Review: The Comedy is Finished

“And now,” Koo was going on, “I’m supposed to read this statement. Here goes: I am being held by elements of the People’s Revolutionary Army–huh, think of that–and have so far not been harmed–except for the punch in the nose, let’s not forget about that.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not materi–Wait a minute.  I don’t usually get words like this in my scripts.  The only really big word I know is BankAmericard.  The People’s Revolutionary Army is not ma-ter-i-a-lis-tic-ally or-ien-ted–there–and so this is not a kidnapping in the ordinary capitalist sense.  Well, that’s a relief.  We have chosen Koo Davis not because he is rich–smart, very smart–but because he has made a career of being court jester to the bosses, the warmongers and the forces of reaction.  You left out the Girl Scouts.  Okay, okay.  The United States, which trumpets endlessly about civil rights in other nations, itself has thousands of political prisoners in its jails.  Ten of these are to be released and are to be given air passage to Algeria or to whatever other destination they choose.  These ten are to be released within the next twenty-four hours or a certain amount of harm will come to me.  I don’t think I like that part.”

“You’ve two hopes. Bob Hope and no hope.”

Variously attributed

At the end of my last review (so very long ago, sorry about that, life gets in the way), I left out my usual segue into the next one, because I hadn’t decided yet what the next review would be.   I do these based on order of publication, but as with Memory, this is a book that wasn’t published in Westlake’s lifetime, so I have to estimate when it would have been published, the alternative being to review books he respectively wrote in the early 60’s and late 70’s after the very last Parker and Dortmunder novels he wrote in the early 21st century.

This would be unsatisfying to me, since I’m trying to chronicle the evolution of a writer here.  Each book Westlake wrote was a product of the time he was writing it in, and almost invariably set in that time, or not long before it.  This book he seems to have written sometime in the late 70’s;  it would have presumably been published after Kahawa, and was certainly written before Why Me?   So I’m putting it here.   It’s a judgment call, and I’ve called it.

Hard Case Crime handled both posthumous additions to the bibliography, and did a splendid job with both.   However, I’ve never been fully satisfied, in either case, with the explanations presented as to why these books were only published after Westlake’s death.   In both cases, a manuscript turned up, and his estate gave the okay–in neither case did he leave any instructions in his will or with loved ones for what might be done with two full length novels he clearly spent a lot of time and effort on–and they are finished novels.  Complete polished works that must have undergone multiple drafts and are easily superior to any number of high profile critically lauded novels that will be published this year, or any year.

If he’d wanted to, he could have gotten them both in print before he died.  Why didn’t he want to?   Westlake published pretty nearly everything he wrote–few writers have been his equal at getting into print, and many of the books he produced were difficult to pigeonhole, not what people associated with him, but they still got first editions, and sometimes second and third editions.

Far as I know, the last remaining unpublished work of any significance is an autobiography, that he put aside unfinished, and we hope to see that someday, but not hard to understand why an unfinished book full of personal revelations about himself and others would stay in the vaults a while longer.   Memory was not in an identifiable genre, and is an exceptionally dark pessimistic story by any standard, so you can understand him feeling like maybe there wasn’t a market for it (I have some other ideas about why he didn’t try to get it out there, and you can read my review of it to find out what they are).

But this novel we’re looking at now is very much in the crime/suspense genre he was known for, with plenty of the wry oddball humor people expected from him. It’s a fast-paced entertaining read, with a bloody yet weirdly optimistic finish, and I’ll just say it right now–it’s one of the best books he ever wrote.  I’ll climb all the way out on the limb, and say it’s a minor masterpiece.  It’s a book that contains many a portent of things to come–things happening right now.  And it would have been a damn dirty shame if it never got into print.  So why did it take so long?

The official story is that Westlake found out that Martin Scorsese was making a movie called The King of Comedy, based on a script by Paul D. Zimmerman that had gone through many rewrites since Zimmerman had first come up with the concept in the Mid-70’s (right around the time The Fan Club became a bestseller), and sold the rights to Robert DeNiro.

Although the stories are extremely different, both center around the kidnapping of a famous comedian.  In the movie this comedian is patterned after Johnny Carson (who was approached to play the character, but declined, so they got Jerry Lewis, who was terrific and atypically low-key in the role).  In the novel, he’s quite unmistakably modeled on Bob Hope.  So much so that you almost have to wonder if there were inquiries from Hope’s attorneys, but who knows if Hope ever even heard about the book, or would have minded?  Not me.

Westlake felt like he’d been beaten to the punchline, so to speak (even though he’d written a comic novel about a movie star’s kidnapping in the 1960’s).  By the time the movie (a box office flop, but an enduring cult favorite) had faded somewhat from memory, Westlake’s novel, which was about the lingering consequences of the 60’s generation gap and the counterculture, seemed dated.  The national conversation had changed; nobody would care anymore.  So he shelved the book permanently.  Westlake never was one to live in the past, and once he abandoned a project, he tended not to ever return to it.

There are some problems with the story.  For one thing, the movie came out in early 1983, and Westlake’s novel was probably finished in the late 70’s.  He could have gotten the book out well before the film if he’d wanted, and at a time when the subject matter would have seemed more current.   And for another, aside from the bare bones premise of a famous funnyman being kidnapped by people who want publicity rather than money (and one of them has a more personal motivation), there’s just not a lot of similarities there.

The King of Comedy is about the cult of celebrity, people who are obsessed with fame, with show business, whose identities get swallowed up by it (Westlake did a very different take on this concept later in the 80’s).   There are no meaningful human relationships of any kind in Scorsese’s film, because it takes place in a world where such relationships have become impossible, even unimaginable.  The Comedy is Finished is about politics, and is full of very deep passionate relationships that have been tragically distorted by radical ideologies, mutual incomprehension and (in one case) personal irresponsibility.

