Thursday, August 26, 2010

38. The Jugger by Richard Stark

It has taken me a couple of weeks to sit down and write this review. As this is a blog, I reserve the right to be quick and sloppy about my reviews. However, I make an exception in the case of the Parker novels as that just wouldn't be respectful. Furthermore, each re-read gives me so much to think and write about that they must be treated seriously. Usually I am quite motivated to write my latest Parker review. This time, with the Jugger, I feel some strong trepidation. The Jugger was far better than I remembered it and I may be getting ready to argue that it might be the best book of the series, a potentially outrageous claim that may have fists banging on desks across the Parker-verse and leading ultimately to my expulsion from the Academy.

Before I read the Jugger on this go-around, my memory was that it was far from my favourite. I respected it, but it was just way too sombre and lacked a heist, so I couldn't really count it among the rest of the series. I realize now that I just wasn't old enough and hadn't read enough other noir and crime fiction when I last read it. Because to put it bluntly the Jugger is fucking awesome. Despite the lack of a heist, Westlake succeeds here in both revealing the profound potential for evil in the human soul and in delivering Parker as a cold angel of vengeance against that evil in a deeply satisfying, yet still ambivalent way.

The Parker series has cycles within it. Parker's cover gets blown and he has to deal with it. He deals with it and some of the fallout and then we get a few straight heist books. Then his cover gets threatened or blown again. For me, the deliciousness is in the heists. I love the planning, the preparation, the actual execution and the fallout. I used to feel that the transitional novels (the first book, The Hunter, definitely falls into that category and interestingly I didn't read it first) were a bit of a distraction from the true heist novels. In The Jugger, Parker goes to a small town in Nebraska because his old friend and contact-man, Joe Sheer has sent him a weird, desperate letter. Sheer is a retired safecracker, from the generation of heisters one before Parker. They worked together a lot until Sheer retired, where he now acts as a middleman for people looking for Parker. Joe makes sure the guy is cool and then gets in touch with Parker. With his knowledge, if he is compromised, Parker's fake identity could be blown.

So Parker shows up to this dry, baking hot small town and Joe Sheer is dead, a loser petty criminal that Parker knows is strangely in town and the local Sheriff, Captain Younger (once again, Westlake with the perfect names), is paying too much attention. Something is messed up and Parker simply by being there messes it up even more. In order to figure out what is going on and find out where he is compromised, he has to stick around the town and deal with all these losers.

Westlake is always tough and direct in the Parker books. In a few of them, he gets really tough with the reader and some nasty shit happens that leaves you with a nasty feeling in your stomach. However, it is usually a single sentence, just evocative enough to really freak you out. In The Jugger, he draws it out slowly and it is painful to read it as he unravels what went on: the psychological and physical torture of a poor old man who had finally found a restful way to end his days. It is brutal and you hate the guy responsible! And it just keeps getting worse and worse.

And while this backstory is being revealed to the reader, the pressure is also mounting on Parker. A smart and experienced FBI man comes to town and other random elements, possibly even more dangerous for Parker because of the difficulty in controlling them, start to appear on the scene. The reader is both agonizing over the fate of a good man and sweating Parker's future. However, very subtly, underneath that, Westlake is quietly revving up the Parker engine and deep down you know he is going to handle this situation.

Younger looked up, smiling his smug smile, tapping a finger against the list of names. "See that there? It wouldn't surprise me one bit if your name's down there. Don't think I ever bought that Willis name."

Parker looked at him, seeing him definitely for the first time as a dead man. "Let's get on with it," he said.

Younger's smile faded. Looking at Parker, his eyes began to get a little uncertain. He lowered his head, cleared his throat, and tapped the sheet of paper. "This is it, here," he said. "Never mind that other stuff, that doesn't matter. This is what matters."

Parker waited.

Right there, in the middle of your greatest anxiety as a reader, Westlake reminds us of the difference between a small-minded petty scumbag and a true badass. And we rejoice. (Or at least I did, pumping my fist and crying out "fuck yeah! Don't fuck with Parker!" and startling my wife in bed next to me.) Whenever Parker waits, somebody is going to get screwed.

