Robert Crais: Ritual and Myth, not Literature

I sometimes “read” audiobooks that look interesting at my local library. I take a chance since they’re free. Well, I read Robert Crais‘s 2010 novel The First Rule. It’s “A Joe Pike novel.” Within a few minutes I had figured out that it was what I might call “tough guy lit.” It’s about a tough guy who is tougher than all the other guys and then the story’s over. As literature it was approximately as interesting to me as my dryer’s stock of old lint, but I listened (almost) all the way through because I became increasingly fascinated with this as a different kind of document, from a culture I’m not part of. Not quite ethnography, because there’s little chance this is a realistic depiction of much of anything. More like myth, or legend–something designed to communicate and reinforce shared values? Or something?

Anyway, a little about the book: Joe Pike is an ex-mercenary who is now a pawn shop owner. He’s tough. He spends his free time exercising and staying tough. He knows all about guns and how to use them, fighting and how to win. He talks very infrequently (this is pretty important) and is capable of being completely still for hours or days at a time without any indication of boredom or distress (also important). He’s intelligent, but you don’t see him using his considerable brains for eggheaded pursuits; only for winning fights. There is very little interesting about him, because he’s a one-dimensional caricature of a certain type of extreme idealized gender role. A dull character, through and through. Even the hint of a “bad” past is kind of ridiculous because his past is also perfectly aligned with an extreme idealization of aggressive maleness.

It’s a pretty standard story: at the beginning an innocent family, led by a tough/bad(ish) guy who has gone straight, is mercilessly slaughtered. This is critical so that Joe Pike can be violent to the people who did it. Standard revenge fantasy setup. Then Joe Pike spends the rest of the book outsmarting and outfighting everyone else. He also stops to show that he’s good with babies. Then he fights some more.

The bad guys are mostly foreign or Brown. The cops are kind of dumb. The feds are petty, self-serving, and not as smart as Joe Pike. The women are weaker than Joe, and generally not very important or interesting. There are a few token characters to give plausible deniability to any accusation of racism or sexism.

The law is a hindrance, something to be circumvented if it gets in the way of achieving Joe’s objectives. The revenge setup and other somewhat shameless elements lay the groundwork for some torture and a murder out at the ol’ shootin’ range, all implicitly justified within the worldview and morality distortion field of the book. They don’t really make Joe Pike a bad person. The same goes for lying, double-crossing, and going back on his financial arrangements–the only people who get hurt are Bad Guys, who have no rights or expectation of being treated as humans. Because they’re bad. Because they broke the law. Which isn’t actually important because Joe ignores it all the time… wait, you’re distracting me. Back to how Joe is right and the Bad Guys are bad.

This is a world in which the ability to effectively inflict physical damage on others is all that matters. Joe can do it better than anyone, so he wins. Always. And because of this, the reader needs to care about him more than about anyone else in the story. This is a world for people who are afraid of everything, and who have dealt with that by becoming physically stronger and more dangerous than others. Or maybe it’s for people who see the world that way and aspire to such strength. Or maybe it’s for people who want to believe that victims generally have it coming, for not being strong enough. I don’t know. But it feels like a dog whistle to a group of people.

My concern is that the people who respond most strongly to this novel, and the hundreds (or thousands) like it are imagining a world that ends up being Somalia. I’m fascinated by such a subculture, and (to an extent) by its denizens, but I don’t want people who see the world in these terms to be in charge of any decisions more important than perhaps whether I’d like my turkey sub toasted or fresh.