Sunday, December 2, 2012

100 Books #117 - Richard Stark's THE HUNTER

I first became aware of the character of Parker, celebrated and brutal mid-century modern antihero, through Darwin Cooke's amazing graphic novel adaptations of this and two other novels. Well, of course I did! Although I still haven't seen the adaptation of this one; the story is brand new.

So the tone and content of Parker's first story, The Hunter, had little to shock me (though I won't say it had nothing to shock me, because I can't. Some early plot developments made my jaw drop), but that's not to say the novel itself did not.

It's a weird, weird thing to do, reading crime fiction from fifty years ago. It's still shocking*, still thrilling, but probably not in the way the author intended. The modern reader is largely desensitized to the brutality, but becomes shocked by, and perhaps a little disbelieving of, the ease with which so many of Parker's crimes are committed. In the first chapter, he forges a driver's license with just a form he picks up at the DMV and a ballpoint pen, commits check fraud multiple times, kits himself out in style, and checks into a nice Manhattan hotel. No photo ID required for any of it. Once or twice a store phones the bank he has duped into giving him some other guy's checkbook to make sure the funds are there, but that's it.

So yes, that's right: The Hunter's power to shock the modern reader lies in its status as a study in the freedoms we've all had to give up because of amoral asshats like Parker. One can almost hear the heavy metal security doors slamming behind him, from the perspective of 2012.** To say nothing of the trust extended toward strangers -- though of course the kind of  trust from which Parker benefits in his early chapter identity theft spree was only ever really extended to confident, well-dressed white men, wasn't it? So once the shock of watching him proceed this way wore off this reader, it was well-nigh impossible not to think, in part, serves the jerks (those would be his dupes) right for having that kind of attitude. Even though, yes, yes, they all did and it was the social norm of the time, blah blah.

I told you reading mid-century modern crime fiction was a weird experience for a post-millennial girl.

It's also, though, a weirdly rewarding one, a short burst of action and speed and relentless drive, to watch Parker hunt down his double-crossing partners who let him take the (supposedly fatal) fall for a complicated theft that involved deserted landing strips, cross-border munitions shipments, South American revolutionaries, and, of course, murder. It's hard not to be gleeful as he shakes down the people whom those partners threw up between him and his targets like so many human roadblocks, though of course one has qualms about innocent dupes being so treated.

This all means that Richard Stark (real name Donald Westlake, and what a prolific son-of-a-gun that guy was) achieves quite a lot in a small space. His first novel with his signature character as Stark may even be a richer read for us post-millennials than it was for the thrill-seekers who pulled it off a drugstore paperback spinner "back in the day."

But of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

*Largely due to its depiction of both Parker's and his foes' seriously brutal treatment of the women in thier lives, the casual violence, the contempt, the commodification. "Mysogyny" feels like too weak a word to describe it. Eugh.

**Of course one knows that these losses took place gradually and slowly, though at increasing speed since we declared war on yet another intangible at the beginning of this century. Give it another decade and people will barely remember a time when they didn't have to bring reams of proof of identity to get a driver's license.

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