Since the death of Robert B. Parker in January 2010, I’ve been re-reading his Spenser novels. The earliest ones, written in the 1970s and 80s, staked out his moral as well as physical territory, revolving around ideas of traditional masculinity in conflict with the modern world. And in 1981’s Early Autumn, Spenser demonstrates how his code is built and applied in the life of a clueless teenage boy. It’s a book of its time in the particulars of setting, plot and society, but it touches on universal ideas that may be more applicable than ever.
Paul Giacomin is a chess piece between his divorced parents. Private eye Spenser is hired by his mother to retrieve him from his father, but it’s not from maternal affection, merely the latest skirmish in their ongoing, selfish power struggle. The fifteen-year-old has literally, as they say in the South, had no raising:
“The kid’s never been taught how to act,” I said. “He doesn’t know anything. He’s got no pride. He’s got nothing he’s good at.”
(p. 98 of the Dell paperback reissue).
To protect Paul, Spenser hides him in an isolated cabin. Over the course of several weeks he teaches Paul carpentry, weight lifting, boxing and most crucially, self-reliance:
“…that’s why, kid, before you go back, you are going to have to get autonomous.”
“Autonomous. Dependent on yourself. Not influenced unduly by things outside yourself. You’re not old enough. It’s too early to ask a kid like you to be autonomous. But you got no choice. Your parents are no help to you. If anything, they hurt. You can’t depend on them. They got you to where you are. They won’t get better. You have to.”
(p. 123 of the Dell paperback reissue).
The extended middle section demonstrates just how Paul gets autonomous. In a lot of ways it’s idyllic: Paul, who would be called a slacker if Parker was writing now, responds to Spenser’s tough love and blooms (or whatever the male equivalent is) under it. The construction of the cabin, which prefigured Life as a House by two decades, becomes a metaphor for the construction of Paul’s self-esteem. And in one of the book’s more clever twists, Paul’s nascent autonomy leads him to his dream career: ballet. Which does not involve coming out as gay, which there’s no indication he is. And which Spenser, the most “he” of he-men, fully supports.
The book’s weakness is the same as the recent “Young Spenser” novel Chasing the Bear, which I reviewed here: there’s no real challenge to Spenser’s ability to do what he says he’ll do. He knows how to handle every difficulty he encounters, which is both a bit of a cheat dramatically, and also part of the thematic point. It would be hard to demonstrate self-reliance if the circumstances didn’t allow it, and without that demonstration, Early Autumn would be merely The Celestine Prophecy for wayward youth.
And Paul puts up little resistance. He’s apathetic and aimless, but not really rebellious. In re-reading the book, I was struck by two contradictory thoughts. First was how much Paul seemed to resemble the kids I see in the mall, limp-bodied and pale, unengaged in the world except through a screen. Apparently, if Parker was writing about them in 1981, they’ve been around a while. Second was the desire to see Spenser confront a real rebel, someone determined not to be “saved.” Yet that story would’ve been a cliche’.
As proof of Spenser’s success, Paul Giacomin becomes a recurring minor character in the later novels, especially Pastime, where we first learn about Spenser’s own childhood. But Early Autumn remains a unique book in the series, and not just for the elaborate carpentry skills Spenser never again displays. It’s the first and only time this poster boy for autonomy steps deliberately into the role of parent. He’s good at it, of course; then again, he has the luxury of choosing his child, something real parents can’t do.
Or real children, for that matter. As someone who was essentially abandoned by the elder male figures in my childhood, I wonder how I would’ve responded to such a strong masculine presence dedicated to my self-improvement. Truthfully, I think I would’ve resisted far harder than Paul Giacomin. And I wonder what contemporary teen boys, in a world of pedophile priests and other sexual predators, would make of a grown man who takes a boy alone into the woods for weeks at a time. Would Spenser even think of such an idea today?