Friday, February 17, 2012
Donald Westlake Day: The Jugger (1965)
Today, the literary blogosphere is honoring Donald Westlake. Leading the tribute is Patti Abbott over at her blog, pattinase. In honor of the celebration, I'm reprinting my review of one of my favorites: The Jugger, written under the penname Richard Stark. For more tributes, check out Patti's blog.
Richard Stark’s sixth incarnation of Parker, The Jugger (Pocket Books #50149, 1965), find his anti-hero looking to avoid trouble, for once. When Parker receives a letter from Joe Sheer, an old-time “jugger” (slang for safe cracker) who was supposed to be hiding under an alias in retirement, he begins to worry. Someone is on to Sheer, and in his old age he seems to be cracking. And if he cracks, that means he will expose Parker. So, hoping to preempt any major problems, Parker heads to the small town of Sagamore, Nebraska. However, it is too little too late – Sheer is mysteriously dead. To make things worse, an annoying amateur crook is also hanging around, convinced that Sheer left behind a big score—and that Parker knows where it is. And as if Parker didn’t need any more worries, the local sheriff seems to have the same idea and won’t leave Parker alone…
The Jugger is everything we’ve come to love about the Parker series. Stark’s streamlined plotting, devoid of excess complications, plays out like an architect’s blueprint, but without ever feeling overly deliberate. There’s spontaneity to the action, which demands Parker’s split-second intuition. Guided by professionalism, it’s fascinating to watch him assess his situation, the different options available, and finally execute his plan. There’s something admirable about his levelheaded logicality and ability to improvise and change his course at any moment. His choice of profession and willingness to do away with anyone who stands in his way, on the other hand…well, I don’t think Stark wants us to admire Parker too much.
Without Stark’s permission, Jean-Luc Godard adapted The Jugger to the screen as Made in U.S.A. in 1966 with Anna Karina playing Parker. Notoriously unfaithful, it’s actually somewhat close for Godard standards (remember his version of King Lear?). Still, those looking for a recognizable Parker had better look elsewhere. Godard’s film is more of an abstract meditation on genre and aesthetics than a hardboiled crime story. I elaborated more on the adaptation in a piece I wrote for The L Magazine on remembering Donald Westlake.
Always one for great first lines, I’ll have to start the list of favorite quotes with the opening sentence.
“When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”
“The room stank of flowers and death. Orange light bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways. To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen onto the flat table-top of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.”
“A man who won’t give up comfort for success is a bad partner.”
“The voice was a centipede, a long twisty bug with needle-sharp feet, running back and forth on the left side of his face, driving its needle feet into the bone beside his eye and into his cheekbone and into the bone above his ear. His face hurt like fury…”
“His clothes fit him like an impatient compromise…”
“There was nothing to say. Younger was a moron with a title, that’s all; give a moron authority and after a while he forgets he’s a moron.”
“The local law was three dough-faced farm hands in rumpled blue uniforms, standing around the room looking for traffic to direct.”
“Joe Sheer was just an old jugger now, turned shaky and rusty – he’d said it himself – shaky and rusty and scared, an old jugger ready to trade every man he’d ever worked with for a nice soft mattress and a nice warm radiator and a little peace of mind.”