer a deceased master crime novelist retroactive advice (and even if I were, why would he care?), but I think Parker would have been much better off left in his era, where a guy like him made sense, rather than trying to shoehorn him into a world that he didn't create, populated by people he doesn't understand. When a computer hacker overshadows the lone wolf, maybe it's time for that wolf to retreat back to his lair and count the bones.