Tuesday, September 09, 2008

And in this corner . . . James Joyce vs. Richard Stark!

First thing Monday morning, as I sat down on the L, I dove into James Joyce's Ulysses, making good on a tipsy promise to my friend Carrie Olivia Adams. {Regular readers will remember that a similar promise, to one Erin Hogan, led to my reading Infinite Jest earlier this summer. Surely there's a lesson here? Oh, right: don't drink with people who read.}

I'll admit that for the first thirty pages or so I felt a bit at sea, enjoying Joyce's language but not always sure what was going on, content to simply let the flow of the words wash over me. After a while, though, I started to find my sea legs {Good god, this metaphor is getting worse all the time! But if there's one rule of metaphor, it's this: when the anchor of metaphor threatens to pull you under the waves, the important thing is to keep swimming!} and was ready to settle in for the long haul.

But that was before Richard Stark's The Seventh (1966) unexpectedly appeared on my desk, a veritable Crusoe's island for the tired swimmer. The lure of a Parker novel is not to be denied, and, promise or not, Joyce would have to wait a few hours.

Though every Parker novel follows the same basic set-up, Stark obviously enjoys trying out variations on the pattern, and in The Seventh he mixes things up by making the heist relatively minor, almost perfunctory. Parker and six other heisters hold up the box office at a college football stadium, and the operation goes off without a hitch--until, that is, someone steals the whole take from right under Parker's nose. The aftermath is full of surprises (and as violent and amoral as ever), and the result is one of the best novels in the series.

The main reason The Seventh stands out is that Stark's eye for detail and character is in top form, brought out especially in the rich language of his descriptions. Here's how he introduces the heister who's set up the job:
Little Bob Negli was sitting on the green leatherette sofa in the back room, smoking a cigar half as tall as him. He was a shrimp: four feet eleven and one-half inches tall. He had the little man's cockiness, standing and moving like the bantam-weight champion of the world, chomping dollar cigars, wearing clothes as fancy as he could find, sporting a pompadour in his black hair that damn near brought his height up to normal. He looked like something that had been shrunk and preserved in the nineteenth century.
Or take this detail he throws in about the girlfriend of one of Parker's partners, who's been wearing only a too-short sweatshirt:
She was still dressed the same way, and she'd been sitting on a cane chair, and her bottom now looked like a rounded pink waffle.

The physical details draw the characters for us, but it's the way Stark uses them to give insights into personality--both those of the person observed and of the observer--that make them memorable. For example, in this description of a police detective, Parker sees beyond the immediate physical impression of the man to the very different reality underneath:
He was no more than thirty, but he had all the style of fifty; dressed in his undershirt and trousers and a pair of brown slippers, carrying a rolled napkin in his left hand, walking with the male approximation of a woman in late pregnancy. He wasn't stout at all, but he gave an impression of soft overweight. His round face was gray with lack of sleep and the need of a shave, and his dry brown hair had already receded from his forehead.

But it was all crap. His eyes were slate gray, and all they did was watch. The way he held his right hand, his revolver was still on his hip somewhere.
Then there's this more straightforward psychological account of an amateur killer:
He couldn't really encompass the concept that he had murdered two people and tried to murder a third. He did these things because in their moments they were the only possible things he could do, but at no time did it seem to him that these actions were a part of the fabric of his personality. He was sure he wasn't the type; he did these extraordinary things because he had been thrust into extraordinary situations. In the normal course of events he would no more murder anyone than he would spit on the flag. His having killed Ellen, and then Morey, and then having tried to kill the stranger, were all atypical actions which he would not want anyone to have judged him by.
It reads like nothing so much as Georges Simenon in his romans durs--a debt that Stark acknowledges with a passing reference to Simenon's detective Maigret later in the novel.

All this is in service of the usual criminal pleasures of a Parker novel, of which there are plenty, of the "Parker filled his pockets with pistols, and left the apartment" variety. And there's one jaw-dropping surprise: Parker laughs. Sure, it's a bitter, sardonic laugh, uttered at the end of a trail of dead bodies, but still--Parker laughing is at least as chillingly unexpected as anything Stark's ever written.

And now, refreshed and invigorated, I dive back into Joyce.


  1. I sure hope Ulysses is more readable than Finnegans Wake, which is the current book I'm reading!!!

  2. Unquestionably. Ulysses is difficult, even frustrating at times, but it tells a story that you can follow and, even as it's being very stylistically inventive, it's still written in actual English.

    I know people who admire Finnegans Wake, but I'll admit that it's just too much for me.