Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reaching for Justice

I resisted Lee Child’s suspense novels initially because on first, casual perusal they just seemed too airport-y, too simplistic, without any of the bravado or poetic terseness I associate with the genre that runs from Hammett and Chandler and MacDonald through Parker, Burke, and Connolly. (Pelicanos belongs in this tradition along with Ellroy and really, just too many to mention; but these are the key figures, for me, at any rate).

Reader, I was wrong.

My conversion experience came about not through Child’s diamond chip prose (yes, he can write) but oddly enough through the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, Jack Reacher, based on One Shot. The movie is good. Damn good, in fact. Far better than the tepid review the second-stringer from the Times gave it. Cruise is dynamic and utterly convincing as Reacher. The pacing and plot logistics are deft and the supporting characters are sharply drawn, always key in any kind of atmospheric thriller. Moreover, the film is notable for the way it gives a backstory and dimension to the sniper’s targets: mere collateral damage, they are given a voice and a fleeting touch of pathos, which is one of the motive forces to the whole Reacher series.

From there it was easy. I picked up One Shot and devoured it. And was surprised by how much of the plot mechanics Chris Macquarrie had filed down into such a pointed script. I chose the next few at random: Bad Luck and Trouble (excellent); Nothing to Lose (promises a lot, and sadly, fails to deliver); The Affair (kind of exquisite, except for the grotesquely symmetrical ending); and The Hard Way (my favorite so far; superlative on all levels: plot, tone, characterization and setting).

So what is it about Reacher? Much has been said, by Child and by critics, about Reacher as a sublime fantasy icon/fetish—the giant lone wolf avenger, unbeholden to no one or no thing; his grim, monastic, ascetic bent; roaming the country, owning nothing and owned by no one, yet always true to the highest ideals of his training and his own, hard-wired code. And that’s true. His interiority is both less and more complicated than say, Marlowe’s or Bosch’s. He’s not tormented. He’s not even really self-reflective. Except that he is, in a very pragmatic way. He kills only when necessary and so when he does it’s less about vengeance and more about keeping some kind of metaphysical absolute in the balance: Justice, writ large, but served small, and without remorse.

He’s a consummate professional, in the Hawksian manner. His training is itself a kind of metaphysics, a way of compensating for contingency. Most importantly, and true to the tradition of the genre, from Chandler on, he is a champion of the underdog, the oppressed, the crushed; a knight errant for whom violence is just the other side of the equation that produces and safeguards compassion.

Beyond the vigilante stuff, though, what appeals about Reacher is deeply mythic, I think. When I think of what other character he is like in literature I come back to Odysseus. Like the man from Ithaka, Reacher is never at a loss. He is the cunning man, the master of wily stratagems, the one who can see all around every angle, every hazard, every dire situation. No one can get the better of him. Not for long.

Unlike Odysseus, though, he is not driven by the journey home – to nostos – but by a thirst for dike – for justice. It is not the pleasure and comforts of the domestic which compel his actions, but the hunger to avenge the wrongs done to those who are incapable of defending themselves. He is, in the most direct way imaginable, an agent of liberal social activism.

Just as gratifying, Reacher’s pursuit of injustice carries a powerful critique of the US military and American foreign policy. That’s the real genius of the series (and of his last name, too). That such a seemingly dark, foreboding, vengeful figure could be a force for progressive thought, rather than a conservative bulwark, reaching into the dark, repressed places created by the security state, is deliciously satisfying.

As an ex-MP, Reacher is the conscience of a nation’s stricken military. He answers not just to a perennial need for superhuman derring-do, ala James Bond, but to the severe demands placed on masculinity after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the devastation of 9/11. Not to collapse into reactive barbarism or Cheney-ism, but to stay true to some core ideal of justice. Though discharged, Reacher is still on the job – more so than ever, in fact, since he’s not hung up by bureaucratic chickenshit. He’s still policing the excesses and derangements of American military action, representing what is most honorable about that tradition: a code of idealism and a caring for the innocent.

Maybe I go too far. Maybe this is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy. No such posture exists or can possibly exist. No one can redeem the cold-blooded rapacity of policy-makers or the pathologies of the warrior caste. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to think that someone like Reacher is out there, restlessly roaming the roads, inexorably righting the wrongs.

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