Review: The Ax

TODD:
For what’s the sound of the world out there?
LOVETT:
What, Mr. Todd?
What, Mr. Todd?
What is that sound?
TODD:
Those crunching noises pervading the air!
LOVETT:
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, Mr. Todd!
Yes, all around!
TODD:
It’s man devouring man, my dear!
ALL: 
AND WHO ARE WE TO DENY IT IN HERE?

But everything is a transitional technology, that’s what I’m beginning to figure out. Maybe that’s what makes it impossible sometimes.  Two hundred years ago, people knew for certain they would die in the same world they were born into, and it had always been that way.  But not any more.  The world doesn’t just change these days, it upheaves, constantly.  We’re like fleas living on a Dr. Jekyll who’s always in the middle of becoming Mr. Hyde.

I can’t change the circumstances of the world I live in.  This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  All I can hope to do is play that hand better than anybody else.  Whatever it takes.

I suppose the first thing that needs be said about The Ax is that it’s a book about a very angry older white male who has lost his job, his self-respect, his very place in life, and decides he’s going to get it all back, any way he can, and nobody better get in his way.

The second thing to be said is that the book is dedicated to Albert Joseph Westlake, father of the author, born 1896, died 1953–the year before his son first got a story commercially published, in a science fiction magazine.  That story was entitled Or Give Me Death, and was about Patrick Henry still being alive at the age of 218, because somebody took him seriously about the Liberty or Death thing–only liberty has just been extinguished forever, so he dies.

It is perhaps more germane to our interests that this means Westlake pater died at 57 (Of lung cancer, like the father of this book’s protagonist?  I’ve no idea.), and his son was around 63 when he wrote this book–and I need hardly mention the emotions such numbers can evoke in a human heart.  The Ax can be avoided, perhaps, but the Actuarial Tables?  Only for so long.  There are reasons why the tone of his writing, even his comic novels, darkened significantly ’round about 1990.  Borrowed time, you know?

Albert Westlake’s ghost hovers over this book in a number of ways, probably more than I am able to perceive with the limited amount of biographical information now available regarding Donald Westlake and his family.  I think we can say fairly that it was a troubled relationship between Albert and Donald, but a loving one all the same.  There’s nothing terribly singular about that, is there?  Fathers and Sons.

Albert Westlake was an accountant, seems to have worked a variety of jobs for a variety of companies.  Westlake told a story about how when his dad was traveling for business purposes, he felt a heart attack coming on, and not being able to afford a hospital, checked into a business traveler’s hotel for a few days, got a bottle of liquor, and gutted it out (no mention of whether the hotel had a doctor on call, as they sometimes did back then).

This story pops its head up in various Westlake novels–his father was important to him.  As both a positive and negative example of how a man should live his life.  He admired his dad’s toughness, his resolve in the face of adversity, his determination to take care of his family to the best of his ability.  He was less enamored of some of the choices his father made.  Again, nothing extraordinary there.  To truly love a person is to love the whole person, to see all of him or her–part of love is understanding.  And the rest is forgiveness.  As we hope to be forgiven in turn by those who love us.

Donald Westlake could not have lived a much different life from his father.  Married three times, twice divorced from the mothers of his own sons.  Working mainly as a free agent for most of his 75 years (beating Westlake Sr. by 18 years), resolutely avoiding the more steady but (as he saw it) less rewarding types of jobs Albert Westlake worked in.  Charting his own course.  This cannot reasonably be seen as anything other than a rebellion against his father, against the choices his father had made.  His work itself is even more of a rebellion.  But not a rejection.  Never that.

In a Donald Westlake story, free agents are the only truly admirable people.  His most famous protagonists are thieves, independent operators, men who take what they need from the system, and chart their own course through life, depending on no one but other independents, and never fully trusting anyone except (perhaps) the women in their lives. To be sure, John Dortmunder has many a misfortune along the way, but he remains always true to his nature, avoids both death and imprisonment, and has a satisfying home life with his true love May.

The outlier there would be Mitch Tobin, the least empowered and most pathetic of his series characters, who through his own bad choices loses his job as a police detective, and his identity along with it.  And for a time he’s a different kind of independent, taking odd cases brought to him, building a brick wall in his backyard in his spare time, gradually coming back to life, achieving a great deal more awareness of both himself and the world around him–and then in the fifth and final novel, taking a job with a private detective agency, mainly doing humdrum security work.  And we understand why he would opt for that, and yet Westlake (writing as Tucker Coe) still ends the book with him so exhausted and badly beaten up that he passes out on us.

In point of fact, nearly all Westlake protagonists are independents–they may begin the story as mere employees, cogs in a machine, but they rarely end that way.  If they choose to remain lackeys, opting for security over freedom, odds are their fate is not a happy one (see I Gave At The Office).

One odd exception is Art Dodge, the antihero of Two Much, who begins as an amoral operator of a small company making ribald greeting cards, and who through a series of amorous machinations that somehow lead to murder, ends up exponentially better off than when we first met him–and yet, we somehow are made to understand, this newfound status has come with a price tag–his joy in life, his amiably roguish character, has been extinguished.  He’s just another rich prick now.  A higher order of cog in a different (and much worse) kind of machine.  He’s gained the whole world, only to lose his immortal soul.  He’s the first person narrator of the story, and Westlake finds a way to kill him off, right in front of us, without resorting to some quick fade.  A neat trick.