The Jugger is also one of the stronger examples of what Westlake saw as true evil. It's not some mastermind in a cave full of slave-minions. Nor is it the big businessman or powerful politician. Rather, it is the small man who manages to rise just high enough in a small environment to get some authority. In the case of the Jugger, this is personified in the sheriff, the career military man who never did anything much but be in the right place, doing the right things and having a slightly clever mind. He is smart enough to take control of his surroundings but too stupid to have any sense of the bigger picture. Couple that with a lack of moral sense and you have a very dangerous and nasty man. This character appears often in the Parker books (Mal, from the Hunter being another prime example) but also in Westlake's other novels as well.

Furthermore, this evil functions best in a limited environment and the location in the Jugger presages the gangster-run town in Westlake's masterpiece, and the crescendo to the Parker series, Butcher's Moon. As an aside, I should mention how clear one can picture this town, the layout of the neighbourhoods, the way the streets look when viewed through the big picture windows, the still heat reflecting off the parked cars downtown. Westlake was one of the best at capturing a certain time and place in the American small town, one that exists in ever-shrinking pockets.

I suspect that there are a certain sub-set of noir fans for whom the Parker series is not the ultimate expression of crime fiction (shocking as that may sound to some of you). For those readers, The Jugger may well appeal to them much more than the rest of the series. It is probably the most purely noir of the Parker books, focusing more on the darkness of man's soul than the difficulty of switching trailers on a rig or dealing with Almas when planning a heist.

In any case, the Jugger is mandatory reading. Get on it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

37. H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

I respect Alistair Maclean, but I am not a huge fan. I always find his books a bit too realistic and straightforward, dealing often with espionage and management rather than the slightly over the top manly action that you get with a Desmond Bagley or Duncan Kyle. That is my impression anyhow, as I have never actually read any of his books until this one, which I picked up because it was just such a beautiful book and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea gave me a real taste for good WWII naval books.

Actually, Ulysses is very similar to the Cruel Sea, except that it details a single voyage, rather than a series. The Ulysses is the lead destroyer escorting a fleet of merchant ships from Scapa Flow to Russia at the height of the Nazi command of the sea. It is a brutal tale of attrition. The moment they get out into the open sea, they are battered by a harrowing winter storm. And from there it only gets worse, with constant Nazi sub and air attacks. The boat is sort of doomed from the start, as it suffered a mild mutiny and was forced out on this trip without rest as a punishment. So the men are already past the breaking point, except for the profound decency of their captain Valleray who holds them together and even manages to inspire them when they are at their lowest point.

If there can be said to be any kind of narrative in the book, beyond the voyage itself, the captain's role is probably it. But this book is more of a long series of anecdotes, giving us insight into the men at all levels of the ship. At times I lost track a bit of who was who and was even more lost by some of the nautical terms. But if it made it a less enjoyable read, I don't know, because I was just caught up in the brutal desperation of it all. War is hell and reading about life on those boats really brought it home. Just the constant cold (and really cold, making a Montreal winter look mellow) and total lack of sleep is hellish enough, let alone all the horror of war they had to face. I was reading this book during some uncomfortably humid moments here in Montreal and it really helped me to put the discomfort of the heat in perspective.

This is Maclean's first book and considered in some circles a classic tale of the merchant fleets in the North Sea during the Second World War. If that is of interest to you, then you should definitely read this book.

I also found some very cool historical flotsam among the pages, which gives some clues as to its history. It was in such good condition, I wonder if it had been purchased and not read or perhaps only read once?

You really need to click on the bookmark to see the bigger image of it. I guess it was a chain of bookstores in Montreal back in the 60s. [edit: a bit of research showed me that Classic Bookshops got bought up by W.H Smith which was then bought up by Chapters.) I love the cool 60s design, with the fingerprint. You can see the designer's name, Alan Harrison, in the upper left hand corner. I wonder what happens if I google him...

Judging by the receipt, the book was purchased at the airport, perhaps someone on their way back from a trip? (I bought the book at used bookstore here in Montreal). It was purchased weeks after I was born, along with what could be two other books. I wonder what they were?

Finally, there is a neat insert advertisement for a mortgage showing the classic 50s/60s suburban dream home.