No one, not even me, ever knew my father’s first name.
Everyone always just referred to him by his last name, in classic tough guy style, and my dad was definitely a tough guy. Yet he was no thug, no bully, but a protector of those that needed protecting. A warrior, as defined by ninja Shihan Jack Hoban is “a man of action, guided by reason, and motivated by love,” and that was my father through and through.
My last name is Byrd. But that wasn’t my father’s last name. His was Spenser. And if you needed help, he was for hire.
Spenser wasn’t my real father, alas. He wasn’t even actually real. He was a character in thirty-nine novels by Boston novelist Robert B. Parker, who died of a heart attack while writing the morning of January 18th, 2010. He was 77.
So why do I claim Spenser as my dad?
One of the most important things my actual father ever said to me was, “You’re a turd, a little turd, this big.” Then he rolled the tips of his thumb and index finger together the way a five year old might make a booger disappear.
So, as you might imagine, I sort of had to look elsewhere for any positive sort of mentoring.
Being a reader helped me see out of the dark pit that was my childhood world, and in books (and movies) I found that mentoring. I knew I didn’t want to grow up to be like my father, but what did I want to grow up to be like?
Robin Hood. Conan. Doc Savage. Indiana Jones. Batman. The Gray Mouser. Like many folks I saw in such characters things to aspire to, things I hoped to be. And I needed that positive modeling possibly a lot more than most.
In my early twenties, I read the book Looking For Rachel Wallace, and my life was literally changed. It was a taut, smart, enjoyable read, yes, but beyond that, Spenser resonated with me in a way no character ever had. He was big and strong and smart like most private detectives (at least in fiction), but there was far more to the guy than just bullets and beer.
Spenser could knock some mook’s teeth out, wryly quote Yeats, then head home to cook a tasty meal. He was bound to his own solid and largely inflexible code of honor, but practical in dealing with problems, even when they proved challenging to his code (which was often). He was trying to be a perfect Spenser in a very imperfect world, but he knew the world was broken and he couldn’t fix it. But he also knew that the very effort to do what he could was elevating.
In the above mentioned book, Spenser is hired to bodyguard Rachel Wallace, a lesbian feminist author who’s getting death threats from the sort of folks who hate lesbian feminist authors. (You know the type, they’re still all over the place, sputtering hatred because that’s What Would Jesus Do). Rachel is on the abrasively militant side, and there is instant conflict between her and Spenser because he is a big man with big muscles, a gun, and a manly code of chivalry hired to protect her, a strong-willed and liberated woman.
“You don’t like me.”
“You don’t,” she said.
“It’s irrelevant,” I said.
“You don’t like me, and you don’t like what I stand for.”
“What is it you stand for?” I said.
“The right of every woman to be what she will be. To shape her life in conformity to her own impulse, not to bend her will to the whims of men.”
I said, “Wow.”
“Do you realize I bear my father’s name?”
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“I had no choice,” she said. “It was assigned me.”
“That’s true of me, too,” I said.
She looked at me.
“It was assigned me. Spenser. I had no choice. I couldn’t say I’d rather be named Spade. Samuel Spade. That would have been a terrific name, but no. I had to get a name like an English poet. You know what Spenser wrote?”
“The Faerie Queen?”
“Yeah. So what are you bitching about?”…
“It’s not the same,” she said.
“Why isn’t it?”
“Because I’m a woman and was given a man’s name.”
“Whatever name would have been given without your consent. Your mother’s, your father’s, and if you’d taken your mother’s name, wouldn’t that merely have been your grandfather’s?”
Spenser was also an ever-entertaining smartass, which is one of my favorite character traits.
Spenser was the perfect literary mentor for me. He exemplified many of the traits and values I intrinsically possess, but he took them to a more realized level, and he codified them, made them a personal system. In reading the books, and looking at things through his eyes, I found a roadmap to living as I actually wanted to, but hadn’t really parsed yet.
In other words, I had notions, but no philosophy. Spenser, and of course the man who created him, helped me nail down the patterns of my own worldview.
This wasn’t entirely beneficial. One of Spenser’s strongest traits is an adamant romanticism born out of the classical troubadour spirit of romantic love. Once he has given his heart, as he does to his beloved Susan Silverman, that’s all folks, it’s given forever. Even if the love is not returned. Even if the beloved is gone from his life. I love you because of who you are, not because of how you feel about me or treat me. I have decided that it is you I love, and I’ll stand by that decision.
Very appealing, and I still largely tend toward a very practical, grounded romanticism regarding love. I believe in poetry. I believe in two people treating love as a form of art, spinning relationship as a weave of meaning and actions in a knowing, non-sentimentalist way that may sometimes use the cliches of romantic fantasy but recognizing that that stuff is just spice, never to be mistaken for love itself.
But that whole “forever” issue…well, it worked for Parker. The love of his life was his wife Joan, and he was unwavering in that love. There were even a few years of turmoil, and she left him, but he stood fast and she returned, and it was to her that every one of his books was dedicated, and it was her who ultimately found him dead at his typewriter. He stood by his decision that he was hers, whether she was his or not, and it worked out.
Me, I embraced that notion, and I put a helluva lot of thought and feeling into it, and it led me to fully dedicate myself to someone, even after she was gone (back to her husband and three daughters), so much that her lingering occupancy in my heart crippled many another relationship I had for years thereafter. Then I let her go, and allowed myself to fall in love fully again, and that eternal beloved hit the road when my life hit a hard stretch, but fortunately I’d become more realistic in this love stuff by that point.
Then I gave up on romance and got married, but that’s another story.
So, the worldview Parker gave Spenser isn’t perfect, but then again he knew that, and even Spenser and his other heroes know that. (About the character Jennifer Grayle, the elevated beloved figure in Parker’s non-Spenser novel Love and Glory, Parker once said, “Jennifer’s too thin, too small, insufficiently interesting and she does not bear the weight of Boone’s obsession.”) But they keep trying to reach the unattainable, and in doing so, they hopefully elevate themselves, if only occasionally.
At the very least, I hope to do likewise.
I’m going to miss Robert Parker. I did get to hang out with him many years ago at a book signing, and had a great time, but then, we were both literate smartasses. That always helps.
And I’m going to miss my literary dad, Spenser, though I have several bookshelves of memories at hand (as well as an enjoyable, if very imperfect, TV show) I can thankfully revisit any time I want.
Like right now.