Saturday, June 20, 2009

20. The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark

The Man with the Getaway Face is Richard Stark's second Parker novel. My memory of it was that it was good, but more of a transition book. I had forgotten how impactful it is and upon re-reading it, I realize it is perhaps one of the more important books in the series. After Parker gets his revenge on the man who double-crossed him, and strong-arms the outfit to force them to pay the money back that he lost, he realizes he needs to get truly lost so he can return to his life of heisting and hanging out in various resort hotels. To do so, he must get a new face.

Westlake originally wrote The Hunter with the idea that Parker would die at the end of the book. His genius editor said he'd buy the book only if Westlake would keep him alive and continue writing books about him. So The Man with the Getaway Face is Westlake figuring out how to do that. I think because of that the structure of the book is divided up into two stories that remain separated for the duration of the book, giving it a less cohesive feel, which is what led me to feel that it is more transitory.

There are two elements that are established here that become defining features of the series. The first is the Alma. In The Man with the Getaway Face, Alma is the finger. She's an embittered, older waitress at a truck stop where an armoured car makes a regular stop. She is sleeping with a guy who knows a guy who knows Parker and that's how the job gets put together. However, Alma whose been planning and scheming the job for all these years, waiting for the right man to come around, thinks she knows better than Parker. She's also obviously out for herself. A character in this form is present in almost every heist. Someone whose emotional flaws, be they greed, pride, bitterness or even an inability to just be patient, end up screwing up the heist and bringing complication to Parker's life. One of my favourite quotes, from The Green Eagle Score, expresses the Alma pretty explicitly.
Over the years, he'd come to accept the fact that the people involved in every heist were never as solid as you wanted them. They always had hang-ups one way or another, always had personal problems or quirks from their private lives that they couldn't keep from intruding into the job they were supposed to be doing. The only way to handle it was to watch them, know what the problems were, be ready for them to start screwing up. If he sat around and waited for the perfect string, cold and solid and professional, he'd never get anything done.

It's not that the people are inefficient or clumsy or somehow incapable. It's that they allow their emotions to intrude on the job. They cannot separate their own egos from the situation to realize that all would benefit if they could let go of their immediate needs. I think it is a complaint that is shared, unreasonably or not, by a certain mindset, the working man who does his job at work and has a personal life at home. There is also a generational idea here, of men who came out of World War 2 encountering a society where talking about your feelings and encounter groups and the explosion of therapy and personal growth in the '60s were invading all facets of life. I am of neither generation, but have felt a very similar complaint for most of my own work life. So these books resonate with me on this point as I'm sure they did with many crime readers when the Parker books were sitting new on drugstore racks.

The other element in the Man with the Getaway Face that I do not identify as well with, but consume with a sort of compulsive horror, is the brutal factuality of the writing. Acts of cruelty are done in the Parker books that are really tough to take. They aren't done for the sake of cruelty usually but with some other goal in mind and the cruelty is the only method that will apply given the circumstances. They are also not written sadistically, with the kind of prurient sexuality inherent in a lot of crime novels. They are just stated as facts. I apologize for the vagueness, but I don't want to give anything away. The situation that Westlake describes and the way he looks at it, by going into the head of the victim is so black. I think I had forgotten about it because I had sort of skimmed over it the first time I read it, not having quite the calcification around the heart that I have slightly accumulated at this point. Basically, Westlake doesn't pull any punches. You take it, though, because you know the payoff is going to be good.

And it is good. So while The Man with the Getaway Face isn't the best Parker novel, it lays important groundwork for what is to come. And what is to come is The Outfit, which is a giant fucking candy shop of heists. But you'll have to wait until my review is done, or you could just go out and buy it and get reading.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

19. Make my Bed Soon by Jack Webb

It's a novel about a guy who gets mixed up with a gang of car thieves who work in and around Arizona and Mexico. It was an interesting look at a crime network, and I remember enjoying it, but I can't give you more than that as the details have faded into the mists of time, buried under the avalance of all the other media I've consumed since then.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

18. Deep Powder and Steep Rock: the Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser

If you're a ski geek, especially out in the west, you have almost for sure heard of Hans Gmoser. He is responsible for putting Canadian Rocky Mountain Skiing on the international map and arguably singlehandedly responsible for helicopter skiing in particular. He came out from Austria after the Second World War, already an avid lover of the mountains and outdoor adventure and ended up in Alberta, in Canmore and Banff, on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies. He is also the father of one of my best friends, which is why I ended up reading such a book (as many of you know I am part of a small but powerful cabal working on eliminating downhill skiing from the world).

