Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Mystic forest,” and is by Armenian photographer Mher Karapetyan (Flickr | Facebook). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
The best compliment I can give the “Parker” novels by Donald E. Westlake is to admit that they’ve completely hijacked my usual schedule of reading and reviewing contemporary novels for the CCLaP website; originally planned to be a fun airplane diversion when I flew from Chicago to New Orleans and back about three weeks ago, I ended up reading the first book in the series, 1962’s The Hunter, from start to finish in just half a day, and have since been greedily devouring the rest at a rate of a book or two every week, blowing off all my other reading commitments no matter how much I realize I shouldn’t. (Sorry, all you authors who are patiently waiting for your book to be reviewed at CCLaP.)
That’s high praise indeed from someone who usually doesn’t like crime novels that much, with the key being that the main character is just so utterly fascinating, who like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark is less a real human being and more an example of the “theoretically perfect” version of the philosophy the author is trying to espouse (Stoicism here in the case of Westlake, versus Objectivism in the case of Rand).
A professional thief who only pulls off one heist a year (netting him in today’s terms somewhere between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars each time), so that he can spend the other 51 weeks lounging poolside at resort hotels and having rough sex with trust-fund blue-bloods with a taste for danger, Parker doesn’t give even the tiniest little fuck about anything or anyone that falls outside of this monomaniacal routine, never negotiates nor compromises when it comes to his take or who he’ll work with, doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation about torturing or killing people who get in his way (yet avoids doing it anyway, simply because physical abuse is the “lazy” way to get what one wants, and being lazy is the first step towards getting caught), and possesses a psychotic distaste for such banal activities like “talking” and “having friends” or “acknowledging the inherent worth of the human race.” (A true misanthrope, these pre-PC novels are not for the linguistically faint at heart, filled on every page with dismissive contempt for women, homosexuals, and people of color; although in Parker’s “defense,” such as it is, he also displays such contempt for most of the straight white males he meets too.)
There are 24 novels in the Parker series (which Westlake published under the pen-name “Richard Stark”), most from the ’60s and early ’70s, the series then activated again in the late ’90s and up until Westlake’s death in 2008; but the first three form a trilogy of sorts, in that they all concern one overarching storyline that spans from one book to the next, and so make a tidy reading experience for those who are curious about the series but don’t want to make a 24-book commitment. (Most of the others are franchise-style standalone stories that each follow a similar blueprint — Parker decides on his heist for that year, Parker obsessively plans out his heist for that year, then everything goes to hell when Parker actually tries pulling off his heist for that year.)
The first, The Hunter, will seem familiar to many because it’s been made into a movie so many times (including 1967’s Point Blank with Lee Marvin, 1999’s Payback with Mel Gibson, and 2013’s Parker with Jason Statham); in it, we pick up a year after a heist that went bad because of a duplicitous partner, who needed both his share and Parker’s in order to pay back the Mafia for an old job gone bad, the novel itself consisting of Parker basically crisscrossing the country and getting his revenge on every person who had been involved, eventually provoking the ire of the Mafia when he insists that they pay him back the money that had been stolen from him, even though they had nothing to do with the actual theft.
The second book, then, 1963’s The Man With the Getaway Face, sees Parker get plastic surgery in order to stay out of the glare of the Mafia’s nationwide murder contract they now have out on him, just to have his new face divulged to the Mafia at the very end; so then in the third novel, The Outfit from later that same year, Parker decides to get the Mafia off his tail once and for all, enlisting his buddies-in-crime to pull off Mafia-victim heists across the country to the modern tune of ten million dollars in a single month, while he tracks down and kills the head of the entire organization by breaking into a mansion that’s been weaponized like a fortress, after affecting a promise from the number-two in charge that he’ll end the persecution if Parker does him this “favor.”
Like Parker himself, these novels are quick and lean, part of what makes them so obsessively readable; Westlake had a real talent for stripping narratives down to just their bare essentials, then cleverly invented a character for whom this fast-paced minimalism works perfectly, a true human monster but one you can’t help but root for anyway, if for no other reason than because he has zero tolerance for the chatty bullshit and regards for acquaintances’ feelings that you as a non-psychotic are forced to deal with in your own schmucky non-bank-robbing life. (Stupid schmucky non-bank-robbing life!)
