Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Comeback!

After Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake took a long break before writing his next Richard Stark novel, the aptly titled Comeback.  Twenty-three years between books.  I started at The Hunter and read mostly straight through to Butcher's Moon.  And then I took a break from Richard Stark. 

There is no accounting in Comeback for what has gone on in Parker's life since Butcher's Moon.  I suspect Westlake did this on purpose, just as he never gives a clear indication what year we are in in each book (and that it is a fool's errand to try too much to figure this out - and that it is not all that important anyway).  Given that Parker was in the military during World War II, we have some idea how old he is - I am guessing he was born around 1925.  I can see why Westlake avoids getting into dates because if Comeback took place in 1997 - the year it was published - then Parker would be around 72 years old.  (I used to think that old Parker would be exactly like Tom Jimson from the Westlake/Dortmunder novel Drowned Hopes - he was a scary old man.  I think I prefer the ageless Parker.)

Comeback felt, for the most part,  close in time to the books from the late 60s and early 70s.  The indications that we are closer in time to the present stem from some things referenced in the book.  Late in Comeback, Ed and Brenda Mackey, two of Parker's current gang and longtime associates, are watching CNN.  CNN went on air for the first time on June 1, 1980.  No one has a cell phone, computers are not mentioned as being in any offices, but fax machines are in use.  As are VCRs.  The heist in Comeback involves robbing the money room in a football stadium during a Christian televangelist event.  It is an attractive target because all the money is in cash - something that is becoming less common.  "Even in a world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace, there were still heists out there, waiting to be collected."

The term cyberspace wasn't coined until 1982 in a book by William Gibson called Burning Chrome and not popularized until his 1984 novel Neuromancer.  According to the Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer, the word is barely used at all until 1987 and doesn't take off until 1992.  This takes us closer to the present for the time of Comeback but still doesn't give a us a definite date.

Perhaps the funniest time reference in the book sounds more like it was written by Donald Westlake than Richard Stark.  When discussing crowds at the stadium, it is noted that there hasn't been a crowd this big since "the last Rolling Stones farewell tour." 

Even though I spent most of my time reading this book searching for clues about where in time we were, I enjoyed it immensely.  Parker is a little chattier than he used to be.  But that's okay - he knew he needed to work on that.  I won't say much more about the action in the book - I hate spoilers.

After I finished Comeback, I immediately started Backflash. [Can I say how much I love the title sequence of the first four post-Butcher's Moon Parker novels?  Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, and Firebreak.]  I've only read 30 pages or so of Backflash but it feels more modern than Comeback, even though it was only published one year later.  As I read I will compile a list of things that make it so.  The first line of the book has Parker with a Glock - and that feels very now to me.  The Glock was first produced in 1982 and didn't take off in the US for several years.  According to the Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the word doesn't take off until the early 90s.

Mike Carlow, a driver used by Parker in Butcher's Moon (and maybe some other books), turns up in Backflash.  The book says he's in his 40s and that the events in Tyler (the city in BM) were a long time ago.  So I suppose Parker could be a lot older than the guys he works with - I don't think I ever noticed any information about their relative ages.

I got a copy of Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, today.  I suppose, to use some ugly labels, Patchett is generally a writer of literary fiction.  This new book is, lucky me, about scientists in the Amazon jungle.  I read the first chapter tonight and it felt strange to read in that more literary style after a short course of Stark.  The past decade has been heavy on crime novels for me, but before that it was all literary fiction.  And while we speak of genres, there is one that I crave more of - lab lit.  In a nutshell, and in the words of the people who run the lab lit website, lab lit "is dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture."  It looks like State of Wonder will be an excellent example of lab lit.

3 comments:

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

Good stuff. I still haven't made it to Butcher's Moon yet – got waylaid by various other authors – but I'll be making a concerted effort to get back on track with Stark in the second half of the year.

By the way, the first two episodes of Case Histories were very good and very faithful. A few alterations, mostly to do with keeping all the stories in the same Edinburgh location, but great performances, and well directed.

Matt said...

Parker is ageless. So is Dortmunder & Crew. The world changes around them but they stay the same.

Great blog.

Book Glutton said...

Matt-

I agree one hundred percent. It is a pointless distraction. Still, I can't stop looking for clues. But I have given up working on a numerological interpretation of the Parker books. (Just kidding.)

Congratulations on your new book. I think I'll check out the Kindle version.