Friday 8 February 2013

Westlake Score: The Jugger by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake (Pocket Books, 1965); Parker #6, Harry Bennett Cover Art

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker; a Friday Forgotten Book.

I unveiled the bulk of the Westlake – or rather, Richard Stark – Scores I acquired from Alan White Fine Books in one great big splurge of a bloated blogpost on Wednesday, but I kept one back because it dates from slightly earlier in the Parker series.

Published in the States by Pocket Books in 1965, The Jugger is the sixth novel in Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's series starring taciturn career criminal Parker. The cover art is by Harry Bennett, who illustrated the covers of all eight of the Pocket Parkers, from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966), and though there's a general sense among Parker fanatics that there's something a bit off about the novel itself – fuelled, in part, by Westlake himself; more on that in a moment – I'm of the firm belief that the cover is one of Bennett's best efforts on the Parkers. I like the abstraction of the midground – that jumble of flat colours denoting signage – and the way Bennett's placed the figures and the rest on a white background, using the negative space for Captain Younger's shirt. Clever, confident stuff. And as is often the case with Bennett's Parker covers, you get a bonus sketch on the back too:

In an Austin Chronicle interview excerpt on the Violent World of Parker dedicated page for The Jugger, Westlake identifies the book as "one of the worst failures I've ever had", pointing to the way he "spoiled" the novel "by having [Parker] do something he wouldn't do", i.e. going to the aid of his "mailbox", Joe Sheer. Except as Trent notes in the subsequent review, he doesn't; as the novel itself makes clear: "...he had come up to this rotten little town to find out if it was going to be necessary to kill Joe Sheer or not". Westlake's misremembered disapproval of The Jugger might be part of the reason some Parker enthusiasts aren't keen on the book, but perhaps a bigger part is the unusual nature of the thing, at least in comparison to the bulk of the Parkers. As Ed Gorman points out, it's not a heist thriller but "a kind of psychodrama". Viewed in that light, and on its own merits rather than as a decent book in an exceptional series, it stands revealed as a cold, mean mini-masterpiece.

Mind you, despite my sweeping generalizations about Parker fans' feelings about The Jugger, you don't actually have to look that hard to find folks who appreciate it for what it is; witness the glowing reviews at Pulp Serenade, Kevin's Corner, and especially this thoughtful, perceptive one at Olman's Fifty. In fact, on reflection, it's looking increasingly like Westlake was the only person who didn't rate the book...

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Richard Stark's Parker Novels: Westlake Scores; Gold Medal First Edition Gallery, Robert McGinnis Cover Art

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker.

So apparently there's some movie out in the States starring Jason Statham and based on the nineteenth novel in a twenty-four-book series featuring a cold-hearted taciturn career criminal. Dunno what that's all about, but whatever it is, I'm certainly not about to let it distract me from the task in hand (especially since said film isn't out here in the UK until March) – namely: blogging about a bunch of vintage Parker crime novels I've recently come into possession of. Because in a really quite remarkable multiple Westlake Score, a couple of weeks ago I managed to get my filthy mitts on four – count 'em, four – US first edition paperback originals of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels, all from the same local book dealer. What's more, three of them comprise a run of the first three Gold Medal editions of the Parkers (the fourth I'm saving for a separate post as it dates from earlier in the series), and are in about the best condition I'm ever likely to see, with nary a cracked spine between them.

To recap (yet again – feel free to skip this paragraph if you're already au fait with the publishing facts from previous posts... or indeed if you have a life): in 1967 Fawcett/Gold Medal acquired the rights to the Parker novels from previous rights-holders Pocket Books, who published the initial eight Parkers from The Hunter (1962) to The Handle (1966). Gold Medal would go on to publish the next four books in the series and bring The Hunter and The Seventh (1966) back into print under new titles reflecting their movie adaptations, i.e. Point Blank! and The Split respectively. Whereas the Pocket Parkers all had cover art by Harry Bennett, the Gold Medal Parkers had cover art by Robert McGinnis.

Anyway, back at the start of the year, I was idly perusing AbeBooks looking for a cheap, decent condition first edition of the eighteenth Parker novel, Backflash – my battered ex-library copy being in danger of falling apart – when I came across a listing from a bookseller based in Brighton (just down the road from where I live in Lewes): Alan White Fine Books. I was immediately intrigued; I'd been under the impression that I was aware of every secondhand bookseller in the area, and yet here was one I hadn't come across before. I took a look at Alan's website and discovered that he had a number of other Richard Stark books besides Backflash (he still has... just not quite as many now)... including some American paperback originals, all in reportedly excellent condition. A number of emails later, and as well as the copy of Backflash (I'll be offloading my ex-library copy onto a local charity shop soon, so look out for it, fellow Lewesians), for a very reasonable price I had procured the following:

The Rare Coin Score, Parker #9, published in the US in paperback by Gold Medal in 1967. This was Gold Medal's first Parker, and it boasts to my mind Robert McGinnis's best representation of the man himself – looking, incidentally, not unlike Josh Brolin, who I reckon would've been a much more suitable choice for the lead in the above-mentioned movie featuring a cold-hearted taciturn career criminal. Ahem.

