by Richard Stark
Parker, a brutish, gorilla of a man and a small-time crook, reluctantly takes on a job with an ex-syndicate man named Mal, who betrays Parker by convincing his wife to shoot him and leave him for dead. A year later, out of prison and penniless, Parker tracks his wife and Mal down, then goes after the syndicate itself to get his share of the money back.
I found this book thoroughly unpleasant, with no sympathetic characters and only laughably stupid straw men for Parker to prove his toughness against. The book’s been praised to the skies by everyone from Elmore Leonard to the New York Times, but I just don’t understand the appeal, unless the reader just enjoys the adolescent fantasy that he’s the moronic Parker. The prose is sparse and at times ridiculous: “women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations in their nylons.” The juvenile slyness of this phrase aside, it assumes all intelligent, professional women are entranced by a wife-beating idiot in grubby clothes and shoes with holes in them. And Parker is indeed an idiot. I found the description of his making of a fake driver’s license (he just kind of draws one and crumples it up) to be unintentionally hilarious; he starts hitting a woman who gave him perfectly good information without stopping to think about why the information isn’t useful at that specific moment; his enemies are, to a man, brainless straw men who allow him (hulking, brutal, unsmiling Parker, remember) to approach them and ask them for change before taking a gun out of his lunchbox to get the drop on them! Yes, this really happens. Several times. To tough syndicate gun men who are in fact prepared and waiting for him. The entire second half of the book, Parker vs. syndicate, is utterly absurd, from the way Parker deals with the men to his ridiculous threats against them (“pay me or I’ll start telling my friends to start robbing your shipments!” – a non-problem, surely, that they’d have encountered many times before and dealt with). Really, the whole thing is just ludicrous, and Parker is utterly unappealing. Did I mention that he was planning to cross Mal before he himself got crossed? Yeah. Uh, go, Parker?
[movie note: It's worth noting that
the movie, Payback, starring Mel Gibson, is orders of magnitude better
than the book. The film dispenses with the unintentionally hilarious,
out of touch scenes; turns Porter/Parker into less of a stupid
woman-beating thug and into a guy just as tough, but who can at least
feel desire, sadness, and regret; makes Mal's betrayal of Parker a true
outrage rather than what Parker was going to do to him first if he
didn't; gives his wife a real motive for betraying him rather than, uh,
just because she's dumb I guess?; and keeps Stark's good noir dialogue.
Really, watching the movie just made me realize how stupid and
unappealing the book is.]