50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.

Friday links! Go Patriots edition

Patriots superfan Victor Thompson of Florida—photo by St. Petersburg PD

I think I speak for all of us when I say, what time is the Super Bowl? Super Bowl broadcast time and how to watch is one of the foremost questions of the day in that famous country we all know and love, America. In fact, the only thing I like thinking more than what channel is the Super Bowl on? is how I can be more patriotic? The United States needs patriots now more than ever. If we’re going to make America great again, we need to rekindle the revolutionary spirit that once burned in every heart from Boston to Atlanta. Hawks falcons need to come together to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Today is Friday, and patriotism is on the march. Won’t you line up and salute with me?

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N. Korea announces “gust of hatred and rage” over James Franco movie

Kim Jong Un visits the dolphinarium at the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground. Nothing in this caption is made up.

Kim Jong Un visits the dolphinarium at the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground. Seriously.

The good news, if you are an asshole, is that James Franco and Seth Rogen are making another high-concept buddy movie. The bad news, if you are an even bigger asshole, is that the comic premise is Kim Jong Un. In The Interview, Franco and Rogen play journalists whom the CIA recruits to assassinate the North Korean dictator. Normally Kim has a great sense of humor about himself, but this time Hollywood has pushed it too far. According to a spokesman for North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

If the United States administration tacitly approves or supports the release of this film, we will take a decisive and merciless countermeasure…[The film] is the most blatant act of terrorism and an act of war that we will never tolerate.

Somewhere in the State Department, a whole office is dedicated to interacting with these people.

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See the film that turned the whole world stupid

By now have you heard about the wave of asshole behavior sparked by The Innocence of Muslims, a fourteen-minute quote-unquote trailer for a movie that probably does not exist but nonetheless insults the one true religion. In Egypt, Libya and now Yemen—so all the best countries, really—the film sparked violent protests and attacks on US consulates. In the back seat of his solid gold train, it revealed a glitch in Mitt Romney’s programming that causes him to ignore the arrow of time. Then everyone went nuts, including a suspiciously large number of anonymous Republicans. Amid all this meshugas, though, the American press has forgotten to ask the one question that’s really important about The Innocence of Muslims: is it any good?

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“Atlas Shrugged” is awful/amazing depending on whether you are a jerk


The first exchange of dialogue in the trailer for Atlas Shrugged pretty much captures the problem with Ayn Rand. When the answer to “Who’s asking?” is “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy,” we know that we are in for a particular sort of artistic production. Ayn Rand was an ideological writer with powerful theories about human beings, a species she knew primarily from rumor. The problem of making any of her epic novels of ideas into a movie—Atlas Shrugged is too long, The Fountainhead is too rapey, the other ones are too no one knows what they are—has been an acknowledged fact of Hollywood for decades. Producer John Aglialoro made Atlas Shrugged: The Movie on a tight budget and even tighter schedule, in part because he needed to start shooting before his long-held option expired. The, uh, limited resources available for production show through in the final product, which is currently running at 8% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet the audience rating runs a robust 85%. That discrepancy becomes simultaneously more and less odd when you consider that the film is only playing in a few cities, and that the majority of those audience reviewers have therefore not seen it yet.

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