RARA-AVIS: A review of Westlake/Stark's "The Hunter"

From: Brian Thornton (bthorntonwriter@gmail.com)
Date: 02 Jan 2009

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    I wrote the enclosed review of Westlake/Stark's *The Hunter* for Al Guthrie's *Noir Originals* site back in 2003, and thought it might be of interest to some Rare Birds unfamiliar with Westlake's work. The direct URL is here:


    Al's site is well worth a look in its own right, if you haven't availed yourself.

    All the Best-


    Reviewed by Brian Thornton

    [image: The Hunter]In late 1961, mystery writer Donald E. Westlake had car trouble and wound up crossing New York's Triboro Bridge on foot. A hard rain was falling, driven in sheets against Westlake as he trudged across the bridge, soaking him and souring his mood.

    During this long, dour stroll, Westlake began to ask himself what sort of person would be walking across the bridge, late at night, in a driving rainstorm, aside from someone with car trouble? What sort of mindset would it take to be willing to do it if one didn't need to get one's car towed, and in what set of circumstances would such an action be required?

    In the midst of this conversation with himself, two enduring icons of crime fiction began to take shape in Westlake's mind. Richard Stark, the most famous of Westlake's collection of literary avatars; the sort of grim, unsympathetic linear thinker whose imagination could in turn conceive of the other of these embryonic characters: the single-named Parker, a decidedly singular thug, and anti-hero of Stark's highly successful crime series.

    Within a year this experience found life in print with these immortal first lines of *The Hunter*: "*When a fresh faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, 'Screw you, buddy,' yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.*"

    Reprinted many times and adapted for the screen twice (1967's *Point Blank*, starring Lee Marvin, and 1999's *Payback*, starring Mel Gibson), this book is the story of a thief double-crossed, shot, and left for dead by his wife and his erstwhile partner, an ex-syndicate heavy named Mal. The thief
    (Parker) recuperates from his wounds in prison, escapes, and heads for New York, intent on getting his cut of the take from the heist, and giving those who crossed him what's coming to them.

    It's a tale that's been told before, and it's dark. Where Stark broke new ground in the early 1960s was in his treatment of the morally ambiguous Parker himself. Billed as an anti-hero, and even simply as a non-hero, Parker anticipates such immoral and amoral 60s characters as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. The central question with Parker is whether he is amoral, and therefore completely without an internal compass, or whether he has one, and is simply uninterested in letting the reader in on just what it is.

    Stark teases the reader with this question throughout the book. On the one hand Parker breaks jail with only a month to go, killing a prison guard in the process, and seems to feel neither guilt, nor remorse over it. On the other hand, he finds his wife, Lynn, apparently the only person (other than himself) for whom he ever felt anything, pretty early on after his arrival in New York, and then seems unsure what to do with her. Parker seems almost relieved when Lynn kills herself and removes the necessity for any further action toward her on his part.

    The rest of the book deals with Parker's attempts to get at Mal, the man who seduced Parker's wife into betraying him. The problem is that Mal has used Parker's cut of the heist proceeds to pay off a debt he owes the New York Syndicate, and they have taken him back on, giving him access to mob muscle and organization.

    The thing that keeps us wondering over the question his morals (or lack thereof) is the fact that Parker is after only his cut from the heist, nothing more, because that's what he seems to think is owed him. On the other hand (and since Stark is a master at balancing these sorts of plot elements against each other, there is *always* an "other hand"), Parker accidentally kills a woman who runs a business across the street from a building he's watching while trying to draw Mal out, and mentions off-handedly that although he feels badly that she died, it's really her own fault, and her death couldn't be helped.

    It is Parker's very lack of an overtly moral center that makes his figure so dynamic. He is not the type to ponder ethical considerations, or to sit still and wait. A plotter, his stratagems are all straightforward attempts to get precisely what he wants. There is no elliptical grand design in his scheme to get his money back from Mal.

    It is a testament to the ability of Stark to tell a good story that this bare-bones plot works as well as it does, and although the premise seems a bit shop-worn to jaded eyes reading this book over forty years after its original publication date, the fact is that it still *does* work. Parker is an unmitigated bastard, but the fact that he is unapologetic and completely truthful regarding his motivations helps make this most unsympathetic of protagonists someone the reader can root for, especially when these qualities are coupled with Parker's courage, daring, and extraordinary will-power.

    This sort of fast-paced, action-driven plot with a central character possessed of few of what would have been considered socially-redeeming values in the early 1960's made Stark's work such a rousing success. The 60's were a time of drastic change, and as such were a stark contrast to the staid Eisenhower years of the previous decade.

    Such a shift in societal mores, the loosening of strict social codes in the face of shifting demographics and sweeping attempts at reforming many of the quietly corrupt practices of the previous years of the 20th century all served as a fitting background for the advent of a new kind of hero. If he wasn't 'heroic' in anything other than a post-modern Homeric sense of the word, that was alright too, and if Parker *is* 'heroic', it is in the Homeric sense of possessing vast amounts of courage and daring, regardless of whether or not he is a "good guy."

    Of course, Parker isn't. This in and of itself was not particularly new to crime fiction in the early 60's. Telling a story from the point of view of the criminal was ground which had been broken in the 1930s by James M. Cain's *The Postman Always Rings Twice*, and Burnett's *Little Caesar*. The idea of a morally neutral thief, utterly without either scruples or remorse, one who not only did not ultimately pay for his crime, but actually prospered as a result of it, is nothing new in 2003, but it was something new, in fact something startlingly original and downright seminal when Stark debuted Parker in 1962's *The Hunter*.

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