The goal of mortal existence, as Westlake sees it, is not to live only for yourself, but to live as an individual; to express that which lies within you, to develop a web of mutually satisfying relationships, both personal and professional, to have a code of ethics and adhere to it rigorously, while still being ready to improvise in the face of the unexpected, which can be expected to occur with some regularity, life being what it is.  This is what it means to be a complete human being.  Or whatever the hell Parker may be.

But this is all presuming that you have that option.  That the world will allow you the luxury of healthy self-expression, of relationships not corrupted and brutalized by the exigencies of daily existence, of a code that goes beyond ‘Nature red in tooth and claw.’  Whatever the hell Parker may be, he wouldn’t murder anyone to get a middle management  position in a paper factory.  But that is precisely what the hero of this story sets out to do.

After giving us a long quote from Henry James about how people are wary of fiction that tries to seriously represent real life, and a short one from the late Thomas G. Labrecque of Chase Manhattan Bank, Westlake dives right into the mind of our protagonist, who is not writing a diary of his daily activities (that would be stupid), but is still somehow conveying them to some unseen confessor, essentially live-blogging his existence.  In both past and present tense, and he switches between the two at will–this is what he’s doing right this minute, this is what happened in the past that caused him to do what he’s doing right this minute.  It is, for the most part, a book set firmly in the now, which in this case happens to be the Mid-90’s.  You Are There.  Well, a lot of us were.

We don’t learn his name until page 20–it comes to us in the form of a resumé (Westlake favors one accent mark, so I’ll stick to that).  Burke Devore, 62 Pennery Woods Road, Fairbourne, CT.  I should mention right now that there are many fictive streets and towns in this book, and Westlake’s love for implicit puns is much in display here.  Pennery has turned to penury, because Burke Devore has become unemployed.  Fairbourne no longer.

His wife’s name is Marjorie.  His eldest child, Betsy (same name as the wife in Adios, Scheherazade, who was probably patterned to some extent after Westlake’s first wife), is never seen, though often referred to (she’s just started college, still lives at home, has no dialogue, Burke would rather not know what she’s up to away from home).  His son, Billy, is nearing graduation from high school, and figures rather more prominently into the narrative.  I shouldn’t need to mention that Donald E. Westlake had only one sibling, a sister (who he does not seem to have been close to), but I will anyway.

Other than Burke’s, we see six resumés in the course of the story.  And each of those resumés relates to someone he has to kill.  Over the course of the first half of the book, we learn how he obtained these resumés, and why he now believes he has to commit six murders, followed shortly afterwards by a seventh.  You know how when you were just starting out in the job market, everybody told you how important it was to network?  Burke Devore takes his networking very seriously.

He’s worked most of his life for one company, Halcyon Mills, overseeing their polymer paper production line.  He’s 51 years old, a long way from Social Security and Medicare, and he’s been laid off.  Not fired, certainly not.  His job has simply been eliminated.  Along with a lot of other jobs in the same general line of work, at his company and many others. He was given a generous severance package, his  health plan is being maintained for a certain period of time, it was all very civilized.  And he now has to fight all the other highly experienced people who also lost their jobs for the few jobs remaining.

He’s been diligently seeking work now for nearly two years, and it’s hopeless. He’s superbly qualified for any positions in his area of specialization that become available, but there’s always someone more qualified and every bit as desperate. And as he confesses to us, he’s never been the most personable guy in the world. He’s good at his job, but he’s terrible at interviewing for a new one.   All the little hail-fellow-well-met things you’re supposed to do to make people like you (words cannot describe how much I relate).  He used to work as a salesman, but he was never good at selling himself.

But he wanted to know–why did the job he interviewed for always go to somebody else? Why not him?  So needing some kind of project to occupy his mind, he put a fake ad in a professional journal he still subscribes to, The Paperman (which does not exist, and neither does Pulp, the other one he subscribes to), because he needs to keep up with the profession that left him behind.  An ad purporting to be seeking qualified applicants for a job basically identical to the one Burke Devore used to do.

And the resumés come flooding in, by the hundreds.  As he obsessively pores through them–all these brief summations of a human being’s entire working life, complete with addresses.  And he begins to realize–there’s only a few that would be a real problem. Exactly six, in fact.  Six people who’d get hired instead of him if a job he wanted opened up.  Six resumés standing between him and the job he wants, if that job could be found.

And then he happens to read an article about a job he wants, at a plant in Arcadia, New York, just a short commute away, across the nearby state line. (Please note, there is an town by that name in New York State, as there probably is in every other state, but it’s a very long drive from anywhere in Connecticut).

The article has an interview with the lucky guy who has this job, and it’s very clear he’s planning to work there until he drops.  But suppose he dropped sooner than expected? And what if it just happened that of the seven people with the precise relevant experience who could replace this guy and lived close enough to the plant to make relocation expenses minimal or nonexistent, only Burke Devore was available (because only Burke Devore was still alive)? Then Burke would just have to ace that one interview, and he’d have his life back again.  He’d have himself back again.  He’d be himself again, instead of the discarded useless appendage he is now.  Or would he?

So that’s the set-up, and a damned original one it is, but we can of course point to one rather obvious precedent.

kind_hearts_and_coronets

Which was based on a 1907 English novel, which has subsequently been re-adapted into a Broadway musical (which closed early this year), and a neighbor of mine just happened to play oboe in the pit orchestra (that or the French Horn, she’s multi-instrumental).  Charming woman.  She and her husband keep two Portuguese Water Dogs, also charming. I like to find connections between myself and what I’m writing about, it’s a thing I do, go with it.

