Thursday, May 22, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday

... in which I pick up Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

I've done this sort of thing on the blog before, with "One Book and Beyond," an extension of The Rap Sheet's One Book Project from last year. I've previously written about Leonard Gardner's FAT CITY, Jonathan Valin's EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES, Lawrence Block's THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD and Anthony Lee's MARTIN QUINN.

This time, though, I want to go back even farther, to 1967's THE RARE COIN SCORE, Donald E. Westlake's ninth "Richard Stark" novel about a hardcore professional thief named Parker. Parker needs no introduction, but unfortunately THE RARE COIN SCORE has been effectively out of print since the 1985 Avon paperback edition. That's too bad, because in my mind it's the quintessential Parker novel, the uberStark.

It was first published as a paperback original (cover above) by Fawcett Gold Medal, under the editorship of the legendary Knox Burger, and adorned with a classic Robert McGinnis cover. Despite its almost generic title (when the series moved from Pocket Books to Fawcett, the first four books used the word "Score" in their titles), RARE COIN SCORE is a landmark book in the series. It was a revamped Parker with a new publisher and a major new character, Claire, who would become Parker's regular woman for the rest of the series (she figures prominently in the latest, this year's DIRTY MONEY).

SCORE also has maybe the greatest opening line in Starkdom:

Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.

The second sentence is just as good:

He took a room in a downtown motel and connected with a girl folk singer the first night, but all she did was complain how her manager was lousing up her career, so three days later he ditched her and took up with a Bourbon Street stripper instead.

(The previous eight Parker books had all begun with the word "When," a device that returned in 1997's COMEBACK and continues to this day.)

Revolving around the robbery of the bourse room at a coin show in Indianapolis, SCORE is Parker at his leanest and meanest, both in terms of character and prose (the original Gold Medal edition runs only 160 pages). It also contains scenes in which the writing is so simple and direct - yet evocative - that they've stuck with me ever since I first read them. Here's one, the beginning of Part One, Chapter Eight:

"I must be a masochist," Claire said. She was sitting up in the bed, knees up, arms wrapped around her legs.

Parker, lying beside her, said "I hadn't noticed."

She gave him a quick smile, then looked away again, saying, "I'm always attracted to men who are about to get killed."

"Not always," said Parker. "Light me a cigarette."

"What, not you? You're the worst of them all." She took the cigarette and matches from the night table, lit two cigarettes and gave him one. "The first boy I ever - ever went around with, drove in stock car races every weekend. His left leg was all scars from an accident."

Parker said, "Ashtray."

This is also the only Stark novel I remember in which Parker shoots a relative innocent, gunning down a Pinkerton guard who draws on him during the course of the robbery. And in her first appearance, Claire is more the classic noir femme fatale, stringing along an amateur named Billy Lebatard until he gets the job in motion, then switching her allegiance to Parker, setting off a triangle that almost sours the whole plan. Think Marie Windsor in Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING.

THE RARE COIN SCORE is existential crime fiction at its best. It's also a master class in terse, effective writing. The fact that it - and so many of the other Stark novels - remains out of print is a crime.

(For my thoughts on Brian Helgeland's restored Parker adaptation PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, see here. .)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"On the Outs"

As any honest media person will tell you, one of the great perks of being in the business is free stuff. Lots of it. Books, CDs, DVDs and more pour in unsolicited, their makers hoping to get even the slightest mention of their work in print or on air, anything to help it stand out from the thousands of other releases out there.

The down side? Lots of free stuff. More than one person could ever conceivably read or watch or listen to. It piles up in the mail like some great always-growing beast. The sheer volume of material keeps you from getting to most of it. You put things aside for further consideration and sometimes you get back to them. More often than not, you don't.

In 2006, Warner Home Video sent me a DVD of the independent film ON THE OUTS, which had gotten a brief theatrical release the previous year. I was intrigued enough by the box copy and review blurbs to add it to the To Be Watched pile. There it languished, constantly superseded by newer releases, until last week.

My loss. ON THE OUTS is an absolutely stunning first feature by co-directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnick. Filmed on location in Jersey City, N.J., it follows the intersecting stories of three troubled teenage girls. At 15, Suzette (Anny Mariano) has been sheltered from the streets by her hardworking mother - until she falls under the spell of a charming 25-year-old thug. Marisol (co-creator Paola Mendoza) is a 17-year-old single mom trying to raise her two-year-old daughter and battling a drug addiction. And Oz (Judy Marte, above, left, in an extraordinary performance) is a teenage crack dealer, struggling to care for her mentally retarded brother and hold her own fragile family together.

Silverbush and Skolnick based their film on real cases and people they encountered while taking part in a three-month workshop at the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus, N.J. And it shows. Nearly every second of ON THE OUTS crackles with authenticity. It carries the same charge as Martin Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, but without that film's bravura theatricality. For much of its length, ON THE OUTS feels like a documentary, an intimate look into the lives of everyday people struggling to survive, but gradually being pulled down by the environment around them.

Not that there isn't hope to be found here. At the end of their respective storylines, all three girls encounter traumatic events that make them reassess their lives. Will they escape from the cycles that have so limited them? ON THE OUTS leaves that question unanswered. But you'll be thinking about those girls - and this film - for a long time to come.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Slight return

Apologies for the lack of posts - and to anyone who e-mailed me in the last three weeks - but an unexpected illness sidelined me for awhile. Should be back to normal posting by next week.

In the interim, congrats to Megan Abbott, the winner of this year's Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for her great retro-noir QUEENPIN. I missed the ceremony, unfortunately, but was happy to see her well-deserved win.

And finally, after seven weeks and many incorrect responses, we have a winner of sorts for the fifth trivia question. See the update here.