Thursday, January 31, 2013

Whatever Mask He Wore--Donald Westlake, 1933-2008

[I posted the following at The Red Room and at Open Salon in early 2009, after Donald Westlake’s sudden passing. In anticipation of the release of Parker, the first film from one of Westlake's Richard Stark novels to be released since his death (and the first to use the character’s real name), I decided to rewrite and repost it here on my official page)

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go hell. — The Hunter.

When the news came that Donald Westlake, among the greatest genre writers of this era, passed away suddenly on December 31, 2008, it was like a bullet through the heart.

A Brooklyn, New York, native (and graduate of no university) Westlake published his first novel, The Mercenaries (published as The Cutie by Hard Case Crime) for Random House in 1960. He rapidly became one of the most prolific writers around; so productive that, in order to keep his credibility, he adopted several pseudonyms, publishing up to four books a year, a clip that shames many of us, especially this fussy, slow-thinking scribe.

Maybe they weren’t all good, but when they were, Westlake’s novels were the best. He won three Edgar Awards and was award the Edgar Grandmaster award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. (And though I loathe admitting that neocon pundit William Kristol can be right about anything, he gets credit for good literary sense with his quixotic campaign to nominate Westlake for a Nobel Prize.)

Reading Westlake’s prose is like surfing a series of small smooth waves—one sentence rolls smoothly into the next, with swelling tension, before it curls and thumps onshore with a brutal thud, followed by a dangerous undertow. He can deftly create a scene with the terse detail or bring color to a character with a few simple words. His prose never feels cluttered and rarely ever underdone.

His best novels spring and unwind with ingenious setups and plot twists and turns, some hilarious, others savage, with barbed insights. There are wonderful turns of phrase, many uproarious, some terrifying, even disturbing in the deepest and best sense.

Westlake is known mostly by crime-fiction readers for his comic novels, many of which feature John Dortmunder, the world’s most hapless thief. Several of these novels were adapted for the movies. A somewhat miscast Robert Redford played him in a film adaptation of The Hot Rock. An even more miscast George C. Scott played him in The Bank Job (both actors—especially the ever-intense Scott—fail to capture the sad goofiness embodied by Dortmunder). Paul LeMat played him in an adaptation of the unseen-by-me Jimmy the Kid, the funniest of the Dortmunder books that I’ve read.

Westlake was also a noted screenwriter. His gimlet-eyed adaptation of Jim Thompson’s bleak noir classic, The Grifters, was nominated for an Academy Award. Another excellent script was for one of that tiny population of worthwhile serial-killer movies, The Stepfather.

The comic novel of his I love most was the non-Dortmunder Dancing Aztecs, an amiable picaresque of The Maltese Falcon that leisurely follows a goofy confection of New York oddballs in their daffy pursuit of an Aztec statue. It’s a hilarious and charming adventure and an affectionate portrait of the city and its people, circa the mid-1970s.

“I like Dancing Aztecs too,” he wrote to me after I sent him a gushing review I wrote in Swing Time magazine of one of his pseudonymous novels. (He didn’t seem to think much of the rest of my review, but I sucked it up, just like a guy named Parker would; see below).

Often, Westlake wrote seriously—meaning non-humorously. Killing Time is a bull’s-eye revisit to the grim terrain of Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece Red Harvest. A cycle of short stories, titled Levine, follows the anguish of a NYPD homicide detective trying to cope with the violent death he deals with every day. Kahawa is an epic action thriller about mercenaries on the loose in Africa. Under one of his pseudonyms, Tucker Coe, he wrote an intense series of mysteries about a fallen ex-cop trying to set his life straight.

The one serious Westlake novel that should remain his monument (by law of that unawarded Nobel Prize) is The Ax. Published in 1997, it tells a Swiftian tale of Burke Devore, a man who loses his job in a recession and goes to homicidal lengths to land a new one and regain what passes for dignity in modern capitalist America.

Burke is like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, if Willy, instead of committing suicide, decided to get back at the world by breaking bad. Thanks to Westlake’s concealed artistry, he comes to life as one of those who have been shunted aside after a lifetime of playing by the system’s rules. Read it, then read today’s economic news and you’ll see it hasn’t aged at all. It’s truly a novel for all recessions.

But the kid came back, carrying a small satchel. “I’m packed,” he said. ‘I left the note on the dining room table.’