But that aside, you see where Westlake likely got the bare bones of the premise from. You want something you believe is legitimately yours.  There are a number of people standing between you and your birthright.  How can you eliminate them, one by one, thus claiming said birthright, without suspicion falling upon you?  Much ingenuity shall be required, naturally–but you must also be able to commit multiple cold-blooded murders.

The protagonist of that 1907 novel turned film turned Broadway musical has no love whatsoever for his poor dead aristocratic mother’s rich relations, who rejected and abandoned her to a sad fate for the crime of marrying the The Wrong Sort (Jewish in the novel, rather than Italian as in the film, more on that here).  He’s made of the same stern stuff Benjamin Disraeli was, only without the social and pecuniary advantages that allowed Disraeli to enter politics. Encompassing his rich gentile relations’ deaths shall cause him not the slightest moral discomfiture.  The novel is accordingly done in the style of light acidic farce,  as is the film.  The same murderously comic vein Ambrose Bierce so often wrote in, when he wasn’t being serious.

Westlake loved writing in this vein, had done so many times in the past (most recently in his contributions to The Perfect Murder, which may well have led him to this story), but he doesn’t want to do that here.  He’d just be imitating Roy Horniman’s (excellent) book, for one thing.  For another, he wants the murderer in his story to feel the full weight of his crimes.  He chose that opening quote from Henry James, I would say, to explain why his tone here is so serious, so mournful–why he won’t let us just enjoy a nice little homicidal escapade, where the victims mainly deserve their fates, and nothing really matters very much at all.  Because, damn it, it does matter.

(Sidebar: Entirely possible Westlake never read the unfortunately named Mr. Horniman’s novel, since until 2014, there were no reprints of the original 1907 edition, and copies were hard to find. Given his connections in the field of fictional murder, he could have probably borrowed a copy, or read one at the main research branch of the New York Public Library, or even purchased one at some considerable expense–but did he?   For his purposes, the film, which began to be shown on PBS stations quite regularly during the 1970’s, and then on TCM, would have sufficed for a starting point.  Huh–PBS–a transitional technology.  Like books made of paper. Or blogs.)

And so, armed with only grim resolve and a WWII era Luger, taken from a dead German soldier, that he found at the bottom of his father’s trunk (Westlake found certain other things at the bottom of his own father’s trunk, as you’d know if you read my article on 361 Revisited), Burke sallies forth to do battle with the forces of redundancy, in his gray Plymouth Voyager minivan, and I think everybody who ever reads this book gets the rather blunt symbolism of that choice of vehicle, but perhaps misses the underlying sardonic topicality of the reference.  Plymouth was a failing product line for Chrysler in the Mid-90’s (when this book was presumably written, or at least finished) and they desperately tried to rebrand, choosing a Mayflower-themed logo–

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And they even came up with a new catchphrase.

“One Clever Idea After Another.”  And a few short years later, Plymouth foundered on the rocks of change, and was seen no more about the land, except at used car lots.  Not that Westlake knew this would happen (the hell he didn’t).

Burke’s first resumé is Herbert C. Everly of 835 Churchwarden Lane, Fall City, CT.  He’s practiced with the Luger, made sure he knows how to use it, made sure it functions properly, but will he?  Can he just shoot down a complete stranger because the man is more qualified for a job than him?

The question, in any case, will answer itself, won’t it?  I mean, this is the sticking point.  Either I can do it, or I can’t.  If I can’t, then all the preparation, all the files I’ve maintained, the expense I’ve put myself to (when God knows I can’t afford it), have been in vain, and I might as well throw it all away, run no more ads, do no more scheming, simply allow myself to fall back into the herd of steer mindlessly lurching toward the big dark barn where the mooing stops.

The question answers itself when he rolls up in the Voyager when Everly is checking his mail.  Burke makes sure he has the right man (he’s very careful about that, wants to avoid killing even one person he doesn’t have to), then shoots him in his left eye.  Burke makes a little noise, that he says sounds like the Vietnamese name Ng, but other than that he stays calm and collected, and drives away.  He’s got a job interview in Harrisburg PA, which will serve as an alibi, but he has no expectations of getting the job.  He’s been looking almost two years now.  If somebody happens to hire him, he’ll stop murdering people, but if that was going to happen, he wouldn’t have had to start murdering people in the first place.

He’s not a bad guy.  You have to accept this about him.  Westlake goes to extreme pains to not allow us the option of distancing ourselves.  He’s a good husband, a good father, a good neighbor.  He doesn’t seem to have any close friendships (if he had a close male friend he could open up to, that might also have staved this off).  He’s not particularly religious, they haven’t gone to church since the kids were small, but he’s never rejected God–it’s probably more the other way around, in his mind.

A long time ago, he decided that much as he loved Marjorie, their marriage was not an equal partnership.  He was the strong one, the one who had to hold things together, and he would never share this dark burden he’s shouldered with her.  Even if he knew he could trust her not to run screaming from him when he did.  There are things the man has to do, and this is one of them, and in fairness to him, Marjorie, who seems be be a lovely person, and well capable of learning, of strength, doesn’t seem to be nearly as strong as him, and she knows that about herself, says as much.

She accepted her role in the marriage, not without some misgivings, and her contribution to the family since Burke lost his job has been to cancel the premium cable channels, shop more carefully at the local market, and work two part-time jobs that bring in next to nothing.   Burke doesn’t think she really wants to know how serious their situation is, and he may be right.  But then again, he hasn’t really tried to tell her.