Very briefly, Hans grew up in Austria and got into mountaineering as a young boy, through a Catholic priest who seemed more like a scout troop leader in that he led all kinds of mountain trips. Later, Hans became an electrician and as a young man, emigrated to Canada. He was a pioneer climber and led many first ascents of mountains that are famous today among the clmbing set. He also did a bunch of major treks and lots of skiing. Later, he really got into promoting skiing in Western Canada, driving all over North America and showing skiing films at local community centers. A friend of our family's who is a big skiier remembers when Hans would come into his town and all the ski geeks would get psyched to watch his films and here his talk. He was the first guy to attach a camera to his head and ski with it. Later, he set up a lodge and then got into sending people up into the mountains via helicopter which developed into a full blown heli-skiing empire, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Later, a truly evil empire, Inwest (responsible for the atrocity known as Whistler) bought CMH. That really is a brief, brief version as there is a lot of rich and interesting history behind all that.

As I said, that is a very broad outline of the history. If any of it is interesting to you, the book does a really solid job of portraying the stories and details of the history. Chic Scott gets the facts down and interviewed many of the people who were there, filling out the human side. There is a lot of climbing porn in the beginning, which if you are a climber will get you hard as some nice south-facing granite. As a non-climber, I was able to get through it without too much pain, while retaining a laymen's appreciation of the determination and skill these guys had, doing extremely hard climbs before climbing shoes were even invented. Overall, it's a really interesting story about one man's life as he makes his way from a young person to an outdoor fanatic, to a succesful businessman and finally settles down to being a loving family man, mellow and rightfully satisfied with his life.

I knew Hans first through the anecdotes of his two sons, with whom I went to boarding school. They were an excellent mix of crazy stories from his youth (like the time he was driving through a snowstorm and his defogger wasn't working, so he put on ski goggles and stuck his head out the window, driving through the snowstorm like that for several hours) and some of his more autocratic tendencies as a father. We were all pseudo-rebellious teenagers at the time and most of us bitched about our parents in some way or another and Hans didn't come off as all that bad. He was just particularily freaked out about trivial things like hairstyles, a button the older brother pushed during the new wave '80s. But he did come off as a bit of a hard ass. When I did actually meet him for the first time, he was quite pleasant and friendly. Later, as an adult, when I spent more time out in the mountains and Hans was basically retired, he was super warm and generous, really deep-down happy, great to hang out with and listen to his stories. He seemed so generally psyched and happy to be hanging with his sons, that I had a hard time reconciling the Hans I got to better know with the uptight dad of the teen years, but this book goes a long way in explaining that.

If you are a fan of Canadian history or the Rockies or skiing, I would recommend this book to you. It's an amazing story. For me, it filled in a lot of gaps about my friends' families past and was very informative for that as well as being entertaining. It's important to understand where people came from, especially people who travelled across the world before they were even fully formed to come to a new country and start a new life. It's a very different world today, much more stable for those of us in the first world and a lot of that is thanks to people like Hans who came to Canada with a lot of drive and saw a beautiful land where they could make a life.

Sadly, Hans Gmoser died a few years ago while riding his bike between Banff and Canmore, which is why this book got written when it did. Though Hans would never have been happy had he been in a situation where due to health he couldn't have been active, he was still pretty young and fit when he died, so it was a very sad loss for the community and especially for his family. Here's hoping he's somewhere climbing, skiing, hiking and biking in the most amazing places.

Monday, June 08, 2009

17. Supermanship by Stephen Potter

Supermanship pictureThis is, I believe, the last in the -upmanship series by Stephen Potter, which started with Gamesmanship (there may be one last one called Golfmanship, that I'd love to get my hands on). I was extremely psyched to spot a lovely old Penguin copy of this book sitting on the $1 table outside S.W. Welch's. It's nice to know that there are still quality collectibles that can slip through the fine net of the internet market.

Supermanship is fairly unfocused, being a collection of brief applications of oneupmanship in a wide range of situations, some correspondence and some brief (and fictional) history of some of the major players at the oneupmanship institute. It's the same kind of humour, tons of subtle techniques to make the other fellow doubt himself. I particuarly liked the section on lecturemanship, which dealt with academics and visiting lecturers. It gave strategies for both the host (like wearing a short sock and then crossing one leg over the other and raising your pant leg, revealing your white flesh, so the audience is constantly distracted by it) or the guest lecturer (like turning to the host, making a particularly obscure reference and capping it with "as Professor Gates-Willoughby will surely know").

Some of the humour went far over my head, being very British and very much of its time. But it's a quick read, organized into digestible gulps (great for the bathroom), which is all I'm capable of these days. I'd recommend Gamesmanship or Lifemanship before getting into this more advanced volume. I'm very pleased to have discovered that a friend of mine actually has a copy of Lifemanship, so that will be 3 out of 4 in my hands!