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.


Jason L said...

A truly thoughtful and entertaining review. I've just finished the graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter and they really seemed to understand what you called "the brutal factuality of the writing".

Parker can do heinous things but he knows that they are for a goal and usually that goal is to avenge some nasty shit that has been done to him.

WeSailFurther said...

Just ordered The Outfit and I expect to get it any day...