Monday, January 14, 2013

Breakout by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

While traveling, I either tend to read things that move quickly or that are otherwise giving me trouble.  For my New Years’ travel this year, it was one of Donald E. Westlake’s crime novels, falling neatly into the first category.  I’ve previously reviewed some of the other Parker novels here, both the original The Hunter and then a bunch of the others.  These were all “classic” Parker, written in the sixties and seventies.  Parker basically “retired” after Butcher’s Moon in 1974, but returned in Comeback in 1997 for a couple more encores.  Breakout is one of the later, second period Parker novels, written in 2002.

Parker as a character has always been something of a blank slate.  Besides the wife who died in The Hunter, he doesn’t have any family (besides the long-term girlfriend he picks up in The Rare Coin Score) or any backstory he’s ever shared with the reader, except in the most tangential possible way.  We know that he’s around forty, that he grew up in cities, and that he’s one mean son of a bitch.  He was stated to have received a bad conduct discharge for black marketeering in World War II, but while that would have made sense for the character in 1962 it certainly doesn’t for the same character in the new millennium unless he was portrayed as a geriatric.  But no, Parker’s still always around forty and a mean son of a bitch, regardless of the year.

As much as I like Westlake and really enjoyed the Parker novels, I have to think that this character concept was reaching its sell-by date in the modern world.  Parker steals cash, and in this wired world there’s just no cash to be had.  Sure, he could knock over a payroll lender or a bank, but how far is that couple of grand going to get him?  Same with his hot checks and credit cards.  That sort of petty stuff won’t pay for his lake house, resort hotels, or periods of inactivity.  The last big pools of cash liquidity these days are in the hands of organized crime, and while Parker isn’t necessarily against that sort of fratricide it’s often more trouble for him than it’s worth.

To his credit, Westlake appears to have realized this too.  In Comeback, the first of the modern-era Parker novels, Parker and his crew hit a revival meeting, and in some of the other modern era novels he is diversifying into gemstones or, as in this case, certain valuable pharmaceuticals.  The modern world also contains better police work, and so here he’s almost immediately busted and thrown into jail.

This is an entirely new direction for one of these stories, but the concept is essentially the same.  Parker’s wanted in California for the murder of a prison guard.  This was back in The Hunter, when he was doing a six-month stint on a vagrancy charge and was in a hurry to get out of the facility to get revenge.  Ironically no one’s been incarcerated for vagrancy since the early 80s, as far as I know, meaning that he must have killed the guard while in for some other reason, since he’s still about forty and this takes place in the modern era.  But I digress.  He’s also wanted for a couple of murders in Nebraska, albeit under a different name, but they’ve got his prints.  In short, he’s in trouble.

Since the Midwestern state where he’s located doesn’t want him for anything more than the warehouse break-in, they’re planning on shipping him to face the more serious charges elsewhere and holding him in an overcrowded facility with a bunch of other short-timers until then.  Parker fights the extradition, and then in typical fashion begins viewing his options in his utterly amoral fashion.  If he gets sent elsewhere or to a penitentiary, he may not be able to escape.  Therefore, he must escape now.  He will need to obtain help to do this.  Only some of the prisoners are reliable; he will rely on them as much as he needs and no more.  One will not help unless Parker agrees to work another job on the outside.  He needs the help, therefore he will agree to do the job against his better nature.  Having agreed to do something, he will do it unless and until someone crosses him, because that’s simply his nature.

Surprisingly, the jailbreak doesn’t take all that long and then the novel works its way through a dizzying array of impossible predicaments, first when the other job goes south in a horrific way and leaves Parker in almost a worse situation than he was already in, and then it just ratchets up the pressure on him again and again.

I’ve mentioned in my other reviews that Parker basically has no redeeming characteristics other than pride in a job well done, despite the fact that the job in question is immoral or illegal or both.  Here he doesn’t really care if his compatriots die as long as their deaths don’t make life harder for him, and he sort of takes advantage of the fact that one of his associates feels like he owes Parker one (in a previous novel Parker helped this guy get away from a psychopathic partner and the police.)  Parker gives a little internal viewpoint here in that he just doesn’t see the world that way – he considers abandoning the guy in a pretty bad spot since it will make his life easier, but decides not to because then he’ll hold a grudge and might make Parker’s life more difficult some day.  But if the associate wants to think it’s altruism, then Parker’s perfectly okay with that.

From any objective sense, you shouldn’t want Parker to get away.  He’s a thief and an unrepentant criminal and he’s killed dozens of people over the years, if he were real he’d be on an FBI list and they’d tell hushed tales of him around law enforcement breakfasts.  But the narrative follows him, and you can’t help but hope he succeeds.  Which he does, naturally.  But the ending seems to really draw home the idea that Parker’s era is probably almost over, which aside from Westlake’s death it probably would have been anyway.  I’d say it was bittersweet in its way if Parker had any emotion about it at all, but like the weather it’s just one of those things to him.

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