“Good,” said Parker and hit him twice.

He buried him in the cellar in the hole the kid had dug himself.—The Jugger.

When I first read the passage above, from The Jugger  by Richard Stark, I threw the book down and stormed about my apartment, muttering,  “He killed the kid . . . he killed the kid!”

Some years later, when I read the same passage at a literary soiree in San Francisco, the audience screamed. Then they applauded.

Richard Stark: Westlake’s most famous pseudonym, another literary monument, cruelly provocative novels built brick by solid brick under a name that strikes like hammer, that cocks like a trigger.

Through 24 novels, from 1963’s The Hunter  to 2008’s Dirty Money, Richard Stark wrote what many believe is the best series of crime novels ever, noir and otherwise. They’re certainly the best I’ve ever read.

The Richard Stark novels tersely detail the grim career of a professional thief we know only as Parker. Besides palming all of Westlake’s other virtues, Stark tells these tales of heists gone wrong with spare power. I consider Parker to be one of literature’s great criminals, one who stands alongside such implacable monsters as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter and—maybe this is far-fetched—Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Stark, as I recall from an interview where he wore his Donald Westlake mask, said he conceived of Parker as a “robotic John Dillinger”—single-minded, relentless, unfeeling.

I first met Parker during the mid-1980s, the early days of the Reagan Era, over ten years after the appearance of the last Stark novel, Butcher’s Moon. The plot of The Black Ice Score seemed a little shaky, but the writing was so strong that, whipped on by some Stark-loving friends, I started over wtih the first novel in the series, The Hunter.

The first three pages of The Hunter hit me like the first three pages of Gravity’s Rainbow: I was captured by a seething, relentless vision. I had read plenty of hard-boiled fiction, but this was different. 

Strangely however, Parker strode across the George Washington Bridge into my mind in a different way than perhaps Stark intended. On top of the vicarious thrill of riding around inside this exuberantly lawless world, I sensed a vastly darker world lurking underneath. 

Then, we were at the beginning of unleashed, unregulated capitalism whose wild whirling bandit’s shadow is only now passing (we hope).

To me, Parker seemed an emblem of the world at that time: the final logical end of an ideology of absolute individualism where the nihilistic pursuit of profit is the first value. Parker practiced a brute amoral pragmatism. (Parker does do good but it’s most always a trickle-down good, a mere side effect, as coolly shrugged off as the corpses he leaves behind).

This interpretation is not explicit in the text, but as in other great books, it hides, clever, malignant, and cold behind a curtain of coiled prose. The Parker novels growl at you, low, urgent, dangerous. You can hear Stark grinding his teeth with smoldering fury. The tongue may occasionally show in the cheek, but it’s barbed and deadly.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head. Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.” –

Butcher’s Moon

When I read the above passage at the same literary soiree all those years ago, they all screamed again. And applauded again.

At times, the Parker novels have the impact of a great horror novel. They are rarely, if ever, explicitly gory. Nor are they papered with wall-to-wall violence. But, thanks to Stark's chisel-and-hammer style, violence always lurks underneath the surface, a grim serpent. Unlike most noir novels, novels provoke a deep shudder.

This also is due to how Stark’s style fuses with his singular character. Parker is a monster, a monster of indifference to human feeling and suffering and the prose captures this, often line for line, as you can see in the quote above. When Parker gets angry, it’s a cold anger, like a wall falling on the perpetrator; the ruthless dismissal of someone who has little use for other human beings, unless they can help with his primary goal, namely stealing.

Books like these could well be unbearable. But, to me, Stark makes Parker bearable by surrounding him with a delightful and often sorrowful array of picaresque characters: fellow thieves and those foolish or unlucky enough to cross their paths. Their fear and bafflement give Parker’s impassive manner—what one admirer recently called his “Parkerness”—a deadpan humorous quality (something all the movies adapted from the novels have missed.)

“You know what your problem is, Parker?” one character nags him after enduring hours of Parker’s habitual stony silence. “You talk too much.”

Butcher’s Moon was the sixteenth and last Parker novel that Stark published in 1974 before Parker fled into the underworld for over twenty years.

The master thief returned in smashing fashion in 1997’s Comeback. From that point on, every Stark novel found its way to me as it soon as it appeared on the bookshelves. I would become a little like Parker: door locked, phone off the hook, a bare-tooth growl for anyone who dared interrupt me as I read.

