Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Deno Diary: The Stark Novels

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.

That's the hardboiled opening line of The Hunter, by Richard Stark (a k a Donald Westlake). It's the book that introduced the world to the badass thief Parker, a man who lives by his own code and woe to whoever and whatever gets in his way. After years of being out of print, The University of Chicago Press has reissued the first three Stark novels of the early '60s — The Hunter, The Man With The Getaway Face and The Outfit.

After reading the first two, it's impossible to imagine anyone as Parker but Lee Marvin, who played the character (renamed Walker) in John Boorman's masterpiece, Point Blank. It's one of those times when the movies got the casting absolutely right. Marvin is Parker. Parker is Marvin. I enjoyed Mel Gibson as Parker in the underrated remake Payback, but let's face it: This Parker would stomp Mel Gibson's face in.

If it's possible to imagine, Parker is even harder on the page than he is on screen. The plot of The Hunter is essentially unchanged in Point Blank. Newly sprung from the joint where his backstabbing partners' machinations landed him, Parker is like a human blowtorch, unable to relax, unable to feel any decent human emotion. Not until he does in the partner who doublecrossed him, not until he faces down the wife who screwed him and not until he gets his share of the heist proceeds they stole from him. $45,000. Yeah, it's not much, but that's not the point. The point is: Do not mess with Parker.

The books are beautifully written, full of vivid descriptions, and the characters' psychological and even sexual motivations are more complex than you'd expect in that era and genre. Stark's spare rhythms are hypnotic. He is a master of the bullet plot, the terse pulp lingo ("the finger," "the fliff," "the busher"), the point-by-point procedural as poetry. The dialogue is tough-guy, cinematic, Warner Bros., 1940s division:

"You're an annoyance, Parker," said Bronson's heavy, angry voice. "You're an irritation, like a mosquito. All right. Forty-five thousand dollars is chickenfeed. It's a small account, for small punks with small minds. To get rid of the mosquito, all right — I'll swat you with forty-five thousand dollars. But let me tell you something Parker."

"Tell me then," said Parker.

"You're a marked man. You'll get your petty payoff, and after that you're dead whether you know it or not. I'm not going to send anybody out after you especially. I wouldn't spend the time or the money. I'm just going to spread the word around. A cheap penny-ante heister named Parker, I'm going to say. If you see him, make him dead. That's all, just if you happen to see him. Do you get what I'm talking about Parker?"

"Sure," said Parker. "Carter told me all about it. You're as big as the post office. You're coast to coast. I should look you up in the Yellow Pages."

And so it goes. What makes the novels swing, beyond the hardcase Hammett poses, is the sense of Parker as the last free man. He wants to pull enough scores to earn some laying-around bread, to put away small amounts in a string of banks, to chill in Miami in first-class hotels and pay for top-shelf women to satisfy him. Then, he'll work enough to go back to the swank life for a little longer. He doesn't live for the thrill of stealing, he steals to finance his way of life. He's careful, very methodical, he works only with people he knows, takes no unnecessary risks. Unless he really needs the dough. Or somebody messes with his code. As the Outfit (the mob, the organization, the corporation, whatever) does. Then, he'll say to hell with it and go after them with everything he's got.

The Parker of recent vintage is still a thief, will still kill you without remorse if he has to, but he seems more inclined to basic humanity than this early Parker does. In The Man With The Getaway Face, for example, Parker (and Stark) deliver a chilling, bloody coup de grace that must have seemed beyond the pale back in the early '60s. Today, it would seem routine to fans of splatter movies or David Fincher's Seven.

Perhaps what's most amazing is how Stark makes you care about the well-being of this amoral anti-hero. He's a menace, but he has a certain understandable, maybe even admirable situational ethics. It's really simple. Don't take his 45 grand. Don't mess with Parker.

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