I admire them both–I saw the movie when it came out, considered it a classic at the time and still do–but having reread Westlake’s novel, I have to say that I consider it the better piece of work overall.  Less modern, more timeless, in spite of being set in a very specific era–one reason why Westlake, with his deep aversion to period pieces, wouldn’t have wanted it published later.  Probably wouldn’t have made as good a movie as Zimmerman’s concept.   Scorsese put his own auteurial stamp on The King of Comedy, and it became his story, much more than Zimmerman’s.  As we’ve seen again and again, no director ever quite managed to do that with anything Westlake wrote, though not for want of trying.

Zimmerman basically produced nothing else of note in his career as a fiction writer (he was a film critic), and Scorsese made a lot of changes, but an early draft of Zimmerman’s screenplay can be viewed online.   All the later changes improved it, but the basic set-up is there from the start.  Westlake had many contacts in Hollywood by this time, and that’s probably how he knew about the movie well before it came out.  It was really Robert DeNiro’s project, that he kept pushing on Scorsese, much as Rupert Pupkin keeps pushing himself on Jerry Langford.

So we may posit that Westlake worried some people would whisper that he had seen Zimmerman’s script, rushed a book into publication before the film came out.  Both stories have a deranged sexually aggressive woman menacing the kidnapped comedian, which would raise eyebrows, coincidence or no.  He’s got enough problems already, selling a story that’s full of politics and sex–two things readers of his comic capers would write him angry letters about whenever he indulged in them–that furthermore paints a sympathetic but scathing portrait of a legendary showman, beloved of Middle America.

And he’d get no support from the Left, because elements of the counterculture are his principal target here, though hardly the only one.   Where’s the audience for this book?   There’s not much comfort here for anybody.   He’d just had a major disappointment with the book sales for Kahawa.  A few more high-profile failures could really hurt him.

Even if he did know about Zimmerman’s script before starting (and my opinion is that he didn’t; that this is a sort of creative confluence that happens much more often than people realize), there’s nothing in this book that approaches plagiarism.  Professional writers know very well that’s no defense against a lawsuit if anyone can prove you knew the work allegedly copied, and while I doubt Scorsese would have sued, Zimmerman just might have, the studio might have backed him up, and Westlake depended on Hollywood for a good part of his income–and the book is full of observations that would hardly endear him to Hollywood insiders.

(Fittingly enough, years later Westlake and Scorsese would both be involved in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel–Westlake wrote the screenplay, and Scorsese ended up as one of the producers, after originally being attached to direct.  He had a fairly important consultative role; Westlake mentions meeting with him several times, and one would love to know if the subject of Westlake’s book ever came up, but somehow one doubts that question will ever be answered.)

So that’s a whole lot of speculation, without a whole lot of facts behind it, but this is a strange story, any way you tell it.  It’s one thing for a writer to work on a book, put it aside, then it gets published after his death, either in its extant form, or finished by some other writer.   Or maybe the writer just figures it’s not good enough and refuses to publish it, as Harper Lee decided with Go Set A Watchman.  I have a hard time believing either possibility holds true here.  This book is 100% finished, a finely-tuned piece of first-rate storytelling, and if not for Max Allan Collins holding on to a manuscript Westlake gave him, we wouldn’t have it now.

And no, I don’t think Collins finished it himself, though he did get hired to finish a Mickey Spillane novel recently, and critics have made open accusations regarding the provenance of Go Set A Watchman.  Let me state for the record that nobody but Donald E. Westlake could have written any part of this book.   Then let me try to explain why that is.

The story begins in 1977, with Koo Davis, aging comedian and movie star, taping a TV special before a live audience in L.A.   His career has suffered from him getting involved in conservative politics, taking the law&order/love-it-or-leave-it side of the culture wars during Vietnam.   But Vietnam is over, things are calming down, and he’s concluded he made a mistake–it’s his job to make people laugh, not lecture them.

He got involved, against his own better judgment, because ever since WWII, he was out entertaining the troops, sometimes in very dangerous places.   He sees America as The Good Guy, always, and so whoever we’re fighting must be The Bad Guy, right?  That’s how it is in the movies.  If you used the word ‘Manichean’, he’d just get confused, and probably make a crack along the lines of “Manny Kean?  I think that guy owes me twenty bucks.”  Basically, there’s nothing Koo Davis can’t turn into a punchline.

But his comic stylings are put to the ultimate test when he’s kidnapped at gunpoint while heading back to his dressing room, punched in the face, and tossed into the back of a van with a bag over his head (who writes this stuff?),  then taken to a house in the Tarzana section of L.A., where he’s imprisoned in a truly bizarre basement room, where one wall is made of glass, and looks out into a swimming pool, like an aquarium for the jet set.

This clown’s captors are a motley collection of white 60’s radicals, the kind that formed groups like the Weathermen, that set bombs in college science labs, that kidnapped Patty Hearst and reprogrammed her to spout revolutionary rhetoric and rob banks (obviously that news story helped inspire this book).

The 60’s are over now, their group’s once burgeoning ranks have been decimated, and they’re worried that history has somehow passed them by, the assurances of Marxian dialectic notwithstanding.  They need to do something to get noticed again, and kidnapping a famous conservative might do the trick–the ones that actually deserve any real blame for the state of things are too well-guarded.

Westlake once again plays with structure–the book alternates between POV’s, but with a key difference.   Most chapters are written in the past tense, and focused around one character or another–cops, kidnappers, and Koo’s deathlessly loyal agent, Lynsey Rayne, far and away the most admirable person in the book, though of less dramatic interest, because you always know what she’ll do–fight for Koo.  Like a pit bull with lots of bracelets.

