(Editor’s note: This is the 138th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. It comes from Bronx native Terrence P. McCauley, whose latest thriller, A Murder of Crows, will be released next week by Polis Books. Below, McCauley champions The Hunter, the first entry in a long-running series penned by Donald E. Westlake under the alias Richard Stark, and starring the professional thief known as Parker.)
I suppose some people might be surprised that I’ve selected an iconic book such as The Hunter as a “forgotten” novel, but I have my reasons. Although the work itself may not have been forgotten, I believe the revolutionary aspect of the story has been lost in the years since it was first published.
This book has been the source material for movies such as Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, and Payback, starring Mel Gibson. Both films have their own cult following, and for good reason. They were stylish flicks with good direction and talented actors. More recently, The Hunter was adapted as a graphic novel by the late Darwyn Cooke, whose artwork successfully blended the rawness of the protagonist with familiar iconic imagery that reflects the time in which the story was written: 1962.
The time in which The Hunter was written has always held a special interest for me. The early 1960s was a unique era in U.S. history, a time when the afterglow of our victory over the Axis powers had begun to fade. After more than a decade of peace and prosperity, the American people were beginning to grow bored with the humdrum status quo of post-World War II life. People were looking to the future, eager to embrace something new. Eisenhower was gone, Nixon had lost, and Camelot was in its infancy. Individualism had taken a back seat to blending in. Large numbers of Americans belonged to social organizations such as Rotary Clubs and PTAs and Elks Lodges, to name only a few. Television shows and movies constantly reinforced the belief that we should all follow the rules and showed the price one paid for lawlessness. Americans wanted to get along. They wanted to fit in. It’s hard to blame them, even now with the benefit of decades of hindsight. Life is always easier when you move with the crowd.
But the Parker character was antithetical to that collectivist philosophy. In fact, it could be argued that
he was a harbinger of the legions of successful anti-heroes that would follow him in the literary universe. Parker wasn’t hip or trendy. He wasn’t a maniacal gunman or a disillusioned young man, either. He was exactly what he wanted to be: a professional criminal who was very good at what he did.
We immediately get a sense of who this character is by reading the first line of The Hunter: “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” After the insulted driver pulls away, what does Parker do? “[He] spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.”
That passage is one of my all-time favorites, perhaps second only to Philip Marlowe’s description of a streetscape in The High Window. The reason why it’s my favorite is the same reason why I believe The Hunter could be considered a forgotten book. We’ve forgotten how revolutionary it was for its time.
Parker knew he didn’t fit in with society’s norms and he didn’t even try. He was a rebel with a cause. He had
clear intent and purpose.
Today’s audiences can be forgiven for forgetting about the overall story and allow various key scenes to obscure the character. Lee Marvin storming down a long hallway or Mel Gibson stomping across a bridge. Both characters sat on the bed of the dead wife who’d opted to overdose now that her previously deceased husband was back in the picture to collect his due.
The movies are great, but the book is even better because, right from the outset, we see Parker is his own man.
He’s driven by a single goal: to get back his share of the money stolen from him. No more, no less. In today’s world, the rebel loner is commonplace, almost to the point of being a cliché. But in the early 1960s, being anti-social wasn’t as accepted.
The reason why I consider The Hunter a forgotten novel is because the subtle character development we witness in the opening scene is lost in the overwhelming iconic imagery of what we see on the screen or in the wonderful drawings of the graphic novel. The character of Parker isn’t just a tough guy who knows how to handle himself. He isn’t just a man out for bloody revenge. He’s a solitary figure, a lonely man who lives that way not only by choice, but by necessity. He tried being a human being once. He had friends. He trusted people. He fell in love. He was normal for a while and it cost him big-time. He learned from his mistake and he goes to great lengths to correct it.
Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake, was far from the first author who wrote about a committed loner, much less a criminal. David Goodis and other writers had created similar characters long before Parker came on the scene. But few of them had ever created a character that resonated with audiences the way the Parker of Stark’s novels did. Behind the Stark guise, Westlake wrote in a style that lived up to the name: stark and spare, but never boring and always far deeper than a casual reader might appreciate. He must have done something right, because Parker hung around off and on over the years from the early 1960s all the way into the 2000s.
Unfortunately, Westlake died in 2008 at the age of 75. But fortunately for the rest of us, he created a tough, timeless character with whom audiences of many generations could relate. I may consider The Hunter a forgotten book, but the legacy of that first work—and of all the subsequent Parker stories—is still with us.