Unfortunately my obsessive focus on these books must come to an end soon — I simply have to get back to the novels I’m “supposed” to be reading, plus I can already tell by the fifth book that this series gets a lot more formulaic as it continues, which I bet will dampen my enthusiasm on its own — but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to mention how unexpectedly thrilled I was by at least the first few books in the lineup, picked up on a whim completely randomly but that have turned out to be some of my favorite reading experiences of the entire last year. They come strongly recommended whenever you have some downtime soon, especially to those like me who aren’t natural fans of this genre to begin with.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Interchange highway in tokyo at night,” and is by photographer Kévin WildSnap (Flickr | YouTube). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
It’s interesting that I should be dealing with two different sequels this week to two different first novels I also reviewed in the past, because they provide a tidy lesson on the good and bad ways to go about writing such sequels in the first place. For while ST Gulik’s Sex, reviewed yesterday, felt as if he had gotten to the last page of its predecessor, Birth, and had just kept on writing the exact same story while his publisher went about the business of printing and releasing the first 200 pages, leading to a book that was hard to get excited about and difficult to write a compelling review for, Dean Swinford’s Death Metal Epic Book Two: Goat Song Sacrifice is a sequel much more in the style of how we think of them, transporting our hero into an entirely different location and milieu than in book 1, and raising the stakes as far as both his troubles and the level of success that’s in his grasp.
To remind you, the first volume is a clever blend of coming-of-age tale and historical record of the death metal scene of the early 1990s, in which we watch our hapless twentysomething hero Azrael stumble through a series of indignities concerning several metal bands in his south Florida hometown, culminating in a poorly funded and ill-fated tour of northern Europe organized by his fly-by-night record company, the novel ending with him running out of money, getting stuck in Belgium, but having become friends with several local death-metal figures who are internationally known and revered among the tiny niche community of fans around the planet (but for more on the real people and events that Swinford is fictionalizing here, see the 1998 journalism book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind).
That’s essentially where volume 2 picks up, as “Azrael” (now simply going by his birth name of David Fosberg) decides to stick around Belgium for the time being, joining a new band with worshipped icon (and mom-couch-surfing, possibly autistic) Svart, getting ingratiated into “ground zero” of the international death metal community while struggling with women, learning the local language, and wondering when they’ll stop being a band that exists only on paper and actually write their first song.
That’s really the saving grace of these books, is that they’re not just detail-perfect looks back at the ’90s death-metal scene but also sneakily grander tales about arrested-development twentysomethings finally maturing into adults (kicking and screaming the entire way, mind you, but still). And that’s why book 2 here is a worthy sequel to book 1, because Swinford goes to the trouble of showing David actually growing a little bit and learning something from the endless disasters of the previous volume, becoming a wiser and more skeptical musician who is simultaneously traversing the minefields of DSL (Dutch as a Second Language), dating again after a bad breakup, and renting his first-ever EU apartment.
The results are engaging and charming, and inspires you to root strongly for our hero’s success; and that makes the book’s surprise climax all the more gripping, setting us up for a coming book 3 that I’m highly looking forward to. I’ll of course be reviewing that one too when the time arrives; but for now, I strongly recommend getting caught up with these first two quickly readable volumes. Remember, you don’t have to know anything about death metal to enjoy these universal stories about the underground arts and growing up; but if you do, your enjoyment of these well-researched books will be even that much fuller.
Out of 10: 9.3
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Plant Frontal Assault,” and is by Puerto Rican photographer Andre Nunez (Flickr). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Back in January I had a chance to review ST Gulik’s Birth: or The Exquisite Sound of One Hand Falling Off a Turnip Truck, a bizarro novel that I found to contain both all the good things about this genre (a witty, fast-paced narrative, deliberately ridiculous and transgressive in nature) and all the bad (basically, that it feels like a cartoon that’s been written out in story form, and thus contains no stakes since literally anything can happen, making it hard to hold my attention or care about “what happens next”).
Now its sequel is here, Sex: or Busier Than a Three-Legged Cat Trying to Squeeze Blood from the Tip of an Iceberg; and the simultaneous good and bad news is that it’s pretty much exactly page-for-page like the first volume, and in fact feels not really like a standalone book at all, but rather like he wrote both at the same time and simply chopped them in half for the sake of publication. That’s certainly not a bad thing at all, and definitely makes it easy for previous readers to decide whether to take on this new volume as well; but that also leads to me having almost nothing to say about it that I didn’t say last time, which is why you should simply read that previous review to know what I thought of this one too.
Not terrible, not great, this will mostly appeal to those who are already heavy daily readers of bizarro lit, and is not necessarily the book that newbies will want to use to get their feet wet with this fascinating but profoundly uneven genre.
Out of 10: 7.5, or 9.0 for fans of bizarro literature
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “The Heart of Chicago,” and is by Chicago photographer Gary Eckstein (Flickr). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.