Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Revisiting Brian Garfield's DEATH WISH

More than seven years ago, while I was writing KILLER INSTINCTS, I read Brian Garfield's 1972 crime novel DEATH WISH for the first time. I'd seen the Charles Bronson film a couple of times before, but I wanted to read the novel because I'd been told it was significantly different from the film adaptation, and indeed, that is the case. Now, with a remake coming out this weekend starring Bruce Willis (no comment...), I've gone back and read the original novel again.

So I don't repeat myself, you can go here and read my original review of the novel.

Reading the novel now, I am struck by how, forty-six years after it was first released, the conversations that take place about crime and punishment, liberal and conservative politics, the role of the judicial system in criminal reform, the right of the individual to defend themselves versus the role of law enforcement to protect the public - basically every conversation we're having now, in 2018, they were having in 1972.

In fact, although it is closing in on being a half-century old, the novel is an incredible fictional exploration of walking through the transformation of a pacifistic, liberal, "bleeding heart", into a bloody-minded vigilante with a compulsion to stalk the streets, looking for just about any excuse to kill. Paul Benjamin is certainly the sort of guy who, if he was living in 2018, would be donating to GoFundMe campaigns for spree shooting victims, and changing his Facebook profile photo to "stand with" victims of the latest public tragedy. He would certainly vote for gun control, and insist that it is the role of law enforcement to deal with crime, not the private citizen, and he believes, to a degree, that a lot of violent crime in NYC is hyped up, that it is exaggerated by the media and by the conservatives demanding tougher laws - that it is, essentially, "fake news".

But of course, when the violence happens to him, Paul discovers that the system fails him at almost every turn. The police can't find the attackers, have essentially no leads at all, and it is immediately clear that Paul's personal nightmare is just one more file folder in a large stack sitting on the desk of a tired and over-worked police detective. Paul is overcome with helplessness and rage, incredulous at the notion that he's now just another statistic, that his friends and co-workers express just enough shock and sadness to fulfill their social obligation to him, but no more, because his tragedy makes them just too uncomfortable. Those scenes are almost textbook examples of "compassion fatigue", and when viewed from Paul's perspective, you can see how it just makes him even more angry at the situation he's in, and society's inability to, quite simply, do something about crime.

Of course, even more important in his transformation into a vigilante is Paul's all-consuming fear. He is nearly paralyzed by fear every time he leaves his apartment. A perfectly normal stroll down the street to get a newspaper turns into a terrifying experience - every rowdy youth or minority Paul passes by is a potential assailant, ready to turn and attack him at a moment's notice. At one point, Paul crosses the street and discovers himself a few steps from a black man just casually leaning against the side of a building, just chilling out, and Paul becomes a sweating, petrified mess expecting an attack. Only after running in fear from the man, who he later realizes was probably just minding his own business and laughing at the scared white guy, does Paul realize how deep the terror has taken hold of him.

Paul eventually arms himself with a roll of quarters in a sock for self-defense, and when he scares off a youth making a half-assed attempt at robbing him, the sense of power at being able to defend himself is almost a narcotic. Paul winds up buying a gun while on a business trip to Arizona (where all the locals tell him they can roam the streets safely at night because everyone has a gun), and he starts carrying it once back in NYC. Of course, with the gun in his pocket, Paul isn't unafraid - far from it. He is terrified of someone bumping against him and finding the gun. He's terrified of dropping the gun, or being stopped by a cop and having the gun discovered. He carries a wad of cash with the gun that he hops he can bribe the cop with if the gun is ever found, since he doesn't have a permit for it.

In fact, Paul only leaves his fear behind once he starts killing. The first murder is, ostensibly, self-defense, although he does begin wandering the streets and going into areas where he knows there is a high chance he might get mugged. His intentions the first time around aren't necessarily to kill a mugger, but a combination of determination to not let the criminals dictate where he can and cannot go, and a sort of symbolic "whistling past the graveyard". But, after the first shooting, and after he recovers from the initial emotional and psychological shock of shooting and killing another person, he loses his fear, and begins to actively "stalk" and go after criminals.

All in all, Paul kills eight people over the course of the book, and really, the action doesn't even take up eight pages. One of the victims is killed in only a couple of short sentences. All of the violence takes place in the second half of the book, most of it in the last third, really. And, once you reach the end of the novel, it is clear that the book is in no way about the shootings, but rather, Paul's vigilantism is used as the lens through which the author is addressing crime in the modern society. I can't say for sure if an answer to the problem is ever really reached, because while in the novel the police admit that crime is down, the reader can tell that Paul is not really in a mentally stable condition - his drive to punish criminals compels him to go out night after night, and he becomes a sort of junkie seeking a fix, so to speak.

After the success of the novel - and its adaptation into a film that addresses the problematic nature of Paul's vengeance to a much lesser degree than the novel - Brian Garfield wrote DEATH SENTENCE as, according to him, "penance" for the first book and the film, which he didn't really like. I will address the second novel in another post, but it does go a long way towards mitigating the direction that Death Wish seems to be driving us at the story's end.


Charles Gramlich said...

I remember being surprised when I read the book that very little actual action takes place until late in the work.

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