Monday, January 15, 2007

Ask the Poet

Only a writer and critic I respect as thoroughly as Terry Teachout could have nudged me into reading Ask the Parrot, the latest novel by Richard Stark, one of several names used by Donald Westlake, a prolific writer of mysteries. For more than 40 years Stark has been producing a series about Parker, a thief without a first name. I was skeptical. I don’t read mysteries, except for Raymond Chandler. Their prose usually is tone-deaf and awful, and I don’t care who done it. Stark, based on the one-half of a Parker novel I’ve read, is a pleasant exception.

His prose is without fat yet his economy of means doesn’t call attention to itself in an astsy-fartsy way. It’s without pretensions, yet intelligent, minus the reverse pride of a “literary” writer gone slumming. Stark, like his protagonist, is a professional who, above all, values competence. Parker is cool, aloof and malevolent only in a practical way, when he needs to be. He takes little pleasure in being bad and hurting people, but neither does he lose sleep over it. His code is pragmatism. Like another one-named character, Odysseus, Parker survives by his cunning. So does Stark.

While casing a racetrack in the middle of the night, Parker’s unlikely, unprofessional partner bumps into a plate of breakfast leftovers sitting on a desk, causing the mess to fall to the floor:

“Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black ocean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption. On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.”

This is not a typical passage in Ask the Parrot. The Greek word is the only “highbrow” touch I’ve noticed, and the digression is uncharacteristically long and comic. But Stark’s sense of pacing is superb. He knows when to distract us, briefly, from the action, but then note the next passage:

“`I ought to clean that up,’ Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“`A mouse did it,’ Parker told him. `Drop the plate on it and let’s go.’”

Parker: cool, fast-thinking, economical with time and energy. Ditto for Stark, plus he prolongs the humor with “the new island,” then reminding us of Parker’s cunning. One little-noted, little-appreciated strength of fiction is its value as inadvertent documentary (Joyce boasted that 1904 Dublin could be recreated if Ulysses were used as a map). Stark is alert to details of American landscape, language and customs (omelet on a green plastic plate). Here’s a failing shopping mall in upstate New York:

“… a smaller older place with only one of its two anchor stores still up and running. The shops down the line between the living major retailer and the dead one made an anthology of national brand names. The parking area was a quarter full, so they could leave the car very close to the entrance, just beyond the empty handicapped spaces.”

Journalism is seldom written with such useful, off-hand detail. Nothing is italicized for cheap irony, and “anthology” is priceless. Tom Wolfe is praised for this sort of thing but his name-dropping is invariably arch and feels like showing off. Zola did it especially well in The Belly of Paris and Joyce, of course, did it in Ulysses. A century from now, if people are still reading, they could salvage a good core sample of early-21st-century American reality by reading Stark. I’ve been re-immersed lately in T.S. Eliot, and one of the unexpected pleasures of his poetry is just such homely detail. In The Annotated Waste Land, editor Lawrence Rainey, traces much of the poem’s gritty texture, especially in describing the “Unreal City,” to Eliot’s tenure as a clerk in the Lloyd’s Bank (1917-1925). Rainey writes:

“The sense of inhuman desolation which suffuses The Waste Land, its depiction of the City as haunted terrain in which `a spectre stops the passerby in full daylight, (note to line 60), owes much to this perceptible dwindling of living inhabitants, their homes consumed by a voraciously expanding commercial life.”

Here’s the section Rainey cites, though the seediness he discusses is found throughout The Waste Land and in many of Eliot’s other early poems:

“Unreal City,Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying:
'Stetson!'You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
'Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
`Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,'
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
`You! Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, -- mon frere!”

Put aside the Dante and Baudelaire allusions, and you have a vision of urban decay that Stark (and Parker) would recognize. In fact, his depiction of rural upstate New York, I can testify after having lived there for almost 19 years, is another peculiarly modern wasteland. Small farms have disappeared, Wal-Mart has gutted the old downtowns, and young people have moved south. Here’s Parker’s late-night walk around a small town:

“There were two tall streetlights at diagonal corners of the intersection down to his left, but otherwise the road was dark, with here and there the dull gleam of light inside houses. Parker walked first to his right, past a dark house, then a house where an older couple played some sort of board game in a brightly lit living room, then another dark house, a boarded-up house, and then the last on this side, where a woman muffled up in robes and blankets as though she were on a sleigh in Siberia sat alone to watch TV.”

Stark is not Eliot. I’m not blurring distinctions between high and low. That’s not my point. Rather, in their radically different forms, with their radically different aims and audiences, they share comparable visions of modern life, and both use their acute eyes for quotidian detail to bolster it. I’m a grateful reader: I’ve read all of Eliot, but Stark has written 26 other Parker novels since the first one in 1963, and I haven’t read even one of them.


Buce said...

Two comments--

1. Try Larry Block. The plots sound manufactured, but well manufactured. The content is spare and direct, and heavy with scabrous humor.

2. What do you think of the view that Ulysses owes less to Dublin than it does to Trieste?

Anonymous said...

B.R. Myers, of Reader’s Manifesto fame (or notoriety), wrote a couple of pieces for The Atlantic Monthly last year, with his typical sensibility, surveying what's good in current detective fiction, including a number of things in translation from Japanese and Swedish (as I recall). Good place to find recommendations, if one enjoys the genre.

Is there a common view that Ulysses owes something to Trieste, other than the general sustenance of its creator? The re-creation of Dublin entirely from Joyce’s memory of it, as a kind of homage to the exile’s homeland, would seem to be part of the point of the book.

Levi Stahl said...

I second the recommendation of Lawrence Block. His Grifter's Game is particularly good.

I had a similar experience with Stark: I had read a couple of his/Westlake's non-Parker novels, but I'd never read a Parker novel until this Thanksgiving, when I read Ask the Parrot in one sitting. I not only blazed through fourteen more in the ensuing six months, I also convinced my employer, the University of Chicago Press, that the Parker novels were valuable and should be in print.

So now the Press is going to be republishing the first three Parker novels this summer, giving them what we expect will be a secure (and enthusiastic) home after years of them being in and out of print. I'm really excited about our first step into the truly hard-boiled!