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.


Greg said...

Nice review. I've always thought of The Jugger as Westlake's riff on Jim Thompson's novels about crazy, violent sheriffs. Books like The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280.

Greg said...

Nice write-up. The Jugger really is underrated -- even by Westlake himself.

I've always thought The Jugger was Westlake's nod to Jim Thompson and his "crazy sheriff" novels like The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 -- much like Butcher's Moon is a clear nod to Dashiell Hammett.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Great observation. The comparison to the crazy sheriff is exactly the kind of book I was thinking about when I said it was noir, but I had forgotten them. I wonder if there is any evidence that Westlake was aware of Thompson's novels and was consciously or unconsciously making an hommage to them with the Jugger?

Greg said...

I don't have evidence that Westlake was aware of Thompson in 1965, but I'd be willing to bet he was.

This isn't evidence, but many years later, he would adapt Thompson's The Grifters for the big screen. That same year, he would name a (particularly mean) character in his Dortmunder novel Drowned Hopes "Tom Jimson."

Back to The Jugger: When Parker searches through Tiftus' pockets, he finds this: "...a Zippo lighter inscribed FROM DW TO SF, neither set of initials having any connection with Tiftus."

The DW is obviously Donald Westlake. Any ideas on SF?