“Crashed” character Junior Bendor Reveals Five Books That Changed His Life
In Timothy Hallinan’s Crashed, lead character Junior Bender is a burglar-turned-private investigator; and, as he explains, a pre-burgler’s life includes ample reading. In this essay, the beloved character shares five books that changed his life.
Five Books That Changed My Life, and Not Necessarily for the Better
By Junior Bender
People don't generally think of burglars as big readers, or maybe it's just that people don't think of burglars at all until their jewelry is missing. But every burglar, at some stage of his or her life, was a pre-burglar, and reading is one of the things pre-burglars do.
I was an apprentice crook who was about to drop out of college when a professor took me aside to recommend a novel: William Gaddis's The Recognitions. Nine hundred pages of brilliance, a story perfect for the America of the 1950s, which was when it came out and sank like a stone. It's about the difference between forgery and the real thing, on all levels and pretty well across the breadth of life. The hero, Wyatt Gwyon, is a painter who forges masterpieces, and Gaddis uses that character's life to explore much of the spectrum of Western art and its relationship to the twin gods of religion and commerce. I used the novel for years as a guide to other reading, everything from Flemish painting to religious history to the Jewish diaspora to the sociology of Greenwich Village.
The Recognitions really supplanted my college education, and I've read it three times since. One of my favorite lines is in that book, and I refer to it in the second story Timothy Hallinan wrote about me, Little Elvises. The line is about a character called Otto. Otto is a fake. He pretends to be a writer but he’s not. He pretends to be an intellectual but he’s not. He’s a counterfeit. Otto thinks only about forging the next moment, so he’ll continue to be accepted as Otto.
But one sentence haunts him: All of a sudden, somebody asks you to pay in gold, and you can't.
That sentence haunts me as much as it does Otto.
I spent a lot of time on that book, so here, in brief, are four others that changed this burglar's life. Anthony Trollope's six-volume masterpiece The Pallisers because it presents a love story that lasts fifty years, beginning with an unaffectionate but financially necessary arranged marriage that grows richer and deeper in sentiment every year, and is persuasive throughout. Randall Jarrell's Pictures From An Institution and Richard Russo's The Straight Man because they present university life as it is—rich and fraudulent, dry and romantic, a collision between youthful aspiration and mature disillusionment, and often hilariously funny. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment because, from a criminal's perspective, it's the ultimate cautionary tale. If you haven't got an exit plan, don't pick up that ax.
Hallinan asked me to include the writing of Hammett and Chandler because they invented the private-eye genre and James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Ross Thomas, Walter Moseley, and fifty others for taking it so far, because without them I wouldn't be sitting here, writing to you. He told me to do it, so I did. It's amazing, when you think about it: characters are so much more interesting than writers, but writers can still push us around.