Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Their strength is as the strength of ten

Sometimes I think I read Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone novels just to annoy myself and give myself something to grouse about here.

I groused about Trouble in Paradise. And I groused about Stone Cold.

After Stone Cold I told myself that was it, no more. But commenter Scott Klebe convinced me to give Stone another chance. Scott's point was that while the plots of the Stone novels are implausible, Stone himself was a more realistic character than Parker's other and more famous detective hero, Spenser.

Scott's right. Spenser isn't human. He's superhuman.

But it's more than his physical invulnerability that makes him so. It's his moral invincibility.

Spenser has no flaws, no vices, no weaknesses.

His strength, as Spenser himself likes to say, as if he's joking, is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure.

Spenser's no Galahad, but he is a knight in shining armor, worthy of sitting at the Round Table, somehow transported through time to our era.

A lot of readers find him and his books annoying because of this. If I were to interview Parker, and with luck someday I might, I'd ask him if this criticsim of Spenser, coming either from without or from within---he himself might get tired of writing about a hero so virtuous that his only character flaw is a habit of making bad jokes at the wrong moment---led him to create.

Stone is flawed.

Over the last generation or so a new tradition has grown up among writers of mysteries and thrillers----the flawed detective-hero, angst-ridden, conscience-striken, ghost-haunted, introspective and moody, scarred by the horrors, evil, and tragedy that they have witnessed and taken part in, prone to self-destructive behavior in their spare time, either actively in the form of making stupid personal decisions or passively in the form of addictions to booze or self-doubt or self-pity. They are disconnected from friends and family, alienated from any community they nominally belong to, withdrawn, lonely, sad.

Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch is the exemplar. I think of P.D. James' wistful, brooding, poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh as the prototype, but you could make the case that Chandler's Philip Marlowe was the first. Marlowe carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was burdened by some guilt or sadness or both, perhaps connected, that he never explained, but which often made him more melancholy and cynical than the victims of the crimes he was investigating. Whatever he saw while on a case didn't make him sad or sick, it just confirmed him in his sadness and malaise.

The new breed of detective novels just make explicit and a part of their plots what Chandler used to give Marlowe his tone of voice.

So along comes Jesse Stone, recovering alcoholic, who drank himself out his job with the LAPD and out of his marriage with the beautiful, vivacious, adoring, but flighty Jen. Stone now clings to the end of his tether in Paradise, Massachusetts, with a bottle of Bushmills in his bottom drawer calling to him all the time and Jen breezing in and out of his life, twisting him up into emotional knots.

Stone is definitely flawed.

Except that he's not.

He has weaknesses. He makes mistakes. He gives into temptations he wants to resist. He does "bad" things.

He has "flaws" but he is not flawed because he has no vices. In that way he is as pure of heart as Spenser.

I'm nearing the end of the newest Stone novel, Sea Change, and while Jesse has been as maddeningly "flawed" as he was in Stone Cold, Parker does the same thing he did in that one---he excuses all of Stone's bad behavior on the grounds that Stone is "a good man."

We know he's a good man because all the good female characters are at pains to tell him so.

Some of the bad female characters tell him so too.

And they're right. He is good, and all his flaws are excusable.

Stone has flaws but like almost all heroes in contemporary popular entertainment he has no vices.

Stone and those other heroes can make mistakes. They can goof up. They can cause trouble for the people they want to help accidentally. They can give in, for a time, to certain weaknesses, usually self-doubt or anger.

But they can't sin.

They are allowed to feel as though they have sinned. But when they do other characters will quickly assure them that they really did the right thing or had no other choice but to do the wrong thing in order to get the right result.

But they can't actually sin.

I said Spenser was like a knight of the Round Table. Actually, he's like only a few of them. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors, the three who got to see the Grail.

None of the other knights are allowed near the Grail---although Launcelot is granted a vision of it---because they all have sinned.

They are all sinners. They have vices. Gawaine is vain and boastful, too quick to anger, and not always as chivalrous as he manages to be with the wife of the Green Knight. Kay is eaten up with envy and spite. Launcelot...

Launcelot brings about the destruction of Camelot because he can't put aside his feelings for his best friend's wife.

It’s worth noting that in many of the tales Percivale is portrayed as something of a holy fool and Galahad is assumed into heaven---he dies---when he is 17, that is not yet a man. He’s still a boy. A child.

It’s as if the lesson of his tale is that the purity of heart that is required of us to get into heaven is only possible for children. To grow up is to grow corrupt.

But that’s the point. The stories of the Knights of the Round Table, at least as they are finally tied together and summed up in Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, are cautionary tales.

They warn us that even the most heroic among us, those of the greatest virtue are equally capable of vice. To be human is to be weak.

The Greeks knew this too. The heroes of the Iliad are all shown at their worst. Achilles is vain, sullen, selfish, disloyal. Odysseus is conniving, duplicitous, bloody-minded. Hector is vacillating. It’s been a long war and they are all worn down and at the ends of their tethers.

It’s the old lesson: Heroes are flawed and their flaws are their undoing.

All stories of heroes are---used to be---inherently tragic.

I can’t pinpoint when that view of heroes changed or explain why it did. But it was still alive enough in the 19th Century when Robert Louis Stevenson came up with Alan Breck Stuart, the swashbuckling hero of Kidnapped and David Balfour.

Alan Breck is vain, boastful, reckless, selfish, and even on occasion cowardly. He has an instinct for self-preservation that coupled with his reflexive urge to throw himself headlong into a fight makes him a very problematic travelling companion. He gets David into as much trouble as he gets him out of.

David is the much more virtuous character. He is level-headed, reliable, self-aware and self-critical. He is brave and he is resourceful and he can be heroic. But he is not a hero or the hero of his own books.

It’s as if Stevenson is trying to tell us through David that being good is not just not the same as being heroic, but that it is actually antithetical to it. That there’s very little that separates a hero from a villain would definitely seem to be one of Stevenson’s theme if you read Kidnapped back to back with The Master of Ballantrae.

There is a separation. Stevenson isn’t making the anti-heroic point of early 1970s cop movies. You can tell Stevenson’s good guys from his bad guys, even if like Long John Silver, the bad guy can be charming and likeable.

I’m taking too long to say what I set out to say. I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.

There’s a moral lesson to be drawn from this, but there’s probably a political lesson as well.

I doubt it’s been all that good for us as a nation to have spent a hundred years telling ourselves stories in which the hero has no vices and the apparent bad that he does, all his flaws, are really signs of his superior virtue.


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