Monday, January 3, 2011

My Reactions to the Death Wish Novel

Over the holidays, I found, bought, and read a copy of Brian Garfield's 1972 novel "Death Wish". This is the novel that was adapted into the 1974 film of the same name starring Charles Bronson, which then went on to have four sequels, most of which depart from the somewhat believable reality of "a gentle man pushed to the edge decides to seek revenge on a cruel world" and by the last couple of movies, Bronson's character Paul Kersey rivals any other 80's - 90's over-the-top action hero for his gratuitous violence.

Truth be told, I've only seen Death Wish I and II, and only small snippets of the other movies, but I know Death Wish 4: Crackdown ends with a climax involving Kersey killing a bad guy in an apartment building by blowing him to bits, literally, with a LAWS anti-tank rocket. This has definitely moved well beyond the realm of a roll of quarters in a sock and a small caliber revolver. Regardless, this post isn't about the films, but the book that inspired them - Brian Garfield's dark and twisted little 1972 crime thriller.

The plot of the book is pretty close to the plot of the film. Paul Benjamin (the name is different) is a middle-aged accountant (not architect) who's always lived in NYC. An avowed liberal, Benjamin contributes to a number of charities and social welfare / benefit organizations. He's the sort of mild-mannered "bleeding heart" who feels that it's the fault of "the system" that so many people fall on hard times and find themselves in positions where they commit crimes for a variety of "sob story" reasons. He knows there's crime in the streets, but he also feels that a lot of it is hyped up by a sensationalist media, and that a variety of social programs, re-education, and "understanding" could make it better.

Needless to say, when his wife and daughter are victims of a brutal home invasion, his wife having her neck "wrung like a chicken" and his daughter suffering such psychological trauma that she enters a catatonic state and needs to be committed, that liberal bleeding heart attitude begins to lose the majority vote, so to speak. Growing more and more frustrated with a justice system that can't find the guilty parties, health care system that can't do anything to help his doctor, and friends and family who are confused, angered, and ultimately moved on past his tragedy.

Finally, feeling like he has come to the breaking point, Paul decides to pick up a roll of quarters at the bank and drops it into a sock, making himself an ad hoc blackjack or kosh of sorts. He goes out and gets himself mildly drunk, and walking home late that night a young scared kid tries to pull a knife on him and rob him. Paul whirls around and swings his kosh at the kid while bellowing an inarticulate cry of anger and frustration. The young punk runs away terrified, and although the incident causes him a great deal of stress at first, the next day Paul realizes that he feels better than he has in weeks, "...that he was experiencing all the symptoms of a sexual release".

While on a trip to the southwest, Paul finds a sporting goods shop and purchases a snub-nosed .32 caliber Smith and Wesson 5-shot revolver, along with several boxes of ammunition. He spends the afternoon that the shop's shooting range and gets comfortable with the pistol, and then takes his chances and smuggles the pistol home on the plane. Back in NYC, Paul eventually works up the courage/gumption to go looking for trouble, and eventually winds up killing a junkie who tries to rob him at knife-point.

After the initial "what have I just done" wears off, long story short, Paul Benjamin begins to hunt down criminals on the streets of New York City. He realizes he made some elementary mistakes his first time around, and learns from them (such as buying a reversible coat, hat and gloves that can be taken off and put in pockets, etc.). He makes sure to vary his hunting patterns some, and when the newspapers begin to catch on that there's a vigilante killer on the loose, he starts to be wary and avoid anything that might resemble a police trap set up to catch him on the prowl.

One thing that Garfield spends an almost inordinate amount of time focusing on is the public reaction to the killings, to the idea of a vigilante killer on the streets. Almost the entirety of the books third-to-last chapter is a multi-page article in a local newspaper covering a psychological profile of the killer. The psychologist interviewed gives an almost spot-on description of Paul; a middle aged, white collar, semi-affluent social liberal who has suffered a terrible personal tragedy at the hands of a random criminal element, and not having seen justice done, decides to strike out at that random criminal element in his own way. The psychologist qualifies that while the killer's behavior is utterly reprehensible, he doesn't consider the man deranged or insane, but simply pushed past the breaking point, where all bonds of societal inhibition have come undone.

Before this article, of course, there is much discussion in the papers, on the radio, on the television, about whether the killings are a good idea or a bad idea, whether it's one lone man or a group, if it's some Vietnam vet coming home broken in the head (it is 1972 after all). Paul's biggest concern is the police; there is constant debate in the public forum about whether or not the police tacitly approve of what the vigilante is doing, and how they are going to approach it. The police's public statement is of course that "every effort is being made" to catch the vigilante, but off the record, some police think it's "the only way to clean up the streets".

I will leave the end of the book a mystery to anyone who hasn't read it so as to avoid any gratuitous spoilers. I was a little surprised at the ending, and at first, disappointed. After a while, though, I've warmed up to it and think it ends on the right note, or at least, A right note. Definitely a more thought-provoking ending than I was expecting, and quite different from the ending of the film.

In conclusion, I think that this book is one of the best treatments of the vigilante I've seen or read in a long time. There is nothing at all macho or heroic about the character. In fact, while reading the book, I wasn't even picturing Charles Bronson in my mind's eye, but someone far weaker, gawkier, potbellied; an out of shape middle-aged desk drone who's never had to do any more exercise than lift his briefcase or a bag of groceries. Because, these are the sort of people who fantasize about striking back at the world; not the ex-special forces commandos, not the retired CIA agents, not the peace-loving black belts. Rather, it's the accountants, the computer programmers, the mild-mannered English teachers. This, more than any other aspect of the book, is what makes Death Wish so good; seeing a mild-mannered white collar liberal (and please note, I don't have any particular loathing for this demographic) tumble down the rabbit hole of fear and anger and emerge from the other side a very cold-blooded vigilante killer.

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