Around the time he turned 40, he had an affair with some woman, and even lived with her a while, but in his mind that was just a ‘last hurrah,’ he and Marjorie got counseling, he ended the relationship, and he knows it was stupid, and we never even learn the woman’s name.  He sincerely believes this is the worst thing that ever happened in their marriage, his most serious mistake as a husband.  Like after he’s killed several people, he still believes this.

Yes, this is all very Mitch Tobin, but Marjorie isn’t quite Kate Tobin, somehow, though her physical description is similar–she’s no household saint, knowing what her man needs to do in order to to heal, and forcing him to do it.  She’s just an ordinary person, trying to hold her family together, and avoid unpleasant truths as much as possible.  (And not that it matters, but Bonnie Bedelia would have been perfect for Marjorie if Hollywood had made the movie, instead of France).

And yet again, this all goes back to Westlake’s observations of his own parents’ marriage, and how his father lost his job one time, and pretended to go off to work for several weeks, while drawing on their savings to substitute for his paycheck, and how when she found out, his mother felt like their marriage was a partnership she’d been frozen out of without her consent.  Westlake drew on this when he wrote the screenplay for The Stepfather, and he’s drawing on it again now. (And, I’d assume, on his own marriages, but he never talked much about those).

Burke Devore is not insane.  He is not a psychopath, a sociopath, a narcissist, or a borderline personality (did I leave anything out?).  He does not have a criminal background, nor did he come from a bad home.  He has never been physically or verbally abusive to his wife or children.  In fact, he says one good thing about his current project is that it makes sure he will never attack his girl, as so many other unemployed males have done.  His aggression will be directed towards productive endeavors.  Such as Edward G. Ricks, of 7911 Berkshire Way, Longholme, MA.

Burke knows he has no reason to be angry with any of these men, but of course he is anyway.  If they weren’t better qualified for ‘his’ job than him, he wouldn’t have to kill them.  He’s peeved at Edward G. Ricks for having a degree in chemical engineering, and for having written a ponderous sort of essay-style resumé (Burke’s own resumé is a masterpiece of minimalism, the kind you’d expect Richard Stark to write), and for referring to his three daughters being ‘at university’ when of course they’re probably at some low-rent community college, like his own daughter.  He has to work himself up to dislike his victims at least a bit.  It helps.  But not nearly enough.

The Ricks murder goes horribly wrong.  One of the daughters was having an affair with a professor, an older married man, and Mrs. Ricks, seeing Burke keeping watch on their house from the Voyager, jumps to the conclusion that he’s the middle-aged Lothario, and in the process of trying to persuade him to leave her girl alone, she sees the Luger, and runs for the house, crying bloody murder, which for once is the appropriate response.  He shoots her, then her husband, who fortunately didn’t think to dial 911.  Burke had hoped all the killings would be like Everly’s.  And he’d never expected to kill a woman.  And of course he’s angry at her as well, for behaving so stupidly.

And he’s oddly angry at the police and the media as well, for pinning his crime on the professor, whose name, if you’d believe it, is Lewis Ringer.  Of course there’s no evidence against the man, but his wife leaves him, obviously the Ricks girl can’t see him anymore, everyone assumes he’s guilty, so he hangs himself, which of course closes the case for all time, as far as the world is concerned.  Burke Devore is a man of one clever idea after another, but it must be said, he’s also very lucky.  Just not in the way he’d ever wanted to be.

Burke Devore has a great deal to say to whoever he’s blabbing all this to (and this is not the Jim Thompson style ‘exit interview in hell’ thing, because he’s quite alive at the end of the story–spoiler alert).  He’s an unreliable narrator to the extent that he makes many assumptions in the course of his narrative that he later finds were incorrect, or at least incomplete, and he’s forced to adjust his worldview accordingly.  He’s thinking out loud, all the way through.  That’s the best way to put it.  We’re listening in from the next dimension as he figures things out.  But unfortunately for us, his dimension is eerily similar to ours.

He talks about how he was a science fiction fan as a kid (as was Westlake, as were most boys of that generation), and he read about how automation was going to make everyone’s life better.  Then it turned out robots were going to replace factory workers in huge numbers, and instead of saving them from boring pointless work, it made them useless.  But he says these workers had unions, and the unions cushioned the blow for them to some small extent.  And then it was middle management’s turn.  His turn.  And he has no union to fall back on.  And instead of robots, his nemesis is the computer.

Once you bring in the computer, you no longer need middle management.  Of course, you still need a few people at that level, to serve the computer, to run specific tasks, but you longer need the hundreds and thousands of managers that were still needed only yesterday.

People like me.

As the computer takes our jobs, most people don’t even seem to realize why it’s happening.  Why was I fired, they want to know, when the company’s in the black and doing better than ever?  And the answer is, we were fired because the computer made us unnecessary, and made mergers possible and our absence makes the company even stronger, and the dividends even larger, the return on investment even more generous.

And he knows who the real enemy is.  The CEO’s.  The Boards of Directors.  The banks.  Wall Street.  The major stockholders.  He’s figured all that out just fine, being reasonably well-educated and rather frighteningly perceptive, but what good does it do him?  If he kills a whole bunch of them, if he could somehow slaughter them by the score, does that get him his life back?  No.  And he knows this change in society is still ongoing, that many more will be laid off soon, and he has to somehow find a position he can hold and defend, before the competition is so enormous he could never hope to kill them all. He has to act now, get safely entrenched in a stable company, while his competition is still just six resumés.

