Wednesday, October 08, 2008

`He Kept Finding His Sympathies Going to Widmerpool'

At Terry Teachout's urging I've been periodically reading the “Parker” novels of Richard Stark, one of the pen names used by the prolific, 75-year-old Donald Westlake. I wrote about the experience here, and was pleased to learn the University of Chicago Press is reissuing the Parker series starting with the first, The Hunter, from 1962. They’re unlike any other novels I know. The prose is spare but largely free of hard-boiled macho posturing. Parker is a thief and remains consistently intriguing because of his professionalism. We admire his competence. He doesn’t enjoy violence but will kill without hesitation when necessary. He’s largely amoral but not a nihilist. He is to stealing what Stark is to writing – pure, graceful efficiency.

Late Monday night I was reading Plunder Squad from 1972 – the 19th of the 28 Parker titles, as best I can tell. About two-thirds of the way through the novel we meet a series of new characters, each given his own brief chapter. We know a dubious art heist is in the works and the new guys are members of the eponymous “plunder squad.” Among them is “short and stout” Lou Sternberg, a fastidious, easily offended American who lives in London and returns to the U.S. only to do a job. He goes from the airport directly to his room at the First Standard Motel:

“Ghastly. Drinking glasses in the bathroom were encased in little white paper bags imprinted with a message including the word `sanitized.’ A similar message was on the paper band bridging the toilet seat. It was like dating a sexual hysteric who can never stop talking about her virginity.”

The joke doesn’t work but we learn something about Sternberg and appreciate Stark’s eye for Americana. A few more mildly satirical sentences follow, and then we come to this:

“By the time he'd unpacked and desanitized everything, the air in the room had a bit of life in it. Sternberg stripped to his boxer shorts, turned down the bed, settled himself comfortably with the pillows behind his back, and opened the Anthony Powell novel he'd started on the plane. It was Magnus Donners he wanted to identify with, but he kept finding his sympathies going to Widmerpool."

Alone on the couch at midnight, I laughed out loud. In more conventional noir novels, a motel room signals sex, often of the weird or at least sordid variety. In Stark’s hands it means A Dance to the Music of Time (also kept in print by the University of Chicago Press) and another revelation of Sternberg’s character. We might call this applied literary criticism, and we shouldn’t be surprised. In an interview from 2006, Westlake talks about reading Hammett’s The Thin Man when he was 15:

“I hadn't known you could tell the reader something without actually saying it, and I've loved that effect ever since. Nabokov was a master of that. But I also love good writing just for its own sake, and go back to reread Anthony Powell every once in a while. I have to be careful with him, though. After I've read Powell a while, my sentences get longer and longer. That works with him, but not with me.”

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