Donald Westlake once stated that he counted Vladimir Nabokov, Dashiell Hammett and Peter Rabe (whose work I don’t know) as his three favorite writers. He took his writing as seriously as the lofty Russian (who disdained mystery fiction) took his own. He admired those three especially because, as he puts it on own website, “[they] could do something I very much envied, which was to make you feel the emotion in a scene without ever referring to it directly. It all roils below the surface while the surface remains apparently calm.”

He fully believed, as I do, that genre fiction could scale the literature’s demanding heights. The this-happened, then-that-happened way of story-telling, can, with right touch from the right hands, lead readers into new and startling worlds; can hide while revealing; that the discursive digressions of often-passive characters beloved by higher-brow critics, by themselves, were no guarantee of quality (a point he makes well in his excellent introduction to an anthology of crime stories by non-genre writers that he co-edited, Once Against the Law).

One more self-indulgent note: Westlake’s passing meant more to me than no more Richard Stark novels to look forward to. I was finishing my first novel, Dragon's Ark, and, like all writers, I entertain childlike hopes that my work will be read by the writers I admire most and return to them some the same pleasure they have given me over the years.

Whatever mask he wore, Donald Westlake stood at the top of that list. If I could mail my novel into the afterlife, I would.

(Re-edited 2/2/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Now Playing In Your Living Room: Beehives, Boxers, And Jumpers

Do your soul a favor and watch this eerie, touching, and beautiful Spanish drama from 1973, a film I have been pursuing for years and have only recently caught up with.

Set in 1940 after the end of the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive spins a strange, unique story with a sad, eerie delicacy. Two young sisters in a poor, remote Castilian village see the James Whale/Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Both girls are captivated by this great film and later that night, the older sister teases the younger that the monster really exists and is hiding not far away.

From there, the little girl goes off in search of him. What she finds will surprise and move patient and perceptive viewers.

This is a film of long silences in large barren spaces, a metaphor for the desolation that settled over Spain after the dictator Franco seized power. (By maintaining near-silence about Franco, whose end was on the horizon by 1972, the film speaks all the louder.)

The girls live in a Spanish Gothic manor, isolated from their mother and father, who themselves are estranged from each other. The older bullies her impressionable sister, Ana (played by wonderful Ana Torrent, who has the saddest brown eyes you’ll see anywhere) and the film finally—and gently—settles its gaze on Ana. To Ana, the Frankenstein monster reflects her own loneliness as she seeks him in the arid countryside. In her search, she seeks to fill the loneliness within her, and, maybe, the loneliness of a nation living under a desolate tyranny.

This movie may well put you in touch with your own quiet space. Don’t miss it.

Of the four films noted Noir scholar Eddie Muller introduced on Turner Classics a week or so back, 99 River Street (from 1953) struck me as the find of the night. On the surface, it’s a modest crime meller starring John Payne who, like another noir star, Dick Powell, turned away from Hollywood musicals to forge a career as a tough guy.

At times, 99 River Street seems headed toward neo-Realism. Like the character in the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief, bad-tempered ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne) can’t catch a break. He drives a hack cab, his wife, Pauline (Peggie Castle), doesn’t like him, and his dream of opening his own gas station is fading away. Ernie is entangled in a dreary web of mounting frustration and despair. The film seems to be aiming for a dour reality reminiscent of Paddy Chayefsky, whose film were a few years in the future.

Later, though, genre elements kick in and rather nicely, too. Turns out Pauline has been fooling around with a vicious jewel thief (well-played by Brad Dexter, the Magnificent Seven gunslinger no one remembers) who is mixed up with another bunch of shady types, including Jay Adler and rodential Jack Lambert.

From here the plot twists about like Ernie does and while the climax isn’t as gracefully carried off as I might like, director Phil Karlson and cinematographer Franz Planer make 1950s noir New York into a world of fabulous vertical shadows. It’s worth seeing.

Best acting kudos must go to Evelyn Keyes as Linda, a struggling Broadway actress who cruelly draws Ernie into her own scheming ambition in several excellent scenes, including a knockout sequence in a seemingly abandoned Broadway theater. Ms. Keyes is a hell of an actor and director Karlson give her reign. She’s terrific here and deserves to be remembered for more than playing Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister.

For this one, from 2011, it’s clear they came up with the title and concept first but never got around to finessing the plot and story.