This story is taking place in the middle of 1997–we know this because he tells us the new Millennium is two and a half years off (he wonders if Millennial fears are somehow making the CEO’s do these insane things, laying off vital productive workers in the prime of life when profits are high, when the economy is booming).

There’s a reference to killings in Northern Ireland (“where murders are much more frequent, with far less reason”) that’s pretty dated and a bit puzzling–The Troubles, as they were known, were just then coming to an end.   The Peace Process had not yet concluded, there were some large-scale bombings, and the odd few internecine assassinations, but in fact very few fatalities from political violence in ’96, almost none in ’97, and it was all over by ’98. Bridgeport was a more dangerous place than Belfast in 1997 (and it still is).  Burke Devore murders more people in a few months than most Irish paramilitaries ever did.

So why even bring it up?  Remember that Burke is an intelligent and knowledgeable but frequently unreliable narrator.  I try to never assume Westlake knows less about anything than I do (one exception–I’ll get to it in a future review).  I’ve found it doesn’t pay.  And this isn’t a story about politicized violence.  The reference, glancing though it is, can only be meaningful in relation to Burke’s own attitude–he’s looking for ways to minimize what he’s doing, to compartmentalize it, to put it in perspective.  “Look at the way the world around me is going–I’m not really adding to that in any meaningful way.  And I’m only doing it so I can get a decent job.”  Technically, so were the guys in Northern Ireland, if you study the history.  They were fighting over jobs, not religion.  Once the limited opportunities for employment were more or less equalized, the killings mainly stopped.  (And the suicides rocketed up, but that’s a whole different rant).

So Burke’s next target (and our last for Part 1, because I’m over 5,000 words now) is Everett B. Dynes, of 264 Nether St., Lichgate, NY.  Lichgate is in western New York, near the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario, along the 125 mile long Black River, which really does exist, but Lichgate itself is yet another pointed reference to human mortality.  There’s a Lich Gate at the Little Church Around the Corner in Manhattan, and until just now I had no idea what its original purpose was (though I’ve passed that church many times), and of course Westlake probably did.  Want to see it?   Well, no sooner than necessary, I’m sure.

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Burke may be an American Everyman in many respects, but I’m sorry to say that he’s far from typical in his impressively extensive knowledge of history (he studied it in college, and it’s clearly proven to be a lasting interest).  It’s in this part of the book that we get that little discursion on transitional technologies I put up top, in the context of the Erie canal; all the manpower and expense that was lavished on systems of commercial transport that were only useful for a mere eyeblink of time.  How did Philip Gaston put it, in that great song he wrote for The Pogues“Supply of an empire where the sun never sets–Which is now deep in darkness–but the railway’s there yet!”   So’s the canal, but haven’t seen any mules named Sal there in a while.   (Mules–a transitional technology.)

He’s worked himself up to dislike ‘EBD’ (he tries to dehumanize his victims still further by referring to them by their initials), who had the temerity to mention being a Vietnam vet in his powerful resumé, which is of course what Burke is really mad about.  If you weren’t so qualified, I wouldn’t have to kill you!

But it all goes wrong, again, when he trails EBD to a roadside diner, where he realizes with chagrin that EBD is working at, quite cheerfully, as a waiter.  And he’s forced to go in there, to chat with the guy, to realize how good a man he is, how much they have in common, except EBD isn’t going around shooting strangers with some dead Nazi’s gun.  To Burke’s growing horror, Mr. Dynes senses that Burke is also out of work, out job hunting (oh he’s hunting all right), and the poor schmuck gets downright chatty.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about it,” he says.  “I haven’t had much to do, the last couple years, except think about it, and I think this society’s gone nuts.”

“The whole society?” I shrug and say, “I thought it was just the bosses.”

“To let the bosses do it,” he says.  “You know, there’s been societies, like primitive peoples in Asia and like that, they expose newborn babies on hillsides to kill them, so they won’t have to feed them and take care of them.  And there’s been societies, like the early Eskimos, that put their real old folk out on icebergs to float away and die, because they couldn’t take care of them any more.  But this is the first society eer that takes its most productive people, at their prime, at the peak of their powers, and throws them away.  I call that crazy.”

“I think you’re right,” I say.

“I think about it all the time,” he says.  “But what do you do about it?  Beats me.”

“Go crazy too, I guess,” I say.

“He gives me a broad grin at that.  “You show me how,” he says, “and I’ll do it.”

EBD recommends a nearby motel, and Burke, having ascertained that EBD’s shift ends at midnight, heads over there, rests up a few hours, then comes back to finish the job–only to realize Dynes got off a few minutes early, and is walking home.  Too risky to try shooting at a moving target in the darkness along Nether St.  So he runs over this man who might have been his Secret Sharer, his other self, with the Voyager.  And he’s still moving, trying to get away, so again.  And the body is still twitching, so Burke makes sure to roll over his head the third time.  And back to the motel.

And he’s sobbing, uncontrollably, he can’t stop, he can’t hold it in, it comes pouring out of him, one long torrent of grief and shame, and he showers, and he gets into bed, and he can’t sleep.

I try to remember the last time I cried, and I cannot; sometime when I was a child, I suppose.  I’m not good at it, my throat and chest still ache, my head feels clogged.

I try not to move around in the bed, I try to do things that will help me get to sleep.  I count to one hundred, then back to one.  I try to bring up pleasant memories.  I try to shut down entirely.

