Thursday, December 20, 2007

You can get away with robbing Peter, but only if you remember to actually pay Paul

A few weeks ago, in a comment on my recent post about Richard Stark's novels about Parker the bank robber, The All-Seeing Eye, Jr. (proprietor of the great new blog Pinakothek) referred to Parker's longest and most impassioned speech, a diatribe about the dangers of not paying your taxes. He didn't remember which book contained the speech, but last weekend I happened across it in The Score (1964). It turns out that the scion of the All-Seeing Eye had been led astray by his memory--the speech is delivered not by Parker but by one of his cronies, an older man named Littlefield--but the scene is fun enough to share regardless.

The discussion about taxes comes near the end of a planning meeting, as one of the crooks, Grofield (who steals primarily to support his low-level theatrical career and who shows up in some Stark novels of his own later on, including Lemons Never Lie), is astonished to hear Littlefield casually mention paying income tax.
"Income tax?" Grofield stared at him. "You pay income tax?"

"On every penny."

"I bet your return shakes them up."

"I account for every penny of income," Littlefield told him, "but I am forced, of course, to invent my sources."

"Why bother?"

Littlefield leaned closer to him. "You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never even be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail."

"Oh sure," said Grofield. "Sure thing."

"Parker knows I'm right. You pay tax, don't you, Parker?"

Parker nodded. Under the Charlie Willis name he owned pieces of a few losing businesses here and there, and they gave him the background to cover his income on his tax return.

Grofield shook his head. "I don't get it. You're putting me on."

"Income taxes is federal," Parker told him.

"So's a bank for Christ's sake."

"I don't mean federal offense, I mean federal, whose money it is. A bank is stockholders, but income tax is government money."

Pop Phillips said, "Those are words of wisdom, Grofield. I only fell twice, and once it was income tax. I got three years, and I'm still paying the back taxes. Why do you think I'm not retired?"

"I'll put you onto my accountant," Littlefield said. "He'll get you straightened out."

Grofield got to his feet, looking agitated. "That's a lot of crap. Don't talk to me about that. Income tax!"

Littlefield shrugged. "You'll go to jail," he said.

Parker saw Grofield getting mad, and said, "Back to business. We got a lot to set up tonight."
I've quoted at greater length than usual because even beyond the fun of Littlefield's speech, this strikes me as a really successful batch of dialogue. I wrote before about the Parker novels as books about work; what we see here is the camaraderie of coworkers acted out. Everyone plays the right part: Littlefield confident in his knowledge; Grofield, the younger man, getting his back up at being more or less called an idiot; Parker quickly reading the shifting vibe and getting everyone back on track.

Change the content while keeping the tone and I've seen exactly this exchange in a late-night diner, around the counter at a farm supply store, on a slow day at the record store. It's the chatter of casual colleagues, and it does all the subtle work inherent in such talk--establishing bona fides, asserting and maintaining rank, transmitting knowledge, reinforcing group identity--while also simply serving to pass the time. Richard Russo and Wendell Berry at their best can fill pages with this sort of conversation and make them enthralling, and though it makes perfect sense that Stark--with his laser-like focus on the details of work--is good at it, too, I was still pleasantly surprised to encounter this exchange, with its quiet ring of ordinary truth.

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