Friday, November 19, 2010

59. The Seventh by Richard Stark

Holy crap, that heist went really sour!

We're developing a little tradition here where my wife buys me some of the new University of Chicago Parker books each year on my birthday in January and I read them slowly throughout the year. I've already read the entire series at least twice before the U of C books were released, but this is a dedicated, focused reading in the wake of Westlake's death and with the full consciousness that the Parker series is a literary classic. It's been great. I don't know if I've changed but the re-reading of each novel this time around has come as a real surprise to me. Things I'd forgotten are exciting to re-discover and things I had never noticed before are popping up now. I'm getting both the pleasure of re-reading a great book and the pleasure of discovering something new.


Once again, with the Seventh, I had the feeling going in ahead of time that I knew what I was in for. I vaguely remembered this had something to do with a football game and that it was one of the books that was a standard heist, without any longer-term narrative complications for Parker. What I had completely forgotten is how brilliantly structured this book is. So far, it is the best heist followed by the worst fuck-up followed by the perfect denouement. The Seventh is also notable because it is the first time that Parker goes into the backstory of some of the other heisters in a bit of detail. You get hints of it in The Score, but here you really start to care. They are a much richer bunch then in The Score as well. The angry, flamboyantly-dressed dwarf is particularly cool.

The Seventh feels structured to me like an ever-narrowing tunnel. It starts off in a closed apartment, where Parker discovers the woman he had been shacking up with dead, pierced to the bed with an ornamental sword taken from the wall. Worse, all the money he had been holding from the recent and successful heist is gone. Parker goes hunting for the money and the book opens up. We learn of the heist, this college town, all the heisters as well as the local police. Much of the novel is Parker trying to find out who killed the woman and took the money while avoiding the enclosing investigation. Then in the last third, everything starts to constrict. The cops close in, his partners go down one way or another. Parkers pursuit becomes more and more focused. All he wants is "the amateur" who screwed everything up.

The final chapter is Parker stolidly climbing stairs in an empty high-rise under construction, in pursuit this panicking loser. The money, his colleagues, the investigation, the midget are all eliminated as storyline and it is just you the reader with a burning focus to get this amateur who caused so much trouble. It's a very intense ending. And satisfying. Westlake introduces so much tension and worry into the first two-thirds. It's so frustrating to have such a beautifully-executed heist go sour after it's over. You just know things are going to get worse and worse. And yet somehow, once everything is as bad as it can get, you as the reader only really care about Parker getting the amateur. The coda that makes the book so perfect (which I won't reveal here) is really only a cherry on top of a delicious ice-cream sunday. Not necessary, but oh so tasty. I laughed out loud.

Is this a love story?
Okay, get ready for some pretentious essay-writing, people. What struck me in the beginning of this book was the character of Ellie. She is the woman with whom Parker shacks up before and after the heist and whom he finds murdered when he returns after a quick errand for beer and cigarettes. What is remarkable about her character (and what I noticed for the first time during this reading) is that she is the perfect woman for Parker! As is well known, Parker is celibate leading up to the jobs and then satyr-like after. He is introduced to Ellie by Kifka, who is organizing the job, when he asks for a place to stay in town. I don't know if this is a period thing or just one of the perks of being a heister, but when you need a place to stay, you always have the option of getting a woman as well.
"It's been a long day. I need a place to stay while I'm here."
"With a woman or without?"
Parker hesitated and then said, "With." Not that he expected to want her, not just yet. Before a job he never had any interest in women, or in anything else but the job itself. But he would want her afterward, when he would make up for lost time.
The women that Parker stays with tend to be portrayed with some spirit and a bit of personality, but they are rarely anything more than their role as his woman. This is the case with Ellie. The difference is that she turns out to be the perfect Parker partner. Before the heist, she asks nothing of him, is mildly surprised that he doesn't want to get it on and leaves him alone.
Her style was very much like Parker's own, silent and self-contained. They spent hours in the same room without either saying a word. Parker was pleased by her. She didn't jabber away at him, and he never had to tell her anything twice. Kifka had done better than could have been expected.
Parker pleased!? I mean, wow, that never happens. And then after, when he is done. Whoo boy!
Seeing how lackadaisical Ellie was about everything else in life, Parker hadn't expected her to be more in bed than a receptacle, but she surprised him. He had found the one thing that made her pay attention. For three days and nights, they hardly left the bed at all, and the whole time she was nothing but stifled mumblings, and hard-muscled legs and hot breath and demanding arms and a sweat-slick pulsing belly. All the passion that had been dammed up inside Parker while his one-track mind had been concentrating on the robbery now burst forth in one long sustained silent explosion, and Ellie absorbed it all the way a soundproof room absorbs a shout.
[Feel free to go to your bunk now, I'll wait.] When Parker returns to find her impaled to the bedstand, he has no emotional reaction. Then the cops show up and he learns that the money is gone. Nowhere in the text does Parker ever display any sadness at Ellie's death. He needs to get the murderer because he needs to get the money back. And as things go to shit, he stays focused on the murderer because he is so angry about how this amateur was able to make such an ordered thing become so chaotic.
There was no profit in killing him, but Parker was going to kill him anyway. He was going to kill him because he couldn't possibly just walk away and leave the bastard alive.
But the fact remains that Parker does relentlessly pursue the guy even when it may not be the wisest choice. He also takes several dangerous risks and, one could argue (and the midget heister does), even makes a mistake. Should he have left the apartment in the first place without taking any precautions? Should he have braced the detective in his own home to get his list of suspects? In each of the situations, the choice seems reasonable, but when you look back at it, there is a certain aggressiveness in Parker's behaviour that is slightly out of character. One wouldn't say sloppy, but it's close. Parker always hates idiots who get in the way, but there is a certain extra vehemence directed against the amateur (who is the one character whose personality is only hinted at, thus making him more of a concept than a person), which I would argue may come from Parker's anger at losing a woman with such potential. I know I'm stretching a bit here, but there is a little something there. We'll see how Parker's future retalations compare (and there is at least one I can remember that is coming up).