But I cannot sleep.  And I keep seeing the event on Nether Street.  And every time I turn my head, the clock-radio shows some later time, in red numbers, just there, to my right.

I must have been crazy, out of my mind.  How could I have done these things?  Herbert Everly.  Edward Ricks, and his poor wife.  And now Everett Dynes.  He was like me, he should be my friend, my ally, we should work together against our common enemies.  We shouldn’t claw each other, down here in the pit, fight each other for scraps, while they laugh up above.  Or, even worse; while they don’t even bother to notice us, up above.

His mind made up, he arises, and writes out a miserable heartfelt confession of his crimes on the paper lining the motel dresser (he can’t help but be critical of the paper’s quality, which makes him feel like crying all over again).  He leaves nothing out.  He goes back to bed, telling himself that when he wakes up, he will either kill himself or go to the police to turn himself in.  He wakes up, feeling much improved.  He notes the severe damage to the front of the Voyager from last night.  He prepares to leave, and on returning to the motel room, he sees the note.  He’d forgotten it entirely.  He reads it over.

I meant all of this last night, I know I did.  Everything seemed so hopeless.  the first one, Everly, went so smoothly,  but both of them since have been absolute disasters.  I’m not used to this sort of thing, it would be hard enough to do even if they all went smoothly and cleanly, but to have two horror shows in a row really ground me down.

From now on, I have to be more careful and more patient.  I have to be sure the circumstances are right before I make my move.

I sympathize with the me from last night, who felt such despair, and wrote these words, and apologized to his victims. I too would apologize to them, if I could.  I’d leave them alone, if I could.

I take the confession with me, folded in my pocket.  I’ll burn it later, somewhere else.

And when he does, he’ll be cremating the last remains of Burke Devore–the Burke Devore who used to be.  Who is no more.  Westlake has yet again found a way to kill off a first-person narrator right in front of us.  And the stiff doesn’t even know he’s dead.  But like the 21st century’s most popular fictional monsters, he can still kill–and eat.

He arranges to have an accident in the Catskills, that will be blamed on a kid driving a lumberyard truck, and will explain away the damage to the Voyager.  Two cops will notice the damage, and inquire about it, because there’s an APB out for the hit & run driver who did for Everett Dynes, but Burke’s alibi is picture perfect, and he’s turning out to be a rather brilliant liar.  I guess that’s something you get good at when you’re dead inside?  I guess that would explain some things happening now.

So on to Part 2, and by way of apologies for taking so long with this one, I’m going to give you a choice of songs.  You can have the inspiring ode to the Working Man, as sung by that hardworking man from the County Kildare–

But seeing as Burke’s angling for a management job, and is certainly trying to get ahead in business (which can be very trying)–

And there is, people.  There truly is a Brotherhood of Man.

For those who can afford the dues.  Your lifelong membership isn’t free, after all.  We shall have to learn to embrace the Loesser of two evils.

Well what did you expect, something uplifting?  We’re all going to have to work through this in our own ways.  This is mine.  I’ve got a public meeting to go attend.  Be seeing you.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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20 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels

20 responses to “Review: The Ax

  1. There are some books that hit you square between the eyes and stay with you forever. For me, this is one of those books, and that was true even before I found myself in a chillingly similar circumstance to Burke Devore (minus the murder). In 2011, my job was eliminated. I spent two years out of work, going through the same humiliating machinations that BD found himself going through. Job after job, I was interviewed, sometimes called back for a second or third interview, and job after job, the position went to someone slightly more qualified (often an internal candidate, stealth competition BD doesn’t consider until fairly late in the novel). The economic conditions that led to BD’s unemployment are clearly something Westlake had been chewing over for awhile (I recall the ruminations on feudalism in Good Behavior), and I can’t say things have gotten better out there. (I too like to find connections between myself and what I’m writing about.)

    Westlake, via Burke, is a careful planner of murder (hardly surprising after his contributions to The Perfect Murder), and it’s hard to find a logical flaw in his plan (moral flaws, sure), even if he continues to make mistakes. Still, his would be a difficult scheme to pull off today. You couldn’t just take out an ad and fake up some stationery. Your company would likely need a web site, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Its (fictitious) employees would all need LinkedIn profiles. By the time you got through all that, you might as well apply for a social media coordinator position somewhere.

    • Yeah, that occurred to me–then again–Catfishing–the Craigslist Killer. There’s always a way to turn the new modes of communication to your advantage, to lure people in to their destruction. We’re only a week away from the undeniable proof of that, on a massive scale. Pardon my soapbox. I suspect yours has seen some wear and tear as well, recently.

      The fascinating thing is that he empathizes so much here with a class of human being he’s really been rather dismissove of through much of his career–the Organization Man. Why does this work so well here, as it did not in I Gave At The Office? Because Burke isn’t really an Organization Man anymore, even though he’s doing horrible things to get back into what Westlake reflexively regards as a prison for the human spirit. He’s doing it on his own terms this time–he’s going to be in the driver’s seat–and any boss that tries to make him redundant will live to regret it, though not for very long. Evil terms, to be sure. But he’s going into it with his eyes open, and the evil isn’t his doing. He’s just adapting to the New World Order. Anyway, we can talk about that next time.

      I wish we knew more about Westlake’s work life between the army and Scott Meredith. He wrote about being a factory worker (at a much lower level) in Memory as well–the tannery. That seemed like more than just research. He was thinking about that tannery when he wrote this–about all the people who thought their world would just go on, and they maybe ended up as rootless and unmoored from the world as Paul Cole.

