by Brian Garfield
192 pages, Mysterious Press
Review by Pat Black
Or, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things.
Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll know about the Death Wish movie.
Charles Bronson, droopy moustache, feet braced, Saturday Night Special… Michael Winner! Blam!
It tells the story of a middle-class architect living in 1970s New York who decides to execute every street punk he encounters after his wife and daughter are attacked.
Brian Garfield’s original novel tells the same story, in a different way. But only slightly.
In it, Paul Benjamin is an accountant, a liberal (in the sense we used to understand it) in New York City in the same time period. He’s good at his job in the world of finance and sees no apparent irony as he takes on lots of crunchy causes in tandem with his role as a sharp cog in the pitiless capitalist machine.
Liberal guilt, I think they call it; organising fundraisers for softball teams in underprivileged areas, that kind of thing. If he was around today, Benjamin would be the sort of person who might criticise you for drinking from a plastic bottle of water – someone with firm convictions and a strong moral compass, but also a bit of a twat.
His house is raided by a teenage gang, with his wife and daughter inside. There are tragic consequences. This event takes place off-the-page and does not feature any sexual assault. This differs from Winner’s exploitative cinema vision, which spared you few details.
After this terrible shock, Benjamin slowly transforms into a vigilante who stalks the Big Apple’s seamier streets with a handgun, and in the process becomes something of a cause celebre.
“Is that a gun in your pocket, or… ? Oh, it is a gun, and you’re not pleased to see me.”
Justice isn’t exactly blind, but it is indiscriminate in Death Wish. Benjamin never levels the score with the criminals who destroyed his life – he doesn’t really look for them. Anyone committing or attempting to commit a violent crime is fair game for this unlikely avenger.
Garfield didn’t like the movie version of his story, which is a puzzler as it follows the novel’s plot, and its politics, to the letter. It is more cerebral than the movie series would have you believe, but that’s not difficult. At heart, Death Wish is a novel about grief – internalised, corrosive, manifesting itself in other symptoms, and finally exploding. But you’d be foolish to ignore the anger and the retribution, and the catharsis that follows.
In the same way, you could say Jaws is about an honourable man tackling endemic corruption in the face of a public health crisis - and you’d be right. But you’d be ignoring the shark.
For “shark”, read “guns”, here.
Benjamin grinds his teeth at the well-intended efforts of his work colleagues as they pat him on the back in the wake of personal disaster. He occasionally loses his temper with his granola-grating son-in-law, an idealist who accepts the terrible hand he has been dealt with an unnerving equanimity. The man even calls him “Pops”. For god’s sake – get mad, mate! Scream! Swear! You’re on Benjamin’s side in these parts.
This grief odyssey takes several strange paths, including one digression involving a woman our lonely hero picks up in a bar. I liked this illustration of Benjamin’s melancholic state, the devastation of a man with a home and a family and a purpose in life, suddenly set adrift. This is a moment of calm, if not peace, before he gets down to business.
The pivotal moment comes when Benjamin is sent to the South to look after a big account. He sees a gun shop and realises he can just stroll in and buy a firearm if he feels like it.
He does. And he feels empowered. No other word for it.
This is after Benjamin has experimented with taking down a teenage mugger, using a sock loaded with coins for a cosh. I have always wondered at the effectiveness of this DIY weaponry, given the state of some of the ancient socks I’ve got. If I tried that, I’d most likely see my loose change roll away across the street before a blow was struck. Then having to explain myself to the young man I’d just interrupted.
Maybe it’s a status symbol among gangsters – high-quality socks, for use in punishment beatings.
“What you packing?”
(solemn intonation) “Doubled-up Pringle.”
“Yeah? Look at what I got.”
(gasp) “Granpaw’s hiking socks!”
Benjamin’s longed-for confrontations arrive quite close to the end of this novel. They are not played for the sake of gore – I admit, this material would have been far worse in my hands – but they are disturbing. He walks into unsafe areas after dark, literally looking for trouble. If anyone tries to mug Benjamin or is spotted committing any kind of serious crime anywhere near him, they’re going to grow some holes.
How easy it is. Point and shoot. Down they go.