Like Snakes on a Plane, the title is a classic bit of generic labeling: there’s a man on a ledge, threatening, we’re told, to commit suicide.

Most of these sequences were actually filmed on a ledge at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan—those really are the actors standing out there eleven stories above hard concrete, with minimal CG applied to help keep them from falling and keep the insurance companies from cancelling the project.

These sequences are pretty dizzying and do a good job of putting you in the shoes of people doing unthinkable things. I got a little swoony and so will you, especially if you’re the kind who beads with sweat at the sight of an open window.

However, the real reasons why our hero (played by Sam Worthington from Avatar) is threatening to jump are awkwardly pasted and strung together and less interesting, with confusing, stupid behavior on the part of both good guys and bad guys and unsurprising surprises.
None of the actors stand out especially, though it’s a pleasure to see Ed Harris in just about anything, and an actress named Genesis Rodriguez makes a delicious eyeful as the girlfriend of the hero’s annoying brother.

Otherwise, count it as a skipper.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: A State of Bat-Fusion and Huell Howser

Watching The Dark Knight Rises (now out on DVD) the other night, I flashed on a more precise understanding of what we mean by the term “comic book movie.”

I also understood a little more why these movies fail to enchant many critics and moviegoers, including me (who may find ourselves facing down the bizarre, mob-like, and depressing outrage of fan boys.)

First some background in the interest of full disclosure:

(Cue violins and weeping): I haven’t read comic books since I was a little boy, in the early 1960s. For a while, I recall, I had a large stack of them, mostly adapted from TV shows such as Zorro or Top Cat. I may have had a Donald Duck or two. And the Classics Illustrated adaptations of Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some of them belonged to an older brother.

Then, there came that summer day when my mother made me give them alllll away to a sick neighbor boy down the road. . . .

And I never saw them again . . . .

(End violins and weeping).

I’ve seldom looked at comic books since that tragic day. I read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novel adaptation of the Batman comics in the late 1980s and admired its gothic-noir design and tone, but I felt no urge to read further and didn’t know why.

In 2010, a favorite author of mine, Peter Straub, working with Michael Easton and artist John Bolton, published The Green Woman, a graphic novel sequel to his novel The Throat, about a serial killer named Fielding “Fee” Bandolier. I read it twice. It was beautifully drawn and painted, drenched in hellish colors and unsettling shadows, but my head simply wouldn’t sink into it, I think for reasons other than its subject matter. (Serial killer tales have slid off my list of favorite reading adventures).

While watching The Dark Knight Rises the other night, I became aware of its extremely fragmentary design, of its loose story continuity and collage style.

The story of the struggle between Batman and evil Bane for the soul of Gotham City was like looking at puzzle pieces scattered across a large table and then pulled together in a semblance of order, but no more. Scenes related to each other without ever truly connecting. It brought to my mind both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and coming attractions reels.

Adapted from a comic book, The Dark Knight Rises plays just like one.

I found it a stuttering, sometimes exciting, sometimes irritating experience, like hanging with a large hyperactive child with expensive appetites and the worst case of ADD you could imagine. My interest kept flashing on and off. With only the barest plot tissue to connect the scenes, the plot was hard to grasp, and when I did get a handle on what was going on, the movie had leapt, swung, and crashed out of its frame into the next room, into another elaborate and jagged set piece.

I lost all sense of time. For example, for how long was Bane doing his Saddam Hussein on Gotham anyway? How did Bruce Wayne get back from India so quick? When he did get back from India? How did he get that fiery bat signal up on the Brooklyn Bridge so fast at the climax? Had it been there all along, just in case . . . ? It was a hell of a nice visual, but snarky grownups that we are, my wife and I laughed.

I know: It's not fair to ask these questions of a genre film like this. I didn't even ask them of Where Eagles Dare the first thirty times I watched it. But the fact the fact that I was asking them the first time suggests something was amiss--that I was not being engaged.

Even when it was supposed to be resting in a moment, The Dark Knight Rises seemed to be in an itch to jump onto the next hi-tech gadget or thumping fight scene. It seemed an expensive, beautifully designed jumble.

I can’t say I like movie experiences like that, but for those of you who do, I wonder, does what I say matter (beyond stoking your fury and resentment as I though I’d drowned your puppy)?

