Thursday, October 31, 2013

Starktober Lagniappe: Jimmy the Kid

Starktober has been dark and serious all month, but Halloween is a day for mischief and hijinks and things that aren't real -- and so we turn today to the Parker novel Child Heist, which is only slightly handicapped by not existing.

Donald Westlake was Richard Stark some of the time, but, as the 1960s turned into the '70s, he was Stark less and less each year as his funny caper novels under his own name -- particularly the new series featuring hapless robber Dortmunder, a sad-sack Bizarro-world version of Parker -- gained Westlake greater fame and money and attention as himself. In 1974, the last Parker novel for nearly a quart-century would be published. And so would Jimmy the Kid, the novel in which Dortmunder and his gang try to use the not-otherwise-existing Stark novel Child Heist as a blueprint for their own job.

Jimmy the Kid includes samples of Child Heist -- entire chapters, in some places -- but Child Heist is not quite pure Parker. The laconic tone is there, but the descriptions are slightly more florid and detailed than a real Stark novel would have allowed, and the style is subtly off, twisted just a bit to function closer to a parody of Stark than a true representation. The crime itself also is unbelievable as a Parker job: sure, he was always good at people, but who would think that he'd pull a kidnapping, especially of as unpredictable a thing as a child? Add the fact that apparently the target was chosen from surveillance rather than a finger, and you have a job that's utterly unlike Parker: sure, all of his jobs have problems, but this job has all of the wrong problems.

But that's just fine, because Jimmy the Kid has all of the right Dortmunder problems. Dortmunder is also a guy who organizes robberies, though he operates on a smaller scale than Parker: a cheap walkup in New York rather than resort hotels, a girlfriend who works in a grocery store rather than a succession of brittle disposable dames, burglaries rather than heists. He's also vastly less likely than Parker to carry a gun, let alone use it -- and that's good, because if Dortmunder did try to fire a gun, he'd probably shoot himself in the foot. Dortmunder keeps trying to tackle big jobs -- before this novel, he made an attempt on a fabulously valuable gem and hijacked an entire bank -- but they never quite work out. If Parker always gets out on the other side of a crime, and usually manages to get at least some money out of the deal, Dortmunder always gets left behind, safe from the cops but with the money traveling at high speed in some other direction.

Dortmunder, also very unlike Parker, works with the same group of people on his big jobs -- though he spends the first quarter of this book blaming Andy Kelp, the most animated and optimistic of the bunch, for his bad luck. (Which is understandable, but untrue: Dortmunder is and must be the source of all of his own luck; he's one of nature's own magnets for misfortune.) Jimmy the Kid is early enough in the series that they haven't all appeared yet, but there's still Kelp, the phlegmatic driver (and unstoppable describer of his driving routes) Murch, and the even grumpier Murch's Mom.

So Kelp, the sunny Grofield to Dortmunder's saturnine Parker, read Child Heist while briefly in jail upstate -- another way the Dortmunder books are unlike the Parker books is the treatment of prison and police as an inconvenience and a bother rather than as a danger and a threat -- and immediately decided that Stark's stripped-down, factual, no-nonsense style made that book the perfect blueprint for a real heist. Eventually, he convinced the others, and they started to follow the plot of Child Heist to identify, snatch, and ransom their own rich New Jersey kid.

Of course it doesn't work out the way they expected, or the way it is in the book. (Though Child Heist must be a snoozer of a Parker novel, since it seems to focus on a hugely atypical job for Parker, in which everything went right.) The boy they pick to kidnap, just for one, is entirely unlike what the book prepared them for.

Jimmy the Kid is one of the earlier, shorter Dortmunder books, when Westlake was just beginning to stretch out and see how funny he could be. Jimmy is plenty funny, certainly, but Westlake could do even better than this, in books like the sublime Drowned Hopes, a masterpiece of frustration and failure. But Jimmy is the best example of how Dortmunder differs from Parker, an object lesson in how a great writer can take the same material and turn it into either drama or farce. And so it's the most interesting Dortmunder book for Stark fans, the one that can lead from the darkness of Parker to the sunniness of Brothers Keepers and Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.

(Of course, even during the great Stark drought, Westlake wrote dark books like Kahawa and the masterpiece The Ax. But that's a different story yet again.)

Starktober Introduction and Index

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