22 March 2009

Back Noir

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I love the city of Buffalo. I have a soft spot for it because it's where I spent many summers, with my paternal grandparents, whom I loved. The city has a beauty and charm that, even in its darkest moments, helped keep it alive. (And I say that not just because I have a Buffalo client, but because from Frederick Law Olmsted to Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright to Eliel and Eero Saarinen to a longer list of people and institutions than I can mention here, Buffalo has a lot to offer.)

Therefore, it was with pleasure that I discovered that part of the action in Richard Stark's 1963 novel The Outfit takes place in Buffalo, and that the location Stark gave—798 Delaware Avenue—is, as the story has it, one of the city's glorious old mansions. It turns out that it’s the house right across the street from Temple Beth Zion, my grandparents' synagogue. There’s some kind of serendipity in there.


Much has been written about Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) and his "Parker" series of novels, and with good reason. Forty-six years after The Outfit was written, it still holds up as a tightly constructed and engaging novel of crime and vengeance, with a David and Goliath twist to it.

It was while reading The Outfit, and the earlier Parker story The Man with the Getaway Face, that I started to wonder about the timelessness of certain fiction, and how we, as readers, respond to a story. It strikes me as a challenging intellectual question: is it harder to read not-so-old fiction than very old stories? Are the anachronisms of more than a century ago easier to deal with than the missed technological opportunities of the last couple of decades?

In reading books from the pre-industrial age, the reader can make an easy mental leap to an environment in which characters are just different: bound by conventions of a period that we may or may not understand, but to which we can immediately relate as distant from our reality. On the other hand, reading a story from what we might loosely call the modern age raises a different kind of challenge: can you, the reader, make a very small mental leap backwards?

In these two Parker stories, the anti-hero protagonist maneuvers through a world that is much like ours—cars, electricity, airplanes, beer in a bottle—and yet drastically different. Parker, and his friends, can fly with fake ID with great ease, and even bring a gun on the airplane (given an absence of x-ray scanners at the airport). That’s hard to imagine these days. Conducting a stakeout, Parker has no cell phone with which to contact his friend, and the technology for breaking into the Delaware Avenue mansion is about as basic as possible: some brute force, a gun, and a small flashlight. Perhaps this is less difficult to imagine, given what movies show us about how cell phones and e-mail can be tapped and our general sense of privacy an illusion. But it is also hard to think of the situation as normal, given an absence of security cameras or other of the other electronic devices we take for granted.

In a sense, it becomes one marker of whether a book or a story can withstand the test of time: whether it is written in a way that captures our imaginations and overwhelms our sense of the present reality. Stark's “Parker” novels do just that. The author might never have imagined, back in 1963, that years later I could use my computer to zero in on the Delaware Avenue address he put in his book; perhaps he took it on faith that any reader would assume the detail to be true, and any Buffalo native would have easy confirmation if desired. But the fact that I can Google, and the fact that it exists, does not diminish the story one bit.

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