But when the chapter is focused on Koo himself, it’s always written in the present tense (not including flashbacks, of which there are many), because Koo Davis lives perpetually in the here and now–all the more because he’s increasingly afraid that now is all he’s got left.  And if there’s one thing Koo can do to utter perfection, it’s terror.

“My brain is happy to be here,” Koo Davis says, “but my feet wanna be in Tennessee.”  That’s a line from Saturday Evening Ghost, one of a series of comedic spook movies Koo made in the early forties.  Portraits with moving eyes, chairs whose arms suddenly reach up and grab at the person seated there, wall panels that open so a black-gloved hand can emerge clutching a knife; and Koo Davis moving brash and unknowing through it all.  It was a genre then, everybody did the same gags: the candle that slid along a tabletop, the stuffed gorilla on wheels whose finger was caught (unknown to him) in the back of the hero’s belt so he’d be tiptoeing through the spooky house with this gorilla rolling along behind him, the hero pretending to be one of the figures in a wax museum.  The audience didn’t seem to care how often they saw these gags, and a recurring bit in Koo’s movies was the point where he would suddenly notice all those weird things around him, and become terrified.  Koo’s bit of going from absolute self-assurance to gibbering terror was one of his most famous routines, so much so that Bosley Crowther wrote in a review, “No one can make panic as hilarious as Koo Davis.”

I’m scared, Koo thinks, but he doesn’t say it aloud; it ain’t that hilarious.  Remembering how often he simulated fear in all those movies and later on television, he’s surprised at how different the real thing is.  Of course, like everyone else he’s known brief moments of fear in his life–mostly on those USO tours–but what he’s feeling now is steady, growing, ongoing.  He’s afraid of these people, he’s afraid of what will happen, he’s afraid of his own helplessness, and he’s afraid of his fear.

(And I’m afraid I know now where Westlake got the idea for the wax museum scene in Slayground, only I’ve already written that review.  Not necessarily from a Bob Hope film–he actually only did two movies in this precise sub-genre; The Cat and the Canary remake, and The Ghost Breakers, both filmed in the late 30’s.  I’m sure it seemed like more.)

You learn a lot about Koo in these chapters, most of it not the least bit complimentary.  He’s a self-centered, womanizing, cowardly little twit–not a mean bone in his body, his intentions are always good, but as a husband, a father, a lover–he just never made the grade.  He’s been married to the same woman for most of his life, but he never took his vows seriously, and it’s in name only now (a good way to keep all the busty starlets he keeps bedding at bay).   He desperately tried to connect with his two sons as they grew up, one of whom is gay–they’re basically strangers to each other.  He sees nothing of himself in them.  They don’t even laugh at his jokes, except to be polite, and as Koo knows full well, when you’re polite to a comedian, you’re killing him.

He earns some genuine moral brownie points by going to war torn areas to entertain the troops, and he’s truly happy to do it.  He was 4F during WWII, you see, and anyway, there’s no better audience than soldiers in a war zone.

But when he learns that some private has been brainwashed by the commies during the Korean ‘police action’, he goes to talk to the boy, thinking he can snap him out of it–and he gets a foretaste of what it’s like to argue with somebody who knows ‘The Truth’–thing is, not everything the boy said was wrong, and he got under Koo’s skin in spite of the latter’s patriotic self-righteousness–and it came as a shock to Koo, years later, when he found out the Feds were keeping a file on him, because of all his left-wing entertainment buddies.  That was when he realized it was time to put the politics away, and go back to making people laugh.   Better late than never.

So we see him stripped bare of every illusion, a fat aging skirt-chasing buffoon, whose only real friend is his agent (who he slept with almost as an afterthought years ago, and she’s still carrying a torch)–and we love him.  He’s Harlequin, Scaramouche, Falstaff, Punch without a Judy–the eternal clown, taking his pratfalls and slapstick blows with elan, vibrantly unquenchably alive.  And the fact that this Punch maybe deserves that crocodile hand-puppet to come swallow him up doesn’t make us root any less for him.   We’ll cheer his disembodied voice emanating from the croc’s gaping maw.

The Clown isn’t supposed to impress us with his moral fiber.  He’s there to remind us how ridiculous we are.  He’s there to spit in Death’s ugly face.   His only mission statement is to be himself.  Koo’s being punished here for having forgotten this, during the Vietnam era, the Watergate imbroglio.   But he’s remembered it again, belatedly.  So he’s the hero of the piece–one of two, really.  Koo’s out of the Westlake stable, a Nephew type, despite his age–the other hero is a bit more out of Richard Stark.  That’s right.

This is Westlake’s third and final book about a kidnapping (making me suspect he thought he’d finally licked the problem of how to write that kind of story, then put it aside forever)–it’s also the the only one to present it in the form of a conventional police procedural, switching back and forth between cops, abductors, and abductee–but there’s no easy discerned line between good guys and bad guys–the formula is deepened, made to serve a different agenda, much as Westlake had already done with the heist story.

There’s an FBI Agent, Mike Wiskiel, a smart seasoned pro, and we learn to respect his abilities–and to him, Koo Davis’ life is much less important than his own career, which hit a snag when he participated in the Watergate cover-up–which is what he thought he was supposed to do, follow orders, do favors for the big boys, but then it all went sour, the politics changed, and he found himself holding the bag, exiled to the Hollywood beat.

