Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A thrilling house of games: "Kickback" by Garry Disher

On the off chance that I ever again receive a comment on this blog, I pick up my assessment of Kickback where my initial discussion left off.

The obvious and numerous nods to Richard Stark's Parker novels in the end serve to highlight the differences of temperament between Disher and his protagonist, Wyatt, and Stark/Parker. Like the best Parker books, Kickback is a well-paced and compelling caper story. We see the selection of a target, the debate over method, the acquisition of guns. The crime's planners worry over a safe place to hide out afterward and about their need for seed money to pay for the robbery. The caper is planned, and both it and a preliminary crime step on dangerous toes, with violent complications.

But Disher is more interested in emotion and less in surgical detail than Stark. Wyatt, though impatient with stupidity in others, is more social and susceptible than Parker. For one thing, he lets himself become involved with a woman during the caper's planning, which Parker avowedly would never do. And when he does become involved, the feelings are more than just sexual. There are tenderness and vulnerability in Wyatt's feelings for this novel's femme fatale. There are also touches of humor here, both on the author's part and the protagonist's, where there would be none in a Parker book. A typical Parker novel would never contain an exchange like this:

Hobba jabbed with the gun. `I said shut up.'

`Ivan's got contacts. Anything happens to me, you've had it.'

`Sugar,' Hobba said wearily, `your brother thinks you're a fuckwit.'

The family complications implied in that exchange are another `human' facet bolstering the case that Wyatt is no mere Parker clone. And the killing of an ultimately hapless villain in Kickback has pathos utterly foreign to Parker's world.

I hope I have not offended Australian readers by discussing Wyatt almost exclusively in terms of Parker. We (North) Americans are often accused of cultural arrogance, and sometimes we even deserve the accusations. But I know from Disher's short story "My Brother Jack" that he loves to play literary games. I'd say that at least in this first of his Wyatt novels, he renders tribute to Stark and Parker, playing the high and amusing game of imitating Stark in details while remaining different in the essentials, and trying to write a compelling story at the same time. He succeeds.

Besides, the borrowing may run both ways. In addition to the similarity in titles between the later Parker novels and those of the Wyatt books of a few years earlier, Stark appears to have borrowed a detail or two from Disher. An improvised door alarm from Stark's Ask the Parrot (2006), for example, is virtually identical to one from Kickback (1991).

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Blogger colman said...

Bit of an indirect question as opposed to anything directly linked to "KICKBACK".......Jesus how many books do you read in a week/month/year ?

I can't keep pace, I was trying for 10 a month myself this year but have only read 80 something books so far.......where do you find the time.

About 15 years ago, I had a job where I was "underused" for want of a better description and I got through 200 books in that year, wishful thinking to try for that now,

November 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I probably read about as many books as you do -- around 100 a year, and the pace has slowed since I began blogging about books.

Re the relation of a job and reading, if the investors that bought my newspaper get to do to the company what they want to do, I may have time to surpass easily the 200 or so you read in your big year.

November 16, 2006  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, is that 100 crime books or 100 books?
It really depends on the style and size of the books you could probably read a Leonardo Sciascia in 2 hours, they are quality not quantity. But a Stephen Booth 600 page tome might take 3 or 4 weeks.
I had better get back to reading!

November 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Or a nice, meaty Gibbon 2,750-page set of tomes can take a few months -- quantity and quality in two hefty but convenient Modern Library packages.

That 100 is mostly crime, as I suspect was the case with Colman. I'm a less than indifferent reader of fiction other than crime, I'm afraid. History is my preferred non-crime reading, with a garnish of art and, on those rare occasions when I want to relax my mind, poetry.

The phenomenon of series makes crime fiction a particulary indisious consumer of time. Once I've read one ...

November 16, 2006  
Anonymous Karen C said...


I think comparisons between Disher and whoever (or any authors) is almost inevitable as we all need to position the characteristics of a writer or a novel in our own minds / experience.

It's just as acceptable to compare the Wyatt novels with Night Bus by Giampiero Rigosi (which was an absolute ripper of a caper novel I reviewed a while ago).

Ultimately, if we're out there trying to read outside our own cultural experience, we're always going to use comparison to position those books.

If it makes you feel any better we've always commented on how similar Stark is to our very own Garry Disher :)

November 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

That's a relief. My little gang of Australian readers, usually so enthusiastic and forthcoming with comments, had suddenly gone silent. I was hoping I hadn't offended such a valued group.

Sure, we bring our own experiences, cultural and otherwise, to our reading and to anything else we do. In the Disher/Parker case, though, more than that is going on. One parallel I hadn't mentioned is that Wyatt, like Parker, gets his assignments from a former colleague who calls him with cryptic phone messages. It's obvious from the profusion of coincidental details that Disher read Stark.

But he's not ripping Stark off. He's using similar details to build a story very different in feeling. It's a pretty impressive feat, something I had never seen before, and it only adds to my respect for Disher. More to the point, I liked Kickback a lot, and I'll definitely look for more Wyatt books.

You say Australians have always regarded Stark as similar to Disher. I can well believe it, given the similarities of titles and at least one detail that Stark seems to have borrowed from Disher in his later Parker novels. I'd be interested in some examples of what Australian readers have had to say about Disher and Stark and Wyatt and Parker.

I enjoyed Night Bus. Perhaps I'll make that comparison, too, once I've read more Wyatt.

November 16, 2006  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Peter: Your musings on the Parker/Wyatt resemblances are instructive but for me the central question is this: Why on earth did Disher do it? What could speak more strongly of the 'cultural cringe' that Australians so abhor (Canadians too) than basing your protagonist on an American one?

And let's not say the word homage. It's a euphemism for pinching.

November 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment. I would love to hear from Garry Disher himself on why he did it. Maybe I'll try to get him to weigh in on this.

Sure, he borrowed (OK, pinched) details and the idea of having a tough, thorough, no-nonsense thief as his protagonist. But the key for me is what I've said before: Despite the formal similarities, Kickback has a very different feel from the Parker books, too different for me to accuse him of outright theft or abject imitation. If Disher had tried to duplicate the darker tone of the Parker novels, I'd be the first to belittle him not just for cultural cringing, but for a worse sin: lacking imagination.

Here's another thing to consider: Disher has written widely and prolifically across multiple genres for different audiences and different ages. He's written fiction; he's written non-fiction. It would be easy to imagine the Wyatt books as a lark, a relatively small corner of his literary output that he set aside as a chance to have some fun and write some good books at the same time. Given that my first exposure to Disher was the very funny "My Brother Jack," , I'd say that possibility was at least plausible. If so, I think it would absolve him of the most serious form of cultural cringing. I mean, the man deserves a chance to have some fun, whether with American or other models in mind.

None of this means you're wrong, of course. It just means that I'd need to know more about Disher, about the rest of his output, and about what else was going on in Australian crime fiction at the time before I filed a fiend-of-the-court brief in support of your allegations.

November 16, 2006  
Anonymous Carl said...

How long does your prospect of life have to be for you to have time for a frisk with someone else's character? And bear in mind that, for the gifted Westlake, Parker was just a mildly cynical exercise in testing how amoral you could get away with being in America.

November 20, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

A mildly cynical exercise that has now stretched to twenty-seven novels. And perhaps Disher would agree that Wyatt was just a frisk or a romp. He hasn't published a Wyatt novel since 1997.

November 20, 2006  

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