Westlake's critique of progress

In some ways, Stark has a classically conservative inclination. Though he is the ultimate outsider, Parker also represents old-fashioned values of skilled manual labour, stability and fidelity. The other heisters that he meets are a more positive and fuller representation of this. Actually, representation isn't even the right word. Most of his partners are hard-working craftsmen. In The Seventh, it goes even farther, in that they are working people who were pushed into a life of crime by structural changes in the economy. One character ran a local movie theatre with love and care, but with the advent of television he fell into serious debt trying to keep it alive. Another is a highly-skilled carpenter whose work is too high quality and too expensive so that he slowly loses business, until two guys hire him to build a false compartment in the back of a truck and then he begins his life of crime (where he is properly remunerated for quality labour).

Except for the midget (and Parker himself), they are all portrayed as genial men. The planning sessions could be a bunch of factory workers planning a hunting trip in their buddy's basement. Violence is only a means to get the money and they use it sparingly. The machine guns purchased for the heist have a purely psychological function, to eliminate any opposition. Nobody actually wants to shoot them (though mainly because of the noise and mess they cause). These guys are motivated by doing a good job and earning some money in a society where doing a solid day's work no longer necessarily means you will earn some money.

This critique of the "progress" of the second-half of the twentieth century creeps into the descriptions as well. In the final chase, Stark lovingly details the rich nuances of the forest, going from the airy, needle-floored coniferous to the cluttered, multi-coloured decidous section. Suddenly, the forest ends and the chase spills out into a dirt wasteland, a construction site: "Later, when the building was done, landscape architects would come in with fresh earth and seed and hothouse plants and turn this moonscape back into something vaguely like the forest it had been, but with less clutter and liveliness." I posit that it is not just for visual effect that Stark describes the building as something fundamentally aberrant, broken:
It was over twenty stories high already, and from the confusion of cranes and pulleys atop the building—looking like unruly hair on the head of a Mongoloid idiot—it was apparently going to be even taller before they were done.
I found this final passage to be descriptively powerful. Westlake is such a good writer. I've been to that forest, I've walked along a bulldozed land site and I've clambered around inside a building under construction. Reading The Seventh put me back in those places. I'm probably imposing my own environmental melancholies to some degree, but I do think Westlake is channeling a lament for an America that he saw disappearing into today's world of mindless entertainment (the target of the heist is a football game) and cheaply-produced goods, where the complex, tactile natural world is bulldozed to make way for soulless apartment blocks. Parker is Stark's robot of vengeance, sent in to strike deeply into this new order and wreak as much havoc as possible using order and professionalism. He cannot succeed, but you cheer and rage for him along the way.

Now that all this pretentious twaddle is out of the way (and thank you for bearing with me this far, if any of you did), I'd like to just throw out two more side points:

1) There is a great passage where Stark describes the detective working on the case of the murdered girl. Parker has found out his home address and cased it out. His neighbourhood, his house, his car, all suggest that the guy is struggling economically. There is even a slight hint of contempt in the tone, though that is coming from Parker probably, as the passage is described as being seen through Parker's eyes. If you've read any Westlake, you just know something is up when he lays it on this heavily. And when we actually meet the guy, you get a classic moment of why the world of Parker is so awesome.
He waited a couple of minutes, and then Detective Dougherty himself came to the door. He was no more than thirty, but 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.
Despite all the previous snide criticism of the guy's lifestyle, upon seeing him in person, Parker recognizes him instantly to be a serious opponent. Ultimately, it's about the man underneath. Game recognize game. That is great stuff!

2) The introduction to The Seventh is written by Luc Sante and is excellent. He must be of french origin as he read Parker originally in translation. He references several very interesting-sounding french crime authors whose works haven't been translated and he gives some solid, interesting analysis about the Parker series. There are some spoilers there about upcoming books, which I guess I'll excuse. I don't know who this guy is, but I will look into it, because this is finally an intro this series deserves.

3) Donald fucking Westlake.

1 comment:

Trent said...


Great piece! Shoot me an e-mail when you get a chance--I looked for a way to contact you here but couldn't find one.