Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert B. Parker Is Dead, Alas

Robert B. Parker died today, in Cambridge, at his writing desk. I turned on my cell after an afternoon class and found that every male member of my family had left a message with the news.

Parker wrote 65 novels in his career, and for the last fifteen years or so I've bought every new book he published as gifts for my father. Parker was even more prolific in his seventies than he was in his middle years, picking the pace up to three and even four novels a year. (Christmas, Father's Day, Dad's birthday, check.) And I read it all myself, usually on family visits. I'd pick up whichever novel I'd given Dad most recently and polish it off within a day or so. Nearly everything Parker wrote could be read within perhaps six or eight total hours of reading time, which testifies both to their lightness and to Parker's craft. I never left one unfinished.

Now the obituaries have the delicate task of praising a talented and prolific genre writer, a good writer who was and wished to be merely good, without any faint whiff of damnation. Parker will be praised out loud, I'm afraid, but his limits left audibly unspoken. To hell with that: the man had his limits, and kept cannily within them, and since he chose those limitations there is no shame in them. No one writing three novels a year is attempting to do Finnegan's Wake. Yes, Parker was more derivative than original, working inside a genre rather than inventing one, and he was too prolific to maintain the same quality over the dozens of novels. But if he chose to imitate Raymond Chandler instead of making something new, Parker was close to the best imitator that Chandler ever had, and the early Spenser books (even Spenser's name) are open homages to Philip Marlowe. Lots of writers have been ripping off Chandler for years, but none of them saw Chandler with the kind of detail and nuance that Parker did.

And if the Spenser books fell off in quality after a decade or two, there was something deeply cheering about Parker's resurgence over the last ten years, as new characters (especially Jesse Stone) brought back his enthusiasm for the work. That new life showed in everything he did. To see him obviously invigorated in his late sixties, working harder and more vibrantly than he had for ten years, was good for my heart. Parker, above all else, played within himself, doing the things he did superbly and not stretching beyond his natural range. He was the Dominic DiMaggio of mystery writers, an All-Star who was never destined for the Hall of Fame, but who was enormously valuable day after day.

But the truth is that I feel sad today for reasons that aren't literary at all, or reasons that aren't "literary" in the way I typically use that word in my writing and teaching. Parker's books were part of my family life. Reading those novels, on overcast summer days, was part of the experience of growing up in New England, as much as baseball on radio, clam chowder, Dunkin' Donuts, or road trips to Maine. When I was seventeen I ran five miles a day, in part because Spenser did. (I didn't start running in order to emulate the character, but once I had built up to the same daily mileage that a fictional tough guy clocked, that struck me as a reasonable guideline.) And reading Parker, picking up the Spenser or Stone or Randall novel that had come out since my last visit, eventually became part of my experience of return. There are better novelists who will never mean as much to me. And Parker's fictions became threaded through Boston's experience of itself, part of the same imaginative civic tapestry that greater writers than Parker shared in making and thatvbetter writers than Parker have never been able to touch. He became part of what Boston is in its own eyes, and that's an achievement few have managed.

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

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