Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nine Days, One Author, Thirty Four Books, One Character (well... two)

So, for the last nine days, while preparing for and recovering from surgery (my followup is on Wednesday, where they will remove my staples, leaving my new zipper extant only in flesh, with no metal) I have been re-reading the entirety of Robert B. Parkers "Spenser" novels, as well as the 10 Jesse Stone books, and the 21 Travis McGee novels.

As of right now, I'm in the middle of Spenser book 31 ("Bad Business", from  2004); though I actually started by reading the first 3 Jesse Stone books, then switching to Spenser when I realized how fast I was going through them (and would have finished the Jesse Stone books before I even got into surgery).

Yes,  for those who don't know me too well, and think it sounds odd, I've read 34 books in the last 9 days (and four of those days I didn't really read a damn thing I was too laid up).

I'm a speed reader; have been since I was a kid. When I get really cooking and deeply into something I've been known to read over 200 pages in an hour (the fastest I have ever noticed myself reading, was finishing the 368 page Elmore Leonard novel "Rum Punch" in about 75 minutes) , and 120 pages an hour is pretty typical for me.

Frankly that's not that big a deal, they're mostly like 300 page books to begin with (the very first Spenser novel "the godwulf manuscript" ran 208 pages, the rest of them run between 280 and 390 pages); and they're very easy, quick reads. Plus, once you  know an authors style and language, and know the characters and settings really well... You're not actually consciously reading every word anymore, you're sort of absorbing the story and dialogue as you go, and filling in the differences in the descriptions.

Parker published the books, basically one per year, from 1973, until his death in early 2010 (the last two novels Parker wrote in the series were released posthumously in 2010 and 2011); and from the late 80s (1987s "Pale Kings and Princes, the 14th book of the series) I read the entirety of the series contemporaneously (going back and reading the previous 13 all in one burst at my local library one very wet autumn).

At some point later, I was assigned "Early Autumn" as a school book; as were many children in New England (and teachers guides etc... are still available for it... though I doubt a book so politically incorrect would be included in many classrooms today).

I was born in south Boston, and grew up in Boston (and Dorchester, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Mattapan... all part of Boston), the southern suburbs, and New Hampshire. Parker wrote about Boston, and I related to that. He also wrote about... for lack of a better phrase, the manly virtues.

In many ways, I learned about the manly virtues from my grandfather, and from Robert B. Parker (who, were born 13 months apart, both served in Korea, both had somewhat rough early years, and then both educated themselves... even overeducated themselves... and became successful professionals).

My sense of humor is certainly in part a product of that; as is my near constant quoting of literature, song lyrics, trivia etc... relevant to whatever is going on around me.

So, naturally, I don't come at this whole endeavor unbiased...

At any rate...

Parker wrote this character for nearly 40 years, something like 4 MILLION words; and there's an entirely different experience and appreciation of that kind of body of work that you get from reading it all at once, than the experience you would have had reading each book as they came out.

One thing I noticed, which I never had before, is that Spenser really did have a drinking problem in the 70s (and Parker had issues with alcohol his entire life); though no-one would really have thought it so at the time... Men drank. It's what they did.

That reminded me very much of my grandfather. He drank. A hell of a lot. It's what men did at the time.

As the series went on, Spenser drank less (though still far more than would be considered "normal" these days), but the quality of what he drank went up.

One thing that remained relatively constant, was Spensers cultural attitude and general politics. Robert Parker was essentially a 1950s Massachusetts liberal; somewhat socially conservative, but generally tolerant of people if not necessarily accepting of everything about them, slightly leftish, with a melding of blue collar and high brow sensibility... And so was Spenser. By 1973, Parker wasn't particularly pleased with the common culture around him, the coarseness and ridiculousness of it (and only getting coarser), the speed of it, the lack of appreciation for the great things and the little things... and Spenser always reflected that. Parkers politics never really changed, and neither did Spensers.

Also constant, was Spenser rejection of political correctness, and of distorting, rejecting, or devaluing that which was true or real, over that which was politically or emotionally acceptable to someone... This is a constant theme in the series, along with constantly mocking and deflating those who do that sort of thing... or anyone who takes themselves, or their causes, too seriously.

Not all is praise of course.

When I originally read the books, I would always find the character of Susan Silverman somewhat irritating... Now, after 30+ Spenser novels in a week, I can't stand her... at all... I want to skip every part of the books where she is mentioned.

Virginia Heinlein, she is not.

Also... although Parker was still a great writer, and his dialogue and storytelling remained excellent... Basically, he ran out of interesting things to say with Spenser sometime in the early 90s; after which his primary creative efforts went into writing Jesse Stone, and to a lesser extent Sunny Randall.

Frankly... Jesse Stone is the better character. Far more deeply drawn, and far more fully realized than Spenser.

Coming to Jesse at the age of 67 (as opposed to Spenser at the age of 42), Parker had an entirely different base of life experience to write from; and he had the opportunity to define the character better and more deeply, not being limited to the rather rigid mold that Spenser had become.

The last 10 or so Spenser novels... They have some interesting moments, and they are still as well drawn and well characterized as ever... they're just not interesting anymore.

I will of course finish the Spenser series, but at this point I'm more looking forwarding to getting back into the Jesse Stone series (which I actually haven't read all of... I missed a couple in there); and then re-reading Travis McGee (which I haven't done in... ten years maybe? Not since Spider Robinson mentioned Travis in one of the last Callahans novels, "Callahans Key" from 2000)