“Retroactive,” Mike said, dealing with the word as though it was a pebble he was moving around in his mouth.  “‘Do this,’ they said, ‘it’s your patriotic duty.’  ‘Oh yessir,’ I said. and salute the son of a bitch, and I go do it, and when I come back there’s some other son of a bitch in there and he says, ‘Oh, no, that wasn’t patriotic, it was illegal, and you shouldn’t have done it’  And I said, ‘Why I got my orders right here, I’m covered, I got everything in black and white, this is the guy told me what to do,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we know about him, he’s out on his ear, he’s in worse trouble than you are.’  So that guy’s ass is in a sling and my nuts are in a wringer and Al Capone is up there at San Clemente in a golf cart.  And who’s loyal now, huh?  Who do you trust now, the shitter or the shit-upon?”

This kidnapping case is Mike’s ticket back to the show, and he admits to Lynsey at one point that given a choice between saving Koo’s life with no good press for him and catching the kidnappers with lots of it, he’d choose the latter.  In a heartbeat.  He doesn’t want to be the shit-upon, ever again.  But aside from that, he’s just more interested in the hunt.  Protecting honest citizens doesn’t ring his bell at all.   Which reminds me of the cop from The Seventh, who is all gung-ho to catch Parker, but doesn’t give a damn who killed Ellie Cannaday.  Stark has been out of the picture for years before Westlake wrote this, and yet he’s still there, looming in the darkness, waiting his return.

Westlake’s ambivalence about law enforcement types is on full display here–his cops are by no means always comic bumblers, nor are they mere brutish stereotypes, but he can never entirely trust anyone with a badge.  Wiskiel ought to be the hero–he does eventually crack the case, performs his duties admirably (except for one serious stumble, where he badly underestimates his quarry and puts Koo’s life at risk).  He’d be the hero in a movie, or a TV show (he’d probably end up dating Lynsey), but not in this story, somehow.

Westlake respects professionalism in anyone, cop or robber, but what drives Wiskiel is careerism, which a very different thing.  He is tested and found wanting.   It’s not really his failure so much as it is that of the entire system he serves so ably and unquestioningly.  He wants to be a cog in a machine.  The one thing his creator can never forgive.

So the establishment boys are not the heroes, but neither are the would-be revolutionaries, Westlake being very much in the vein of Mercutio’s death scene here.   The greater part of the book is devoted to Koo’s abductors–that’s generally how a  kidnapping novel works, ratcheting up tension and division between the people who did the snatch, exposing their inner weaknesses, and there’s no end of those.  If the revolution depends on these people, not only will it not be televised, it won’t even get through pilot development.

Their leader is Peter Dinely, 34 years old, who has a nervous habit of chewing at the insides of his cheeks, and a determination to remake the entire world in his image.  Someday everything will be different, and people will remember that he was leading the way.  He has taken to heart Lenin’s lighthearted gibe that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  Koo’s just another egg to him.  He doesn’t particularly want to hurt anyone, certainly not in person, but he needs to make a statement.   He’s worked up a little list of ‘political prisoners’ (most of whom he’s never met, or communicated with, an unfortunate oversight on his part), and he’s going to trade Koo’s life for their freedom, then use that victory to establish himself as an important radical figure, a man of importance. The others are mere foot soldiers. He’s the general.

He knew he was the only one in the group who thought historically.  None of the others could project beyond the immediate results of action, but at least they were prepared to follow where they themselves could not see the path. Did they know why it was so vital to free the ten?  No and if he were to waste his breath with explanations, they still wouldn’t understand.  But they acknowledged his capacity and followed his orders, which made them both essential and unbearable.  Soon I must have equals about me, Peter thought, or I shall wither.

Far less dangerous (or so it seems) is Joyce, a soft-spoken shy unassuming young woman, who doesn’t seem to have strong opinions on any subject, but who somehow ended up in this group–because she always has to have a group.   She watches the TV report of Koo’s kidnapping with them.

It was the group that Joyce loved, the very idea of being part of a group.  In her childhood, she had been a Brownie, later a Girl Scout and for a while simultaneously a Campfire Girl, also a member of a Junior Sodality at church, the 4-H Club, other groups at school and college; and tonight she sat with her feet curled up under her at one end of the sofa, the complete group around her, the television offering its flickering light to the room, and she was back where it had all begun; an “overnight” with friends.  Her hand over her mouth so no one would know, her eyes on the screen without seeing it, her ears ignoring the loping cadence of Koo Davis’ voice, she giggled.

Most dangerous of all (because he’s the Richard Stark character) is Mark Halliwell, who doesn’t really seem to know or care much about left-wing politics, or anything else.   He just knows he’s angry, that the world is full of evil, and there are people out there who are responsible, and they must be punished.  It’s like an itch in his brain that he can never scratch.

Mark burned with a pure fire.  He knew what he wanted, and how to get it.  The people who made pain in the world would be stopped.  The uncaring, the smug, the self-confident, the lofty, too high and mighty to think about the people down below; they would all be toppled from their pedestals, and afterward the world would be clean.  No more hatred, no more pain, no more suffering, no more pity.  No need for pity in a world without pain.

He’s Koo Davis’ bastard son, or at least he believes he is–his mother was one of the starlets Koo was shtupping on those USO tours (she was supposed to get an abortion, and never told Koo she didn’t).  He’s the reason Koo was kidnapped, but no other members of the group know about his personal agenda, or that they’ve been manipulated to serve it.  Koo finds out pretty quick, though.  Mark can’t resist telling him.  Koo understandably believes Mark is the most serious threat to his life, but nothing is ever as it seems in this book.  Nothing and no one.

