Cognitive dissonance. College-level psychology may teach the technical details of the term, but experience usually schools us all in a far more primal understanding of it early on. We learn quickly that cognitive dissonance is best friends with perplexity, confusion and denial. It wrinkles the brow, raises your blood pressure and knots the muscles in your neck. It likes to show up when you realize that, yes, you just intentionally cut off that person in rush-hour traffic and, no, your recently completed story doesn't seem to be drawing the accolades you believe it so richly deserves and, huh, maybe buying into the financial sector a couple months back wasn't the bright idea your stockbroker made it out to be. Cognitive dissonance can tie you in mental knots, wake you up before the roosters and put the most absurd rationalizations in your mouth. The peculiar mental state that arises when holding on to conflicting suppositions is something I'm becoming familiar with after reading Richard Stark's dark-as-night noir The Hunter.
Parker should have died after the heist. His accomplice in thievery, Mal Resnick, had forced Parker's wife to empty a revolver into him and then had set fire to the building as he lay bleeding. But Parker struggled out of flames only to be caught by the cops and sent straight to the pen. There he nursed his broken body and wounded pride, waiting, formulating a plan. He wanted Mal, wanted his neck in his hands, wanted to twist and squeeze until the life fled. Then one day opportunity gave him an opening. A guard got sloppy and then got dead, and Parker got out of jail early. Now he's out to indulge in revenge, the oldest of vices. The hunt is on.
Let me say it straight: I like The Hunter. I like Stark's striking, unadorned style. (In case you didn't know, Richard Stark is the pseudonym of the prolific and ever-entertaining crime writer Donald Westlake.) I like the plot's inexorable progression, how Parker homes in on Mal like iron to a magnet. What I don't like is Parker himself. We're told that stories need at least a mildly sympathetic protagonist to succeed, right? But there isn't a single amiable thing about Parker. He lies, steals, bullies, extorts, betrays and murders. He abuses women and kills men, often with his bare hands. He is not, as an old Lit prof used to say, the kind of person you'd want for a roommate. Trent at The Violent World of Parker calls him "a ruthless thug" who "doesn't care about a living soul other than himself. Some of the things he does will be repellent (I hope) to readers."
Sounds like a good reason to stay away, doesn't it? But hordes of fans haven't since Parker first appeared in print in 1962. Certainly excellent of craft, Stark's ability to seize the imagination with a handful of choice words, provided a draw. It did for me. It also helps that the novel largely avoids salacious detail, a fact that authors who work in the gritty genre hinterlands ought to note. But it's more than that. For myself, The Hunter reminds me that while humanity may be crowned with glory and honor, goodness isn't our natural state. We're closer to Parker inside than any of us care to admit.
(Picture: CC 2009 by jcoterhals; Hat Tip: Detectives Beyond Borders)