Saturday, March 4, 2017

SW Reads: Ask The Parrot (a Parker Novel by Richard Stark, 2006)

Ask The Parrot (2006) is the penultimate Parker novel.  Frankly, I'd been dreading hitting this book based on the title alone, which sounded like one of those caper novels that would get turned into a movie with Dennis Farina that was funny, but not *that* funny, and mostly forgettable.

It's a strange, small book, playing well to several of Stark's strengths and his interest in exploring multiple characters and POV's in a single book.  He sticks with the winning formula, maintaining a limited omniscient narrator's voice but using the 3rd section of the book to jump from person to person in the situation, setting up what would happen in the explosive fourth portion of the novel when everything comes together to fall apart.

After the first three Parker novels, Stark didn't make that many direct ties between books in the series.  Characters would reappear, but it was really only between The Handle (1966) and the first Grofeld novel, The Damsel, which picks up within a day or so of the disastrous conclusion of a heist off the Texas coast.  

Ask The Parrot picks up literally within seconds of the end of Nobody Runs Forever.  His heist gone bad, Parker is dodging the cops, disappearing into the woods in the wrong shoes, the wrong outfit when he comes upon a hunter who recognizes him for what he is - one of the bank robbers who heisted that armored truck.  Seeing Parker has no money on him, the hunter, Lindahl, wants Parker to help him rob the racetrack he was fired from almost ten years ago and left him living in squalor.  

With a dragnet over the local area, Parker plays it safe and intends to crash with Lindahl until he can get away, but he thinks the heist might just work and - posing as a friend of Lindahl, he gets roped into a posse-like manhunt for himself.  

Just as Nobody Runs Forever and Firebreak before this book felt like Parker of old, Stark is mostly back to his old form.  He's perhaps more interested in what happens when more pedestrian characters cross paths with his sociopathic crook, the supporting characters much more like Jane and Joe suburbanite than most of the stylized characters from the 1960's hey-day of early Parker, but that has an appeal all it's own.  And it's a testament to Stark's writing that, with a few details, you can so fully imagine each of the characters (all believably deeply imperfect, a hallmark of Stark's characterization).  

The simple fact that Stark works from to spin each caper and its complications into a story isn't overly dramatic - people tend to serve their own interests.  That this tendency plays out in a multitude of ways that trips people up over and over, that people are their own worst enemies and have a nigh-impossible time following a path of logic or reason when threatened or when they see a chance to get their hands on some money is core not just to how the novels work, but why Parker survives.  He's no less self-interested, maybe more so.  Sure, he wants the money, but maybe he isn't a sociopath.  Maybe he's just able to check those impulses.

There is, of course, a parrot in the book.  He's not key to A Plot of the book, but he may be the ur-secondary-character of a Parker novel.  Utterly pure in his perspective (and Stark devotes a chapter to the parrot's POV, which is astonishing/ hilarious/ kind of perfect), the parrot knows only his own world, has no use for what lies beyond his world.  When he does take a chance, well...

No doubt, the book is a page turner, and the chaos I've come to expect from a Parker novel is in effect.  Really, my only issue with this book was a bit of confusion during the final action sequences.  But I dug it.

It's more than a little strange to know that (a) the next book is the final Parker novel, and (b) only so because Richard Stark (aka: Donald Westlake) passed and the mantle was not passed on.  I've been living with these books for years at this point, and I certainly haven't read 20-odd books that weren't comics by anyone.  

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