If you’re a lifelong comic book reader, stories told, plots explicated with colorful fragmentary images and balloonish dialogue is what you have come to enjoy and expect. The challenge to reading comic books and watching the movies they inspire involves a different set of perceptual skills than watching a more slowly cooked or paced movie, or reading a novel.

I confess it’s a challenge I don’t feel like taking on. I may not be alone either, even in the face of a half-billion dollars in domestic gross receipts.

Reading comic books, the eye jumps in and out of panel after panel while the brain has to catch up and make the connections, knit the fragments into something sensible. Looking at comic books and graphic novels, like The Green Woman (and I say “looking” because I didn’t feel like I was reading them), I sometimes wondered where I was and who I was with and when. The effect was like looking through a keyhole into an environment that was changing from one second to the next. I was disoriented, but it wasn’t a thrilling disorientation that I can find in good horror tale.

Some call The Dark Knight Rises dream-like (in the same manner as director Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a movie I really did not like.) But dreams have a mystery and airiness to them that gets lost when they become genre movies—dreams are eerie, unearthly, otherworldly, unmoored from gravity.

Comic books and movies might be dreams the teenage boy in all of us guys might like to have as we lay our heads upon the pillow, but given literal treatment on a big movie screen, they become like lead. Some movie—like Alfred Hitchcock’s and David Lynch’s—reflect and weave their ways into ours dreams. Comic book movies just yank them out into the world and diminish them.

I also didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises in other ways. Its somber pretentious air seemed irrelevant and unearned. True, we’re in the realm of Myths and Myths certainly have meaning, but when it delved into realms better suited for more grounded movies—for instance, the hearts-to-hearts between Bruce Wayne and Alfred the Butler about their relationship and whether the world is worth saving and life worth living—I smirked a little. It was supposed to move me, but I found it risible.

It’s hard to grapple with serious issues the way The Dark Knight Rises (and other films like it) wants to when all your hero has to do is throw a few Bat-knives, then jump into his Batmobile and run down his enemies. If you’re going to get that down-to-earth serious about stuff, why not deal with the practical issues Batman has to deal with, like going to the bathroom while wearing his Batsuit? Even a Jackie Chan movie makes more sense.

I like Christian Bale but he’s never quite made it with me as Batman. Like the movie, his intensity is too much for the material. And poor Tom Hardy, whom I liked very much in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is forced to spend nearly all this screen time behind that hideous gas mask, speaking with what sounds like Liam Neeson booming from a shower room. If he was even half the villain Heath Ledger’s Joker was, we’ll never know.

Huell Howser at the Pasadena Bunny Museum


My initial impulse the first time I saw Huell Howser on public TV a few years ago was to hide behind the couch.

As I gaped at this hurricane of cornpone enthusiasm, I remembered every embarrassing relative I ever had: Aunt Isobel who insisted on pinching my cheeks and talking baby talk, years after I had reached my majority; of garrulous, back-slapping, fast-talking Uncle Jack, who could be a little slippery with the truth sometimes; of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, ballooning with hot-air boosterism, colored with insecurity and desperation.

But now that Huell is gone, California has lost some luster.

Huell was hard to take at first, but our resistance was futile. We saw what was wondrous, sincere, honest, and endearing about him. There wasn’t a mean bone in him. Elizabeth and I took to calling him “Uncle Huell” and wondered about visiting some of the California places he so loved. (And I can’t wait to see the Pasadena Bunny Museum episode.)

I’m sure he actually enjoyed the various comic impersonations of him that appeared, including one on The Simpsons. He was much the soul mate of another full-stop TV eccentric, Julia Child.

As I learned later, though, we weren’t the only ones who found Uncle Huell a little much at times.

Last September, as we were strolling around the little Victorian town of Ferndale, in Humboldt County, I sensed I’d seen this place before. Sure enough, when we stopped by the drugstore, the cashier informed us that Huell Howser had featured Ferndale on the itinerary of his Road Trip series.

We were delighted to hear this, but the cashier shook her head ruefully: “He wouldn’t leave the cooks at the Blackberry CafĂ© alone,” she said. “They finally had to chase him out of the kitchen.”

I might have known  . . . .

Those cooks may be feeling a bit guilty about now, but they shouldn’t. I bet Huell understood. He was that kind of guy.

Thanks for everything, Uncle Huell. You too . . . were an example . . . of California’s Gold!

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.