Monday, December 03, 2007

Punching the clock

{Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967), based on Richard Stark's The Hunter (1962)}

I've written before about my wish that we had more good fiction about work. Like it or not, work is the focus of much, if not most, of our energy and time, yet with a handful of great exceptions-- such as the refusals of Bartleby, the farmers' camaraderie of Wendell Berry, and the occasional scene in Tolstoy--literature has tended to give short shrift to the working life.

That's just one of the many reasons I've enjoyed the five Richard Stark novels I've blazed through in the past two weeks in between sections of Tom Jones. In each of the novels, Stark (who is one of Donald Westlake's many identities) concerns himself with such seemingly mundane details as finding a good job, getting to know the other workers, and doing the work. He doesn't stint on detail, and he doesn't touch on much outside of the job.

Since, however, Stark's main character in these novels is a bank robber, Parker, a work day--or a novel--might begin in as dramatic a fashion as this, from Firebreak (2001):
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
That's, of course, where the novels draw their interest: they're carefully crafted crime novels, as thrilling as any in the genre. But I'm not joking when I say they're novels about work, as well. With the essentially amoral Parker as their focus, in a sense the books' only moral center is their acting out of the old saw that any job worth doing is worth doing well, and that care and attention to detail will be rewarded. Parker's attention to detail would be fanatical if it weren't so methodical, put solidly in service of his twin imperatives: do the job well and stay alive. One of his fellow heisters notes his tenacious attention in Breakout (2002):
Williams nodded, grinning. “There’s always another detail, huh?”

“Sooner or later,” Parker said,” you get to them all.”

So what we get from Stark is a picture of a professional at the top of his game, fully engaged with his craft, written by someone who is working with similar care; Stark's adherence to the working values that he shows us Parker living by is what lifts these books above the ordinary. In the second Parker novel, The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), Stark uses a throwaway line describing a mechanic to signal his appreciation of craft. Parker brings in a beater semi for some special repair work, and:
When the mechanic came in at seven o'clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.
Parker is the epitome of the interested professional, and thus the best partner, the best planner, the one most likely to anticipate trouble, whether it comes from the known obstacles, such as police and alarms, or from the unexpected, such as the stupidity or cupidity of his colleagues. He's also, while quiet himself, a necessarily astute student of human nature; like the most skilled boss, he knows who and how to push those he's working with--yet he also knows when to hang back and let someone more skilled take over. This exchange between Parker and a cop, from Breakout (2002), presents in more explicit form than usual Parker's thoughtful perceptiveness, which Stark subtly never lets the reader forget:
Putting the microphone back on its hook, Turley said, “I'll look like a real idiot, once I finally do bring you in.”

Parker said, “I didn’t take your gun.”

Turley looked at him sideways, looked at the road ahead. “Meaning what?”

“I’m not out to make you feel bad about yourself,” Parker told him. “It’s just that it’s time for me to get to some other part of the world.”

“And you figure,” Turley said, “if I’m your chauffeur, but you don’t disarm me, I didn’t lose my weapon to you, that way I’ve still got my dignity.”

“Up to you,” Parker said.

“And I’ll be easier to control,” Turley said, “if I’ve still got my dignity.”

“Up to you."

Turley laughed, not as if he meant it, and said, “Here I was telling you all about game theory. We could have had some nice discussions, back in Stoneveldt [Prison].”

“I don’t think so,” Parker said.
Stark's insight into human nature isn't always limited to Parker's search for advantages; one of the most memorable moments in Breakout is when an adulterous businessman, on being woken by intruders, is momentarily but genuinely relieved to discover that they are not private detectives sent by his wife, but merely murderous bank robbers. It's a small moment, passed over quickly, but it's indicative of Stark's deep attunement to people and their thought processes.

Stark has said that he doesn't plan his novels in advance; instead, he puts Parker into a situation and watches how he gets out of it. That sense of initial contingency somehow suffuses the books despite Stark's multilayered, near-perfect plots. As we watch unexpected complications pile up, we quickly begin to understand, and appreciate, Parker's mania for control and detail. It is as much a general approach to life as it is to crime (or work): take care with what you can, which will in the long run free more of your attention to dealing with what you cannot. In fact, it is that determination to focus, that relentlessness, that makes Parker a compelling character. He will never stop looking for angles, never stop thinking about risk, never stop covering contingencies--because he knows that the minute he does that, he's inviting death into the heist.

In the early books, Stark seems to be explicitly trying to render Parker unpleasant: he's more violent and brutal than he would later become, more likely to kill, and he has no real existence outside his work. Though the books are narrated more or less in a close third person from Parker's perspective, we are never privy to his emotional life; it's as if he is as much a decision-making matrix as a human, never looking beyond the immediate prospect. And in the section of each book where Stark shifts his narrative perspective to some of the peripheral characters, Parker becomes almost a void, so quiet and inscrutable as to be nearly invisible.

In the later novels, however, Parker has, if not softened--he's still unapologetically ready to kill to save his own life--then at least grown a bit. He's got a long-term girlfriend, for example, and even a home. In addition, though he would dispute the fact, he is clearly far more likely to leave people alive in his wake than strict risk accounting might demand; though plenty of people still die, there is no wanton killing, and no one who is killed could be classed an innocent.

Does it make sense that this taciturn, pitiless man might, having however improbably found happiness outside of his work, desire to limit the destruction within his work? Or is it a cop-out on Stark's part? Is he getting too fond of the character, and thus softening him--or, worse, making it easy on him, so we don't have to see him make ethically unacceptable decisions? After all, though most of us gave up looking for explicit moral lessons in fiction in childhood, we are still looking, in one form or another, for truth. It thus seems far more important that Parker--along with those around him--be perceptively, believably rendered than that he be ethically acceptable.

Is, then, the slightly softer Parker convincing? Is he true? On the basis of a couple of novels, I'd say so, but for a more definite judgment, I'll have to wait until I've read more. For now, I think I'll join with Elmore Leonard--who said, "Whatever Stark writes, I read"--and enjoy the ride.


  1. Yes yes yes! Perfectly summed up. I don't remember in which novel Parker gives his longest, most impassioned speech--to the effect that you can do what you want in this life and come out the other side, but if you don't pay your income tax, you are seriously screwed. For my money, the earlier books are the best. Favorites: The Hunter (Point Blank), Slayground, The Mourner, Deadly Edge, Butcher's Moon.

  2. Glad you liked the post! I happened across the passage you mentioned last night; it's in The Score. The speech isn't actually made by Parker, though--it's by one of his confederates--but regardless (in part because it's addressed to one of Parker's goofier confederates, Grofield the actor (who turns up as the protagonist in Lemons Never Lie)), it's a really great speech.