Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: Death Wish

Have I said yet how much I'm enjoying this little book project? Every day I'm tempted to run down to another used book store and find some new, forgotten gems. It's quite addictive, and I find myself reading quite a few more books than I used to. I normally average a book a month, since I have to find time between work, child and movies. Of course, most books I read are a bit lengthier than the ones I've been reading recently(which average out to under 200 pages each), and, not to be judgemental, they tend to be of higher-brow fare. But there's something enjoyable about these books, this opportunity to read a novel without putting quite so much thought and effort into it. I know that sounds like an insult, but I don't mean it to be. The connecting thread through all the books I've read in this vein so far is the way they couch their social commentary in rip-roaring good stories. Actually, that might be a generality that's undeserved: Gloryhole Murders was neither a rip-roaring story, or full of relevant social commentary. However, with Ballad of Beta-2, and especially today's book, Death Wish, the stories are entertaining, fast paced, and fairly straightforward. There's more there beneath the surface, but it isn't hammered into your head, and it's only there if you want to see it.

The story of Death Wish is pretty well known by now, and it's become something of a cliche for exploitative action films looking for an air of respectability or artiness. Paul Benjamin is a liberal whose wife and daughter are attacked in a home-invasion mugging. His wife dies and his daughter becomes a catatonic mess. Eyes opened to the rampant crime in New York City, Paul buys a gun and begins to stalk to streets at night, looking for criminals, any criminals, to punish. Paul never finds the kids who killed his wife, and in fact the book seems to treat that idea as the height of preposterousness. In a city that large, with that many crimes committed every day, what are the odds he'll run across the exact three who attacked his wife?

The book tells us Paul is/was a liberal, although that's never really supported by the text. Paul lives in a rich neighborhood, and works as an accountant who enjoys finding ways to make sure rich people keep as much of their money as possible. We're told he's a liberal because he does things like avoid using the N word. It's true he seems a bit more compassionate in the beginning of the book than he does by the end, but I might not go so far as to call him a liberal. Still, politics are beside the point, and only worth noting when looking for a selling point; Liberal loses wife, becomes gun-toting vigilante! The real focus of this book is how a rising crime rate, how personal violence, can shatter anyone's world and alter their convictions.

Following the attack, Paul is nearly catatonic himself, puttering around his apartment alone, cut off from his daughter(his son-in-law and his daughter's psychiatrists suggest he limit contact while she recovers), alone for the first time in decades, he is undone as much by the sense of life utterly changing as he his by the love of his deceased wife. The changes in his outlook are subtle at first; he begins noticing kids on the street, imagining them as drug addicts or muggers when often they turn out to be nothing of the sort. His fear turns to outrage at a world where people put up with the concessions they have to make to security; double locks on doors, security cameras, and not walking after dark. Eventually Paul's loneliness gets the better of him, and he heads out to a bar, thinking of meeting a woman, but really just looking for a way out of his apartment. A little drunk, and in a new neighborhood, Paul is accosted by a would-be mugger, a young kid who he scares off with a scream and a wild swing. That night Paul has his first good rest in months, and spends the next day in a haze of almost sexual euphoria.

We know where things go from here. Paul buys a gun and begins trolling the streets, setting traps for criminals and killing them all. He's surprisingly level headed about this, and the book is careful not to paint him as a psychopath, to point out how reasonable and logical he's being in his quest. This isn't vengeance(so he says, but of course we know better), and this isn't an obsession, this is something he feels needs to be done. As the cops catch on that the string of murders has a common thread, the papers pick up the vigilante angle and Paul becomes a shadowy cult hero, and even the people who disagree with him seem to secretly sympathize. And why wouldn't they? The lone hero, riding out to save the innocent townsfolk from the villainous black hats, it's a myth repeated in every culture and every era, and would certainly resonate in a time and place where crime has reached almost epic proportions.

The book was a fun, quick read. Very straightforward, with very concise, direct language. It takes awhile to get some steam, but the book barrels along through the latter half towards a conclusion that, while chilling, is a little spare. I actually checked my copy to make sure no pages were missing. There's a nice little moment there, and it definitely fits as a finale, but the writing style seemed to leave it hanging, like there was a lot more to come. Add to that the MANY loose threads, and it was a bit of a letdown. However, I did discover the sequel book, Death Sentence, which picks up shortly after Death Wish and seems to tie up some of those loose ends. I'm only a short way into it, but I'll be writing about that in more detail when I finish it.

I was surprised at how little moralizing there was in this book, how it never really explained it's political implications or chose a side in the debate over whether or not vigilantism works. That's not to say it's ignorant of those sides, it just leaves the decision up to you, the reader. Obviously the implication is that Paul Benjamin is losing his mind, destroying himself in order to avenge the crimes he sees. And the idea of vigilantism is extreme, and deplorable, but the book never states that outright. Some characters may voice concern, but the tone of the book is very neutral. It's entirely plausible to read this book and come out thinking that a vigilante approach to crime is a great idea. It's that grey area that I enjoy; the idea that the reader should be intelligent enough to make up his own mind. Of course, above that the book is a great, tense read, but it's nice finding the substance beneath the style.

Next week(or whenever I finish the book, so probably a day or two), Death Sentence.

After that, Ray Cummings' 1928, Planet-in-Peril epic Brand New World.

And after that, I'm not sure. I've got a sizable stack of promising sounding sci-fi, but I may take a break for some non-bargain bin reading.

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