Sunday, April 15, 2012

26. Death Wish by Brian Garfield

The finding and reading of the original Death Wish novel was another interesting and rewarding experience in the used book world.  I had always had a slight distaste for the movie, having been raised in a liberal household in the 70s and 80s.  It represented a racist, right-wing attitude that we were supposed to frown upon.  This attitude was reinforced one afternoon in grade 9 when me and a couple buddies went to the local video store and they were playing one of the Death Wish sequels on the television.  It was the initial attack and rape scene and I still remember standing there watching it while chewing a Wunderbar and feeling profoundly disgusted and horrified while tasting this nougaty sugary chocolate go all nasty in my mouth.  Did not eat a Wunderbar since then.

However, now that I'm older and harder (and a fan and student of publications like Cinema Sewer), I have recently been curious about actually watching the Death Wish series (or at least the first one) and since I have discovered Brian Garfield and learned that he was a poker buddy of Donald Westlake, I definitely wanted to read the novel.

The book is very different than the movie, I suspect, in tone and theme.  This is not a revenge fantasy.  Death Wish the novel is an exploration of the mind of an urban liberal when it is pushed to a breaking point due to a crisis that conflicts with everything it believed in.  There is no gratuitous satisfaction or cathartic revenge in the protagonist's killings.  The attack on his wife and daughter takes place offscreen (and is in some ways that much more disturbing and horrific for all the question marks surrounding it).  Most of the book is concerned with his state of mind and the thought process that leads him to his vigilante actions.  The climax of the book may be Paul Benjamin reading an interview with a psychiatrist in New York magazine about the vigilante killings, where the psychiatrist quite accurately conjectures who the vigilante is and what may be driving him.

I learned that Garfield wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, which was his response to the movie and the reaction it got.  Ironically, that got made into a movie recently starring Kevin Bacon that was supposed to be quite bad. Don't know about its position on vigilantism, but I guess I may have to check it out as well.  Pulp serenade has a good post about Death Wish and Garfield's reasons for writing it.

What I found most compelling about Death Wish was the way New York City is portrayed.  I have friends who grew up there back in those dark days and they did say it was rough, but this book makes it seem almost like a dark apocalyptic future where enclaves (or ghettoes as Paul Benjamin bitterly compares them to at one point) of upper middle class people huddle together, surrounded by dark streets full of junkies and killers.  It's depressing, especially coming after the random and senseless attack on Paul's family.  It sort of gets to you as a reader.

It's a historically important book and a good read.  Check it out.


Unknown said...

I remember reading this one shortly after the movie came out and thinking how different it was. And what a good book it was. I saw all the Death Wish movies eventually, and the first one was crude but effective. They went steadily downhill after that.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yeah, I think I'll probably stick with the first movie.

It's funny, the movie series seems more like it is in line with those men's series like The Sharpshooter and all those "Bruno Rossi" books.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Well I'm glad I picked up that British first of this at the Paperback and Pulp Fair last year now! Sounds like it's a damn good read.

Craig D. said...

I actually liked the Death Sentence film, and based on interviews with Garfield that I've read, so did he. It's got a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so he and I are in the minority. I haven't read the book, but from what I understand, the film has a totally different plot, being more of a remake of Death Wish than an adaptation of Death Sentence. But unlike the Death Wish films, it kept Garfield's anti-vigilante message intact, which is part of why he liked it. It's no masterpiece, but it's quite underrated and worth a watch.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Interesting perspective, Craig D. Interesting also to know that Garfield himself liked it. I'll be checking it out at some point for sure.

@Louis, yes do read it, I think you will enjoy it. I'm envious of your copy!

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book. In the book, Paul Benjamin seemed to be spiraling downwards into near insanity. But unlike Taxi Driver in which the result of Travis Bickle's breakdown was due to working and living in vice and corruption, Paul had one more factor in play. His dear family was attacked. (Spoiler, but safe to to say everyone here knows the book and movie) His wife died and his daughter became catatonic. He wanted payback. Plain and simple. But is it the answer?