Mark is the one who keeps figuring out the ruses the FBI will come up with to try and find them, the one who understands trickery and violence best.   Even Peter is afraid of him.  Because he’s afraid of nothing.  He’d be perfectly at home in a string led by Parker, but I don’t know if Parker would want to work with him.  Too volatile, too emotional.  Maybe a bit reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, the disgraced police chief who wanted to use Parker and his fellow heist men to get revenge on a whole town.  But is Mark’s motive really revenge?   Or something else?

Larry Crosfield, by contrast, has no personal agenda, no megalomaniac ambitions, no obsessive need to be part of a group.   He just has a lot of ideas about what the world could be–some from Marx, some from himself.  He’s the group theoretician, theologian really, the one who can cite chapter and verse, but he’s having a crisis of faith lately.   We get a glimpse of what he’s writing in his notebook, to distract himself from the crime he’s helping to perpetrate.

The dreadful paradox, of course, is the absolute necessity to do evil in order to bring about good.  To make the world a better place, one must be worthy.  To be worthy, one must strive for sainthood (in the non clerical sense of total commitment to unattainable but appropriate ideals), and yet the lethargic and static forces of Society are so powerful that it requires, specifically requires, extra-social acts in order to promote change.  One must do evil while knowing it to be evil and at the same time one must strive for sainthood.  This paradox–

–is a rather sadly recurrent leitmotif in the history of ideas and social movements.  Isaiah Berlin could tell you more, if you’re interested, and so could Karl Popper, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Anatole France, Dostoevsky….  But for our purposes, Larry is merely an overly idealistic young man who persistently advocates for Koo’s health and well-being (at some risk to himself), who really wants no part of any violent act, who has let himself get pulled into a situation he doesn’t belong in.   He’s basically a more detailed work-up of the same kind of character as Dan Tynebourne, from Don’t Lie To Me.   His true nature is at odds with who he thinks he’s supposed to be, what he wants to believe.

He spends quite a lot of time trying to indoctrinate Koo, while the latter is sick as a running dog capitalist from not having all the pills he routinely pops to stay alive.   He can’t understand why Koo suddenly asks to see Mark.  Better the devil who scares you than the devil who bores you.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when Larry and Joyce realize they’re in love, that they have been for a long time, but the no-strings sexual ethic of the group, and their own innate shyness, had kept them from acting on it.  They make love, and Larry has a brief coital epiphany, courtesy of Alexander Pope.

Years ago, in college, he had memorized a portion of Pope’s An Essay on Man, thinking it expressed his own beliefs better than he ever could, and only now understanding he had always misunderstood it.  In a murmering voice, slowly, in time with their lovemaking, he recited:

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind of man.  Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, a being darkly wise and rudely great: with too much knowledge for the skeptic side, with too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, he hangs between: in doubt to act or rest; in doubt to deem himself a god or beast; in doubt his mind or body to prefer; born but to die, and reasoning but to err; alike in ignorance, his reason such, whether he thinks too little or too much.” 

“Don’t think,” she whispered, and the hint of a smile touched her lips in the semi-dark. “Larry, don’t think at all.”

(Thanks for introducing me to that poem, Mr. Westlake.  Explains a lot, doesn’t it?  About us in general, and you, specifically.)

She may be The Girl, but this isn’t a Nephew book, and the course of true love never did run smooth.  I’ll leave that plot twist for you to discover yourself.

The last member of the group is Liz (Westlake clearly chose that name thinking of a certain passage from Adios Scheherazade), a hard lean lethal blonde, with a killer body, and a back lined with scars that will never heal, the origins of which we never learn.  She walks around naked much of the time, swimming in the pool where Koo can watch her through that basement aquarium window, knowing the sight will frighten rather than arouse him.

The scars inside her are much worse.  She’s stopped believing in anything at this point, too damaged by the life she’s led, the comrades she’s lost, to really give a damn anymore, but there’s still so much anger there–towards the world, towards herself, towards men.  Towards Eric Mallock, one of the prisoners they’re trying to get released, her mentor, lover, and destroyer.

Eric had been everything.  Eric had taught her what her body was for, what her brain was for, what the world was for.  “It isn’t hard to change society,” he used to say, with his easy bright intelligent grin.  “Society changes all the time, whether we help it along or not.  Capitalism is an aberration, a mistaken turn away from feudalism–it would have been so much easier to go directly to collectivism then, simply remove the landlord class and permit the masses to absorb the land they already occupied.  All right, an aberration.  But it’s coming to an end, and unless somebody gives the whole mass a shove in a new direction we’ll simply go right back to feudalism under another name, with General Motors and Chase Manhattan instead of the kingdom of this and the duchy of that.  We have to push on it, that’s all, deflect it a little.  We may not even see the effect in our lifetimes.  Not everybody can be Martin Luther.  Columbus died having no idea how much he’d changed the world.

Change the world.  Eric changed me, and then he went away, his work unfinished.  If he’d even been killed, if he’d died along with Paul and the others, it would be easier to forgive.  What did it matter that he had abandoned her unwillingly, only because he’d been captured and put in jail? He had swept her beyond the point of no return, that was all that mattered, and then he had gone away.

Take an interest?  Yes.  She did have an interest after all.  She raised her eyes, finally, to gaze at the giant television screen, where the program was about to begin, where the government was about to announce whether or not they would release Eric Mallock.  Let him go, you bastards, she willed at the screen.  Let him go so I can kill him.  And then myself.  That last journey they would take together.

And so they all watch the broadcast together, where the authorities announce their decision whether to release the ten prisoners on Peter’s list in exchange for Koo’s life.  What follows is a series of filmed or written statements from the prisoners.  And Peter really should have done a bit more research into those names.

