The Violent and Work-Filled World of Parker

Late last week I went on a binge-read of the first six Parker novels by Richard Stark, reissued over the last few months by the University of Chicago Press. I’d read THE HUNTER before, as well as THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE, and more or less caught up with the most recent (and thus, final) entries in the series, but I didn’t feel like I understood the character completely. But then, perhaps oddly, something clicked when I viewed Parker through the prism of Darwyn Cooke’s excellent graphic adaptation of THE HUNTER, which IDW publishes next month.

Douglas Wolk, reviewing the book in the Washington Post last week, pretty much nailed why the graphic novel works:

Cooke has a particular gift for the space-age designs and stripped-down
chiaroscuro that were in vogue a half-century ago — he previously
explored them in his "DC: The New Frontier" comics — and his loose,
ragged slashes of black and cobalt blue evoke the ascendancy of Hugh
Hefner so powerfully you can almost hear a walking jazz bass. At times,
he seems to be demonstrating how few brushstrokes it can take to
communicate a precise degree of amoral machismo. Parker's a very bad
man, but it's hard to take your eyes off him.

And in an essay for the Barnes & Noble Review on those first six books, Leonard Cassuto highlights Parker’s enduring appeal:

The Parker series offers a criminal's take on the
business of working, with Parker as a central character with no inner
life at all — he just eats, sleeps, has sex, and works. He never
talks, except to say something concrete. He has no permanent home and
no friends, just business associates and sex partners. Parker never
ruminates; he just plans. When wronged, he becomes a fearless revenge
machine. (In one of the later Parker novels, Parker brazenly seeks out
a homicide detective who's looking for him. Parker uses his presence at
the man's home as a dare; he knows that the cop can't go after him
without risking his wife and children. The detective's conclusion: "He
used my weakness.") In short, Parker is Westlake's vision of a skilled
professional manager run amok.

Absolutely humorless, Parker is also pitiless. He takes no pleasure in
killing, for he's "impersonal, not cruel," and killing represents an
additional complication to him. But he's nobody's philanthropist
either. When he tells a gun merchant, "I don't give a damn about you,"
he could be talking to anyone, anytime, anywhere in any Parker book.
Westlake said of Parker that he'd "done nothing to make him easy for
the reader." Indeed. The character is all hard surfaces and sharp
edges, so it's no surprise that "his clothes fit him like an impatient
compromise with society." (I love that line.)

Yet Parker is oddly easy to root for. To start with, he's better than
the company he keeps, so he rarely suffers by comparison. But more
important, Parker cares about doing things right. He weds precise skill
to total self-interest without emotional complications like greed — he
never wants more than he can use — or sentiment.

  But it's not just that Parker strips away all unnecessary elements in favor of the basics, what makes him such a marvelous creature is how those basic needs all serve his greatest purpose of work. From THE HUNTER on through THE JUGGER, and almost undoubtedly in subsequent books, Stark includes a passage, like this one from THE HUNTER, along these lines:

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  It was always like this after a job. He would be fierce, and strong, and demanding, and exultant, allowing his emotions the only release he permitted them. For weeks after a job [Parker and Lynn] wouldn't skip a night and often it would be more than once a night. Then his passion would slacken, lessening with their cash reserve until near-celibacy just before the next job. The pattern was always the same, and Lynn had grown used to it, but not without difficulty.

  In other words, Parker's way beyond workaholicism, which implies he can't do anything other than work. Parker IS his work, and the jobs are Parker, so when they go wrong, of course he has to avenge those wrongs or deliver his special brand of violent-filled payback. It's not so much that he enjoys killing or doesn't enjoy it, but that all his actions are a necessary means to get the work done &#8211; and thus keep the essence of his existence going.

  The most recent books, to my mind, veer away a bit from the purity of Parker and work, but I'm looking forward to revisiting them once I've caught up more fully with the whole series as they get reissued over time.