      The hell of most jobs–the great majority–is that they take part of what you are, but they also become part of what you are, and if you lose the job, you lose part of yourself. You get addicted to employment, and it’s a very specific addiction, in some cases. It’s hard to just be yourself, without being able to say “I do such and such for a living.” It’s also hard to feed yourself, which is worth mentioning.

      Westlake would like everybody to be able to do work that is individually fulfilling, as his has been. But who’s going to do all the tedious scut jobs that hold society together? You know, the Bartleby jobs. Robots? He clearly had doubts about that solution from early on. An equation he never managed to balance out in his mind. Nor has anyone else, so far. This book has no answers, but can you name one that asks better questions?

  2. Anthony

    The cover of the edition named “The Axe,” which I assume is British or possibly Canadian/Australian/Whatever – nice that they* include the Luger. However, the World Trade Center is an anomaly.

    *I say “they” because who knows if the guilty party is the artist, the person who gave the artist the assignment, or a flunky who pulled various images from the publisher’s library and pasted them to form the image.

    • It’s a British edition, all right–from Edmundsbury Press–1999. I’m not aware of any specifically Canadian editions, since they’d just have the U.S. edition, most likely, and maybe the UK edition as well, and of course the French one in Quebec.

      So yeah, that is anomalous, since there still was a World Trade Center then, and of course Burke never sets foot in New York City at any point in the narrative, or even refers directly to it, as I recall. This is a novel about small towns, and the ‘burbs.

      But in its defense–and I do like that cover, even though the variant spelling irks me–Burke is in the situation he’s in because of world trade, right? The global economic structure, and shareholders, and Wall Street, and you could make a strong case that prior to 9/11 the WTC symbolized all of that, even without a big dollar sign splashed across it. (Even for an edition of this book, that is what I call symbolic overkill–you made your point, don’t beat it to death with a blunt instrument. I mean, unless your job depends on doing that.)

      Part 2 will have the covers from a variety of foreign language editions, and they often got creative as well, with varying degrees of effectiveness–they sure didn’t just copy the U.S. art. But I think The Mysterious Press actually did the best job on this one. Only six more Westlake (as opposed to Stark) titles under their aegis after this, none of which are anywhere near this good. And boy the artists got so literal when it came to The Hook. Only one cover for this book I’ve found actually has an Ax in it. And it’s not bad, but Rivages/Noir was certainly capable of far better.

  3. One of the many things I love about this book is the empathy Burke receives from everyone who learns of his employment situation. Everyone he encounters has a personal story to share about job loss, either about themselves or a loved one. Burke is operating in a system rigged against the middle class, a situation which has only gotten worse since the book was written. Westlake once again proves himself a keen and prescient observer.

    • But one who has decided that empathy is a sucker’s game. Since the Middle Class seems incapable of ever collectively identifying and neutralizing its true enemies, he has to act on his own. The Middle Class will not ally itself with the Working Class, because it fears rejoining it. It will not strike against the One Percent, because it dreams of someday joining it, admires those who are already there, even when they are making war upon the Middle Class (and most of them are). Casinos are a rigged system, and how much time does the Middle Class spend there? And now they’ve made a (failed) casino owner the boss of everything.

      Not sure Westlake ever foresaw that. But much as he clearly thinks the right thing to do would be for the Middle Class to unite against its enemies, make common cause with those below it–he doesn’t see much chance of that happening. Because trapped between poverty and true wealth, fearing the first, coveting the second, the Middle Class is paralyzed. Like the monkey who put his hand in a gourd full of tasty nuts–he can’t get his hand out without letting the nut go. And he can’t let the nut go. He just elected the nut President, in fact.

      So Burke has to pursue intra-class warfare. What, did you never hear of the Die-a-lectic? 😉

      • The Middle Class will not ally itself with the Working Class, because it fears rejoining it.

        Once again, Orwell got there first. The very last bit in The road to Wigan Pier:

        And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class–the private schoolmaster, the half-starved free-lance journalist, the colonel’s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship, the clerks, the civil servants, the commercial travelers, and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns–may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.

        • I’ve read that one, have a copy somewhere, but wasn’t thinking of it specifically. Obviously many made this observation before Mr. Blair (surely if we’re dropping our aitches, we’re dropping our pseudonyms along with them?). He’s been dead 66 years now, and I see no progress at all being made on that front. Orwell’s occasional optimism was never as persuasive or prescient as his fatalism, somehow. But everybody needs to believe in something.

          Marx certainly foresaw the death of the middle class, perceived its delusions most acutely, but he persuades hardly anyone now–and given that he resolutely ignored the working class son he fathered on a chambermaid, he can hardly be said to have had the courage of his convictions–he wanted to use the proletariat to take revenge on the bourgeoisie who wouldn’t grant him full membership. I suppose he could always return as farce (Hitler has).

          I am not making this a three-parter, btw. No matter how long Part 2 gets. Though I guess technically the prologue makes it one anyway.

  4. Nitpick: Plymouth was part of Chrysler Corp, not GM.

  5. Herbert C. Everly

    That has to be a deliberate nod. Does Devore ever refer to him as HCE?

    • Yeah, he initializes all of them.

      But I’m not sure Westlake would have known what Host Card Emulation is. I mean, I don’t. I just Googled it.