One by one, we learn that all but three of them don’t want to go to Algeria.  The three that want to go are clearly just killers and thieves, who want out so they can go back to killing and stealing for the sake of killing and stealing, which was all they got into that revolutionary shit for in the first place.  One of them is so clearly a psychopath with no political principles (or any other kind of principles) that Algeria has refused to take him.

But the ones who want to stay in prison–their reasons are more complex.  Some are just tired, want to go back to something like a normal life.  One has a book on revolutionary theory she wants to finish, she says her activism was a mistake, a wrong turn.  One, a pacifist defrocked priest, wants to go back to being a missionary to this barbarian country.   Another, a labor activist, has been inspired by Caesar Chavez, now believes change is possible without violence.

There’s a general sense of confusion, indignation, from the ones who haven’t given up, who still believe in the cause they went to prison for (often for nothing more than minor vandalism, begging the question of why they’re in maximum security, and Nixon is golfing at San Clemente)–why would they want to go to Algeria?  The work is here.  They know who they are, and where they belong. They aren’t alienated from society–society is alienated from them.  From itself.   They are true revolutionaries–and they make the pretenders sitting in that room feel small, embarrassed, ashamed–and angry.   Peter, in particular, is filled with inchoate rage.

Eric is the biggest disappointment–his spark is all but extinguished.  He’s given up.  His revolutionary zeal has vanished with his youth.  He works on the prison newspaper, and has started a bookkeeping course for the inmates.  He doesn’t think the cause they fought for was wrong, but he now thinks their methods were wrong.   He has a pretty good idea of who is behind this kidnapping, and he flashes them a bit of his old grin, but as Liz watches him on TV, her last illusion dies.  She can’t kill the man who ruined her life.   That man died in prison.

The law is closing in.   You’ve all seen kidnapping stories, you know how this goes.  It always ends with a big showdown at the hideout, but the difference here is that you give a damn what happens to the victim, and strangely, what happens to the kidnappers, at least some of them.  Mark, particularly.  He and Koo have somehow forged a bond.  Koo is more surprised than anyone, except perhaps Mark.  Turns out Mark (who could easily be some other man’s son, and doesn’t look even the least bit like him) has somehow inherited his sense of humor, and this delights Koo–finally, somebody gets him.

Barricaded in a room together, while Peter tries to get in there so he can at least be remembered as the man who murdered Koo Davis, they trade quips, beginning to love each other, to span the generation gap, and only occasionally does Mark bring up the possibility of killing his old man.  He doesn’t really want to anymore, but it’s an option.

I’ve left out a key character–Ginger Merville, British, a smirking little rock god, not a real star, just a high-priced sideman to the stars, who for reasons of his own has chosen to bankroll these revolutionaries, without really believing in their cause.  Westlake never did care much for rock, did he?   Less about the music than the lifestyle, I think.  Too much fame and money for too little effort. Ginger seems to be playing both sides against the middle, figuring that whoever wins, he wins along with them–he figures wrong, and when he gets caught by Wiskiel, he breaks like an egg, spills everything he knows, and maybe they’ll let him play for his fellow inmates.

At a Malibu beach house they fled to after the house in Tarzana was discovered, surrounded by an army of cops and Feds, the bullets begin to fly–Liz has her final moment of vengeance on basically everything and everybody–and Mike Wiskiel reveals his true colors, as Lynsey looks on in horror and revulsion, the liberal shocked by the violence lurking in every human heart, as liberals always are (and I would know).

And all that remains at the end is a father finally standing up for his son (and it does not matter a damn whether there’s a genetic relationship or not).  All that matters to Koo Davis, when the law breaks down the door of his cell, having shot all the other kidnappers to pieces, is that they don’t hurt his boy.   He’ll do whatever he has to to keep Mark alive, and hopefully free, and that’s how he earns his survival–by acknowledging the monster he helped make, and loving him.

This is Westlake’s final dirge to the 60’s and what followed it.  It was a wild creative era, that produced much of lasting value, and much that didn’t stand the test of time.  He understands and sympathizes with the revolutionary spirit, feels the same soul-deep antipathy towards authority, has no faith at all in the system, but he knows the truth of Mike Wiskiel’s comment that “once people lose the social thread, they’re capable of anything.”

Westlake’s conservatism, if you want to call it that, is of the Burkean strain–yes, things need to change, but if they change too quickly, too chaotically, you lose everything you were fighting for.  Change can’t be imposed from outside.  It comes when people are ready, and not a moment before.  And the people who are determined to make revolutions ‘by any means necessary’ are the very last people you want in charge of your destiny.  Because they aren’t doing it for you.  You’re just another egg in the omelette.

You have to know where the line is.  “There are things a man must not do to save a nation” wrote an Irish  revolutionary named O’Leary once, and he was more right than he knew.  Today’s ‘conservatives’ don’t even seem to remember who Burke was, and they never knew O’Leary.  They’re quite often the crazed wild-eyed revolutionaries now, only believing in law & order if they can control it absolutely–and the role reversal would be comedic, if it wasn’t so horrifying.

 The Comedy Is Finished--was this Westlake trying to say goodbye to the image of him as a man who wrote funny crime books that nobody should take seriously?   Maybe not, but it must have bothered him at times, this man of many ideas, many insights, that people thought of him as nothing more than a shallow jester, his books good for nothing more than a few chuckles.   Then again, he may have decided, like Preston Sturges’ John L. Sullivan, that there’s much to be said for making people laugh in a world full of pain and disappointment and shattered dreams.

In any event, our next book is the fifth John Dortmunder novel, and a rather pivotal book in the series–also rather atypical–it culminates, you might say, in a sort of anti-heist.   I’ll try not to take so long finishing that one.   This review you’re reading now just didn’t want to get written, but at some point you have to shit or get off the pot.

