Before we get to the promised cavalcade of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake Scores, I thought I'd take a slight detour to chew over some recent non-Westlake reads (yes, I do read other books). Quite by chance, I've read three books in quick succession over the past few weeks where the main protagonist finds himself cast away or trapped in a small patch of land. Two of the books are actually very similar in their choice of urban location, while the third is more rural, but still bears a remarkable similarity to the others.
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household was the first of this triumvirate I read, and the most rural. Originally published in 1939, it's the first-person account of an unnamed British man (who, though nameless, hints throughout that he is a Lord, and well-recognised in England), his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate a European dictator, and his subsequent escape into the English countryside, all the while pursued by agents of the dictator. There's an extended sequence in the novel where our hero digs himself a burrow in the Dorset moors, and it's this section that's the most compelling and bears the most resemblance to the other two books, as he gradually loses all trace of his previously civilized nature and sinks into a filthy, degraded, but also strangely alluring existence.
Alluring, because it's at this point that he seems most free, and most happy, despite the squalor he's living in. Reduced to merely surviving, any and all problems melt away in the face of more immediate concerns: finding food, keeping warm. It's an extremely simplified way of life, but one our hero almost revels in, particularly when he is granted the occasional company of a grumpy, feral cat.
It's this acceptance of, and in turn embracing of, a downgraded existence that I was reminded of when I was reading the second book, William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009). Here, a young man called Adam Kindred is being hunted for a murder he didn't commit, so, much like Household's character, he removes himself from society and in this case goes underground in London. Again, as he divests himself of the trappings of civilization – he can't use his credit cards or contact anyone lest he be tracked – he finds a kind of peace in a triangle of overgrown wasteland near Chelsea Bridge, with a camping stove to heat his tins of beans and three old tyres fashioned into a chair.
Even when he's forced to leave this patch of ground and starts to slowly rejoin society, Kindred feels the occasional pang for his lost parcel of land, much as Rogue Male's protagonist is reluctant to leave his lair. And once again, this is probably the most vivid part of the novel, enjoyable though the subsequent chapters are. Like Household, Boyd, through Kindred, seems to be yearning for a simpler way of life, one where a small triangle of land can offer more fulfillment than a wider life of conspicuous consumption – even if it does mean having to snack on the occasional seagull.
Of course, the protagonist in the third novel of our triumvirate has even less choice in the matter than either Kindred or Lord No-Name: in J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island (1973), an architect named Robert Maitland crashes through a barrier on London's Westway onto another triangle of wasteland, and becomes trapped. His injuries prevent him from escaping, and in any case no one will stop to help him. I'm only a third of the way through the book at the moment, so I don't know if Maitland will come to embrace his new existence, but it's still striking that both Maitland and Kindred wind up in triangles of land in west London, only a couple of miles apart.
It's too early to pass judgment on Concrete Island yet, but the other two novels are both fine works. Household has a clipped style befitting his ennobled narrator, while Boyd's early tendency to pepper his prose with off-piste words – a boscy here, a ratiocination there – settles down once the narrative starts to gain momentum. But both books paint compelling portraits of individuals cast adrift from mainstream society, and, possibly with Concrete Island (we shall see...), show that going underground needn't necessarily be such a bad thing. Seagull snacking aside.