Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Stark World of Parker

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to The Rap Sheet Seamus Scanlon, writing on the late Donald E. Westlake’s Parker series. A librarian and professor at The City College of New York, Scanlon has contributed fiction to the Global City Review, Promethean, the Review of Post Graduate English Studies, and the Journal of Experimental Fiction. He was a finalist in the 2009 New Irish Writing Awards.)

The University of Chicago Press has already finished reissuing the first 12 crime novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake), and three more--Deadly Edge, Slayground, and Plunder Squad--will follow them to bookstores next month. The publisher hopes eventually to bring out the full set of 24 works.

This republication of Westlake/Stark’s series, which features professional thief Parker (and now carries elegant covers by David Drummond, whose clients include academic and literary presses, as well as Amnesty International), is both a vindication and a recognition of the literary integrity and purity of the writing that first assailed the noir fiction scene 48 years ago, when The Hunter debuted. Even all these decades later, the Parker novels still retain their vibrancy and power. They’re accomplished works that showcase the ethos of noir fiction--bleak, uncompromising, high fidelity, purposeful, unrelenting, non-squeamish. Westlake died suddenly on December 31, 2008, but I imagine he would have been very pleased to see his early books re-released for a new generation of crime-fiction enthusiasts.

Beginning with The Mourner, the fourth entry in the Parker series, these reprinted works have included forewords by such authors as John Banville (aka Benjamin Black), Dennis Lehane, Luc Sante, and Charles Ardai, which attests to the virtuosity of Westlake’s writing and the esteem with which he is regarded. Man Booker Prize winner Banville contends that Parker “is the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky ... Parker will have recognized his own natural motto in Faust’s heaven-defying declaration--‘In the beginning was the deed.’”

All of the novels in the Parker series--which ended in 2008 with Dirty Money--hum with Westlake’s mix of lean prose, crisp dialogue, authentic capers, and stylish plots revolving around the protagonist, Parker (no first name--or maybe no surname), a villain’s villain with a self-referring inflexible moral code, which he abides by with a fierce adherence to an internal logic and ruthlessness. Parker is single-minded, aloof, self reliant, anti-establishment, and even anti-organized-crime-establishment. What could be more anarchic? The voice we first heard in 1962 remains just as authentic and modern today--a tremendous achievement.

While working at Cambridge University in the 1990s, I chanced upon some of the Parker books in the Allison & Busby American Crime Series. I still recall the striking monochrome covers and their bright blood-red price stickers. I bought The Black Ice Score the first day and read it in one sitting. I bought the rest of the series the next day. It was my first introduction to crime fiction, and the best introduction--tautly composed and executed tales that were seamless and searing.

The opening page of The Hunter succinctly captures Parker’s persona, as the hardened thief stalks across the George Washington Bridge, which spans the wide Hudson River and links Fort Lee, New Jersey, with Washington Heights in Manhattan, where “the black holes” of Gotham’s subways beckon. I have walked that same bridge myself--it sways under your feet because of the wind and the high volume of vehicles on its upper and lower traffic levels. This opening scene also evokes the deep folk memory of America in Parker’s manifest individualism, self-reliance, and steeliness. The physical landscape of the Palisades and the wide vista of the Hudson, where Indian war canoes once traversed, ideally augments the subliminal recall of the American essence.

The hardcore noir anti-hero is established--the resolute champion of the Western frontier recast in a modern outlaw mien. No one can mistake Parker for anything but trouble, the fearsome and fearless renegade we both admire and look at with alarm, who causes women to feel uncomfortable and men to frown at him with latent unease, and who makes us ashamed of our own petty trepidation.

Westlake’s cold, taut prose mirrors Parker’s nature and demeanor:
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. His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless. His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easily as he walked.
In The Hunter Parker storms into Manhattan after being double-crossed by his wife and a gang member named Mal. He is looking for revenge and his money. He’s determined that nothing will stop him--and nothing does.

By page 16 we know Mal is in deep trouble. Says Parker:
“I’m going to drink his blood. I’m going to chew up his heart and spit it into the gutter for the dogs to raise a leg at. I’m going to peel the skin off him and rip out his veins and hang him with them.” He sat in the chair, his fists clenching and unclenching, his eyes glaring at her. He snatched up the coffee cup and hurled it. It caromed off the refrigerator and shattered on the edge of the sink, then sprayed onto the floor.
I dare anyone to stop reading after that beginning; I couldn’t.

Once Parker catches up with Mal and learns his money was given to the minions of organized crime (aka the Outfit) to repay a debt, he kills Mal and barely pauses before pursuing the dough. He is dedicated to his goal. Most mortals would probably say, “OK, it’s gone--I can’t compete against the Outfit (Mafia),” but Parker is relentless, driven to secure his money regardless of the opposition arrayed against him, which appears formidable. In the end, he outwits his foes and recovers his stolen cash.

In a long-ago interview, Westlake said he had fun writing the Parker books, and it shows. These works are full of brio, audacity, and wordplay. They offered sudden changes of focus, location, and action long before Quentin Tarantino used those same devices to great effect. The narrative timelines are often fractured, but they never lose the reader’s interest or commitment; on the contrary, they increase the reader’s enjoyment, because you experience the same scene more than once from different perspectives. Westlake was a true revolutionary in the field of noir fiction as well as an accomplished stylist, storyteller, and writer.

Crime fiction by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Kenneth Fearing, and others has been published by the Library of America, while Everyman’s Library has produced volumes by Hammett, Chandler, and James M. Cain. Now the University of Chicago Press celebrates Westlake/Stark’s Parker stories. Although the cachet of such recognition cannot be considered a final arbitrator of taste, it certainly proves right the librarians, critics, and general readers who believed all along that these works were endowed with particularly high-quality writing, pacing, and plots.

I await Donald E. Westlake’s promotion to the exalted altar of noir writers, and expect the reissuing of the Parker series will go a long way toward helping him achieve that.


Ali Karim said...

I am in love collecting these wonderful books, each time the next three arrive at my doorstep, the weekend reading is sorted, as I enter the world of Parker. They remind me how much each book caused me to see the world thed dissolve around me, as each book a treasure from my memory.

Thanks for a wonderful peice


Levi Stahl said...

As one of the people involved in getting these books back into print at the University of Chicago Press, I'm glad to be able to say that Donald Westlake was definitely pleased with our new editions, gratified that the books had found what ought to be a lasting home. We published the first batch before his death, and he was kind, gracious, and funny throughout the process.

According to Lawrence Block, Westlake once explained to another friend why he let Hard Case Crime reprint some of his early work by saying, "The difference between being in print and out of print is the same as the difference between being alive and being dead."

In that sense, Westlake--like Parker--remains very much alive.