As for the real Bob Hope, he died less than six years before Westlake, at the most improbable age of 100 (seriously, who writes this stuff?), and the story that was reported afterwards was that as the great comedian lay on his deathbed, his wife asked him where he wanted to be buried, and Hope replied “Surprise me.”

Westlake must have laughed for days.

Bravo, Pagliaccio.  Bravo.  

PS: Okay, I have another theory as to why Westlake gave the book its title.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, The Comedy is Finished, Uncategorized

20 responses to “Review: The Comedy is Finished

  1. macphilms

    Okay, fine write-up, but I have to clear a few things up.

    First, Don didn’t provide that title. It’s something that editor Charles Ardai and Don’s widow Abby agreed upon. I don’t recall the original title of the manuscript.

    Second, Don wrote the novel several years before THE KING OF COMEDY was anything but a twinkle in a screenwriter’s eye. He clearly knew nothing about it. The book, fine as it is, had been roundly rejected around NYC publishing. The reason was that a novel with a comedian at its center that was not a comedy, and that had the Westlake byline, was unworkable.

    That’s why he approached me to take a look at it and, when I reacted favorably to it but had a few suggestions, he proposed that we collaborate — he felt too close to the book and was too beaten up by the attempt to sell it to undertake another draft. And, yes, I had some ideas (all but one I’ve forgotten) about making it more marketable. He told me to go ahead and whatever we hauled to shore, we’d split. I was working on something else, and only did one little piece of additional writing (not rewriting) — a page or so — before THE KING OF COMEDY came out, and Don called saying that, obviously, the book was dead. I disagreed, but it was his book.

    As for this being a book only Don could have written, I agree…but will admit that I wrote around one page of it. What and where that page is, well…that’s between Don and me. He was a wonderful writer and a unique, generous friend, and his mentoring really turned me into a pro.

    • Since there’s so little critical/biographical work about Westlake, I have no choice but to speculate, with varying results. I thought I’d come across an ‘easter egg’ of sorts–his choosing that title derived from Il Pagliacci as a wry commentary on the writer of that opera being accused of having pilfered his ideas from a (now forgotten) play, whose author was in turn accused of plagiarizing someone else, and so on. Just another creative coincidence. They do happen. A lot. We all swim in the same ocean.

      I wish I could say I was surprised that the book got rejected by publishers. He really was struggling to branch out of the niche he’d found himself in. This is a comedy of sorts, I would say. Kidding in deadly earnest. But that’s not what people wanted from him. Or at least not what publishers thought people wanted from him.

      I read one comment of his that a book should never be written as a period piece unless it’s about the period–which this book is, in a sense. But in another sense, it’s about conflicts that plague every era, between old and young, radical, liberal, conservative, and the failures of understanding that each is guilty of. And so much time having passed, maybe he just felt like it was too dated. And let me just say, you were absolutely right to tell him it wasn’t. But since when are writers ever the best judges of their own work?

      I’ll try to spot that page sometime, and if I think I have, I’ll post my guess here–if you see it, let me know if I nailed it.

      I rather wish this data you’ve generously provided had been included in the brief editor’s preface to the book, but I had fun making stuff up in my head. Somebody had to seriously review this book at some point, and that somebody was certainly going to get stuff wrong. I am always happy to take the bullet for future Westlake reviewers. Well, no I’m not, but I’ll take it anyway. Thanks for filling in the gaps.

      • macphilms

        Nothing wrong with your reasoning on any of this. Just thought I should set the record straight, from the inside. I wish I had been asked to do an intro or afterword, and I frankly think that I should have been

        • Frankly, I agree. You deserve a huge share of the credit for this book resurfacing. I hope someday there’s another edition, and you get the chance to tell that story. But at least we’ve got the book. Which impressed me even more the second time through.

  2. MartinD

    Loved the review, really enjoyed these comments, too. Thanks so much.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I was wondering if Mr. Collins would be the only one to weigh in, not that anyone is better qualified to do so. One of those times when the comments section is arguably more informative than the review.

      Parenthetically, am I the only one who sees his posting icon and starts hearing the Pinball Wizard song from Tommy? 😉

  3. I just learned of the existence of another unpublished Westlake novel, a spy adventure called “Fall of the City,” which he wrote from a rejected story treatment he had submitted for the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies.” It’s viewable at the Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center in Boston. (I spent much of the last month in Boston. If I had known, I would have made arrangements to read it.)

    • Hmm. I could get one of those Fung Wah buses, I guess. Haven’t seen Beantown in years. My sister lived there a while.

      Question: Do I want to review a book hardly anyone has read, that may never be published? Well, probably yeah, but maybe I don’t need to worry about chronology this time. If I wait a while, maybe there’ll be an ebook. I had meant to do something about Tomorrow Never Dies, which is the only Brosnan Bond I like at all, but did any of his ideas make it into that film? I wouldn’t even want to make a guess without reading the book first.

      It’s mentioned on his Wikipedia page–don’t remember seeing that before, but I tend to skim, I’ve been there so many times. Fall of the City does not sound like a Westlake title, does it? The unpublished ones can’t all be gems, I’m thinking. Third time might be the hex.

      Do you know offhand if the treatment of the subject matter is serious or farcical?

      Anyway, I’m sure this is absolutely positively the last unpublished Westlake novel.

      (If I keep saying this long enough, maybe somebody finds an unpublished Stark?)


      • I don’t know anything more about it except that it contains his Tomorrow Never Dies ideas (my understanding is that NONE of them were used in the movie). It’s killing me because I literally had whole days free in Boston last month, but I didn’t know about it then. I can’t find any online mention anywhere from anyone who’s laid eyes on the manuscript, but I suspect that you may be right with your hex remark. Wouldn’t someone have tried to publish it before now?