      • There’s a CM Kornbluth story where a con man running a fake religion called its central mystery the “ineluctable modality of the visible”. The cop investigating him got it and gave the con man props for a sense of humor. The reference was never explained, so the reader (of pulp SF!) was apparently supposed to get it too. I have no doubt Westlake was familiar with Joyce.

        • I have some doubts Westlake ever got through Finnegan’s Wake. (I never even tried). ALP I know, in all her filthy splendor, but HCE went right past me, if that is in fact the reference being made.

          There are, in fact, two HCE’s on Burke’s list–the first of his resumés and the last (the military man). So you’re probably onto something there–the initials having a hidden meaning. Let’s give this a little thought, since apparently no one else ever has. I’ll just google each three letter combo and see what comes up.

          HCE–possible reference to character in Finnegan’s Wake, possibly a reference to Host Card Emulation.

          EGR–Exhaust Gas Recirculation? That certainly has a Final Solution sort of ring to it. No Joycean reference apparent There is apparently something called an EGR network, but I have no idea what that is, or if it existed when this book was written.

          EBD–Wikipedia actually has a disambiguation for this, there being so many technical terms falling under that abbreviation–

          1)Electronic Brakeforce Distribution
          2)Emergency Boot Disk (computers again)
          3)Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (that certainly tracks).
          4)Evidence-based Dentistry (this is starting to bog down)
          5)Evidence-based Design (could he have looked all of these up? In 1996?)
          6)Extensor Digitorum Brevis (I don’t think so)
          7)End of Business Day (he wouldn’t have needed to look that up).

          KBA–Knowledge Based Authentification. Is it just that computer nerds have used up every possible three-letter combination in their lust for abbreviation?

          GRB–Gamma Ray Burst–no computer term that I can find, or anything Joycean either.

          I can’t find anything likely for URF (Upton Ralph Fallon), but I don’t think Burke ever refers to him by his initials.

          I think it’s pretty clear the initials were chosen quite deliberately, but if he did it for one, he’d do it for all. Playing those little games he loved, and knowing academia would never bother to play along with him. Anybody else want to play?

  6. John O'Leary

    The paper mill in The Ax actually exists. It is located in Ancram NY on the Roeliff Jansen Kill (the “Jandrow” in the book). An iron forge was built on the site in 1743 and operated until 1845. In 1853 the forge was torn down and a paper mill built. It is still in operation as part of Schweitzer-Mauduit International making specialty papers.

    Ancram is where Donald Westlake lived his later years according to Wikipedia.

    • And Ancram is clearly a pseudonym for Arcadia–nice catch. I don’t know that part of New York state well, did not make the connection. Westlake writes about that little tributary of the Hudson as if he knows and loves it very well indeed. But he wants the freedom of movement that making places up (like Monequois) gives a writer of fiction. So he fictionalizes his own town (assuming he was living there by that time, but he knew the town, either way). I’m sure the luncheonette Burke spots Upton ‘Ralph’ Fallon in exists as well, or did.

      And this is significant in that Burke chose his target well. Assuming he got that job, which I think we can assume, the mill is going to be there well past his retirement age.

      I don’t suppose you know if there was any talk of layoffs at that plant, and whether any executives there turned up dead under mysterious circumstances?
      😐

      • John O'Leary

        I have a book titled “The Mill on the Roeliff Jansen Kill” (ISBN 0-9628523-9-2). There is a reference to a “Black Friday” in the late 1960’s when a corporate officer carried out a management reduction program. Maybe one of DEW’s neighbors had mentioned that to him? The book was written in 1993 but there may have been additional resource actions after that.

        • Westlake maintained a long-standing interest in this type of story, no doubt predating Killy in 1963. But the notion of the Ax swinging on middle management–that was something new, as he’s at pains to point out here. Late 60’s would be a very early manifestation of this now-commonplace phenomenon.

          If he did in fact eat at a luncheonette in Ancram (and it sounds like there were damned few other places he could have eaten), he could have gotten reams of research material, right there.

          And as luck would have it, that book you mention is right here at my place of business. I’m going to check it out. In both senses of the term.

          • Okay, I see what he did here–the Ancram mill has survived (one of very few paper mills left in the Northeast) by making highly specialized paper products, most notably using leftover tobacco fibers to make cigarette wrappings. Westlake probably did read the 1993 book put out by the local historical society, which goes into some detail about this.

            Now it’s not clear from that book whether they’ve moved into other specialties–like polymer paper, which is what draws Burke’s attention to the Arcadia mill. I think the book would mention that, so that’s got to be Westlake’s own invention. Best as I can tell, the plant in Ancram is still heavily geared towards supplying RJ Reynolds and other cigarette manufacturers.

            Westlake may have been thinking that given the ever-declining market for cigarettes here in the U.S., a mill heavily dependent on that market was going to have problems over the long run (then again, the overseas market doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon). He may also have been thinking about how much he’d come to dislike the tobacco industry. Burke may be a killer, but he doesn’t give people cancer.

            There’s very little information about ‘Black Friday’, but I assume Westlake emitted a low chuckle when he read that the man responsible for that relatively minor corporate bloodletting was named Charlie Petzold.

            Honestly, John, thank you. This is the kind of information that would probably be on the Wikipedia page for The Ax, if The Ax had gotten the scholarly scrutiny it deserves, and if any such Wikipedia page existed, which it does not.

  7. John O'Leary

    Glad to contribute. I lived about 25 miles south of Ancram for 59 years so I know the area well. It is fun to figure out stuff like that.

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