I’m maybe not the best person to criticise here, as I’ve just published a book about a person taking revenge. But Death Wish’s themes felt current.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they didn’t in some way empathise with Benjamin’s rage. If you play by the rules, then at some point you will be crossed by someone who doesn’t, and that can be very disturbing. Most liberal consciences would struggle to remain completely intact after any major trauma as a result of crime. It takes incredible strength and virtue not to give in to anger in the face of random, violent events carried out by unpleasant people.
They say you should hate the game and not the player, but this is difficult if the player is someone who has stripped your house of anything valuable before crapping on your favourite rug. There are many time-worn arguments against revenge and retribution. Some are as old as the written word, and most are valid. But few of them address the joy of striking back. A dish best served cold? I don’t know about that.
Lots of our novels, movies, TV shows and plays know this instinctively. It’s a button they know how to press, even as they appear to tell you something different. It’s a fundamental flaw. It’s deeper than storytelling. It seems like a trace memory, folklore, something in the genome. Get them back. An eye for an eye.
Like the Big Explanation scene which serves as a coda in Psycho, Death Wish offers a built-in analysis of its troubled hero. Benjamin picks up a magazine in the toilet at a house party and reads a psychologist’s assessment of the vigilante whose killings electrify the city. The shrink’s insight is spot-on, and Benjamin begins to worry for the first time that he might get caught.
The book suggests that many people are on his side – including the police. Death Wish examines its hero’s conscience and paints him as a man undergoing a mental breakdown. But there’s no doubt that his behaviour is tweaking something primal in us. That revolver is about taking back control.
We hear that phrase a lot, these days.
Revenge as a driver of plot is as old as storytelling itself. But consider that familiar figure, the lone man with a gun, the reluctant avenger, forced to act for the sake of justice. This is often characterised as “individualism” and is a staple in stories of tough guys doing tough things, particularly in the mythology of the old West in the American tradition.
But zapping people arbitrarily and believing you’re doing the right thing is the work of a demagogue, and worse. “It’s right, because I say it is.”
There’s a lot of that about, these days.
How many damaged people around the world, but particularly in the United States, have pictured themselves as the man with the gun who had a legitimate grievance they’ve seen in the movies? The school shooters, the mosque invaders, the guys at work with a grudge, the people who suddenly open fire in malls and nightclubs.
Often, their issues are phantoms of the mind. But whatever their problem, they thought they could resolve things by ventilating people. They’ve seen it done quite a lot in the movies, after all.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that fictional content causes crime – if that was the case, I’d be a great big criminal. I’ve read about the studies examining violent video games, and that troublesome statistic about other countries who enjoy this kind of entertainment – with little or no gun crime. However, there’s no denying that stories on the page or the screen do model destructive, vindictive behaviour. Watch enough films where problems are resolved with a shoot-out, or a fight, and – if you had certain mental health conditions or a serious personality disorder - you might start to forget it’s abnormal in an ordered, peaceful society; that we have mechanisms like manners and polity and laws so that we can avoid these things happening, as far as possible.
Have you ever met someone who wanted to be a gangster in real life? Have you ever noticed that they really like gangster movies? There’s a reason for that.
But make no mistake. The main ingredient isn’t movies, or gunfights in the movies, or first-person perspective shooting games. It’s easy access to deadly weapons. Add some laws which provide for that, and maybe a dash of entitlement, and you have a disaster at all levels of society.
Making yourself judge, jury and executioner isn’t a good thing. No one person should have the right. It’s taken thousands of years for human society to arrive at that conclusion, and for many even in the bosom of the so-called free world, it isn’t quite clear yet.
I am reminded of an old stand-up routine: if Bruce Wayne really wanted to stem the tide of crime in Gotham, he could use his billions to fund community projects or open a factory in a deprived area, instead of dressing up as a furry and battering poor people, addicts, or the mentally ill.
Death Wish is about a person who doesn’t follow the rules. As a piece of fiction, it’s a great conversation starter, among people you should probably avoid at parties. In real life though, that decision to transgress is a disaster for all of us, as rules in the form of laws – deeply flawed as they can be – are sometimes the only thing keeping us from total chaos.