        At some point, I will find the time to visit the archive and see for myself.

        • You might want to allot quite a bit of time–

          Screenplays in the collection (mostly unproduced) include The Score ; You Can Trust Me ; Ex Officio ; Elizabeth Bentley ; Line and Sinker ; Fair Game ; The Stepfather (1986); Love In the Attic ; Remote Control ; Maximum Bob (adapted from the novel by Elmore Leonard); Angel 103 ; Emerald City (adapted by Westlake); Call Me a Cab ; God’s Pocket; We Interrupt This Murder; Murder at the Vanities; Hot Stuff (with Michael Kane); note cards for a script titled Why Me ; outlines for the television series I, Spy ; a film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby [!!!!!!!!!!] ; Fly Paper (adapted from a Dashiell Hammett story); Perfect Image (drafts adapted from the book Ripley Underground ); drafts for James Bond films; and other items.

          Numerous short story manuscripts are present in the collection, as well as several book reviews written for the New York Times and other publications. Other manuscripts include material for an IBM lectures series; an introduction to a James Thurber collection; and a brief autobiographical piece by Westlake.

          Correspondence in the collection consists of both personal and professional letters. Subjects include letters between Westlake and various publishers (1965-1968); letters regarding the screenplay for The Score (1965-1967); fan mail, including a letter from Harlan Ellison; letters between Westlake and the Mystery Writers of America (1996); letters between Westlake and film producers regarding the production of God’s Pocket (1996-1997), including Westlake’s notes regarding the characterization for the story; letters from Hugh Hefner, Joan Kahn, and Hillary Waugh; and general professional letters (1997-2002).

          Sounds like at least another two years of blogging, if I could get my hands on all this–however–and you should take note, Greg–

          You don’t just walk in and ask for the keys to the treasure chest. And if you want copies made of anything, they have to be approved by the executors of the estate. I dunno, do they make you give up your phone, pat you down for Minox spy cameras? Given the subject of that unpublished novel, the latter would seem particularly appropriate.

  4. “No bags, briefcases, coats, etc. are allowed in the reading room and will be locked in the secure cabinet. Cell phones are not permitted to be used in the reading room. Pencils only may be used for taking notes. Laptop computer and tablet devices are permitted. No scanners or photographic devices, including laptops and cell phones, are allowed under any circumstances.”

    • Don’t most tablets have cameras now? Mine doesn’t (it’s ancient, like five years old, first gen iPad). So you can bring in a laptop or tablet, but not if it has a camera built in. Good to know.

      Anyway, this is most reminiscent of the Reading Room at the main research branch of the NYPL (not that anybody had camera phones back when I was doing grad research there, but they had portable word processors and such). You could just type out long blocks of text. A whole book, if you so desired. I imagine I’d just look for relevant quotes.

      I’m still kind of reeling at the revelation that he did a screenplay adaptation of a Tom Wolfe book. Which would explain that little quip in the piece he wrote about the origins of Jimmy the Kid.

      • It sounds like a treasure trove, to be sure. I believe I will pursue a request, though my focus will likely be the novel, and perhaps some correspondence. (I usually find screenplays, even well written ones, to be somewhat tedious to read.) I have no idea how long it will take me to get my ducks in a row, or for my request to be approved, but perhaps I can contribute a guest review in the comments when the time comes.

        • You most assuredly can, and perhaps by then I’ll have done a brief piece about this treasure trove, if only to make more people aware of how much we really don’t know about Donald Westlake. Like when did he sleep? :\

  5. Apparently MI6 Confidential, a James Bond magazine, has some information about Westlake’s TND treatment in its Oct. ’15 issue:

  6. Fugitive Pigeon

    Terrible. The problem of course are the terrorists. They were little credible in the ’60’s (God, always this hidden father, like in 361), in the late ’70’s they had lost any right to existence. And the CIA girl undercover (who is the more demented of the group?). The idea of the kidnapped comedian was good (and Scorsese demostrated it) but W. should have made a comedy of the absurd out of it. I think W. realized the story just sucked.

    • Ask Patty Hearst how pointless they were–60’s radicals continued to be active well into the 70’s.

      You do know King of Comedy was a flop, right? That’s probably one reason why Westlake decided there was no point trying to get out a similar story that was outside his perceived niche. People wanted gangsters from Scorsese, comic capers from Westlake.

      But of the two stories, Westlake’s is much more interesting, and does more with the idea. Jerry Lewis has an effective deadpan in the movie, however, there’s almost no development of his character, and there’s no indication his character is any good as a comedian. For a guy standing in for Johnny Carson, he doesn’t seem to have any charm, or a sense of humor, which is weird. I still think it’s a fine offbeat film. This is a much better book. Sorry you missed it.

      • macphilms

        Don felt he’d been beaten to the punch by Scorcese — he wrote it before KING OF COMEDY came out, and in those days it was much less likely that we’d all know what was in the works. Also, he felt he was up against the perception of him in publishing as a writer of comic fiction, and the presence of a Bob Hope-like comedian in so prominent a role only rubbed salt into that wound. He had turned it over to me to try a draft of it, then pulled the plug when KING OF COMEDY emerged.

        • Greg Tulonen

          It seems that Westlake often struggled against that perception, though he’d proved versatile in so many genres. Replying to Knox Burger’s less-than-enthusiastic response to “Fall of the City” (which became “Forever and a Death,” posthumously), Westlake wrote, “This is a cuckoo’s egg in my nest, you know. The fact that I planted it there myself is not ad rem.”

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