The Green Eagle Score, Parker #10, also published by Gold Medal in 1967, again with McGinnis cover art. Now, this one might ring a bell with Existential Ennui/Violent World of Parker regulars, as I blogged about this very same edition in both places in November as a Westlake Score, which I won on eBay. That copy was a bit battered, however, whereas this one is in pristine condition. And if it strikes you as odd that a body would buy two copies of exactly the same book... well, you clearly haven't spent enough time lurking on Existential Ennui.

And the third and final Gold Medal Parker I acquired from Alan White was The Black Ice Score, Parker #11, published by Gold Medal in 1968, cover art by McGinnis. In truth this is one of my least favourite Parkers, but I saw a copy of the Gold Medal edition get snapped up right in front of my eyes at last year's London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair before I could reach it, which kind of rankled (us collectors can be sore losers), so I was dead chuffed to find this lovely copy in Alan's possession. And even more chuffed to relieve him of it.

And since I already have these on my shelves:

Point Blank!, published by Gold Medal in 1967 (McGinnis cover art), and:

The Split, published by Gold Medal in 1968 (McGinnis cover art again), that means I now only need the Gold Medal edition of The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) in order to complete my Richard Stark/Gold Medal collection. Rest assured that I'll be posting an equally prolix update if and when I obtain one.

Monday 4 February 2013

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1963): Book Review

For this final post on Kingsley Amis – for which, if the marked decline in blog traffic over the past week or so is any indication, the dwindling readership of Existential Ennui will be thankful – here's a first edition of Amis's fifth novel, which I found hidden in the little bookcase fixed to the wall outside Peter Ellis's bookshop on Cecil Court, and bought for three quid: 

One Fat Englishman, published by Victor Gollancz in 1963. Now, once or twice during this run of posts I've suggested that there is more warmth, more, as Kingsley's son, Martin Amis, put it, "reckless generosity" in Amis père's novels than those who are only familiar with his reputation – i.e his endlessly regurgitated, perennially picked-over failings – rather than with his work – would suppose. But that's by no means true of all his novels, and it's certainly not the case with this one. Roger Micheldene, the titular Fat Englishman, a libidinous book publisher abroad in America, is a strikingly loathsome creation, and the assortment of writers, students, intellectuals and linguists he encounters at various parties and functions in and around the campus of the fictional Budweiser college (standing in for Princeton, where Amis was a lecturer in the late-1950s) – and their wives and girlfriends, most of whom he attempts (sometimes successfully) to bed – is little better.

In a 2002 article for The Guardian, David Lodge recalled that on original exposure to One Fat Englishman in 1963 he "hadn't really enjoyed reading it, and enjoyment was very much at the heart of my interest in Amis's earlier fiction", but that when he reread it years later it was "more comprehensible and interesting", not to mention "much funnier". Personally I prefer the mid-sixties–mid-seventies Amis novels, but my reaction to One Fat Englishman was similar to Lodge's, except condensed: I was initially repelled by the book, but found myself thinking about it a fair bit once I'd finished.

Lodge identifies Micheldene as "a devastating and prophetic self-portrait", but Amis actually had something different in mind when he wrote the novel. As Michael Barber explained in a 2006 Hudson Review piece – republished on Existential Ennui in 2011 – on Zachary Leader's Amis biography: "Intended as an egregious exponent of the strident British anti-Americanism that Amis then deplored, Micheldene was mistaken by many readers for the author’s mouthpiece." Here Barber was drawing on the evidence of his own eyes and ears: in 1975 he interviewed Amis for The Paris Review, and raised the subject of Micheldene and One Fat Englishman, to which Amis responded:

"...I think the pro- and anti-American stuff hasn’t, if I may say so, been properly understood. What I was doing was knocking British anti-Americanism, and I thought, Put all the usual tired old arguments into the mouth of a very unsympathetic character. I thought this was quite a good way of showing up all those British attitudes. But I must have muffed it somewhere along the line because American reviewers fell into two classes: one lot said, 'Mr. Amis makes some shrewd hits on the deficiencies in our culture.' And they were meant to be very unshrewd hits. Others said, half rightly, 'Mr. Amis's objections to American life are very old hat. If they were ever accurate, they no longer are so. It's all been done better by American writers.' Well, that's true, except that they got the name wrong. Roger Micheldene's objections were all of those things."

Of course, a novelist's relationship with his or her own characters is always complex, and Amis went on to concede that "life tells us all the time that it's possible to like the people that you violently disapprove of" and that he'd "quite enjoy a couple of drinks with Roger". That much is evident in the novel itself, where Amis details Micheldene's exploits with a savage glee; and it is, admittedly, hard not to detect the author's guiding hand in places, such as when Micheldene sneeringly but wittily (and even today, appositely) predicts the likely notices for the debut novel by Irving Macher, a young Jewish author he's taken a dislike to (and who will become his nemesis): 

'A profoundly disturbing and yet deeply compassionate vision of the human situation'—Philip Toynbee. 'Perhaps one of the four most poised and authoritative contributions of the New York neo-Gothic meta-fantasy school'—Times Literary Supplement. 'This searing, sizzling, lacerating I.C.B.M. of a book will pick you up, throw you down and trample on you'—Daily Express. 'Remarkable'—Yorkshire Post.

Even Roger can't ignore the obvious literary qualities of Macher's novel, however, and so it is, after a fashion, with One Fat Englishman: a pleasant – or pleasurable – experience it may not be, but it's not one soon forgotten.