At times we need rule-breakers, certainly. Some conventions and ordinances deserve to go in the bin. To take one example, imagine if Rosa Parks had meekly surrendered her seat and gone to the back of the bus. But “it’s bad to shoot someone because you feel like it” is not one of them.
When it comes to being able to go about your life and livelihood peacefully, and also – key point - being treated equally and fairly by authorities who have to toe the line the same way as you, then these rules are essential.
Losing a rules-based system would be like having your back door open out onto the Stone Age. Crumbling rules and wobbling democratic systems can be seen all over the world. Even in places where you didn’t think it would happen: specifically, the United States and the United Kingdom.
If you’re not worried yet, you’re not paying attention. At least on this side of the pond, the guns are under control. But who knows where we’re going, politically?
If there’s an analogy for the mythology of the Wild West in modern life, then surely it lies in global finance and information technology. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same cut-throat, merciless practices manifest themselves elsewhere in life.
Another question that’s been bothering me: in a time when we can watch movies or TV shows which feature violent incidents involving firearms as normalised, why haven’t there been any dramas about mass shootings, whether fictional or adapted from real events? It hasn’t been tackled in a big, serious, well-funded mainstream movie yet, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine documentary.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is the closest match I can think of, but Lionel Shriver sidestepped the entire guns debate by having that book’s psychopathic title character use a bow and arrow rather than a Smith & Wesson. Also, both book and movie adaptation pulled away from directly showing us what happened.
Gus Van Sant addressed Columbine in another thoughtful piece, Elephant, but without showing us the actual massacre. That’s as close as you get from Hollywood. The only other dramatisations I can see are well-meaning TV movies, or small-scale dramas which weren’t given mass publicity or a widespread release. Not even in the same galaxy as the latest Avengers or Fast And Furious movie, at any rate.
You could argue on taste and decency grounds here – but this doesn’t seem apply to other types of murder. Just this year we had another series of Mindhunter, and we also saw a former teen musical idol become Ted Bundy on the big screen. We’re open to the idea of dissecting the behaviour of sex killers and military dictators responsible for thousands of deaths, but not the horribly prosaic world of the lone gunman.
Why the shyness about the reality of gun crime? What’s the purpose of art, if not to reflect reality in some way?
Surely we should be shown the utter horror of these situations. We should have make-up geniuses or digital artists show us, as realistically as possible, precisely what happens when a round from an AR-15 assault rifle hits a child in the face. A few filmmakers have had a go at 9/11, the ultimate millennial true-life horror, so surely they can apply this industry to a gun massacre – something which becomes horribly real, and horribly current, on a regular basis. We should see the panic, hear the screaming, experience the tears and pleading, people losing control of bladders and bowels. Give people their pornography, as lexicographers understand the term. The grim, unbearable reality. Without a shred of glamour.
Do we need a movie tough guy to play the gunman? Someone comfortably masculine enough for us? Why not? They so often play gunmen. Let’s have it. Let’s see it. Make it real for people. Who has the nerve?
Back on-topic. I’ll say this about Death Wish: even allowing for its brevity, in an age when books can lie on my bedside table for months before I reach the end, I read it in the space of a day or two.
It’s wrong on many levels, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shootings. Tension, and release. Zap, zap, zap, down they go. I have to accept and admit to this duality. You like Space Invaders? I like Space Invaders. You just line up the shot and squeeze the trigger. Easy as that. Disintegrate the dehumanised. Has anyone ever completed Space Invaders? Is it even possible?
Like I say, this feeling doesn’t make me a criminal – it doesn’t even make me a bad person. But there’s a line to be drawn, like it or not, between these confected fantasies and true-life end points almost too horrific for words.
I will repeat: I’ve written a book about revenge. My heroine breaks the rules and feels justified. Everyone does, in taking revenge. Right and wrong isn’t part of that picture. She’s no better than Paul Benjamin, really. Mea culpa.
But surely a sensitive, intelligent person would realise that Paul Benjamin’s way is not the answer.
NB: This review was written before the recent tragedies in California, Texas and Ohio. I’ve held it back for a while.